The days of my life go by like clockwork, tick-tock, click-clock, and each of them drier than the last.
I hold fast to faith, but as the days go by it stretches thin, like a line tethering me to the shore while I swim in heavy seas, a promise of rescue that is all I can depend on between me and eternal drowning.
Faith, and the rituals of the church, are all I can depend on.
To be honest, the rituals would mean nothing without the faith, but without them the faith would be a hard thing to trust in, a construct of my lonely brain, a wish that’s father to the thought perhaps, an empty promise, a vain hope. Between them, they work together, but like clockwork: tick-tock.
It is good enough.
I think of many I see without either, or for whom the rituals are shallow, a hollow sham, a going through the motions, seeking a meaning in the entrails of each day which has lost all significance beyond the falling of leaves from a worn calendar, a cycle of birth, death, and birth again that is no more than words intoned by the spiritual castrati in pulpit or at altar rail, a broken wheel that revolves, poverty-poverty-knock, a machine without purpose, without hope.
It is hope that holds me on.
The years began to oppress me when I was but a young man, as the balance sheet of success and failure went inexorably into the red: so many defeats, and so great, and so few, such little victories over the greyness of the world and my own ego and ambition. Praise God I had already been found by his church, and for many a year I was carried through by the enthusiasm of the newly converted. I preached, I argued, I wrestled with texts, I discovered relevancies in their meaning for my life, not buried deep in some prehistoric context, but in the world of petrochemical filth and inner-city grime. I walked hand-in-hand with God, and the damned ticking of my body’s time-bomb went unheeded and almost unheard.
But ecstasy is hard to sustain through the dryness of middle age, when philosophical study dispels the old certainties with the startled innocence of doubt, and the clock stumbles, jarring you awake in the dawn with thoughts that gibber around the bed like evil spirits, wearing the guise of old heartbreaks, punishing you for sins long forgiven by all save yourself, dotting your shoulderblades with the cold sweat of guilt.
Faith began to be real for me then, not like the formerly joyous invasion of my old fortress at the centre of the universe, showing this Galileo how the galaxies revolved, not round me, but centred upon some other purpose, harder to perceive out here on the fringes of the Milky Way. Now faith was all I had. God numbered the thinning hairs upon my scalp, that I knew, but it was if it were merely by some divine reflex, a diastole and systole of God’s heartbeat that continued autonomically while he busied himself with more significant affairs at the forefront of his omniscient mind.
Occasionally he tugged at my faith, reminding me of his immanence, and such occasions could start the tears to my cheeks, like meeting an old, almost forgotten love, and seeing in her eyes a reflection of the memories that lived on within my own heart. Or so it seemed to me, but the simile carries little real weight, for I have been long a bachelor, and the love of women is a thing reported, like the wonders of distant worlds, accepted intellectually but never experienced.
Age set greater and greater gulfs between these moments of transcendence, and the columns in red lengthened upon my spiritual account book, the adverse balance mounting and mounting.
I knew it must be so, the very laws of physics demand it, and yet it would have been an impossible burden to carry without the faith in forgiveness, long promised, long needed, and too long awaited. Forgive me, Lord, for my impatience.
Death was no longer a feared adversary to be met some century in the future, but a too slow surcease, a friend I knew would come to wipe away all tears, and unite me with the glory that I had seen so dimly, through darkened glass, and far too rarely of late.
I prayed, earnestly, for this too long awaited comrade to take me to him, but in the stillness of the night I sometimes would feel a glimmer of the old fire, a belief that God was keeping me for some still unfulfilled purpose, though cudgel my brains as I might its nature escaped me.
But ritual did its appointed work. The bread and wine nourished me like no theology. The child’s crib every winter blew my faint hopes into a glow. The egg of spring garlanded me with pussy-willow and budded green within my heart for just a moment. I held out my hands to the November fires and pretended I could feel their warmth in my mummified soul. The years went round, tick-tock, click-clock.
How typical, I thought, that I should have slept through the sensation of the baby’s birth, that set the very airwaves ablaze with editorial comment and conjectural dismissal. When people told me of the dazzling skies that had heralded the occasion, I asked God, sadly, not angrily, why he had denied me this chance to bathe in his reflected glory, to wash the dust out of my grave-windings with the music of the heavens which, they told me, could be heard for miles around the little shed where he was born.
But not by me. I slept on, and when they told me of it next day the couple and their marvellous child had moved on, the sensation over, the skies unlit, the days’ routine continuing as if nothing untoward had happened.
When they brought the child to me later for the ritual cleansing, at first I made no connection with the previous events. I have very little to do with the travellers, most times, though they are pious folk and usually obey the rules laid down for such things as the purification of women, the avoidance of meat on Fridays, and, here, the presentation of the new boychild before the altar of the Lord, cleansing and sealing him in blood to the covenant given to the Patriarchs so many centuries ago, yet still good as new.
They seemed an ill-matched couple, at first, the man rather old for the woman, who was barely a girl, though she held herself with a wonderful dignity, not at all girl-like, except when she was playing with the child before the service began, entertaining him with games as old I guess as Eve when she first nursed Cain, forefather of us all in his murderous heritage, and kin in our need for protection from the vengeance of his kind.
But as they stood before the altar and handed the child to me, there was a rightness about their partnership that filled me once again, bachelor that I am, with wonder at the sacrament that God has given men and women to fulfil themselves in each other, and to find there something of the holiness within us all, and it lifted my heart, much as I needed it in those bitter January days.
I took the child and glanced down at him.
Usually children are fretful at the best of times with strangers, and I was well prepared for the wail that usually accompanied this part of the service, but his eyes were serene, and he gazed over my shoulder at the altar, as if I were, indeed, merely an instrument of a higher power about to work upon his body and his immortal soul.
Then he looked at me, and the lifting I had felt at seeing Joseph and Mary was as nothing compared with the perfect joy that flooded into me, so that I almost stumbled and dropped him. For a moment I was struck by an incongruity, for if this was indeed the holy child of whom I had heard them gossip, then what I was about to perform was ritual indeed, and superfluous, almost blasphemy.
I lifted my eyes to the altar and it seemed as if my life was now complete, that here was the reason for the denial of my prayers for death, that the long tick-tock years had led to this point, when a child’s blood would seal the promise that had made it possible for me to carry on, when faith stretched thin and almost to breaking.
I closed my eyes for a moment, squeezing the tears out, and thanked God for the moment, which was worth all the dry years that led to it, and greater than any of the revelations of God’s presence which had become such dim memories, of late. I bowed my head, as if in conclusion, and then opened my eyes again.
The child was looking at me.
And suddenly I thought of all the others, without the faith, without the ritual, whose lives are not touched by divinity unless someone shares the knowledge with them.
And though my life had reached its peak, I saw that there was still work left for me to do.
And death was still a long, long way off.
The child fidgeted in my arms and I handed him back to his mother. She gave him the breast then and there, sitting on the altar steps, while I extinguished the candles and tidied away the hymn books and prepared for the Sabbath service to come the next and every weekend’s morning.