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 nevermore 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, Mary6 and Joseph the names they told me, 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.
The gift has always been in my family. In olden times, I expect I’d have been burned, people always get frightened of things they can’t understand, but I tell them it’s nothing to do with me, nothing at all, because it really is a gift, a present from God, and as long as I use it for his glory then there’s nothing to be afraid of, nothing weird or occult, which would be the devil’s work, and no mistake.
It seems to me that most Godly things become devilish if you use them wrong. Eve and Adam just wanted to be like gods after all, a worthy enough aim and where’s the harm in that you might ask. But it destroyed paradise and landed us in the mess we’re in now, and all because they tried to do a godly work without God, which is a lesson to us all when we try so hard to be good and don’t want to let God get a look in until we’ve finished and made ourselves fit to enter his presence, fools that we are.
It seems to me like we’re all walking wounded, maimed by sin, and unable to use all the talents that God gave us, and I’m just one of the luckier ones who’s got a hint of the lost abilities, praise God who created me and breathed his spirit into all of us.
It’s not as if I’m specially bright or intelligent. The clever men in the church can run rings round me with all their smart theological talk, a lot of long words that make my head ache. I always feel that if a child can’t understand it then it’s probably human pride speaking, not God’s will for us, but I expect they know best, bless ’em.
So I just come in, do all the stuff that’s laid down, the fasting, the prayers, I know it works because I’ve been doing it ever since my dear husband died, God rest his soul. We were only married for seven years, seven good ones they were, but a day doesn’t pass but I think of him, and offer up a prayer of thanks for the great joy he gave me, and peace in my soul at the memory. Not that I don’t feel sad sometimes, missing him and the warm touch of his hand, but that’s the past and I still have a life to live, glory be to God who’s spared me these 84 years and will take me to be with him and my dear husband when he knows the time is right.
I love it in here, the peace when there’s no one around, or perhaps just a solitary soul praying in front of the altar, the single candle flickering, dim in the bright daylight. And then the great chorus on the Sabbath when the place is packed, their voices glorifying God with music, like tongues of languages nobody knows, the harmonies saying the things I’d like to say but cannot. People kid me about it, say I’d live here if I could, and when I’m not sleeping I certainly spend most of my time here. I know the church isn’t bricks and mortar, it’s people, but all the same when a building’s been here as long as this one has, all the worship that’s taken place, I really feel it seeps into the fabric, and anyone can feel it when he comes in, even someone from another planet who’d never been in church before, he’d take his hat off and bow his head.
Even the drunks who make such a mess of the porch, I clean it up whenever I can because it upsets the vicar so, I just praise God that he gave them this place to shelter, so close to him when they are so alone, so outcast from the good things of his world.
Sometimes when I pray I get this vision of God’s will for us, so I speak it out, which is why people started calling me a prophet, I suppose. I don’t know what that means. I’m not like one of the old prophets, long white beard and denouncing the evils of the day, though God knows there’s enough of that to talk about, the poor people without jobs and streets you can’t walk down without getting mugged. I don’t tell the future, though sometimes, at baptisms or other times of dedication, I get this feeling, a vision as I say, of a life and all its potential stretching out, and God over all, smiling.
When I take a baby in my arms I often feel it, like a laying on of hands, and it’s better if I can touch the skin, feel the warm pulse beating inside the body, the lifeblood, a river flowing from the very soul.
That’s the way it was with that particular baby, and when Simeon handed him to me it was like a great light going off in my head, bright and warm, pulsing to the very fingers and toes on my hands and feet, making me aware of every hair on my body, as if each one was charged with electricity. And a great feeling of joy, like as if I was a young girl again not an old lady waiting for death, ready once again for someone to come and be a man with me, and him the one I married and carried to the grave, back and more alive than ever with me like he will be in heaven that I know is waiting for all of us who seek to enter in.
I love children, though God never blessed me with any, he had other plans for me I suppose, but that moment when I hold the new baby in my arms is always something special, a moment of surrogate motherhood if you like. But this baby was something very, very special, not just the way he lay there quiet in my arms, despite being passed from one stranger to another, good as gold, not caterwauling like some do at the strangeness of it all and who can blame them, bless their little souls. Later, Simeon said it seemed to him he had been waiting all his life for that moment, for that particular child, and that now he could die in peace, and I knew exactly what he meant, because I felt much the same.
But when I handed him back to his mother, a mere slip of a girl she was but such serenity in her eyes, as who wouldn’t with that baby come out of her body, I knew the feeling he had given me wasn’t just for me, to set the seal on my life, though it did that and no mistake. It was something I had to tell about, to share it around, because it would turn the whole world around, the muggings and the hopelessness and the loneliness.
I had this vision of the city decked out like a bride, the garbage gone from the gutters, and the people taking hands, their eyes smiling. I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, I could even see a lot of agony and suffering ahead, and my heart leapt at the pain I felt for the part the child would play in it all, the bitter cup he would have to drink, the deepest, darkest cup of all, when even he would cry out in the terror of abandonment, when he took all that loneliness upon himself, a ransom for the world, and God no longer within him as he always is in the worst of us, and I felt the harrowing of hell in him like icy fingers in the pit of my stomach.
Then the moment passed. I looked in his eyes, so wise, serene as his mother’s, and it was like a reassurance, that this too would pass, and no cup was so deep it couldn’t be emptied, especially when these lips did the drinking, taking the poison from out of our world, returning us to that moment before the sin that drove us out of paradise.
I spoke it out, though words are inadequate for what I saw was about to happen in this child’s life, and how it would change us all. But weak as words are, they had to be said.
And I walked out of the church into the world, praising God.