Why Me? Talk no. 4
A talk given by Tom Stacey on 15th March 2015, at St. John the Baptist, Holland Road.
I am not at all sure I can call myself a Christian. I am no model to anybody, I am often pursued by daemons, or driven by them, I live on the brink of disintegration. If it is better to be alive than dead, then I am lucky. I have been close to sudden death on several occasions and witnessed the sudden death of many. Now that I am so antique, what one might call actuarial death cannot be far off. Yet all my life, since childhood, I have been alert to the authority of the injunction, Live each day as if ’twere thy last.
Given such a persona it is hardly possible not to be religious, or whatever the apt word is: aware of that which is not life in the dimensional frame of space and time. I probably first heard that injunction Live each day as if ’twere etc from Bishop Ken’s famous hymn Awake My Soul and with the Sun at around the age of 6. That would be a couple of years after I was first taken to any church – specifically St Matthew’s, Paddington, a couple of miles east-north-east of here. Yet I was aware of God well before that. I’ll tell you how I know.
I was born in the Manor House, Bletchingley, in Surrey, quite a lordly setting. However, six and a half weeks before I emerged, my father, on board a liner to New York, had been reduced to virtual bankruptcy in the space of 72 hours in the Wall Street Crash of November 1929. In his late twenties he was already a high flier. But after the Crash we couldn’t renew our lease on a manor house. We were to duck out from Bletchingley to meaner premises in Paddington when I was two and a half. Now, the nearest little shopping town to Bletchingley was Godstone. And I remember thinking as an infant how remarkable that we should be living so close to where God lives, God’s Town, just 15 minutes down the narrow road under arching trees in my Daddy’s motor.
You can see how precisely I can date my first awareness of God’s propinquity – because, after 2½, Godstone belonged only to my past.
God also lived in the heart of my nanny. She was 60 when I arrived. This deep-bosomed spinster of the lower-middle classes of somewhere up north, with her specs and stays and terrible migraines, Peggy Walker, was born in 1870 and remains the most formative influence upon me to this day, in 2015. She was to me what Mrs Everest was to Winston Churchill: the indestructible grandmother figure. I honoured and loved my father and mother. Yet when I learned of Nanny’s death in a Surrey nursing home when I was 31 and on a journalistic assignment in Jamaica, I drove down to the end of a deserted jetty along the waterfront of Kingston, pulled up, and wept without ceasing for 20 minutes.
We all require to learn what love is, don’t we? – to love and be loved – somewhere or somehow; and by God’s grace, against whatever odds, most of us do learn such love … in its innocence and purity and unconditionality. We all crave for, and as like as not attain, such a template of love.
It happens that my wife Caroline was with me on the occasion I have described, that same Caroline who today on the upper floors of our house (which some of you know) is in her 11th year since diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. That Jamaican day I had met her off the plane from London. It was one of those rare assignments abroad when it was feasible for her to join me for a bit. She was briefed to bring me word of Nanny’s death but hadn’t got to tell me until late in the afternoon.
Caroline and I had been married for nearly 10 years, and had already brought into the world 3 of our 5 eventual offspring. I knew of romantic love and marital love and of love between parent and child. Today Caroline does not know that she has given birth to children or what that might mean, nor that she is an internationally admired sculptor. So a further mode of love is invoked.
Was God’s love, is God’s love, in all such love? – present, recognizably, in the honeymoon bedroom, beside the couch of the memory-less?
I was no brassplated Christian then, or even now. Yet the Christian perception of God as love was rooted in me – God as love exemplified by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As a small child I had heard the astonishing story. It was infinitely significant and profoundly reassuring. The concept was riveting. As lonely boarder at my prep-school aged 8 and 9 in wind-blown Broadstairs before the War, I would read the Book of Common Prayer by torchlight under my bedclothes. When Herr Hitler had us fleeing – the whole shebang – into the highlands of Scotland in September 1939, life’s gift opened out like a flower.
We all knew our scripture in those days, and I especially, not least for the mystery and wonder of being alive, and for the metaphysics too. The metaphysics mattered: the doctrine; what I have come to call the algebra of our faith. The Creator God, the God of Love; us in His image. A Bible given me by my great-aunt Busy (who had lost her only child, Rosamund, from consumption at 20) was a treasure to me. All the words of Jesus were printed in red. I have it still, naturally.
My first ever night to go without sleep, at 12, was spent working out how to stage the entire Book of Revelations as a ballet. By then I had learned to sing, and as a solo treble I sang various of the hymns and carols of Herbert, Bunyan, Watts, Cowper and Christina Rossetti and the anthems of Balfour Gardiner. My life was lit by sacred music. The inspired organist in the soaring mediaeval chapel of my public school made every psalm – we sang one daily – a living drama.
At Eton’s Musical Society we spent a year rehearsing, and at last performed, Brahms’ German Requiem, the work of a non-believer: yet to me a composition of spiritual import of a higher order than the operatic Requiem of Verdi, the fully paid-up Roman Catholic. Even then it seemed to me, in my mid-teens, that true Christianity – the faith and witness, and life and death, of Jesus – belonged to our tradition, the Protestant: the tradition of the Way, the Tao, with its searchings and questions and unrelenting subjective interpretative challenge and its disciplines, rather than to the big fat church and ubiquitous hierarchy and infallible papacy of the Roman empire’s former capital.
From infancy I had held in awe the gift of life – awe at the phenomenon of beauty, love, joy, and of the call to man to respond to beauty, and hence to the requirement to make art and respond to the art of others. Words always were, and still are, my natural creative medium. By 10 I was writing poems as of necessity. Creating was to invoke the mystery of the gift, analogous to penetrating that mystery by prayer and praise … analogous to being informed – in-formed – by the discoveries and disciplines of those of the written word who were later to become my own guiding lights of the Christian vision: Dante, Eckhart, Luther, Tyndale, Bunyan, John of the Cross, Traherne, Herbert, Jeremy Taylor, Blake, Hopkins, Soloviev, Francis Thompson, Andrew Young, R S Thomas. Worship and art reflected one another; indeed in their essence were virtually interchangeable: an act of creativity, an act of prayer or praise. Music sparked by the divine was likewise to be constantly in reach, from Byrd to Monteverdi, Bruckner to Olivier Messiaen. Likewise painting, from El Greco to Samuel Palmer.
Then there was that further requirement, besides worship and art, namely Love. Similarly analogous, interchangeable, and driven by the single paradoxical requirement: self-loss.
What an amazing, all-but-inconceivable statement of this truth had been brought to us by the cross on which Jesus had died and His reappearance as experienced, and by a fluke set down, by his followers: a declaration unparalleled in global history and beyond the boundary of human imagination.
This translation into non-dimensionality – into the undeniable further reality of eternity and infinity – of the mortal presence on earth of One of manifest perfection, was the metaphor of ultimate persuasiveness. I came to see that the species Man has no choice but interpret through metaphor the mystery of his being in its rage for peace and wholeness. But this was the algebra come to life, the algebra as faith.
‘You are never so much yourself as when you lose yourself,’ I tell my half-pagan offspring and grandchildren, and they pretend not to understand me. I mock them that they have therefore never yet fallen in love, or never been transported by any piece of music or a passage of poetry or prose or by any other work of art or by a sweep of mountains… & therefore have not yet grasped and been grasped (poor things) by the gift of life in its true significance. ‘Beauty is truth,’ I might offer them, ‘truth beauty.’ That is what he meant, John Keats, when he came out with those words: we are given life to lose ourselves in the embrace of beauty which is God’s love in its countless manifestations.
And my children may turn to me and say: ‘Oh but I don’t believe that God exists.’ My instant response is: ‘Nor do I. God does not exist. He pre-exists.’ Now they are silenced by an incomprehension that they rightly suspect to be due to their own inadequacy of intellect. ‘You must take the risk,’ I might add, ‘of losing yourself, in the mystery of creation, through love and worship and response to beauty in the person of others or wrought by nature or by the hand of man as art.’
Jesus was a risk-taker, God knows. He pinpointed his risk-taking, foretold the consequence of pressing on with his ministry of love being his own execution and his disciples’ persecution. To include among his inner circle a tax-collector and a prostitute was to take a blatant risk. To sup openly with sinners was to risk, mortally.
Faith, I came to learn, is never less than risk; total, even absurd, self-risk. Risk is dangerous. It postulates failure. Faith in God is an intercourse of hearts, of presences. Whose hearts will God not despise? The broken and the contrite. What sacrifice required? A troubled spirit. As a rule, God is to be found quicker in a prison than in a church.
If we are truly to live life we are to live it on the cusp of extinction, of disgrace, of failure, of falling apart, of actual death. My professional life brought me many physical risks: I do not wish it to have been otherwise. Not infrequently my colleagues lost their lives. Meanwhile my most enduring comradeships of spirit have been made in prison on the grey blanket in a convict’s cell. I wish I had time to tell you more of that.
We live by threads, by flukes, by the wind blowing where it listeth. Joy is secret, and often sudden. Truth comes by ambush, and beauty too. Be wary of respectability. Be wary of conformity. Be wary of safety. Stay vulnerable. Stay fully alive. At the cusp.
15 iii ’15