New every morning is the love
Our wakening and uprising prove;
Through sleep and darkness safely brought,
Restored to life, and power, and thought.
John Keble, hymn
As the branch-line train bucketed and rattled its leisurely way towards Beverley, Justin’s mind bucketed and rattled with it, trying to come to terms with his encounter. Thank God, he had said, that he hadn’t missed the train at King’s Cross, and he had meant it with all his heart. But who or what was he actually thanking? Someone, something, with the power to interfere physically in his paltry life, to the tune of ensuring that he boarded the right carriage in time and that the seat beside Gavin was vacant? Nonsense. Surely nonsense. In reality he was thanking blind chance. Yet in this, the first breakthrough of his life, he still felt some benign hand at work, some mysterious and wonderful presence, and what could he call it but God? By parking that notion at the back of his mind, his thoughts gradually settled down.
The train stopped at a rural station. No one left and no one came. But beyond the bare platform was a small and plain nonconformist chapel, and on a board outside it was a Wayside Pulpit poster. Justin liked those things. There was a running joke at school about the additions scrawled on them by irreverent hands.
Jesus Saves!! — but Dalglish scores off the rebound.
Tired of Sin? Call In! — if not, call Doreen on 654321.
This Wayside Pulpit said God Is Love. The sentiment was familiar enough from hymns and psalms and sermons, but never had Justin given it real thought. He thought about it now. It was certainly appropriate. As well as a peace and a strength and a hope which he had not felt since that day in Rochester, he felt a love which he had never felt at all. All of them were feelings which called for urgent consolidation and reinforcement.
At Beverley station, Robert was placidly waiting for him. Justin was impatient over the greetings.
“Robert, is there any rush to go to your house?”
“None in the world. There’s nothing on till dinner at half past seven. Why?”
“Then could we go to the Minster first?”
“No problem.” Robert showed no surprise. He never did. It was not a long walk, and soon they were sitting at the back of the nave and talking quietly. They had the place almost to themselves.
“Robert. I met this boy on the train, and we nattered all the way to Doncaster. His name is Gavin.”
He described him as best he could. Not his appearance, which mattered little, but his mind, his soul.
“Robert,” he ended. “I think I’m in love. No, I’m pretty sure. Already.”
Robert still showed no surprise. “Good” was his first reaction. Then, “And does he love you? Already?”
“Well, I think so. He asked me to spend the night with him on Monday.”
“And are you going to …”
“Yes, if you don’t mind me leaving a day early.”
“No problem to that. But what I meant was, are you going to take the next step? Already?”
“I’m not sure … Gavin isn’t the Slut, Robert. This is love, not lust. And we’ll be by ourselves, and he’s willing. I don’t have any puritanical qualms. Not any longer ― I’ve talked myself out of them. The only problem is that frightful fiend we were on about last term … is it still around? And if it is, can I control it now? I’m not sure.”
Robert did reply directly. “Good,” he said again, still unperturbed. “And where’ve you got to get to on Monday for this tryst?”
“London. Gavin’s going down from Durham and I’m catching his train at Doncaster. His family’s got a flat in somewhere called Albany.”
At that Robert’s eyebrows did go up.
“Good heavens! Albany’s posh, you know. It’s off Piccadilly. Flats there cost a mint.”
“Oh.” Did that make any difference? No.
“Anyway, good for you, Justin.”
“It sounds as if you may have found your companion on that lonesome road. Someone to hold your hand. And it sounds as if you’re going into this with your eyes open.”
“So what’s the rest of the story?”
“And what does that mean?”
“Well, I doubt you dragged me to the Minster specially to tell me about Gavin.”
“I wish,” Justin grumbled, “you didn’t see through me quite so clearly. Hang on a sec.”
He leant back and stared up at the vaulting high above them, assembling another set of thoughts.
“I dragged you here,” he said at last, “because if God’s anywhere, he’s in a place like this, isn’t he?”
Robert stirred. “Ummm … Never mind, go on.”
“And I wanted to ask you about God. You see, it was only by luck that I met Gavin. And when I left him at Doncaster, I thanked God that I hadn’t missed the train. And I meant it. But I don’t believe in God, do I?”
“Why are you asking me? If you thank God when there’s something to thank him for, then perhaps you do. When you told me you were grateful to your father for funding your school fees, I’d no reason to doubt you. Now that you say you’re grateful to God for Gavin, I’ve still no reason to doubt you.”
“But I don’t believe in God properly.”
“Properly? Is there a proper way?”
“Well, you ought to know. The way you do.”
“Hold on. If you asked a Catholic or Orthodox priest, or even an Anglican one, or a rabbi or an imam, they might very well say that I don’t believe in God properly. Especially if they’re narrow-minded. If they’re broad-minded, they might say that it doesn’t matter a hoot how I believe in God. Because religion, at its best, doesn’t impose anything. It should be inclusive. Accommodate all shades.”
Robert took off his glasses and polished them. It made him seem less of a young owl and more of a cherub slightly past his sell-by date.
“Look,” he said. “To be religious ― let’s stick just to Christianity ― you don’t have to believe everything the bible says. You don’t have to believe in the creation story, or the virgin birth, or the resurrection, or the afterlife. Some people do, of course, but you don’t have to. Religion’s a matter ― ought to be a matter ― of open questions, not closed answers. Nobody has the last word on God.”
“Lots of people think they do. Look at Northern Ireland.”
“Well, OK. It’s true the Protestants and Catholics both think that God’s on their side and not the other, and instead of living peaceably together as they do in most places, they’re at each others’ throats. It said in the paper today that eighty-one people have died so far this year in Northern Ireland in the name of religion. But I reckon the core of the problem’s social and political. It’s really in the name of nationalism. But I agree that the political divide’s essentially a religious one. Protestant good, Catholic bad, or the other way round. If religion does come into it, it’s misguided religion. Intolerance.”
“I saw a Wayside Pulpit on the way here,” Justin ventured. “It said God is Love.”
“And so he is. He’s tolerance and understanding. In Northern Ireland, he’d be on both sides, if only both of them didn’t assume that the other had got it all wrong. After all, religion isn’t really about belief. It’s about faith.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Oh, a big one. Belief’s fairly obvious ― accepting or not accepting this or that. That Christ rose from the dead, for example. Faith’s quite different. It isn’t what we believe, it’s how we act. It’s more of a … social thing. A way of looking at life. A trust. Acommitment.”
“Commitment? To what?”
“Well, look at it this way. Animals have really only got one function, haven’t they? To copulate, procreate, ensure the next generation. They’re essentially self-interested. But humans have got something that animals haven’t. You can call it a mind. Or consciousness. But I think spirit is a better word. We think, we create, we have values, we choose between good and bad.”
“Even so,” Robert went on, “we can still feel like sheep wandering aimlessly around …”
Justin nodded again, having long done precisely that.
“… and life can still seem pointless. Meaningless. If it does, we need to give it meaning. That’s what faith does. It gives us a purpose … it makes sense out of nonsense … it’s our way of expressing what it is to be human. Belief is usually part-time, but faith’s full-time. It’s trusting that life has some value. For everyone, not just ourselves. And it’s doing something about it. I don’t think much of psychologists on the whole, but Jung said that ‘the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.’ And I think he’s right. Faith is being loyal to our humanity. It’s our spirituality coming out.”
“Hang on. Darkness ― yes, I know all about that. But spirituality’s a word that always bothers me. It implies a sort of, well, monkishness. Meditating profound and holy thoughts. That’s not my scene.”
“Not in that form, no. But spirituality is how God speaks to us, or through us. It’s how we use our spirit. It comes out in umpteen different ways. In thinking about higher things, sure. And in creating beautiful things ― I’d call the architect of the Minster spiritual in creating what he did.” Robert gestured at the view in front of them. “I’d say you were spiritual in appreciating it. The same goes for music and poetry. And spirituality comes out in love as well ― God speaks to us through love. Like your Wayside Pulpit said, God is love. Not just the sort of love you’re developing for Gavin. But friendship too, and practical compassion. Helping other people. That’s the real point ― it doesn’t matter what we believe in as long as we act compassionately … act with good sense, like Buddhists do. If everyone had their sort of low-key spirituality, the world would be a vastly better place.”
Justin wrestled with it. The suggestion that he was spiritual came as a shock, but he could see the point. There was his love for Gavin and his affection for Robert, not to mention ― the other side of the coin ― the compassion which both showed towards the aimlessly wandering sheep that was Justin. He could begin to understand that God spoke through love and compassion, now that he recognised them both, as well as through poetry and music and architecture. Architecture … He stared doubtfully up at the bold black Purbeck marble pilasters which framed the clerestory and triforium arches nearest the tower. Was God really here?
“Robert,” he said. “You weren’t happy when I suggested that if God’s anywhere, he’s in a place like this. But if he isn’t here, where is he?”
Robert hesitated. “I’m going to pass the buck,” he said. “You tell me.”
Justin sat back and studied the vaulting again, his eyes unseeingly tracing the ribs from their springing up to the bosses, his mind miles away, drawing on all the lessons he had learned in recent months, few of which had seemed to be lessons at the time. This must be the hardest question he had ever been asked, and it was fully five minutes before he answered.
“Well, he isn’t an old man in a nightie sitting on a cloud, as artists used to paint him … He isn’t anywhere out there.” He waved his hand upwards. “There isn’t anywhere there for him to be. And, all right, he isn’t in this building any more than anywhere else … If he’s anywhere, he’s in here.” He tapped his head.
Robert nodded so vigorously that his incipient double chin wobbled. “And what is he?”
An even harder question. What is he, or what would you like him to be? Back to the ribs.
“The way I see it …” Justin said at last, still addressing the vaulting, “the way I’m beginning to see it … if there is a God at all … he isn’t a power out there. He can’t actually do anything, physically … He isn’t real, in an objective sense. If anything, he’s a sort of presence, a voice in our head telling us that this is right and that is wrong … He’s our conscience. Our values … We talked about this before, when I’d been with the Slut … And he may be more than that … I’d like to think he is … Somehow giving us strength. And peace, and hope … Like, well, like a light inside us, driving out the darkness … Afriend who makes life seem worth living … It all seems very personal … A dream, almost … Which is why Ivisualise him in my head rather than out there. If he exists at all.”
He turned to Robert and, seeing an expression on his face which he had never seen before, he misinterpreted it.
“Sorry, Robert. I can’t go any further than that. I did say I didn’t believe in God properly, the way you do.”
“But you do. Exactly the same way. You might have taken those words out of my mouth.”
“But …” Justin was astonished. “What I was trying to describe … I called it God because it was the nearest I could get. But is it really God? The way you see it?”
“If we don’t call it God, I don’t know what we do call it. We need labels, don’t we? Any god ― even God with a capital G ― is just a label. A spiritual power personified.”
“But is that all? I thought you believed in, um …”
“All the fancy stuff? No. I’ve no quarrel with it, but I don’t.”
Justin was now more than astonished. “You mean you don’t believe in Jesus? That he was the son of God and all that?”
“No. I don’t.”
“So you’re not even … a Christian?”
“No. I was once, I suppose, but I lost my belief. But not my faith, I hope. So I can’t call myself a Christian. Any more than you can, I imagine. I take it you don’t believe anything in the bible?”
“Not much.” Having thought about this before, Justin felt on firmer ground. “No doubt some of it’s history. But I think most of it’s myth. I don’t believe in the creation story, for instance ― who does, except the nutters? Or the miracles. I can accept that Jesus existed and was a good man, but not that he was divine. There’ve been others who were just as good … Gandhi, say. And as for all the Christian dogma … I’ve never been near to swallowing that. I don’t think I’ve ever told you this, Robert. But when I was quite small ― Imust have been about seven ― my stepfather made me learn the catechism off by heart. It’s stuck in my memory ever since. Things like
What is the inward and spiritual grace?
A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness:for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.
“For heaven’s sake! Right up a seven-year-old’s street! He never explained any of it, and needless to say I never asked. It didn’t make any sense. I didn’t know anything then about the facts of life, the physical ones, and precious little about the Christian doctrine of sin. But I did know that my real father wasn’t around, and nobody ever mentioned him. So I accepted that I was born in sin. And there was plenty enough wrath around at home. It was all so negative that it put me off religion. Not quite what my stepfather intended. Did that sort of nonsense come your way?”
“Not the catechism, thank goodness. Even theologians would struggle with it these days. It’s idiotic to expect a seven-year-old to understand it.”
“Lucky you … Where were we? Oh yes. Having said all that, I think there’s still a lot in the bible that is … well, inspiring. Uplifting. And in the prayer book too. There’s a sort of bottom layer of … well, of guidance, which doesn’t need the Christian frills to make it valid.”
“The universal bits, you mean. The ones which could come out of almost any religion.”
“That’s right. But isn’t this all pretty, um, heretical? Unorthodox, anyway.”
“It would have been once. But it isn’t now. Have you heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran who was martyred by the Nazis? He talked about what’s called religionless Christianity. And that was picked up by John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich, who wrote a book twenty years ago called Honest to God. About how it’s perfectly possible to be worldly and non-Christian but yet holy at the same time. It caused a big stink at first. But these days it’s become quite a strong strand in liberal theology.”
Justin was rapidly revising his view of Robert. Neither of them had been confirmed at school, as most boys were. Justin had been confirmed at home, and automatically assumed that Robert had been too. But whereas Justin’s confirmation had been under his stepfather’s eye, under compulsion and therefore under false pretences, Robert was honest as the day.
“Robert. If that’s what you think, how did you square it with your conscience when you were confirmed?”
“Oh, I haven’t been confirmed. We don’t go in for that.”
Justin gaped. “You’re a Quaker? You’ve never told me.”
“You’ve never asked. And we don’t push our views.”
“And you go to Quaker meetings?”
“Yes. When I’m at home.”
How had Justin not known that? It occurred to him that, by chance, his stays with Robert had never spanned a Sunday. But …
“But Quakers are Christians.”
“Historically, yes. And most of them still are. But far from all. Some find a lot of inspiration in the bible, but don’t see it as the final authority, or the only one. They find the traditional Christian approach doesn’t square with what they feel in their heads, and they look to other faiths and philosophies. Then there are Quakers like me who believe in a God but not in Christ. There are a few who don’t even believe in a God at all. We try to be broad-minded. And relevant, too. Religion’s like everything else. If it gets out of date, it dies. The world’s moved on since the time of Christ. If there is a God, he’s a living one, not locked up in the scripture of two thousand years ago. I reckon that’s why fewer and fewer people have any religion at all these days. Most churches have simply become irrelevant.”
“So Quakers aren’t expected to toe a line … to recite some creed?”
“No. We don’t have any specific beliefs, not like the Anglicans and the Catholics and all the rest. Or any particular practices. We just think that we’ve got a bit of God in us ― all of us, not only Quakers. And we listen to our hearts. We tend to call it the light within, or the voice of God, a sort of direct personal experience. We’re each of us responsible for ourselves, not to a church or a priest, but direct to God. And the bit of God in us links us to the bit of God in others. It helps us understand each other, and accept that we’re all different, and recognise that everyone often needs help. That’s why Quakers have always had a strong social conscience ― peace work and pacifism, social reform, human rights and so forth.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of that.”
“The point is that our purpose in life isn’t just looking after ourselves. The community has needs as well, and there’s strength in belonging to a community. After all, religion literally means binding together. Our official name isn’t Quakers, but Friends, and that’s what we try to be. Friends. We meet together in search of peace and strength and truth, just like any other denomination. But we’ve very few rules, and we feel we don’t need bishops or priests to interpret them. We do it ourselves, thinking together. So our meetings aren’t services in the usual sense. Sometimes there isn’t a word said throughout. And we feel that fancy buildings like this, and music, and ceremonial, are distracting. But everyone’s different. Some people do need rules and need to have them interpreted, and do like set services and fancy buildings. No problem, so long as we respect each others’ viewpoint.”
“So why are you at Hambledon, not at a Quaker school?”
“Well, Mum and Dad are staunch Anglicans. And when I first went to Hambledon I was only moving towards Quakerism. But the chapel services at school don’t bother me, if that’s what you mean. Or services in here. In fact I like them. They’re what I was brought up with. I’m the same as you. The language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James bible … renaissance church music and medieval architecture … they’ve got the weight of history behind them, and that’s not to be sneezed at. And they’re things of beauty in their own right. They speak to me, just as they can speak to outright atheists. For me, there’s far more beauty in them than in any of their more recent counterparts.”
Justin was looking up again, and his eye lit on a little stone bagpiper standing on the capital of the nearest column. There were scores of such figures of musicians in the Minster, who for the last six hundred years had been playing their instruments non-stop, tootling or twanging or scraping or banging, proclaiming the glory of God.
“But it isn’t what they say that appeals to me,” Robert went on, “except for the universal ideas we were talking about. What appeals to me is how they say it. Old music, old architecture. In that sense my tastes are old-fashioned. Like yours are. OK, the new-fangled prayer book and modern bible translations have a lot going for them ― at least their language is up to date and reaches people who can’t fathom the old stuff. But it’s pallid by comparison. Still, I’ve no quarrel with any of them, old or new. Quaker practice may be minimalist, but we’re inclusive, not exclusive.”
There was a long pause. “Sermon over,” said Robert, smiling.
“And a damn sight better than any sermon I’ve heard before. Why didn’t you preach it to me years ago?”
“You never asked me to, so presumably you either didn’t want me to or you weren’t ready to hear it. Anyway, I saw you were working it out for yourself. Much better to find your own way than be led by the nose.”
“Robert. Will you take me to the Quaker meeting on Sunday?”
A postcard arrived from Gavin, of the nave of Durham cathedral with its massive Norman columns carved with trellises and zigzags. The same day, as chance had it, Justin and Robert visited Selby Abbey. Although relatively small, it was a Durham look-alike, with the same trellis patterns on the columns. And, as at Rochester, the heavy round arches spoke of solid certainty. The emphasis was horizontal, as if everything was concluded and a lid had been clamped on the matter. Justin bought a postcard and sent it to Gavin.
Another day took them to York and its Minster, where again they sat in the nave. But here, in the vast spaciousness of the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, the mood was not one of certainty but of aspiration. Here the emphasis was vertical. The columns reached upwards like trees in a forest, searching for heaven. But not finding it? Because upwards was not where heaven lay?
But the trees did have visible roots. In the undercroft were the foundations of earlier cathedrals laid bare by archaeology, and at the lowest level was the assembly hall of the Roman fortress. There on display was a stone head with the label “Constantine the Great;” and alongside them as they inspected it was an elderly couple.
The lady turned to them. “We’ve heard of him,” she said in an American voice. “But what’s he doing here? Do you know?”
“You’re the historian, Justin,” said Robert. “Over to you.”
“Well, in Roman times York was a major centre, the capital of northern Britain, and the emperor Constantius died here in, um, 306. His son Constantine was with him. He wasn’t supposed to take over, but his father’s troops proclaimed him emperor. Here, in this very hall. One thousand, er, six hundred and seventy five years ago. And a few years later he became a Christian and gave freedom to the church, which till then had been illegal and persecuted. If he hadn’t become emperor, Christianity wouldn’t have gone the way it did. For better or worse, later history would have been very different. In Europe, anyway. And who knows, quite possibly Columbus would never have crossed the Atlantic.”
“Gee! What if!”
“For better or worse?” asked Robert when they were alone.
“Well, Christianity’s record is hardly unblemished, is it? Intolerance, in-fighting, Jew-baiting, crusades, war. How many people have been killed and tortured and persecuted in its name? Millions.”
“Yes.” Robert unexpectedly chuckled. “Have you heard what Gandhi said when someone asked what he thought of Christian civilisation? He said, ‘I think it would be a good idea.’”
Sunday morning saw Justin, together with Robert and his parents, back in Beverley Minster for matins. Traditional church music at its best soared upwards in medieval church architecture at its best. As at York, the trees of the columns soared upwards too, their branches meeting far overhead in the canopy of the vaulting. But for the first time all this seemed to Justin a touch remote and impersonal.
Sunday afternoon saw him and Robert at the Friends’ meeting house in, appropriately, Quaker Lane. The contrast was striking. The turn-out was impressive and the average age markedly less than at the Minster. The building was plain and modern. The meeting room contained nothing but a small central table carrying a bowl of flowers, and two circles of comfortable chairs arranged around it; nothing on the walls but a clock. The proceedings were simplicity itself. For quarter of an hour not a word was spoken. The silence and the lack of visual distraction, Justin found, concentrated the mind. There was an atmosphere of community, of friendship, of respect, of compassion. He found himself thinking not of God, or even of himself, but of Gavin and Robert. Eventually an elderly man stood up.
“Somewhere between memory and imagination,” he said, “we are here in the present. The question is how we use the present.”
He sat down. Another fifteen minutes passed. Then a middle-aged woman got up.
“The other day our son Malcolm told Gordon and me that he’s gay and he’s got a boyfriend. He’s a good lad, and he doesn’t mind us telling you. Well, it was a bit of a shock, but we’ve thought about it a lot. We can’t see that he’s really any different from our other son Ian, who’s got a girlfriend. We love them both the same, and we think God loves them both the same. That there’s nothing wrong.”
“Agreed,” said somebody, and there was a general murmur of assent.
“Thank you,” said the lady, and sat down.
Silence again descended, broken only by the occasional cough and by an outburst of stomach rumbles from Justin which reverberated round the room. But he was not embarrassed, for he could not help it. His mind was now on gayness. His own had never bothered him. It was the way he was:end of story. The undoubted fact that, if and when it should emerge, it would cause consternation and condemnation in the vicarage added a positive spice. Nor had Robert ever expressed any disapproval. But if gayness, whether your own or someone else’s, was a potential problem, how civilised and sensible to look for support and guidance from your fellows. He had heard ill-tempered tirades against homosexuality from the pulpit at St Michael’s. There was a total absence of comment on it from the pulpit at school, with the implication that it was something best swept under the carpet. Here, he guessed, if there were dissenting opinions, they would be voiced in the gentlest of ways.
For another half hour nothing happened. Then hands were shaken all round and the clerk of the meeting closed the proceedings with a few notices.
“It was pure chance, of course,” said Robert quietly, “that Mrs Finlay brought up that question.”
“Are all Quakers as accepting of gays as that?”
“It varies. Depends on the meeting, and on individuals. We’re pretty open-minded here. But if anyone disapproves of anything, they don’t get uptight about it. So what do you make of us now?”
“I’m impressed. I write you as those that love your fellow-men.”
“You write us as …? What do you mean?”
“It’s from that lovely poem, Abou Ben Adhem. Don’t you know it?
“Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:―
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’ ― The vision raised its head,
And with a look made all of sweet accord,
Answered, ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, ‘I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow-men.’
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.”
“That’s brilliant. Yes, love of fellow-men is at the root of love of God. Yes, that’s what Quakerism is all about. Love and peace.”
There was conversation over cups of tea with a warm-hearted and welcoming bunch of people, interesting and interested, a far cry from the brittle middle-class gossip of St Michael’s and the unctuousness of its parson. There was a final and sumptuous evening meal in the Carstairs’ loving and peaceful Georgian home, a far cry from the frigidity and angst of the vicarage. And Justin’s stay was over.
Oh God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed, give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give.