This is not about the Queen’s ninetieth birthday, but a single moment exactly ten years ago. I wrote about it then, while it was fresh in my mind (a). I said I’d learned something and would never be the same again. I couldn’t express it very well for others to read, but it’s helped to remind its author of the occasion. And I stand by the verdict I gave then. It marked a turning-point in my life.
I’ve edited the original piece, enhanced with what I remember but didn’t feel able to say at the time:
I was walking along Ledborough Avenue to its intersection with West Vale Road. People in cars were waiting for the lights to change. Some pedestrians stopped off at the doctor’s surgery or the lab next door where they tested blood and so forth. Beyond that was an oily yard where mechanics were repairing taxis. Suddenly it hit me, that all of us are more than our bodies and minds.That’s what I might have written if my skill in language had been better ten years ago—or if I thought to spend an indefinite time redrafting text. The revision is more faithful to the original experience, helps me relive it. And as I do, it suddenly puts me in mind of something I’ve heard. When there is heavy flooding in parts of Africa, animals take refuge on floating logs, where predator and prey coexist quietly, abandoning normal behaviour, as if united in a common thanksgiving. Or as if they can take a holiday from everyday instinct, and know they are infinite beings. I tried to find an account of this on Google, with limited success: only a blurry video of a snake and mouse sheltering together on a ledge under a bridge, trapped by the swirling waters all around.
At about 11am on Tuesday 13th June 2006 I obtained personal knowledge, the kind that changes you permanently. It is something you cannot get by any shortcuts. A teacher could not convey it without possessing it. A student could not learn it without being ready.
I felt that each of the persons I saw was an immortal being. I wanted to acknowledge to them that I knew; but I could not know whether they knew it themselves. I had no idea how to share it, certainly not in words. I don’t know how to express it even now. I don’t mean “immortal” in any conventional sense. Would “infinite beings” be better?
What I meant to say was that in each one I saw something to celebrate in their very existence, something which transcended how they looked and moved, was unaffected by their lot in life, as lived day to day. It was as if to say, we are all in this together, we are acting in this play, performing our allotted roles, according to the throw of the dice—or God’s will, if you prefer to put it that way.
However we express it, whatever we believe, our lives are circumscribed, we can only go on from where we are with what we’ve got, each on a personal path from birth to death. But I saw our true selves there, each of us, in one sweep of the eye, and it was like a joyful embrace, for we were one: a team of infinite beings. I knew of no way to share it, not through an exchange of glances, or any form of greeting. I knew this thing in that moment, but did they?
It also puts me in mind of an Anglican hymn written for children, “All things bright and beautiful” which in its original form includes this verse:
The rich man in his castleIt was published in 1848, the same year as Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Latterly the Church of England has been anxious to suppress evidence of its former support of the status quo, ruling classes and Government, to the point where some see it now as Socialist in politics. (b)
The poor man at his gate
God made them high or lowly
And ordered their estate.
If you take the verse in context (see scan alongside) you see that it’s an essential part of the author’s theme, to encourage children to look, and see the wonderful things of this world as gifts from an invisible Giver. Take away the verse and it’s incomplete, all of nature referred to except humanity. Subject to the constraints of her chosen verse form, she’s merely saying that by “man” she doesn’t mean any particular kind of person. So she takes the extremes: rich, poor, high, lowly, to include them equally among the bright and beautiful things to be seen and contemplated. Did God order their estate? In a song for children (of any age) on the theme of good gifts from an invisible Giver, her answer doesn’t trouble itself with theology or social justice. We (as little children) should open ourselves to admire the beauty around us, as a entry point to spiritual knowledge.
I’d like to share an example of how, by contrast, the Church of England had no compunction in perverting its spiritual authority as an institution. To help promote the war effort, in 1915 the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a Pastoral (c) or special sermon to be read in all churches and published in newspapers (d). Here’s an excerpt:
What is at stake is not only the honour of our plighted word, but our safety and freedom, and the place entrusted to us among the nations of the earth(1). The spirit arrayed against us(2) threatens the very foundations of civilized order in Christendom(3). It wields immense and ruthless power. It can only be decisively rolled back(4) if we, for our part, concentrate the whole strength of body, mind, and soul which our nation, our Empire, holds(5).My glossary of weasel words used by the Archbishop:
(1) = entitlement to have an Empire
(2) = Germany
(3) = the status quo
(4) = defeated in war
(5) = military support expected from the Empire
The truth remains camouflaged among all the baggage. The true Way or Tao is a precious secret eternally hidden in plain view, waiting for our eyes to notice it, almost too simple to be grasped.
(b)Try googling “the Tory party at prayer”
(c)Full text here
(d)As reprinted in a newspaper here