Category Archives: story

The Quran, the Cathedral, and the wrong story

I get sucked into other people’s narratives. Not their lives, but into the compelling stories they tell of ‘the way the world is.’ At worst, into their stories about my own life. As a young person my loving parents persuaded  me out of pursuing a career in the performing arts, because I might end up cleaning for a living as I waited for jobs. And, right enough, I can’t sing or dance. It totally escaped them that I might well have had a career in straight acting, or in directing, or any of the other roles around performance. They wanted me to have the right career.

Then I got persuaded out of a career as an academic, because of all the manifold failings of academia. But actually, a mixture of management, teaching and research is something I could perfectly well have done. I would have loved it.

As it happens, my dyslexia means that most of the more normal jobs open to people are impossible to me. As it happens, my persuadability wrecked my chance of a decent job, and I ended up cleaning for living without even getting a shot at things which might have been more fulfilling, and that was a far worse waste fate than my kind helpers imagined.  It is not the fault of the persuaders, but my own weakness. It does, however, have the desirable side-effect that I see too plainly how others grab the wrong narrative.

The current misguided narrative concerns a very beautiful reading from the Quran in my church, St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, at Epiphany. Now, St Mary’s is a place of the uttermost theological conservatism. It is a place where both the two major creeds are honoured, where the laity, as well as the clergy, observe the beautiful custom of bowing for the name of Jesus, and for the section of the Nicene creed, which describes the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

The chances that anybody in St Mary’s would pick up the mistaken idea people in the church hierarchy there do not believe that Jesus was very God from very God is a risk so small as to be vanishing.

But St Mary’s is a church in a city where worrying racist attacks on Asian religious buildings have happened in the last two years. There is a serious risk, in that city, that the Muslim community could come to believe the Christian community are not supporting them, and that the Christian community might not realise that they have a lot in common with the Muslim community.

To put it bluntly, prejudice between two ancient and honourable faiths is one of the biggest challenges we face today.  That is not a small risk. It is a huge one.

The current hysteria in certain circles over the reading is a classic case of an entirely mistaken narrative. Nobody at St Mary’s stands the smallest danger of not knowing the orthodox Christian doctrines. We will continue to celebrate the Eucharist in all its fullness week by week, at mid week, for saints’ days and for weddings. We will continue to observe Ash Wednesday, and Lent and the Triduum. There will be an Easter vigil and a parish Easter Eucharist. Evensong will be sung, and there will be daily morning prayer. The Old Testament and the Epistle and the Gospel with be read, and Psalms will be variously read and sung. Prayers will be devout, and hymns and anthems glorious. We, her congregation, know that. Glasgow also knows St Mary’s worships one God in three Persons, and does that daily.

The real danger was not that I might not have the perfect career. The real danger was that I might not have a career at all.

The real danger is lack of love and respect and kinship between two great faiths.

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Martha’s work

Clearing up after a meal like that – well it is not the work of moments. We are all in a strange mood, too, which seemed to slow everything down. The Rabbi and the New Israel had gone out suddenly, unexpectedly. A group of the others had gone too. Young Mark was one of them. Not grown up enough to be a man, too adult to be a child.

I was organising the clearing, the scrubbing. Pots, dishes, the big wine mixer. An undercurrent of apprehension, of worry, ran like dregs of the cups, put to drain. A sluggish ooze.

Like I say, it was a lot of work and we wanted everything perfectly clean. Then Mark ran in, mother naked except for a scrap of cloth clutched over his privates. He was wide-eyed, terrified, horribly clear and coherent. And we all gathered round to listen.

You know what we heard. The aching sorrow of it. The pitiful betrayal. Judas. I had served that meal. Put the pot of bitter herb before Judas.

Mary went into a corner and rolled herself up into a ball and rocked, dry eyed. I cannot remember now what Joanne did. Somebody went to tell the Rabbi’s mother. Perhaps it was her.  I finished the dishes. Then I took lye and I went into the upper room and I scrubbed and scrubbed the dining bench where Judas had sat until my hands started to bleed at the knuckles and I knew I had to stop.

So I started to clean the whole house. It had just been cleaned for Passover but that did not stop me. I scrubbed the floors. I washed the tables. I was just wiping out the corners with a damp cloth, hoping to catch some new speck of dust, when Peter burst in. He was red eyed, incoherent, but we made out that they were torturing and mocking the Rabbi and some kind of trial had been put on.

It was full day when John came back. I was rubbing over the ceilings with a cloth wrapped round a broom although I had done that an hour earlier. He said: ‘He has been condemned. We cannot let him die all alone. I will fetch the other women. Come, we will go and stand and watch.’ He looked no more than a child to me, a solemn, wise child, full of the childish certainty about what was right.

I touched Mary’s shoulder, daring for the first time to break into her grief, and she touched my bleeding hands, daring for the first time to break into mine. Then we went side by side to do the hardest thing we had ever done.

 

a clear pure light

One of the most successful things I have done in this cottage – still after six years in the throes of restoration – was to restore the old wooden ceiling. When I did that, I found a nail near the door. Almost certainly the nail on which in the past the hurricane lamp was hung to be easily reached down when one was heading out of the door to grapple with a crisis. This January brought the usual storms and power cuts, and I have got another hurricane lamp to hang in the same spot. IMG_1320I was glad of it on Friday night when my hear torch packed up and refused to work at all. This was not a good moment for it to pick, because the geese were in the middle of the pond. I have been having fox trouble again. Foxes are beautiful and destructive. Also, because urban foxes are being dumped in the countryside in large numbers, currently they are a real problem. I have recently lost my gander to a fox, and the sorrow of his poor widow was pitiable. I was lucky enough to be offered a breeding pair of geese, and took them, offering every assurance that I now had a safe fox-resistant (little is fox proof) pen for the nights. And there they were, in the middle of the pond. And there I was, running round the edge, trying to persuade them to leave the pond and get into their pen. Well, actually, just to leave the pond. I was wonderfully well placed to see both the beauty of the hurricane lamp, with its gentle glow, and the down side of it. A very gentle glow.  I would have given a good deal for a nasty bright modern light to help persuade the geese. The trouble is, the pond is deeper than my wellies. Round to the left I went, and round to the right the geese. Down to the right I went and round to the left they went. I waded in as far as I dared. They went to the opposite bank. I splashed the water with a long stick, and they edged right up to the bank. then the water was half an inch away from the top of my wellies and a backed off. And with that the geese went back to the middle of the pond. This was repeated for an hour or more. Even outside ones wellies, the water chills the feet. I got more and more fed up. The geese remained unruffled. Finally, tired and exasperated, I made an error. The water came pouring into a wellie. That was it. I had little to lose. I set off across the pond, and the geese looked at me in horror. Actually it must have been very funny to look and I do have a weakness for comedy. Making people makes me happy. Those wretched geese did not even have the decency to laugh. They did however at least shuffle up the bank, and very shortly, into their proper pen. And I went back to the house, poured the water out of the wellies, stripped off my soaking wet jeans and socks and hung the lamp back on its antique nail

Choir

I looked down at the shepherds. Transfixed; they had never heard anything so terrible or so wonderful. There had never been a sound like this on the earth before and each of us was privileged to bear our part, each specially chosen. I saw the flames of the Holy Spirit flicker over and around them, as she opened their minds to see us.

Well, yes, I do think in Hebrew, usually, although I can speak every tongue which is spoken anywhere in Time. I alone of the angels meet each mortal thing. That night, that astonishing night, we were all singing in Aramaic. I heard my voice, true and perfect and tuned up for human ears, sing the soprano line: ‘Glory, glory, glory. In the highest, in the highest.’ And my heart was breaking. Each one of us there that night had our significant part to play in his story. Rafael was over to the right, booming out in an impressive base: ‘His favour, his favour. His favour rests, rests, rests.’ Gabriel caught my eye. His own were filled with tears, though the tenor never quavered. He was thinking of the Annunciation, of the fragile courageous child even now nursing her own child.

And me? I was thinking back nine months too. I was thinking of that place where I, who can no longer enter Eternity, stood with the other three. A place outside Time and Eternity. The Spirit wrapped round us all. The Son was already emptying himself, and folding up, hiding from himself much that he was. He had already resigned his omniscience. His courage never faltered, but it was courage with fear. He could no longer remember forwards to see the whole course of the new life, though he still knew how it must end. ‘You will come for me?’ he queried, begged, ‘You will come for me in the end, when I need you. I know it cannot be when I want you, but you will make it when I have to have you? You will not let fear or reverence stand in your way?’

I was weeping. Later, Gabriel told me they had all wept, when he left, when he sprang off his Thrones. The Thrones, said Gabriel, had spilt great fiery tears, but he had gone joyously. I had given up Eternity to Become, to enter truly to myself. I knew that what he was doing now, hard as it was, was in a sense Becoming too. That he was most truly himself, here and now, as he begged me for assurance. ‘I will come,’ I promised, ‘I will come the first moment I can. I will help in every way I can.’ None of the four of us said: ‘Whatever it costs’ because we all knew it would cost everything we could, possibly, give.
I could hear his Thrones now, more instrumental than voice. Pride purred, yet somewhere you heard the longing. Each one of us, here tonight, had sacrificed for this moment, and that was why we sang as we did. It was the most glorious sound that Earth ever has or ever can know. These were the finest sounds of Eternity translated into time, and we sang out of our loss and longing. It was our gift, made to honour his gift.

I sang knowing one day I would come to his broken body and take his life. I have resigned Eternity to bring all moral things to Eternity. I have done that because my Master has need of me. My name is Azrael. You know me as Death.

Meeting the judge

A couple of weeks ago a friend and I were pondering the Sunday gospel reading, Luke 18-1-8. A widow besieges an unjust judge, who finally caves in. In the conventional reading, it is about keeping on asking for justice, which God will grant. Only two things wrong with it. Firstly, he usually doesn’t. Secondly, in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, it is usually God demanding justice. Then I found a good article supposing that perhaps God is the widow. Shocking, in the kind of way Jesus tends to like. So, what follows below is my retelling of this parable in that way. I think the power of the story and the easy with which it works, makes this ‘reading’ of it more probably. No actual judges were harmed in the making of this story.

The Judge.

And there she was, in my face again. I was having a quiet chat with Jim, and she was there shouting at me again. It was a dispute over a field, and frankly she was not being realistic. That of course is the trouble with these people. Nothing to offer, no place in the scheme of things. They don’t accept reality. Which was that Jud needed a bigger plot to make the development he had on worthwhile, and her field got in the way. That is how it is. I was the judge and she needed to accept that.
But she didn’t accept it, and there she was, in my face at every turn. I was furious. Jim was laughing of course. ‘It’s not like she can DO anything, is it?’ he said. The trouble was that to ignore her was one thing, but to take action against her would cause the wrong kind of talk.
First, she caught me at the gates, where I sat with the other elders. She stood there crying out about the Law – and what it said about widows, and fields, and justice. And I made a joke of it. I turned to Jim and said: ‘She got a right good education, didn’t she?’ and that turned it off.
Then I was in the market place and it was the prophets. I got Amos, and his comments on selling the needy for a pair of shoes. I got Micah, and the Lord requiring justice and mercy. I raged inside. But I said: ‘I’ll prophesy then, that you will lose your voice if you keep on blabbering like that, hen.’ And that again made a joke of it, and John thought it quite funny.
I mean, I wasn’t selling her into slavery was I? Or beating her up? All I was doing was ensuring that a much-needed development went through, and that those who ought to benefit from enterprise did.
And then in an alley way. I was alone, except for the nonentities around me. And I looked right into her face. For the first time I saw the anger. Her eyes held mine, and time and place swung away. Her face, the sexless ageless face of a woman past child bearing, was now crowned with gold, and light and fire played in the gold. She grew, and now she was three, four times my size, and she moved back, and I saw robes flowing around her, embroidered, coloured. I was no longer sure if she was man or woman. This regal figure stood on the warm fiery backs of two immense creatures, like female sphinxes, whose wings bore the monarch aloft. Around the figure were others. Those who looked as I expected angels to be. Then there were wheels on fire, dragons, a monstrous bull, an eagle. There were dark figures which filled me with fear, and bright ones even more terrible.
Then I saw, around this throne, the figures of men and women. They were dressed in rags, and robes, and clothes I cannot describe. They all turned to the throne, which now filled the whole of the sky and they cried out, ‘How long, Oh Lord, how long? We hunger and thirst to see right prevail. Fill the hungry with good things!’ I could not count them, and I could never describe the longing and the anger of their voices.
The figure on the throne turned to me, and still with the face and the voice of the widow thundered: ‘Grant me justice!’
I wet myself.
I was suddenly standing in a dark alley, and I stumbled home and the slaves got me to bed.
The next morning, I went to the gate. Jud was there. I sat down. The widow came forward. She did not say anything. She looked at me. I gave her justice. I heard the disgusted comments of Jud, Jim, John. I cared. Oh, yes, I still cared. But caring or not, I had set off in a different direction.
It is an easy thing to say you do not care for God or humankind, isn’t it? It is different when you meet them.

and Principalities and Powers

There can be disadvantages to an over-fertile imagination, but just occasionally there are advantages. This evening to St Mary’s for evensong, and splendid readings, but what caught me was an anthem on Isaiah’s vision in the Temple. I have always liked this, but it waited until this evening to speak clearly to me.

I spent a lot of childhood hours in the British Museum. I would have been very young when I twigged that the achruve – the cherubs – that Isaiah saw were probably the cousins of the great six winged hybrid beasts from the Assyrian collection. In my imagination they have always been huge and powerful and not wholly human.

This evening however, they erupted into such a mass of colour and personality that I could hardly contain the excitement of it all. And evensong at St Mary’s might not be the place for ecstatic dance.

I have been thinking for some time of how angels ‘become’ – they are not born but created, but if the exasperating God who reassures Moses that he can know it will be all right because AFTER he has confronted Pharaoh he will find himself back in this very place again worshipping (er, how about some reassurance BEFORE Moses goes into action?) that same God is known for asking for input to go alongside his generous gifts.

The result was not the ordered massed ranks of a late mediaeval painting but a huge swirling excitement of individuality which undoubted owed much to the splendid murals by Gwyneth Leech at St Mary’s – thus does art nurture us.

In my own personal mythology, therefore, each angel must ‘become’. I think I have in mind ‘become what you are’ – each angel must discover what their essence is, although it is already there, and when they find it, they will change and become more like themselves.

This evening’s multi coloured and formed achruve filled my head so fully it was hard to focus on any one, although of course John the eagle and Michael the dragon were filling the ranks – they are an angel and an archangel, and not achruvime of course, but they were still there.

And I have not even considered what a Principality or a Power or a Throne might look like.

Becoming

The Evangelists were all given their symbols. Of course you will realise at once that in heaven a symbol is a reality, and real beings, real angels, were at once and for ever appointed to the job. I watched the first three. Mark’s, who was given the name of Mark to add to his existing name and used it at once with great enthusiasm, was a lion, a huge forceful beast. As he stepped up to his new job, the most marvellous wings grew from his back – tawny like his coat, and huge like his personality, fur-feathered.

Luke was a huge patient ox, a domestic beast, gentle and very much the servant. He, too, at once grew wings, his always having something of the scent of hay about them. And Matthew was shaped like a man, with his great concern for justice, and that anger in him… No, of course all angels shaped like humans do not have wings – no, just think. Well exactly, the angels of the resurrection… But Matthew’s wings sprang into being. Oh, enviable wings, like the wings of a swan.

And then I became John. And I was aware of this huge disappointment. Because of course I already HAD wings. Eagles do. There was nothing new for me, and the others had become. I was just a great bird with goldy-brown wings. I heard Michael’s voice. We all knew Michael had had problems with his own becoming. ‘There are other ways of becoming, find yours,’ he said, as quietly as he could. And then I felt it. I felt goldenness. First a flush, and then it flamed up my whole being. I heard the sigh. The others saw, and knew. We all knew this was the right thing. Which is how I became, and how, to this day, I am copied in brass in churches. But (forgive me) the brass is never as bright as my living feathers, however they polish it.

(Thanks, Jane!)