columns: The borne-up-by-invisible-hands stunt

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The Independent Culture
I SHOULD have been in Rome today. Last Easter of the Millennium; the room booked and by the grace of God or bribery, tickets for the Maundy Thursday papal mass. But no. Things, you see; stuff; events. They always intervene, events. We should put a stop to them, issue an Order in Council, get in the enforcers: Enough is enough. No more events.

But it's a good thing, probably. I am a weak and gullible man, a master of self-evasion, and God would have got me. It happened once before, years ago. Rock-bottom, you might say; world disintegrating, no hope, life reduced to a temporary holding-pattern while I wavered between the rattle of the pill-bottle or the gas-pipe's hiss. I lay there in my loveless bed and thought: I wonder what it would be like just to surrender. Have you ever done that? You just close your eyes and lie back like a medieval knight on his tomb, and wait.

And then comes the terrible sense of being borne up, of something greater than you are, but purposive, directed, knowing; something which, because you have surrendered, will not let you fall into the abyss.

When I lived in Clapham - no. Why should I lie? Balham - a girl sat outside the tube station, begging, day after day, in all weathers. She was beautiful. And I wondered what she was and how she had come there and in the end I decided that she was just another poor sod who had had no idea that things could turn out like this.

But they can. They can and they do. It's a leaky boat, hull rotting away, rudder gone, but we're all in it together and only pride and hope keep its brave tattered sails filled. And then the something comes along and bears you up, and you think: what's going on?

They say you should never talk about politics or religion, but it's Easter Day, and, anyway, Tony Blair? William Hague? Is that, excuse me, it? So there I was, borne up, and for a while I thought: this must be the hand of God, which is a rather grandiose thing to think, rather like when I was much younger and stood in for the organist at the local Methodist church. The first hymn was by two prolific aesthetic criminals going under the names of Moody and Sankey, and you can just imagine them played by Ronald Fraser and Gordon Gostelow. "I am so glad that Jesus loves me," their little offering went, "Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me. I am so glad that Jesus loves me, Jesus loves even me," and every instinct urged me to tear my clothes off and leap from the organ loft, brandishing a giant phallus like a club and shouting, "Don't be so bloody sure, you smug bastards! I've had your wives! I know your secrets!"

Conflicted? I should say so, but the borne-up-by-invisible-hands stunt had me on my knees within hours. It was daily Mass and the breviary in bed, until I came to what I regard as my sense and decided, once again, that it was all a fable designed to make us feel better about being poor sods who had no idea that things could turn out like this.

But there are two things that continue to puzzle me. Why is it that I still worry that God will be angry with me for being, on impeccable intellectual grounds, an atheist? And why is it that, even though things are pretty OK at the moment, I know for sure that Rome, at Easter, would have me back again, absolute belief surging in my bosom?

I even know the moment when this would happen. It would be at the Good Friday Mass, during the Reproaches, when two choirs sing the simplest threefold invocation to the unnamed God, the holy, the mighty, the immortal. It's a simple petition for mercy, but oh, the words in which it is sung: Agios o Theos: Sanctus Deus. Agios ischyros: Sanctus fortis. Agios athanatos, eleison imas: Sanctus immortalis, miserere nobis. The Greek and the Latin: the two languages from which our civilisation sprung. I read them at my mother's funeral in the depths of this winter, and once again in this last Holy Week of the millennium they would call and answer across the sanctuary. In the words themselves are not only the bones of our language by which we assure ourselves of a tiny immortality every time we write a letter or speak our thoughts to those who will live after us; but also a moment of reconciliation, not just of the Great Schism, but also of the two cultures, the one of contemplation, the other of conquest and power.

In Kosovo they will be mourning their dead by rubble-strewn graves, reconciliation as far away as resurrection. It may seem a foolish moment to feel the power of words, particularly such ancient ones; but when words fail, the bombs fall. Eleison imas; miserere nobis. Happy Easter.