Faith, hope and the kindness of strangers

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The Independent Culture
LAST MONTH I wrote a rather bleak column, inspired by the death of a friend and the apparently endless illness of my baby, who was in hospital at the time. The week after it appeared, dozens of kind readers sent me letters, offering sympathy and condolences and various suggestions for making things better. I started by trying to reply to everyone, but soon got bogged down, rather like a child with too many thank-you letters to write. So now I'm being lazy, and saying thank-you in this week's column (something my grandmother would never approve of); and also reporting that my baby, Tom, seems much better.

I could hardly bring myself to write that last phrase, because it might be tempting Fate to make him sick again. But as so many readers have pointed out, it is irrational to live in fear of Fate: believing in God, they say, is a better way forward. (And even if I remain forever heathen, at least I'll reap the spiritual benefits bestowed by the 36 Independent on Sunday readers who I now know are praying for me and my family.)

Others suggested that I should start praying for myself, which I already do from time to time; though without the same conviction as one of my correspondents, a Mr Moon from Mid Glamorgan, who wrote that "you are not experiencing the retribution of God but the outworking of Satan upon the human race." His advice was that I should go to a Christian bookshop and purchase a Bible, then read the New Testament, and attend an evangelical church. There is something to be said for this unwavering brand of religion, but unfortunately not for a wishy-washy individual like me. I prefer the approach suggested by an academic in Norwich, who said that going to a Catholic church could be "an opportunity to be left alone . . . I don't know if this will transfigure me; but it does give me a thread in the maze and a compass-bearing in the blizzard."

The majority of letters, in fact, came from Catholics, many of whom were likeably tentative both in their advice and in their own faith. The general tone is best summed up by a well-meaning man in Warwickshire, "a frequent attender of Mass", who offers an acknowledgement of "how difficult it can be to believe in a loving God with the way the world is, but if you don't, then Orwell's vision of a boot stamping on the human face forever does seem to prevail . . ."

Aside from the Catholic letter-writers, there were a number advocating homeopathy (and yes, I did take Tom to see a homeopath, and it did seem to help); an interesting one from a vet, who was concerned about the effects of pesticides on the health of young children; several recommending cranial osteopathy (I tried that, too, with good results); another describing the healing effects of dowsing, which sounded intriguing; a book called Turning the Downside Up, with a note from its author; and a letter from a man called Wilfred De'Ath, who is a Catholic healer, therefore combining the two main elements of those who wrote offering solutions.

The remainder of the letters were from other parents - encouraging letters saying don't despair, you are not alone, we've all endured miserably long winters with sick children. I liked the one from a woman who turns out to live not far from me, who said, "This is the kind of experience that puts metal in a body, and sorts out the women from the girls." (There was also one signed simply "A Grannie", who wrote, "If you have the money, could you employ someone to look after your little ones? It seems our untutored sisters do better at being with infants than we do - dinner ladies, home-help ladies." I was not quite sure how to take this.)

So there you have it: the typical reader of this column, if the letters are anything to go by, is an uncertain Catholic, with an interest in homeopathy and small children. Some of them sound like they could be friends of mine, which is comforting to know. But what most appear to possess, at least on paper, is a degree of faith: in God or human nature.

I wish I could believe in God. In times of extreme despair, I have sat in an empty church and felt a sort of vague comfort; but whether this was from the cold beauty of the stones and the stained-glass windows, or from some more heavenly presence, remains unclear. It's probably easier if you're born into it, like my maternal grandmother. She was sent at the age of four to a Catholic boarding-school, where the nuns told her to fold her arms over her chest when she went to sleep, in case she died in the night. No one told me anything like that: my mother was a lapsed Christian, and my father a revolutionary socialist (though even he seems to have found a version of God in late middle age - he wrote to me from South Africa a few weeks ago saying that he had become a lay reader at his local synagogue and had recently given a sermon on Jewish Existentialism).

There are a few small leaps of faith that I have made: to homeopathy, which has its own comforting rituals (gently shake a little white pill out of a bottle, place it under the patient's tongue, then watch and wait for the magic to work); and also to cranial osteopathy, which seems not unlike the laying on of hands. But part of me remains slightly sceptical, because my friend who died earlier this year had tried every alternative therapy imaginable: Bach flower remedies, homeopathy, crystals, spiritual healing. Nothing worked, and neither did conventional medication. I went to her flat soon after her death. On the kitchen table, she had neatly lined up all those little bottles of hopefulness that had failed her.

That probably sounds like a miserable way to end this column, which it's not meant to be. I'm just trying to explain, to Mr Moon and others, why I cannot yet place my faith in Jesus, nor any other saviour. My belief in human nature, however, has been much fortified by the kindness of many strangers. !

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