Faith & Reason: The Samaritan on the road to Luton

Three major religious festivals occur this week - in the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian calendars. But in our multi- cultural age it is perhaps time for a secular fourth
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The Independent Culture
THE CALENDAR of world religions is a crowded seaway. Festivals great and small sit nose to tail like cruisers plying a busy shipping lane. And it is premium time for sailings right now.

As one school of Buddhism prepares for Nirvana Day on Monday to mark the passing away from this world of the religion's founder, Gautama Buddha, Hindus are the same day getting set for Great Shiva Night, said to be the date on which Shiva the Destroyer performs the cosmic dance from creation to destruction. In addition this is the week in which Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday when the physical and spiritual discipline of Lent begins. But is there space for another festival in such a full programme? Perhaps. Just perhaps.

At least that's what came into my head this week during a chilly Monday morning rush hour on the (largely) unsympathetic streets of south London. That's when I figured I might just have witnessed the Descent of the Dove at the junction of Blackshaw Road and Maybury Street and thought the experience worth commemorating. Let me explain.

We had set off, my son and I, late for school. Not hugely late, to be fair, but late enough - it being on the first day of his exams - to raise the nervousness quotient from medium to high, given that 25 miles of unpredictable traffic along suburban roads and Home Counties freeway lay ahead. Given, too, that my trusted but tired Escort is showing signs of age.

On Monday, though, it played by the rules and we set off with reasonable hopes of making up time. Minutes into the journey our hopes were dashed as the eternal law of cause and effect - second-hand karma - kicked in and the offside rear tyre burst. John and I didn't hear the pop but soon became aware of the subsequent, deafening thunder of metal on metal which sounded like, well . . . Great Shiva Night.

Ignoring the heads (by now rotating in formation) of passers-by looking in appalled fascination at the source of the din, I slackened my funerary pace still further and, somewhere north of Luton, came to rest in a side street. It was here that my problems really began.

I got out and, like a weary man preparing for a half-marathon, readied myself for the task ahead. As I stood by the immobilised assembly of rubber, metal, glass and plastic that had, minutes earlier, passed itself off convincingly as a vehicle, I looked around and saw for myself, in the faces of drivers, passengers and pedestrians alike, the cosmic indifference of those who have towards those who have not. Solzhenitsyn's semi-fictional Ivan Denisovich puts his finger on it when he says from his Arctic labour camp that a man who is warm cannot possibly imagine what it is like to be cold.

No matter, though, I thought (nervousness levels rising from high to severe), just change the wheel and get on with it. I went through the usual tedious, dirty rigmarole of hauling out the spare, lying fully clothed on the road to position the jack before summoning the kind of explosive energy you really should not have to deploy in peacetime. But having thrice deployed it I hit against another of the unchanging laws of the cosmos doubtless prefigured in the emerging religions of the Indus Valley some 4,000 years ago. I couldn't loosen the fourth nut.

Widening my son's vocabulary by the minute, I persevered to no avail. As the nervousness factor now crept into the red, I realised we were on our own. Abandoned to our fate we were going nowhere. Instead, mired in the kind of helplessness from which philosophies and religions are born, I was forced to recognise my need, my simple reliance on something utterly outside myself.

As drivers passed, each one eyed this pathetic spectacle with an impassivity bordering on the psychotic. To be honest, I thought I saw a flicker of concern in them all. But, caught up in their own nervous timetable, they too were unable or unwilling to stop and help. Then, in a moment as glorious as it was unexpected, something unusual happened. Across the road a car was slowing down and a youngish lad of the hard school who under different circumstances - notably after dark - would have suggested trouble wound down his window and asked after my well-being. Yes, he had a decent wheel brace: yes, he was prepared to get out and lend the muscle power; yes, in short, he would help.

My hand on his shoulder could not convey the gratitude I felt as he took his leave - a Rastafarian composite of the Lone Ranger and the Angel Gabriel squeezing into a red VW. I felt genuine affection, too, with more than a touch of shame and guilt at my readiness, under those "different circumstances", to sum him up and draw unreliable conclusions about his character.

There and then I resolved to inaugurate an addition to the festival calendar. It is to be known as Samaritan's Day, to be celebrated every 24 hours all year round, by all faiths and none, in recognition of those undeserved moments of transcendent ordinariness which confound our prejudice and, against all the odds, persuade us that life is not all bad. Also known in the non-Christian world as Dependence Day, it would remind us that what we have we share, and what we give we receive.

Any chance, do you think, it might catch on?