Not losing your religion, finding it

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Easter deadlines. Everything has to be done early; then it all stops, then catches up again in a panic. For you, it's all over; for me, it's Maundy Thursday, everything yet to come, the brain bubbling as I try to get to grips.

With what? I don't know; all I know is that there's something I'm not getting to grips with, and it's worst around this time of year. Down in the Oratory they are chanting the liturgy of the Easter triduum: the gorgeous seductions of the great Masses, like a Fra Angelico Madonna dripping with love and rubies. And the cool sweet austerities of Tenebrae each morning: the priests sitting almost domestically in the sanctuary, like men at God's fireside, mourning with him. No aesthetic joys here, no decoration, no jewels or drops of blood. Some are old men, others hoarse or out of tune; yet there they sit, singing a love-song to their God: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum.

We live in harsh days, and there are times when there seems nothing at all which is safe and secure. The builders are beating hell out of the house next door in a riot of thick-lipped cursing and terrible arse-cleft, making it smart for a lawyer to live in.

To keep out the racket of thrashing destruction, two little Japanese plugs in my ears are playing Jill Feldman and Isabelle Poulenard singing Couperin: the Easter Day motet Victoria Christo resurgenti, and it's almost unbearably beautiful, so that I want to pause it to stop it ending, to get my breath back, to burst into tears, to smile like a fool, to die. It's not just their two voices twining around each other like every cheap lesbian sex-show fantasy you've ever had (which isn't as many as me, I bet), nor is it the drenching beauty of Couperin's music, saturated in absolute grace like an exhalation of spikenard, musk and chypre. Nor is it the words which make me weep and smile and dissolve, nor the text, nor that nonsense about God - excuse me? - or the wild-eyed rabbi, Yeshua bar-Yussuf (aka the Christ), a sort of barking Palestinian Swampy with knobs on; we don't believe in that stuff, we rational men, not in these harsh days; we aren't falling for it; what do you take us for? Fools?

So what is it, then?

I haven't read Standard Easter Newspaper Homily #310(a) this year, but I bet it was there somewhere. It always is. You know the one, where some well-meaning divine speculates about the way in which Christ shared not only in our sufferings but even in our despair. Course he did. Didn't he say so, on the cross? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Hah. Open your Bibles. Now. Just do it. Find the Psalms: number 21 if you're a proper Catholic, 22 if you're C of E. What do you see? Precisely. "My God, my God ... "

As a rational man, in these harsh times, I suspect revisionism, software piracy, reverse engineering, cheating. Someone spotted that the psalm fitted the situation uncannily well and put the words in poor old Jesus's mouth. The other possibility, of course, is that he himself spotted the connection. And picture the scene: there they are, gathered around the rubbish-dump on the outskirts of Yeroshayalim. There's their man, dying. Cracked lips, parched throat, Messiae extrema passio, manages to croak out the first line; they all look at each other, then, like a football crowd, the penny drops. Well-brought-up Jews, they know the psalms by heart. One by one, they join in as the Davidian poem builds from despair through defiance to a shimmering golden chorus of utter triumphalism. The poor dumb xenophobic illiterate Roman squaddies on guard-duty must have been scared silly, thirteen hundred miles from home in a strange rock-strewn country with alien gods and disobliging women. What was going on with these sodding barbarians? What the hell was it with them?

What was it, then? What is it?

What I cannot get to grips with is the question I am trying to ask myself. I cannot formulate it. It's not a hunger for certainty; I have never been attracted to certainty, which strikes me as a joyless and unaccommodating state of mind. Nor is it a yearning for the safety of childhood; it was my quietly agnostic parents, not some looming vigilant God, who offered security then. Nor is it even an aesthetic response to 2,000 years of Vatican stagecraft designed to lure the homme moyen sensuel into the mysteries of the numinous. If that were the case, art would do the trick, opera would do it, any of the great artistic constructions of our civilisation would push the buttons, raise the heartbeat and get the tears flowing.

Perhaps the trouble is that we only acknowledge two categories of phenomena now, distinguished by the scientific test: is it provable? Most of the things which are important to us are unaddressable in that way. Is lunch true? Is music true, or the scent of a warm friendly woman, or a comfortable bed late at night, or finding yourself smiling when you thought you wouldn't do it again? Above all, above all, is love true? It moves us, drags us across continents and out of political office, it can ruin us financially and destroy our lives, it is what we look back upon when we lie in the jaws of death, but is it true?

The question is meaningless, as meaningless as the famous Chomsky test- phrase "colourless green ideas sleep furiously", syntactically immaculate but semantically void. Perhaps my own self-indulgent Easter passion, this annual Gethsemane of jittery, fearful rationalism, is simply about this: that the minor but politically astute Jewish sect in which I was raised, and which gave birth, despite fear and despotism, to the greatest art that the world has ever known, was in the end, like the scratchy, husky chants of Tenebrae, a love-song which for 2,000 years has been sung to people as yet unborn, saying: Look! Look what a species we are, what we have done, what we will yet do! Aren't we glorious? Well; yes; we are. Even the builders. We are amazing. Dear God, we are.