Her father had been a middle-class English gentleman before his revelation. When he understood who he was, he bought a country house somewhere in the West Country and retreated there with a small band of disciples, shutting out the sinful world of schools, taxes, and radio sets.
Several of the disciples were women. In due course it was revealed that they should worship their Lord with body as well as soul. They should bear Him children, a cloud of undefiled witnesses to the approaching end of the world - the Great Day of His Wrath, as the Victorian painter John Martin called it. Whether the women begged to receive this honour or whether they were browbeaten into it, I do not know. The Lord was a man of forceful personality, so it may well have been the latter. Anyway, if you confess a man to be your Creator and Judge it is not easy to repel him when he appears - terrible in flannel pyjamas - by your bed.
His daughter was very thin, with dark hair and large, exhausted eyes. Her mother had finally walked out some months before. When her sense of outrage and her sense of the absurd suddenly coincided, she took her bewildered daughter by the hand, walked to a telephone box and ordered a taxi to the station.
As the train rattled towards Paddington, the girl's mother explained to her in a furious undertone that her father was not God after all, but a monster. This came as an enormous surprise. Aged about 19, she had been brought up to think of herself as a member of the Holy Family and to shun outsiders. As time passed, she was able to accept this collapse of status intellectually. But, at a deeper level, she still felt immortal.
When I called at the flat, to see one of the other occupants, I was often taken to visit her in bed. Propped on pillows, she would smile graciously. A devoted suitor was sometimes there, sadly blowing his nose in a chair by the window. All the efforts of her flatmates to find her a job had come to nothing, not because she was untrained and half-educated but because she could not bear being told to do anything. At the first order from an impertinent mortal, she would make her way to the lifts and slink home.
The siege at Waco, Texas, where David Koresh and his children and disciples took up arms and defied the world, is about another man who decided that he was God. This time the Messiah incited his community to kill and be killed, but the same old pattern is there. First comes the withdrawal from the world and the search for a wilderness: that is no more than the Cistercians did a thousand years ago. But next - the critical step - comes the redefinition of the lay world outside as inherently evil. Even under persecution, Catholic monasticism never went so far. That was left to the radicals of the Reformation, who preached that those chosen by God for salvation, the 'elect', should follow the advice of St Paul and separate themselves from the carnal world ruled by Satan's princes.
Rejecting written laws often leads to rejecting all laws. If you are 'saved', then even your most transient inclination must be blessed by God. Divine grace has liberated you from obedience to external moral laws. This is the well- named 'Holy Willie' syndrome, defined in Burns's verses about a pious Presbyterian hypocrite who is amazed at the sexual escapades into which God pushes him.
The list of Christian cult leaders who have behaved like stud stallions among the brood mares of their congregation is endless. The male Branch Davidians of Waco are required to offer their wives to David Koresh while relapsing into celibacy themselves. In the 16th century, a band of Dutch Anabaptists under Jan of Leyden captured the German city of Munster: the citizens were starved and tortured while the saints set up harems. Gods in Greece and Rome were promiscuous; when monotheism came in, the prophets of the One God quoted the example of Abraham in support of their own polygamy. One of the interesting things about the historical Jesus is that he avoided this sort of thing. He led a tight, persecuted community of disciples who worshipped him as Messiah, but Mrs Matthew, Mrs Mark, Mrs Luke and Mrs John never had any trouble from him. Some trendies claim that this was because he was gay. I think that it was because Jesus actually liked women, as the Gospels show.
We find these promiscuous, con- man Messiahs fascinating. But I often think about the pale girl in the Earls Court flat, and wonder what it is like to believe that you are a child of God and then discover that you are not. Christians do, of course, believe that we are all God's children made in his image. And they know a little about the horror of losing that belief.
There was once a religious young woman called Etty Hillesum, a Jew from Amsterdam who cared for the sick in the holding camp for Dutch Jews at Weeringer Meer. She did not know that they were all waiting to be sent to Auschwitz. But one day the first train rolled into the camp, ready to load up her people, and Etty, looking at the faces of the guards riding on the coach steps, lost her faith in God. These dreadful faces could not be made in God's image; these could not be his children.
The end of the world - fire, darkness and universal death - was close and real for Etty Hillesum. She went to the gas chambers on another train a few weeks later, and her thoughts are known only from the diaries she left in Holland. There is some evidence there that she fought her way back from despair and reconstructed a loving God for herself. I hope so.
When I read her diaries, I understood the young woman in Earls Court a little better. She had been expelled from Eden, where her father walked in the Garden, into a throng of hostile faces who were none of them children of God, none of them her kin or even her species. There was no way back to Eden. When she turned round to look, the gates were chained and rusted, the garden run to weeds, the God her father diminished to a sullen old man shuffling through empty rooms.
So she was alone, trapped for the rest of her life among jostling creatures who did not know that she was different. She was like the sighted man in H G Wells's 'The Country of the Blind'. When they found those strange protuberances on the front of her head, they would pronounce her deformed and take them out. So she fled from the London streets, again and again, and those kind young women she lived with would bring her supper in bed and make tea for her wordless admirer.
I do not know what became of her. But it seems to me that gods, if they are kind, should not have children.Reuse content