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Certain Doubts

Writing as religion

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I don’t believe in God. But I pray to Her every night. And those prayers are writing.

Perhaps all ‘writing’ began as religion, a pre- then post-speech roar of wonder, plea for good hunting or prayer for protection.

Sixty years ago, writing, for me, started as religion. In the ‘Our Father’ recited in Irish by my mother before bed. There was, for a year or two yet, Latin in our parish church. And soon, prayers and hymns at primary school, the refined artistic integrity of those literally communal texts. Rhythm, rhyme, narrative arc, imagistic verve, pace and poise. Improvisation influenced me even more. While the standard of homiletics was not generally high, two priests stood out for their magisterial sermons delivered without notes. Humble and humane, their empathy excluded no one. Even their drolleries were well-judged. And the Jesus joke book is an exceedingly slim volume.

At Saint James of Compostela primary school, the corridors were lined with statues and on feast days candles glowed in alcoves. Each lesson began and ended with the sign of the cross. We were loved and nurtured and indoctrinated. Memorising the Catechism involved grasping the petrifying concepts of Limbo and Purgatory, zones hellish enough even without the infernal pit itself. Preparing for Confession and Confirmation entailed the writing and performing of scripts. When our much-admired head teacher was about to retire, he asked me to make a speech and read a poem. That honour ought to have gone to a pupil in the leaving class, an eleven-year-old, but at eight I composed and presented my encomium. The favour had been asked as we sat between effigies of The Virgin Mary and The Sacred Heart. Mr Lynch’s was the first of many commissions.

At Scout camps during Sunday services, usually outdoors and unaffectedly ecumenical, I heard orators from the Baptist and Evangelical traditions extemporising with a jazz-like genius for the right note. If they could talk writing, so would I. My ability to speak without cue or prompt has provided me with a livelihood as a broadcaster and performer.

I am no shaman seannachie. Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, R. S. Thomas and Ernesto Cardenal were ordained, but most poets are not priests. My miracles are metaphors. The psalmody, secular. Sacraments, merely earthbound signs. But I’d confess to being a celebrant of sorts.

When I am on stage I tend to wear a brushed velvet ‘lucky’ scarf, a sacerdotal stole. A Freudian accessory after the fiction. Some audience members find my manner ‘priestly’. In a ‘good way’, they say! Well, at thirteen I was tempted by the seminary until my mother, unusually, and defying stereotype, forbade it. ‘If you are being called, God will be back in touch after university.’

The Ghostman didn’t ring twice.

But I did hear from Kierkegaard, whose earnest flippancy, fondness for paradox and mordant abjection gave me access to an Absurdist and literary God only reachable by a leap of faith as essential as it was doomed. To the dismal Dane the eighteen-year-old Scot turned, not for theology or philosophy but for writing. I had a vocation after all. It was a calling deep, innate and instinctively followed, but hitherto unrecognised as a bent or practice, far less a prospective career. To combine avocation and vocation, that would be my ambition. Everything suddenly cohered in Kierkegaard. His existential but nonexistent Saviour remains my God.

Nearly, at any rate. For mine has never been a Protestant temperament. A protesting Catholic, I seek succour in the intellectually astringent preaching and internationally renowned singing to be heard at the end of my street in St Mary’s Cathedral. Since this ‘open, inclusive and welcoming’ Episcopal congregation housed in its neogothic West End masterpiece believes itself to be Catholic, just not Roman; of myself, twice a Catholic, I like to quip.

My adolescent sense of vatic formation was inculcated not by the vision or voice of the Almighty communicating with wee me; it announced itself through books.

And what our set texts had to promulgate was sophisticated, their nuances more ravelled for the sceptical discriminations of teachers who, knowing the difference between Greene, Mauriac, Joyce, Camus and the Catechism, taught us to question. It was Christianity as culture and morality that absorbed me. Quattrocento triptychs. Renaissance polyphony. Pasolini’s ‘Gospel’. Beckett. Eliot. Donne. Poetry could be a pulpit.

Only now, looking back at my university studies in Glasgow and later at Cambridge can I discern the thread of religion running through the courses I chose, or Providence ordained. Mediaeval history is religious history. In Drama I was drawn to ontological themes and playwrights. Occasionally I’d jest that the English syllabus had been devised by a Theologian manqué. Milton. Bunyan. Swift. Flannery O’Connor. Seeking (brass) relief from American Divines, in the exquisite churches and chapels of and around Cambridge I read stone, wood and glass like the prophetic literature of Puritan New England.

O me of little faith.

In London, exhilarated and distracted by work in politics and the media, the flow of poetry slackened as did my hankering for the numinous, though the choirs and rood screens of the East End provided the focus for many a Sabbath peregrination.

For a decade I self-identified as a capital A Atheist. Back in Scotland I put my newspaper columns and appearances on the wireless and television at the disposal of shrilly anti-clerical views. Eventually I had, as they say, a change of heart.

I don’t believe in God. But I believe in lots of people who believe in God. God need not exist to be real. So, I call myself a ‘Faithiest’.

For me, ‘God’ is a compound of family tradition, a store of lore, Hibernian culture, immigrant pride, music, architecture, history, philosophy, and theatre as represented by performance, costume, mise en scene, cathartic script, choral antiphon and audience. God is also love, mystery and the greater good around, in and beyond us; the this we really are all in together.

My figment God is not only talked to but spoken with, ‘His’ illusory status explicitly acknowledged even as I anticipate and act upon the responses to my beseechings. For me prayer is conversation. And prayers get answered, even though we are but consciousnesses evolved from stardust. What better material for a writer?

When Cappella Nova commissioned me to write a Christmas carol for their annual midwinter concert I was, sure enough, enthusiastically hesitant: ‘All that’s certain is our doubt…’

In doubt I devoutly believe. Supported solitude has always appealed. With the wandering Irish missionaries bringing the light of learning to Europe in the Dark Ages I have long identified. The scholars’ ‘cells’ that Fellowships have so frequently afforded this latter-day Scotus Vagans in Britain and overseas have nourished the mystic and the monk that coexist with the voluptuary in me.

My poems, songs, films, journalism and criticism have never lost sight of the spiritual. Redemption, forgiveness and atonement are persistent motifs for a scapegrace bard, all too familiar with shame and blame.

The wrongs of religion are many. Theocratic barbarism is deaf to the claims of reason, love, peace or justice. So, what is religion to me? A disposition. A habit of heart. A repository of self-examination. A locus for gratitude. An ethic. An injunction to think of others. A reminder to love, to marvel, to exult. Post-denominational but with a Catholic inflection. Faith is not belief. It is hope.

So, again this evening, the little prayer coracles I nightly launch onto the ebbing epistemological tide will voyage with Colmcille across the Sea of Faith. That was the title of Don Cupitt’s revelatory early eighties BBC television series in which he advocated ‘Godless Christianity’, faith in a wholly human higher power.

Each episode was unimprovably composed, the phrase-making fine, the analysis acute, the evidence forensically cited, the figurative language compelling, the case persuasive. There is no God; thank God!

Writing and Religion.

Writing as religion.

In the beginning was the Word.

It is to that true God I pray.

Filmmaker and translator Donny O’Rourke is the author or editor of several books and albums of songs. A teacher of poetry and film he holds a lifetime Fellowship in the School of Education at Glasgow University.

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