Faith in a matchbox
Updated: Apr 28, 2021
We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow…
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
It never occurred to me that my faith might be transformed. Faith was set in stone, it was a given, something with hard fixed edges, not blurred and permeable at the boundaries. It consisted of a set of beliefs that were irrefutable and nonnegotiable and if you didn’t believe in them, then you would die.
But I’m entering a universe now where black is white and white is black. Where beliefs can be reconfigured. Where belief is an active verb, subject to change and can embrace all sorts of conditions. Belief which doesn’t have to conform. Belief which is elastic and can stretch to include those like me who hover around the margins, looking in.
Now I often rail and rant at the messages I was fed as a child, and it is undeniable that most of them were damaging and untrue. I was taught about a God who would love me if I was good enough, a capricious God who could only be appeased by works, a God who would destroy me if I didn’t obey. A male God, a white God, an omnipotent God who used his omnipotence to wield absolute power. A God to be afraid of. A God to hide from. A God whose attention it was best never to attract. A God who I was made to believe in, but in whom I had no faith at all.
I am twelve years old and singing in the choir in my local parish church. We have left the fundamentalist church and my parents, unreachable, ferocious in their disappointment that their evangelical mission has collapsed, have taken refuge in the wooden pews of their childhood memories. Being musical, I soon offer myself for the choir, a motley bunch led by confirmed bachelor, Mr Wilson, dressed in a black shiny ill-fitting suit with a musty whiff about him. He stands at the front of practices, vigorously waving his right hand and barking ‘THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD. AMEN,’ and we dutifully follow his flow. His aged mother is in the ranks of the altos and is keeping a beady eye. It is whispered that ‘Brian’ is totally under her thumb and as she, a backseat driver is conducting from the second row, there is no doubt as to who is really in charge.
But I am glad to be here. I like the feeling of belonging. I like knowing there is something I can do in a group well, as I’m not very good at being in groups in any other way. I stick out like a sore thumb at school with my unfashionable clothes and my complete lack of knowledge of anything deemed ‘worldly.’ I do here too, but here they are a tad more accepting than the girls at my grammar school.
Every Sunday, we don our robes in the vestry ready for the morning service. The women and girls wear an ecclesiastical purple cape with voluminous sleeves and a white cravat at the neck. This is topped off by a matching hat which resembles a mortar board and perches unsteadily on top of the head, held in place by Kirby grips. The men and boys get away with a plain black cassock and a white surplice, the boys sporting a white ruff at the neck like a picture Christmas card.
This is an Anglican church but of the bumping-along-the -ground low evangelical variety, so has no truck with graven images, genuflecting, signs of the cross or The Eucharist taking centre stage in the weekly pattern of services. Every Sunday is the same, Morning and Evening Prayer so there are no surprises. And the same canticles to the same chants are sung each time. But it is singing and I belong and I love it. I sit in the front pew of the choir stalls week in, week out, singing the Te Deum, the Jubilate, the Venite, Magnificat, Nunc Dimmitis and the words settle themselves into my psyche and become as familiar to me as my school timetable and my teacher’s names.
The single grain is planted.
Then as I grew older, I began to feel a stirring inside. I was growing up, physically at least and beginning to sprout buds of breasts and hair in unexpected places, but this was another sort of awakening. I was woefully lagging behind my peers in social and emotional milestones, and it would be a long long time before I managed any sort of catch-up. But this was a spiritual arousal. The words began to come alive for me and dance. The name of Jesus sent a small thrill down my spine. I began to question if I was as dead as I thought I was, as outside the city wall as I’d always felt, as unredeemed, unsaved as I’d always assumed.
I couldn’t talk about this. The ladies of the choir certainly would have been slightly alarmed at any such revelations and the vicar was unapproachable, a remote figure in his grey wool suit and a white dog collar so big it looked like a dinner plate encircling his neck. I certainly couldn’t talk to my parents because they would wonder where I had been with God all this time and I couldn’t admit that I’d never talked to him.
Now, I am reading the first principle. It talks of the need for sacrifice and renunciation in my life – not exactly snappy little bon mots doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment. What can I sacrifice I wonder? What can I renounce without coming over all sanctimonious and worrying my husband that I’m going to start wearing a hair shirt and eating locusts?
And I am put in mind of this little grain of wheat of faith which I discovered in my church choir and hid away in a matchbox all those years because I didn’t know what to do with it. It felt far too scary to do anything, so it was much easier to tell all Christians to just naff off and leave me alone thanks very much.
Maybe I need to renounce my image of God? I wonder - even if that sounds like a line from ‘Wolf Hall’ complete with a fetid cell and Thomas More hunkered over a flickering candle.
My priest-friend sits opposite me. We talk about God. I tell her that I envy people who think there is any point in talking to God. It’s okay - she doesn’t mind.
‘You have to let something go in order to find a Being you want a relationship with,’ she replies. ‘You’re not going to have relationship with the kind of God that was preached about in your church. You need to find a Being you do want.’
This is radical stuff.
‘The only way to grow is to leave behind the church you had as a child. Throw it out and do your own thing.’
But if I throw it out, I wonder, what will be left?
‘What kind of God do you want?’ asks my priest-friend.
I recite my wish list.
‘Tangible, present, dependable, humorous, kind, loving, not judgemental, not critical, not condemning’…
‘So why can’t you have that God?’ she asks. ‘That God is beginning to be formed in your head. You begin to create that God within you and then you find the God you need.’
I tell her I want to believe that but it might not be true.
‘Faith is the bit you can’t prove,’ she tells me. ‘But work on assumption that it’s the best option. The God you grew up with certainly wasn’t the best option. Are you willing to tolerate the discomfort of being where you are, of not knowing, of not being sure, of questioning?’
‘I don’t have the faith.’ I tell her.
‘If you believe that this is only place you can be – that’s a kind of faith,’ she replies.
And I realise that she is right. I take out my matchbox and look at my tiny grain of belief. And I know I can’t keep it there and however painful it might be, I have to let it grow.
And so I begin, by turning away from God and then turning back. That’s my transformation, my renunciation. I have to let the light steal into my matchbox.
And decide, as Alfred Tennyson says, to let this beam in darkness, grow.