Updated: Apr 28, 2021
The beating heart of the universe is holy joy
Recently I saw a cartoon depicting God as a smiley Labrador seated on an ornate throne, his tongue hanging out, panting with delight. The caption reads, ‘The joyful, loving, eternally forgiving nature of dogs never tipped you off'?
Those words - ‘joyful’, ‘loving’, ‘forgiving’, have been suspiciously absent from my God vocabulary for most of my life. Especially ‘joyful’.
Here are some phrases I never heard growing up in a fundamentalist church:
· Fancy a a swift half?
· How about a game of cards?
· What’s your star sign?
· Shall we go to the pictures?
· Would you like a Scotch?
· Want a ticket for the Grand National?
· An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walked into a bar…
· I like your nail varnish.
Now there’s no doubt that some of the people in this church were good and godly. It’s just that they didn’t have much fun. Their idea of fun was a belter of an evening singing choruses around the piano of a Saturday night, or an in-depth debate on the finer points of Leviticus. They would insist that they were ‘not of the world.’ ‘The world’ was dangerous you see, and liable to tempt the unwary into unrighteous ways which would never do.
The trouble with being ‘not of the world’ is that it stops you enjoying yourself. Activities which Joe Public see as entirely normal such as going into town at the weekend for a cheeky few, dancing to the Top Forty, or even less controversially, a night at the flicks with the latest James Bond were all verboten in Real Christian Land. As was a smidgeon of lipstick for the ladies or a dress that revealed too much of her assets for the gentlemen, just in case it excited them with impure thoughts. You had to find your pleasures where you could and as these were all centred on the church, they were hard to find. No wonder the first LP I bought as a teenager was the’ Greatest Hits of Val Doonican’ (although he did have a rather daring line in sweaters).
So these Christians were terrified to look over their shoulders in case they saw something they shouldn’t. Their litanies were based on black and white, saved and lost, in and out, world and not-world.
But what kind of a religion is it that tells little kids that they don’t belong in this world? Where else was I supposed to be? On Sundays in our little wooden church, I sang a la Dolly Parton…
‘This world is not my home/I’m just a passin’ through/My treasures are laid up/Somewhere beyond the blue/ The angels beckoned me/From heaven’s golden shore/ And I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.’
(Sung to a nifty little tune that sounded a bit like Chas and Dave.)
And then I went off to school on Mondays and played in the playground and ate my school dinner and tried to make friends knowing all the time that it was pointless because I belonged somewhere else.
I am about six and sitting in one of our interminable church meetings. We are working our way through the repertoire of choruses which I know by heart. We bounce into a jolly little ditty:
'I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart'!
Whereupon all kids present have to shout, ‘WHERE?’
‘Down in my heart,’ sings back the congregation,
And we dutifully holler,
And back comes the answer,
'DOWN IN MY HEART'!
and we resignedly shout the same question thinking that all grown-ups must be deaf.
Now there may be some of you out there who have picked up that I may be just a tad cross about all this. That my early experiences of God were based on fear. That he was some sort of bogey-man who would throw me into outer darkness if I didn’t jump high enough through his hoops in exactly the right order. And if you grow up not daring to enjoy yourself in case God will be mad at you – it doesn’t make for much of a joyful relationship with God. Does it?
You see, it's hard to feel joyful when you're scared stiff. The two don't go together, even in the Bible. ‘Perfect love casts out fear,’ it says in John's epistle, and he'd knocked around enough with Jesus to know what he was talking about.
So, this principle is saying that Franciscans ‘delight in fun and laughter, rejoicing in God’s world, it’s beauty and its living creatures, calling nothing common and unclean.’ And that makes my heart dance and my soul sing. I feel I can breathe. I feel I can stretch out my arms and take huge lungfuls of clean fresh air. I can chance a connection with a God who won’t reject me as soon as look at me for my sinfulness, but invite me in gently, knowing that I am very weak and very fallible and very frightened. And this is a God who doesn’t get off on people being scared. This is a God of love who wants me to be joyful.
So, I was asked, what brings me to life? What makes me joyful? What helps me to feel in touch with this new God, this God who wants the best for me?
And I know I need space. I need something different.
I slip in the back of the Cathedral.
At the Cathedral I have an outside chance of not being noticed and being entirely anonymous which feels like the only safe option. The Cathedral congregation is transient, fluid, itinerant and apart from a civil ‘hello’ at the end of the morning Eucharist, no-one makes much approach or asks me how long I have been a Christian. (On once being asked that by a very eager beaver at an evangelical jamboree, I replied, 'How long’s a piece of string?' which tells you why I had problems fitting in most of the time). But gradually I begin to ease up, take in my surroundings and make tentative overtures to some of the more regular members of the Cathedral community. They talk to me about things like where I live, my kids and how I used to have a naughty dog called Rolo, rather than making earnest enquiries about my eternal odds.
It's the singing I fall in love with though. Every week, beautiful music is just there for the taking. I settle myself into a pew, the organ rolls and thunders and I am away, on a magical musical mystery tour that I look forward to more week after week. I don’t have to do anything. I just have to be there and let the wonderful wave of notes and words wash over me without anyone asking me why I’m not something I can’t be.
This is where I want to be.
It took me three years to pluck up the courage to audition for the choir, but eventually I got there and took my place with the sopranos in my cassock and surplice for the morning Eucharist. The sun was streaming through the plain glass of the high windows, the atmosphere was calm and expectant as I stood alert and ready for our cue, and began to sing music that made me want to fold up inside and weep for its beauty. And for that moment, I felt happy. I felt as if I belonged. I wasn’t trying to fit in, or please anyone. I fitted.
And I felt pure joy. Down in my heart.