I’ve been reading Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. The author, Francis Spufford, is an Anglican, and the experience of faith he describes is just the way it has felt, intuitively, to me since my mid-teens. The book is a defence of Christian emotions, of their intelligibility and their grown-up dignity (to quote the blurb).
The most valuable chapter for me is the third, Big Daddy, in which he describes what he experiences when he prays/meditates/sits. I’ve never read anyone who has managed to describe the intensity and elusiveness of the contemplative moment so well. He writes:
“I’m talking about a movement through or out of shape altogether, yet not into vacuum, not into emptiness, no further away than the thickness of everything, which feels now as if, in this direction that can’t be stated, it is no thickness at all.”
Exactly – or rather, uncertainly, inexactly or mystically….
“Some medium in which the journey my attention’s been taking, towards greater and greater solidity, richer and richer presence, reaches an absolute.”
“… there seems to be flow itself.”
“… the shining something, an infinitesimal distance away out of the universe, is breathing in me and through me …”
“… it’s on a scale that defeats imagining and exists without location (or exists in all locations at once) …”
“I am being looked at. I am being known; known in some wholly accurate and complete way that is only possible when the point of view is not another local self in the world but glows in the whole medium in which I live and move. I am being seen from inside, but without any of my own illusions.”
Reading back what he has written, Spufford writes of his contemplative experience:
“I fear I’ve turned it into an effect, a special effect in prose, controlled by me. It wasn’t one, and it wasn’t controlled by me. It was a shimmer of sensation. One of those seems a flimsy foundation to rest anything on, let alone a huge and ponderous thing like organised religion: two thousand years of Christian ideas and stories and practices making a vast stone pyramid, all balanced upside down on its point, on a fulcrum of mere feeling. It doesn’t seem much on which to build an institution. It doesn’t seem much to rest a way of living on. But that’s the way it is. The whole thing is – has to be – uncertain right down to the root.”
I could quote more from this chapter. Spufford writes in a way that captures what it feels like for me to be deeply spiritual in the core of my body and emotions, and to be a member of a church which isn’t only unwelcoming to me because of my sexuality but fails, most of the time, to share my spiritual experience – except amongst the liminal people. Reading Unapologetic has been hugely affirming and reassuring. I’m not mad – someone has written about my experience.
I know many of you reading this will be haunted by the Biblical literalist, fundamentalist strand of today’s Anglicanism which is holding leaders in the Church of England and individuals who don’t conform to their demanding, law-bound God. Some of you will have freed yourself from the fundamentalist asylum that is how we sometimes experience the CofE by leaving, abandoning your local church and any involvement with the institution. I can fully understand why – better to be sane and emotionally healthy. I’m addicted to trying to change the institution from the inside, trying in to drag this reluctant monster to absorb the infinite love and generosity of God rather than the mean-spirited fixations of the anti-gay anti-women caucuses.
Later, in Chapter 7, The International League of the Guilty, Part Two, Spufford writes about human sexuality, with equally inspiring and reassuring effect, and I’ll give you a sample of what he says tomorrow.