“For the beautiful is nothing other than the onset Of what is terrifying. “ Rilke
I was eight years old when I killed the family dog on a warm Good Friday in early April.
The night before I’d lain in bed and said prayers in my head. The usual rushed Our Father and Hail Mary and childish petitions for the health and well-being of my family and our pets and a final appeal for world peace. Only on that evening I made a minor addendum. ‘God,’ I pleaded. ‘Please don’t make me have to go to Good Friday mass tomorrow.’
It was a mass I had come to dread. An onerous, morbid affair full of the teary-eyed devout and reluctant children like me who’d been bodily dragged there by their mostly immigrant parents who only did so out of fealty to their own far-off folks or for some old-world notion that had been instilled in them when they were kids themselves. There would be a phalanx of spinsters and widowed old Italian women dressed in black who knelt at their pews and loudly wept into handkerchiefs. At one point we would all be corralled up the centre aisle and expected to kneel and kiss the cross on the altar steps. Kiss the cross after an entire congregations’ lips had already done so! That alone was enough to make me spend the weeks leading up to it steeped in a fug of anxious dread.
My plan was not to mention it. I figured if I made no allusion to the mass then perhaps my parents would forget and indeed, they seemed to because when I left the house shortly after lunch on Friday, to play street hockey with the Reid boys across the road, they made no reference to my having to be ready for mass by 2:30.
I was never a talented hockey player, but on that day, I proved even more inept, distractedly checking my Timex digital watch as I frequently was. My father left to take Simba the family Labrador for a walk in the ravine. And then, not long after, my mother followed, off somewhere in our white Volvo station wagon.
Lo and behold my tactics worked. 2:30 rolled around and there was no summons to go inside and get changed for church. I hadn’t even noticed my parents return so they must have clean forgot all about it. 3:00, 3:15, 4:00. It was an easter miracle. Haha! Even my hockey playing improved then, though that is not saying much. Despite the resounding defeat my team suffered, mostly at my hands, I felt flushed with victory when I was called for supper in the early evening.
Little was said as we ate. I was smug with hubris but managed to hold my tongue lest I provoked some dread response from my parents who appeared, for a change, rather taciturn. My sister ate across from me, quiet and sullen and absorbed in her own internal machinations. When we were finished my mother cleared the plates and then came back and sat down at the table which I thought was peculiar.
‘Children,’ she said, and she looked across the table to my father who gave her a grave nod. ‘We have something to tell you.’ And her voice cracked here.
‘Simba died today. She had a heart attack when she was walking with your father in the ravine.’
Died! Dead! How could that be? She was only eight. Just the evening before my sister and I had dressed her up in the ‘dress-up’ clothes we kept in a box under the basement stairs, and she had taken it all in her good-natured stride and slept beneath my bed as she always did. I got up and went to the kitchen where her food and water bowl were kept, beneath the old black rotary phone that was mounted on the wall, but the bowls had already been removed and that’s when grief whoomph-ed me in the chest like the blow-back from a gas oven that’s been left on and then lit. It wasn’t just that she was gone, or that I had prayed not to go to mass and this is how my wish was granted, it was that I hadn’t even noticed she was gone in the first place.
She had collapsed in the ravine. In the days before cell phones my father had to gather her up in his arms, which was no easy feat (she was, like many other Labradors and despite the rigorous exercise she got, bless her, a bit of a heffalump) and he had to carry her up the steep hill to Chorley Park in Rosedale, himself a stranger to rigorous exercise and a smoker of 25 odd years, and then knock on a strangers door to ask if he could use their phone to call my mum which is when she took off in the Volvo.
They rushed Simba to a 24-hour animal hospital. My father drove and my mum was in the back seat with Simba’s head in her lap. She said that Simba looked up at her once and their eyes locked briefly and that something beautiful and familiar was communicated between them, but then she slipped away. That night my father came to say goodnight to me as I lay in bed. It was the first time I ever saw tears in his eyes.
I was aware that I was responsible for this, though I would not admit it to anyone for many years. I had effectively, though unknowingly, put a hit out on our family dog and God had whacked her to teach me a lesson. To show me what an awful, ungrateful, and inconsiderate kid I was. And while I acknowledged my complicity, I couldn’t understand how the God I was taught I should love in Sunday school could have done this. Been so spiteful; so duplicitous, cruel and malign. It was here that the first crack in the bastion of my faith appeared. Regardless of his power I wanted no truck with a god who would do as this one had done. As I got older, larger cracks would appear across that façade. Then great rends. More and more, as I read and learned, Catholicism seemed to me purely a tool to terrify us children into obeisance and suppress our adolescent erections. And then, when I was 17, I read James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and the whole fucking wall came crashing down.
Is there a God spot in our brain? Scientists say they have located it in the parietal cortex which is located near the centre of the brain just above the temporal lobe. This is where, they say, spiritual experiences and religious phenomenon occur.
In my early twenties, when I was living in the UK, Canongate Press issued the ‘Pocket Canons’ which were pocket-sized reproductions of individual books from the King James Bible, each with an introduction by a well-known author or public figure. Louis De Bernieres, A.S Byatt, Doris Lessing, A.N Wilson and Nick Cave among them. Nick Cave, of whom I was and am still a great fan, wrote an introduction to the Gospel of Mark. It was a great idea and a pleasure to read those texts outside of the flimsy paged bibles I knew with their infinitesimal texts. I went to see the writers all read their intros at St. James Church on Piccadilly. I was standing before the entrance to the main hall when I turned and saw Nick Cave as he passed inside the enormous wood doors and entered the church exhaling a plume of smoke from a just-discarded cigarette. He was, as ever immaculately tailored and he strode his mantis-legged stride through the antechamber and into the barrel-vaulted nave, as impressive and impassive and tall as the Corinthian columns which flanked him. He stared straight ahead, his brow knitted tightly and a look of such menace on his face as though he were some vengeful wraith sent to wreak havoc straight from the pages of Revelations.
A few weeks ago, I saw an older Nick Cave and his musical compadre Warren Ellis perform at Massey Hall. He has mellowed in his older age and gone is the rancour and Old Testament violence and imagery of his earlier work. As they took the stage and eased into their first number, my arms bristled with goose flesh and the hair on my hackles rose. I know endorphins are created in the hypothalamus and in the pituitary gland and that they are the bodies response to stress and danger but also to pleasure and to beauty. But is that what this was? Or could it be that God spot scientists wrote of? The same thing the fervent feel. Granted it had been some time since I had been to see a concert and experienced music among so many other devotees. But could this be the same feeling the early desert monks experienced in the throes of their quiet ecstasies. The thing that made Augustine confess and Theresa of Avila swoon. Was it a heightened form of this that makes the born-agains babble and drivel and flail? That causes fanatics to detonate themselves and do other awful things. A sense of tremendous well-being overcame me, and oddly, I was struck by the sudden and peculiar notion that dying might not be so bad and after all isn’t that what Catholicism and much of Christianity and other world religions purport to be, an antidote to death or what James Agee called the paralyzing breath of eternal darkness.
Don’t think this feeling is unique. I have been lucky to experience it a lot but less and less as I grow older and certainly not where religion is concerned. I have felt it at other concerts and in the cinema, in art galleries around the world and on countless runs in the wilderness and of course when I read. Warren Zevon, as he lay dying from Mesothelioma, read from Rilke’s Duieno Elegies regularly as he said they afforded him great comfort in his dwindling hours. I experienced that god spot only the other day when I read a passage from a new translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson.
‘Athena called a favorable wind,
pure Zephyr whistling on wine-dark sea.
Telemachus commanded his companions
to seize the rigging; so they did, and raised
the pine-wood mast inside the rounded block
and bound it down with forestays round about,
and raised the bright white sails with leather ropes.
Wind blew the middle sail; the purple wave
was splashing loudly round the moving keel.
The goddess rode the waves and smoothed the way.
The quick black ship held steady, so they fastened
the tackle down, and filled their cups with wine.
They poured libations to the deathless gods,
especially to the bright-eyed child of Zeus.
All through the night till dawn the ship sailed on.
It was around the time of those ‘pocket canons’ that I had a dream which, at the time, I thought quite profound. In it, I entered an old tower. I closed a heavy wooden door behind me. Inside the narrow space was a stone spiral staircase and scrawled in an earthy red pastel on the wall before me were the words, THIS WAY TO GOD followed by an arrow pointing up. I began to climb round and round and up and up. The light was dim and wobbled like it were torchlit, but I could see no means of illumination be it manmade or natural (there were no windows in that place). The walls were made of large grey bricks, and they had a greenish tinge and were damp with condensation. My legs wearied but every so often I would be reminded the reason for my labours by those words and the arrow pointing up, THIS WAY TO GOD. Finally, I came to the top step. Roughly 20 feet above my head was the ceiling from which protruded sharp spikes made of some lustrous and adamantine metal that winked malignly in the half light. I stood there for a time confused when suddenly there was a blinding flash, and my world was inverted. I was left dangling by one hand from that top, damp step, suspended above those awful spikes. I did not have the strength to pull myself up. My fingers began to slip.
I tend to agree with Larkin’s assessment that religion is ‘a vast, musical moth-eaten brocade invented to pretend we never die.’ I’m ok with that, after all, death is terrifying to most of us. But those malicious and terribly human-sounding Gods Homer wrote of could also, as we can, be kind and merciful, as is shown above when Athena came to the aid of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. So too could the god of the New Testament unlike his counterpart in the Old who, as Louis De Bernieres wrote in his introduction to the Book of Job, should be summoned down to earth to stand trial for crimes against humanity. And while gods are as Homer said ‘deathless’ we most certainly are not, nor are good-natured family dogs as was illustrated to me so cruelly those many years ago. And perhaps each of you, as I most definitely am, are just seeking that ‘god spot,’ wherever it is we may find it.