I like churches.
They are peaceful places, often ancient, often with impressive architectural features, beautifully and admirably constructed.
You can sit down in the cool quiet of a church and say a wordless prayer, offering up a meditation, silently pouring out a woe, receiving peace and strength in return.
And, once, I had a mystical experience in a church. It was in Gloucester cathedral. It was about three years ago, in my pre-pregnant days, and I was there for a little quiet wander, with a friend (although I might as well have been alone as far as this story goes), and with nothing particular in mind.
Then, it came over me – without my quite realising how or when it happened. I felt a sense of quiet awe, of power, of oneness. It was as though as I was there, and not there. A spectator and, at the same time, a participant – in a scene that was both muffled and distant and, at the same time, experienced with extraordinary intensity and clarity. The very stones of the cathedral seemed alive, not literally, but in the sense that I felt I could touch them and commune with them and understand their essence. The silence was solid and clear, and every little noise, magnified a hundred times by the acoustics of the building and by my strangely altered senses, seemed to be both a massive intrusion and, at the same time, an irrelevance. I felt as a transparent vessel, that had been empty, and that was being filled with weightlessness and power.
In short, I met God.
A cousin once said to me that she knew God existed because she had met Him – at the time I thought she was bonkers, but after that day in the cathedral I knew what she meant. Because that is exactly how I felt, too.
So began my third or fourth serious attempt to understand, and perhaps embrace, my native religion. It seemed natural to turn to (Church of England) Christianity since it is the faith in which I was, sort of, raised and since it was in an Anglican Cathedral that I had met the deity. I read some books on aspects of Christianity that puzzled me. I attended church a number of times. I joined in with the prayers.
But it just didn’t work. I mean, intellectually, I can’t prove the truth or falsity of Christianity one way or the other – no more than anyone else can. But it just didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t accord with my deeply held convictions.
For example, the sex/marriage thing makes absolutely no sense to me. (OK, I know we’re not supposed to talk about sex, so I’ll keep this brief.) Why is sex outside marriage immoral? Why is homosexuality an abomination? What’s so great about marriage anyway? I realise that these relationships, these institutions, and the prohibitions which support them, are more or less essential to patriarchy, which thrives on the supremacy of heterosexual monogamy. However, saying that something is good because it supports patriarchy is a bit like saying that something is good because it will help Manchester United win the Premiership next season. It’s only good if Man U is your team. It isn’t good in the absolute way that I demand of ethical law.
More to the point, the more I read about the historical Jesus, the more sceptical I became about his supposed Godliness. A good man, yes: living a good life, and preaching sincerely held views, with compelling ideas about how a life ought to be lived. But not a God. Just a man.
My liking for churches, and my occasional use of meditative prayer, lingers from those days. But my interest in Christianity and in the Church – eternal bastion of God-given patriarchy, nest of bigotry and foolish certainties, source and cause of inordinate suffering – that interest has gone. If anything, my little study has strengthened my dislike and mistrust of religion.
But the mystical moment, that remains. Unexplained.