Faith: the greater it is, the more unsupported it must be and the more it will force you to operate beyond your senses, with the possible exception of that vague intimation of being watched, of a presence beyond imagining standing much too close behind you with something unnerving in mind.
Or perhaps that last part is just me: the Calvinist heritage, the forty years of not-doing-so-well putting a certain spin on my preconceptions concerning the Beyond. The largest preconception being, of course, that there is a Beyond and that Someone is in it, outside it, omnipresently giving the infinite eternal oversight.
My personal experience of the Beyond and the Something is, of course, intangible, unspeakable. I can only attempt to portray it by traditional means—the illustrative story with accompanying gloss. So this is the story where I climb Mount Sinai.
And it’s a true story: I really did climb Moses’s mountain in the small hours of a clear February night after very little rest and no breakfast. I’d been too cold to sleep and one of my room-mates (life’s character-forming experiences always involve communal and rudimentary sleeping arrangements) had some kind of respiratory infection and managed to breathe over-loudly and squeeze out irritating little coughs throughout the few hours I had to lie and fret about hypothermia.
So I was tired, even before I began the climb, and not bursting with love of my fellow man. I was calling my journey research because that seemed less trivial than travel and less embarrassing than pilgrimage. Still, my attempts to keep things prosaic were already being undermined by the painfully naked stars, the slightly reptilian crests along the type of mountains I seemed to remember from my Children’s Illustrated Bible, or from Tolkien, or from C. S. Lewis: some long-ago, tender place where faith in many things was easier. It began to seem almost churlish not to expect the numinous.
And, in the purely literal sense, I was not alone. The foot of the mountain was thronged with an assortment of nuns, camels, priests, camel-drivers, marshalled groups of Eastern European Orthodox and Korean Christians and straggling mobs of hikers, high-rent crusties, hippies and undecideds. There may also have been a number of spiritual frauds and cowards, much like myself.
The climb (more of a walk, really) took a while: about two hours along a comfortably wide and occasionally steep path that wound between moonlight and shadow, folded along the spine of vertiginous slopes and then tucked itself into clefts. It taught me that nuns are almost invisible at night, that pilgrims are prone to chatter and that camels are remarkably dainty and can follow you soundlessly—although their smell will overwhelm you before there’s any danger of their treading on your heels. Beyond that, I was offered no insights. I had no gloves, so whichever hand I used to hold my torch slowly gave up the ghost and then had to be jammed into my pocket while the other began to freeze. I hadn’t realized I’d need gloves, let alone one of the nifty little head torches that a few of the wiser hikers were sporting. And perhaps I might not have brought them along anyway—a touch of controlled suffering seemed quite in order; comfortable.
Just shy of the summit, the path meets and is then replaced by the last section of the Steps of Repentance—a suitably punishing route built of irregular boulders. This demands scrambling and stamping for ten or fifteen minutes of purging effort. (And is best done in the dark, thus avoiding sight of the litter and soiled toilet paper tucked to either side of the rocks.) I duly scrambled and stamped and reached the usual small satisfaction of an effort ended, or an object achieved, or a series of mild pains concluded.
The summit was moderately and quietly, crowded. I bought a glass of chocolate from a little stall—odd to smell something so close to familiar in such strange air: each breath dry, clarifying, lively. After my exertions, the chocolate tasted especially fine. The glass was cracked and the liquid was gritty, but this only improved it. I sipped and wandered about, padded round space blankets and huddles of sleeping bags where people had spent the night aloft. People smoked—not always tobacco—there was quiet talk, anticipation, groups and individuals just sitting, or standing, waiting. It was easy to tell which way was east: among the brown and dim jumble of sandy soil and rock, everyone was facing the same direction, as if the sun were already here.
And if I was going to have an epiphany, it should have happened then. I was light-headed, I was undistracted, I was a person of Christian upbringing in a place of biblical significance and a glory was beginning to unfold—a holy and unholy glow of blue that was rolling out ghost upon ghost of mountains, an ocean of misted shapes, and everyone intent around me. I felt that first piercing of sunlight, that lick of whitegold over a sense of the earth’s curve and all of us, everyone, felt this together and somebody started to fly a kite in the shape of an eagle—all we could hear, the flutter of this eagle—and colours now, an absurd generosity of colours: layering purples, crimsons, yellows and each new tone seeming to add a new solidity to the range of peaks below us—as if the earth were not quite formed and now it was beginning, becoming itself—and the Korean Christians were singing hymns: simple, gentle hymns—and surely to God this was more than enough to create what I need for a Sign, a Revelation, a Hint, a Clue—and the world shone, warmed, brimmed up to meet me, changing and changing and never anything but lovely.
No Sign, though. No epiphany. Nothing.
So I gave up.
I even moved away a little: at least shifted my feet, scuffled a bit.
And I no longer expected anything at all.
Which is, of course, when it happened. A swoop of feeling dropped into me like some kind of phantom piano and I dropped with it to my knees and was, naturally, crying—and for a moment, just a moment, filled with being not alone and with joy and with the awareness of a very large sense of humour.
So where is the lesson in this? We can take the psychological option—and say that having determined I would have a spiritual experience, I managed to, once I’d relaxed enough. Hardly a lesson there: to say that someone who decides to do something will then do it. We can take the medical option—sleep-deprived person almost faints. Even less inspiring. Plus, when I was younger, much younger, I would now and then be taken by a view, an angle of light, some detail of nature that would tap me down on to my kneecaps for a while. All very mild, but not unheard of and no prior expectation necessary. And going without food and sleep?—never makes me faint—it’s more my standard operating procedure. No, the lesson has to be spiritual—the old, old tiring axiom that when all hope is lost, that when we despair and then pass beyond despairing, Aid from Someone Beyond will duly arrive.
And I don’t deny that can be true. We’ve all known times when we’ve beaten our heads against walls of one kind or another until we’re sick of it and stop—at which point the other option emerges, or the better alternative becomes clear, a sense of mercy perhaps becomes tangible for a moment—and possibly the cosmic Sense of Humour that lets us educate ourselves, because no one could do it more brutally.
But, of course, it isn’t always true. The people we love can still die, or go away. Our hopes cannot all be fulfilled. Sometimes we leave the beating and the wall and we are rewarded with silence, emptiness, another wall, a different beating. And there’s no point playing the game of right, now I really give up, now I really am letting go and commending myself to Your care. That care includes cancer, house fires, betrayal and pre-emptive war.
Here I am: forty, childless and alone, perpetually alone—but the same person who fell to her knees for joy at the sight of a landscape. I was made with a capacity for joy. Now I keep low on sleep and food because it means I feel less and I no longer care if I’ve given up or not, because I know it makes no difference. And beyond me are the people with real problems: a world of apocalypses and quiet lives that try to bind themselves round wounds that seem not only savage, but perverse.
My story tells me that Someone demands I should give up all expectation and surrender to the bone. Sometimes this will be rewarded with the colour of a love I’ll never know—a view into the nature I won’t fulfil. Always this will remind me of the monumental Trickster behind creation, the one who overloads coincidence, who works on a scale where mercy is a terror and life is a pantomime of blood and wonder. It’s a story of the last laugh—when we find out that no matter what we do or don’t abandon, no matter how accepting or rebellious we are, in the end we all lose everything.