Tonight, as the ageing preacher-man prepares to meander down into the darkly-curtained realms of sleep, he knows he has just a few more rounds of prayer to go and then he will find his way to a room where his wife is already softly breathing under the warmth and stillness of blankets. It always amazes him that she somehow makes sleep look and feel like some kind of romantic and beautiful place to ‘go’ and ‘stay’ until the sun returns in the morning—as if she was visiting an old friend; whereas he has spent half his life attempting to avoid it as if it were some nagging interrupter.
He walks out into his night garden where tiny buds gleam on the hard, wiry branches of a small grove of severely pruned ‘almost-stump’ plums, their few remaining blossoms catching rays of moonlight like miniature L.E.D’s stuck on spidery black ropes. Not that this is a surprise, for the change of seasons has been much heralded by faint swellings on the tight skinned boughs, which he has enjoyed touching on the darkest and coldest of nights. Even the earth underfoot seems softer tonight.
It is with some misgiving that he pictures these cold, crisp nights softening into the glow of spring. Not that he dislikes the change, but it reminds him of how much he enjoys the edgy personality of a freezing winter’s day when some flapping gust of wind hardens the tips of goose bumps and forces the coat up around the ears. He imagines Vivaldi (the red priest) and virtuoso, standing with his violin at the chin in a freezing gale with red hair flaming as he belts out the brittle, quivering notes of his famous ode to the Cold One. The right amount of chill-factor, it seems, was made for human flesh to truly enjoy and even to adore.
Weeks later he is still thinking about the chill, the buds and the cold, when the thought of adoration comes straight to him again from a line in a William Blake poem: ‘Thy own humanity learn to adore18.’ Blake in turn makes him think of an Anne Rice interview he has been reading in which she speaks of the human impulse to cherish and to adore human flesh. ‘What other religions believe about the evil of the flesh,’ she says, ‘is in many ways more shocking than what Christianity holds about it.’19
As a preacher, he has taken a deep interest in Anne the Vampire Lady’s rage about religion’s gross contempt for the physical world, for he knows that she speaks on behalf of billions of other perplexed people with and without faith. He also knows that the God he worships shares the outrage and he suspects that Anne has conveyed this deeply and intuitively in her vampire books: none of which he has read.
Further along in the interview (which is book-length) Anne acknowledges she now believes in God but doesn’t know exactly what this means. But the preacher—having already read a later book of hers—knows that in the two years following this uncertain confession, Anne was subtly and tantalisingly wooed in what might be described as a divine love affair akin to the sensual categories of Saint Francis or the mytho-poeic insight of Chesterton when he wrote, ‘I tore you from the old red hills and in tearing made you free … you can be all things other, you cannot be a slave.’ ‘I thought, something is pursuing me,’ Anne said. ‘Something is happening.’20
As wonderful as it was to read this god-encounter, the preacher feels vaguely embarrassed that Anne reached this moment only after decades of heart-searching and wading through mountains of confusing doctrine, which was generated by his fellow believers. The saga of her journey makes him wonder even at himself and some of the dumb things he has done and said in his own efforts at representing God to the world. ‘You grow up being taught that the flesh is bad,’ Anne tells her interviewer on page 148. ‘The world, the flesh and the devil, those are your enemies.’
Inwardly he groans at the fact that no one seems to have taken the trouble to explain to her that this statement is not to be found in the bible but that it grew out of a corrupt translation of a term that is best translated as ‘lower nature,’ or even ‘shadow self’, which is well described in a scene from Phantastes, one of the preacher’s favourite books. He wonders whether Anne—with her love of gothic—might have even read it herself and delighted in the trueness to life of this portrayal of the problem as MacDonald depicts it:
‘I looked around over my shoulder and there on the ground lay a black shadow, the size of a man. It was so dark that I could see it in the dim light of the lamp, which shone full upon it, apparently without thinning at all the intensity of its hue.
“I told you,” said the woman, “you had better not look into that closet.”
“What is it?” I said, with a growing sense of horror.
“It is only your shadow that has found you,” she replied. “Everybody’s shadow is ranging up and down looking for him. I believe you call it by a different name in your world: yours has found you as every person’s is almost certain to do who looks into that closet …”22
The preacher knows that this awful moment of remorse-filled shadow attachment is followed by a long quest filled with great wrestles, astonishing discoveries and even joy, which in-part answers the question that he and Anne and multitudes of others have raised about the woes of Christendom: ‘Is this the jury finally coming in and saying that after all this time it’s proven to be a crock?’ ‘No,’ the voice of the ancient muse seems to reply. ‘It is as it always has been: the blood of gods courses in the veins of men and there will be no apologies, and great joy and great trouble.’
Like Anne, when the preacher was young he feared that the dark and cold churches were right: god was in fact the stern cook and cop of civilisation, the gate-crasher on all flesh and fun. But then, as he had tentatively waded through an entire library of books called ‘The Bible’, and followed that (for several years) with various other sacred books, all advocating their own versions of ‘how to fix the problem’, which inevitably blamed ‘the flesh’ as the culprit, he was relieved to find himself one day reading a psalm in which some man and his god were celebrating loudly with wine and oil and music and delighting in being fully human.
‘Yes!’ this god seemed to shout back at the preacher’s head-ful of responsible wonderings, ‘Yes this world is a mess, but I love it!’
‘This is my kind of god,’ the preacher thought. ‘The true mother-father of us all.’
Tonight the preacher fondly remembers this as a strong and clear ‘jury-coming-in’ moment, in which God asserted an incurably human sympathy and desire to join in on the human party and all it’s troubles. As brazenly stated in John’s gospel, ‘The word became flesh.’
‘You are such “a hedonist at heart,”21‘ the preacher murmurs as he looks for a cheerful glass of something to celebrate his luck before he joins his wife in the mysterious room of bed clothes, slumber and happiness. Then as he’s falling off to sleep he relishes the thought that just as it is said in the Greek myths, he is related to a god after all and the blood of that god courses in his veins.
18The Everlasting Gospel: William Blake