My dear old Volvo, about to incur a parking fine in the charming Norfolk market town of Fakenham
MYSTERIES AND MIRACLES
This post was inspired by two recent events in my life. The first was the unlocking of my ageing Volvo from a distance of about thirty yards using the remote control button on the key (normally you have to be more like six inches away) and the second was a funeral.
First the unlocking thing: nothing remarkable about that, you might think – you, I, everybody does it a dozen times a day, every day, without a second thought. Yet if I were to travel back in time (taking my Volvo and its key with me) and demonstrate that feat to my five-year-old self, that scruffy little self would be utterly gobsmacked. It would seem like a miracle – a real miracle – not just some trick which seems baffling until you’re shown how it’s done, like when my great-uncle Lorny made his teeth disappear, horrifying us children until we were told by my mother that he wore dentures and had simply removed them. It would seem miraculous because it employed forces which weren’t fully understood and couldn’t be harnessed to our uses at that time. Yet remotely unlocking a car, using a mobile, having this blog post simultaneously ignored by millions of people all over the planet actually employs forces as natural and logical as that which makes an apple fall from a tree and which are now as familiar to us as the falling of said apple. Most of us still don’t understand them, of course, but we’re prepared to accept that somebody in some hi-tech factory does and to place our lives more and more trustingly in their hands. Those forces are not really miraculous at all. Or are they?
As to the funeral, it took place in the very tasteful chapel of a crematorium but was a first for me as it turned out to be a ‘humanist’ funeral. The charming old lady in the coffin – my aunt-in-law – was not a Christian and nor were her family, so it seemed inappropriate to give her a Christian send-off. Nonetheless, I found it all rather disconcerting at first, as I leafed through the order of service wondering which hymns they’d chosen and finding only a recording of something by Enya – the musical equivalent of very rich chocolate cake covered in honey and topped off with a dollop of syrup. Now, to me a funeral just isn’t a funeral without a few of those dreadful dirges delivered in that agonised, tuneless warble of which we English are such masters before being informed by a beaming vicar that the deceased is being embraced into the love of Christ. For someone raised and educated in the Christian tradition there’s something familiar and reassuring about it even if, like me, you’re a bit lapsed in the old Christianity department. The proceedings were conducted by a very energetic gentleman who described himself as a ‘humanist minister’ and, though he fulfilled his task with warmth, dignity and feeling, he seemed a little vague as to the destination (spiritually-speaking) to which we were dispatching the deceased – not surprisingly, since it’s a subject which invokes vagueness in most of us.
It seemed to me, thinking about it afterwards, that my Christian education and upbringing had presented me with a view of life and death in which our time on earth in human form – subject as we are to the laws of nature – is somehow very material, very pot-bound, very limited and limiting and, of course, all tied up with the idea that we are born sinful. I’ve noticed that the clergy keep a bit quiet about original sin these days as it’s not a very good selling point for Christianity but nonetheless it’s always there, lurking in the background. Images like dust and ashes, common clay and mortal coils abound in the scriptures, and the spirit – which is capable of eternal life – is seen as separate, and separable, from the body which ages, dies and decays. The true life of the spirit which awaits us is something we can only glimpse occasionally beyond our corporeal confinement, through little gaps and apertures – ‘We see through a glass darkly… ’ as St Paul – Jesus’ tireless PR man – wrote to the Corinthians. We achieve eternal life by having faith in the miracle of divine grace. I believe that – particularly with my generation – this is a perception which is deeply embedded in the psyche even of those who claim to have intellectually outgrown religion.
Yet it seems to me that this life, this earth, this universe, is the miracle. The evidence of that is all around us, from the bursting of a seed in spring to the remote unlocking of my ancient Volvo. If an apple detached itself from a tree and went upwards instead of downwards, it might be seen as a miracle, but the fact that it falls to the ground is the real miracle, the fact that the earth and moon and stars and galaxies are bound together in an eternal dance by a force called gravity which is turning out to be stranger than anyone could have imagined.
Human beings will always explore, research and endeavour to explain the unexplainable then harness some of those explanations to practical uses. If my grandchildren or greatgrandchildren (not that I have any yet, I hasten to add) could travel back from fifty or a hundred years in the future, the tricks they could show me would seem mind-bogglingly miraculous to me. Teleporting? Taking a three-hour Ryanair flight to Mars using a wormhole while one’s luggage lands up on Venus? Who knows? Yet mysteries will always remain, even for them. No discovery will ever provide the final answer, only lead on to new questions. Every child of every generation has looked up at the stars and wondered what ultimately happens ‘out there’. How can the universe just go on and on forever – billions upon billions of light years of it? Yet there cannot be some sort of boundary, some perimeter fence around the universe or – even if there could – what would lie beyond that? No one – child or professor of astrophysics armed with a Higgs Boson – can get their head around it (however much they claim they can), yet it now seems to me, at the ripe old age of 65, that it’s fitting that we can’t. It is a mystery and that is how it should remain because mysteries are good.
So what about the destination of the dear old lady disappearing behind the tastefully closing curtains in the crematorium? On the drive home from the funeral, my wife said, ‘I do hope I don’t go to Heaven because I can’t face spending all eternity being criticised by your mother.’ I suggested that things probably didn’t work like that but I wasn’t speaking with any authority. The truth is I have no idea what happens when we die and, to me, anyone who claims to know – and to force that knowledge on others – is not only crassly stupid but guilty of the most dangerous and despicable form of religious dogmatism. Then again, if this earth, and this life, is miraculous, maybe we are not simply extinguished. Maybe something else – something quite unexpected and even rather amazing happens – like my unlocking my Volvo from thirty yards away. Who knows? We just have to have faith in miracles – which should not be difficult since they’re all around us.