Wednesday, 18 February 2009

903 - In Which I Go All Mulder (1)

As promised, the first of three posts documenting a bunch of weird stuff. This time, a bit of history, including a couple of 'conversion' experiences. Next time, a handful of dreams. Finally, some odd moments to do with intention and prayer.

Readers who know me well will know that after a pretty average child and teenagehood I did a slightly less average (if still, I have to admit, fairly cliche-ed) thing and, at York University, in my first term, threw myself into the pursuit of Christianity. I'd sat in a student kitchen, listening to a Christian Union girl tell us her life story, and a day or so following, had taken a shower during which, looking upwards, I'd experienced something like light breaking into my head and body. The sense that the limits by which I had defined reality up until then had been fractured, was so powerful to me, subjectively, that I sought out the God crowd in an effort, as much as anything, to get back on an even keel.

Over the next six years I pretty much immersed myself in Christianity, proceeding, from active involvement in the Christian Union, to a first year after my English degree in a Catholic religious community with people with learning difficulties; a second attached to a charismatic Baptist church, and a third at an Anglican training college. On the last day at the college, the 'loose canon' tutor who had welcomed me in, and who I respected (and still respect) deeply, looked me in the eye, with my parents present, and told me that one day I would be a vicar.

Immediately after which, back with my parents, I walked from church, from Christianity, the whole kit and caboodle, and spent the next eight years walking. Periodically I would be overwhelmed with a sense of guilt, loss, and fear, which I learnt to deal with by distracting myself, sleeping it off, or allowing my girlfriend, who became my wife, to talk me back down (or up) to earth.

Then, at Christmas 2003, having redefined myself as a librarian and illustrator, I found myself again at my parents' house, with my wife away on the other side of the world. I'd travelled earlier in the day by train and (it doesn't matter about the details) when I went to bed that night I was despairing. I remember pulling the duvet up to my nose and simply lying, no more emotional or intellectual fight in me.

At 3.00am that morning I woke to the sense that I was surrounded and permeated by Love. Here's the part of the story where a Christian might say 'God called me back' or 'I decided to return to the Church'. But I had no sense of demand, simply an impression that whatever could enter my despair and lift it so fully had to be Love, had to be natural; that if there was a God, and God was promising anything other than this, I didn't really want or need it. What I found, what I still find, is the mental, emotional, bodily, spiritual space, proactively, to explore being me, alone and in relationship with wife, family, friends, and all the rest.

I bargained a little, that night. Using the old evangelical language - with which, suddenly, I was at ease, even as I left it behind - I found I could talk the Christian talk; at the same time I had new words, a love of science and cultural analysis, which had given me a home outside this subculture. I decided I'd take the risk that, since it obviously had no problem with my despair, Love would stick with me, and, as I'd survived pretty well for eight years outside institutional religion, would never submerge myself in it again. At the very least, it would freak my wife out. I knew I could go back - if I felt the call, I would - but what a fantastic adventure, instead, to take a chance on something new.

I've read widely since, and more and more I meet people, often from a church background, who are making similar journeys to me. It all seems to tie in with the growth of globalisation, social networking sites, an appreciation of emergent theory, organising without organisation, non-hierarchical thinking. And as well as being very new, very postmodern, these ideas are also pre-Christian, pre-agriculture even: very, very old indeed. There is continuity, and security in them, as well as revolution.

I'd claim the title of vicar for myself, if I didn't prefer the term storymaker. Eight years out of church has been my training and I really, really don't feel the need to jump any more professional hoops. But I remain engaged with Christianity, especially to support those who are uncomfortable within it, or who, having been faced with similar decisions to me, have decided to remain in or return to it.


lunarossa said...

This is very interesting, Steve. If this was not a "call" in the pure meaning of the Christian faith, I think it could be considered as a "call" to go back to a condition/frame of mind in which you felt confident, secure and maybe you had more answers than before. It is a very difficult subject that cannot be discussed in a few lines of comment. But thanks for sharing this experience. Somehow it gives me hope. Ciao. Antonella

Steve Lancaster said...

Thanks, Antonella - you can imagine that as I take this all very seriously (arguably far too seriously), my library is stuffed with books that address the issues it raises, from theological, psychological, anthropological and even neurological standpoints! (Have you ever come across William James' great (and beautifully written) collection of case-studies, 'Varieties of religious Experience'?)

And yet, in a nutshell, it is about peace of mind, shelter in a storm, which I find in the experience I had that night, aged 32. That experience was certainly pre-verbal, and nothing to do with assent to doctrines of any kind. It could simply be a sort of 'reboot', letting go of an increasingly intolerable amount of complexities, and so in that sense a return to an infantile state. The point, perhaps, for me was to realise how good that 'natural' state felt, and how the world did not fall apart when I let go of all the angst. Other than that, it was not about answers. I think the age I was at is important, too - noting it is at around this age that African men are considered finally to have grown up.

I am so glad it gives you hope, as your comment about it does for me. I profoundly believe that talking about these things is worthwhile.

With love,