The calm in a church is not denial. It’s an ancient, imperturbable lack of surprise. To any conceivable act you might have committed, the building is set up only to say, ah, so you have, so you did; yes. Would you like to sit down? I sit down. I shut my eyes.
Churches are vessels of hush, as well as everything else they are, and when I block out the distractions of vision, the silence is almost shockingly loud. It sings in my ears. Well, no; metaphors are inevitable here but we might as well try to use them accurately, and to prune out the implications we don’t want. The silence has no tune. It doesn’t sing. It hisses; it whines thinly at a high constant pitch, as if the world had a background note we don’t usually hear. It crackles like the empty grooves at the end of a vinyl record, when the song is over and all that’s left to hear is the null track of the medium itself. Which is welcome, because it’s the unending song of my self that I’ve come in here to get a break from. I breathe in, I breathe out. I breathe in, I breathe out. I breathe in, I breathe out; noticing the action of my lungs swelling and compressing, swelling and compressing, much more than I usually do, and so far as I have to have something to concentrate on I concentrate on that, just that, the in and out of my breath, trying to think of nothing else but the air moving. I do my best to step away from my thoughts when they come, and they do come, I’m not trying to clamp them down. Every so often I find I’ve strayed off from the breathing along some loop of associations or memories, and that’s fine. When I find that that’s what I’m doing, I step away from the thought-loop, I leave it be, back to the simple process of breath. I know my whole lumpy, complicated, half-known self is still there, but I’m not trying to put it in order; I’m not trying to arrange it flatteringly, so that it tells some creditable story of me, or – just as bad, just as effortful – unflatteringly, so that it neatly accuses me. I’m deliberately abandoning the enterprise of making sense of myself. I breathe in, I breathe out. The silence hisses, neither expectantly nor unexpectantly.
And in it I start to pick out more and more noises that were too quiet for me to have attended to them before. I become intensely aware of small things happening in the space around me that I can’t see. I hear a bluebottle blundering by somewhere above. I hear the door sigh open, sigh closed. I hear the creak of wood as someone else settles into a pew. I hear the intermittent murmur of a conversation going on in the vestry. I hear the sailcloth flap of a single piece of paper being turned over up in the organ loft. I start to hear things outside the church too. A passing plane. A bird in a tree. A car’s ignition coughing awake. The patter-tap, patter-tap of a leafy branch the breeze is brushing against one of the windows. Two street drinkers arguing. Far-off motorway roar I must hear all the time and cancel from consciousness usually. Layer upon layer of near sounds and far sounds, stopping and starting according to no score, none of them predictable by me, none of them under my control. The audio assemblage of the world getting along perfectly well without me. The world sounding the same as it did before I was born, the same as it will do after I’m dead.
I expand. Not seeing, I feel the close grain of the hardwood I’m sitting on, the gritty solidity of the stone pillar my arm touches. I feel their real weight, I sense the labour that made them, I know their separateness from me. My mind moves outwards, to the real substances of things that are not-me beyond the church walls. I feel the churchyard grass, repeating million-fold the soft green spire of each blade, the tarmac of the road compressed like cold varnished chewing-gum, the scratchy roughness of each red suburban brick. Out and out, the streets of the town unreeling fast and faster into the particular pattern of fields beyond; the viridian tie-dye of those fields seen from above, and receding, higher and higher; the island, seen whole in mottled greens and browns; the limb of the planet, shining in electric blue; the ash-coloured moon; the boiling chemical clouds of the gas giants; the shining pinprick of our star; the radiant drift of the Western Spiral Arm; the plughole spin of one galaxy; the flying splotches of others, uncountably many, flinging out into a darkness which is itself expanding; and all, all of it, as locally real and solid and intricate as the time-darkened, bottom-polished oak plank beneath me. Breathe in, breathe out. Yes, time. Expand again, not from this particular place but this particular moment, this perch on one real instant in the flood of real instants. Breathe in, breathe out. Day opens the daisies, sucks carbon into every leaf, toasts the land, raises moisture as clouds. Night closes flowers, throws the protein switch for rest in mobile creatures, condenses dew, pulls the winds that day has pushed. Breathe. Dark cycles into light, light cycles into dark again as the earth turns, and this cycle measured in hours spins inside others timed in weeks and years and aeons, building a nested spirograph of change of which the world is made as truly as it’s made of matter organised in a sphere. The fields flash green-yellow-brown with the seasons. The forests ebb and flow. The hills themselves melt like wax. The ice advances and retreats, ocean covers this spot with sunlit shallows or anoxic black depths. The carbon fixed by a trillion tiny swimmers hardens as limestone and erodes gently to gas again. Natural selection whittles new creatures from old with its blunt knife. And it’s all real. The moments that happen already to have happened were as capacious, as strutted and braced with true existence, as this one in which I am momentarily sitting here, and the moments which happen not to have happened yet will be in their turn as truly and encompassingly the one single existent entire state of things, just for a moment. This instant at which I sit is as narrow a slice of the reality of the whole as a hairline crack would be in a pavement that reaches to the stars. The real immensities of time and of space merge; are – always were – the same real immensity.
But now it gets indescribable. Now I register something that precedes all this manifold immensity that is not-me and yet is real; something makes itself felt from beyond or behind or beneath it all. What can ‘beyond’ or ‘behind’ or ‘beneath’ mean, when all possible directions or dimensions are already included in the sum of what is so? I don’t know. I’ve only got metaphors to work with, and this is where metaphor, which compares one existing thing to another thing, is being asked to reach beyond its competence. Beyond, again: but I’m not talking about movement through or out of any of the shapes of existing things. I’m talking about a movement through or out of shape altogether, yet not into vacuum, not into emptiness. Into fullness rather. Into an adjacent fullness, no further away than the thickness of everything, which feels now as if, in this direction that can’t be stated, it is no thickness at all. It feels as if, considered this way, every solid thing is as thin as a film in its particular being, and is backed onto some medium in which the journey my attention’s been taking, toward greater and greater solidity, richer and richer presence, reaches an absolute. What’s in front is real; what’s behind is the reason for it being real, the source of its realness. Beyond, behind, beneath all solid things there seems to be solidity. Behind, beneath, beyond all changes, all wheeling and whirring processes, all flows, there seems to be flow itself. And though I’m in the dark behind my closed eyelids, and light is part of the everything it feels as if I’m feeling beyond, so can only be a metaphor here, it seems to shine, this universal backing to things, with lightless light, or dark light; choose your paradox. It feels as if everything is backed with light, everything floats on a sea of light, everything is just a surface feature of the light. And that includes me. Every tricky thing I am, my sprawling piles of memories and secrets and misunderstandings, float on the sea; are local corrugations and whorls with the limitless light just behind. And now I’ve forgotten to breathe, because the shining something, an infinitesimal distance away out of the universe, is breathing in me and through me, and though the experience is grand beyond my powers to convey, it’s not impersonal. Someone, not something, is here. Though it’s on a scale that defeats imagining and exists without location (or exists in all locations at once) I feel what I feel when there’s someone beside me. I am being looked at. I am being known; known in some wholly accurate and complete way that is only possible when the point of view is not another local self in the world but glows in the whole medium in which I live and move. I am being seen from inside, but without any of my own illusions. I am being seen from behind, beneath, beyond. I am being read by what I am made of.
On one level I can feel that this is absolutely safe. A parent’s safe hold is nothing compared to this. I’m being carried on the universe’s shoulder. But on another level, it’s terrifying. Being screened off by my separateness is all I know in my dealings with somebodies who look at me. This is utterly exposed. And while it may be safe, it is not kind in one of the primary ways in which human beings set about being kind to each other. It takes no account, at all, of my illusions about myself. It lays me out, roofless, wall-less, worse than naked. It knows where my kindness comes chequered with secret cruelties or mockeries. It knows where my love comes with reservations. It knows where I hate, and fear, and despise. It knows what I indulge in. It knows what parasitic colonies of habit I have allowed to form in me. It knows the best of me, which may well be not what I am proud of, and the worst of me, which is not what it has occurred to me to be ashamed of. It knows what I have forgotten. It knows all this, and it shines at me. In fact it never stops shining. It is continuous, this attention it pays. I cannot make it turn away. But I can turn away from it, easily; all I have to do is to stop listening to the gentle, unendingly patient call it stitches through the fabric of everything there is. It compels nothing, so all I have to do is stop paying attention. And I do, after not very long. I can’t bear, for very long at once, to be seen like that. To be seen like that is judgement in itself. As a long-ago letter writer put it, someone who clearly went where I’ve just been, it is terrible to fall into the hands of the living God. Only, to be seen like that is forgiveness too – or at any rate, the essential beginning of forgiveness; and when I come back from the place where the metaphors end, and the light behind light shines, and I open my eyes in the quiet church, for a little while everything I see glows as if it were lamp lit from inside, and every flowing particle of the whole gleams in its separate grains; gleams as if it were treasured.
This is an extract from Francis Spufford’s book, ‘Unapolgetic; Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense’ available now from Faber and Faber.
Image by weblux, stock.xchng images.