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It used to be easy to believe in God. All I had to do was look up at the clouds drifting overhead or watch some amazing sunset and the whole idea of there being a God seemed self evident, though quite what I imagined God to be I’m not sure. When I was very young I used to imagine a benevolent old man with a white beard peering down on my every move below. As I grew older the gender issue kicked in. Did God have a penis? If so, why? If not, then how could God be considered male?
My early school days were spent in the bosom of Church of England schools, or Anglican as we now refer to them. We recited the Lord’s Prayer and sang hymns daily and were indoctrinated with the notion that heaven was somehow like a beautiful English garden filled with woolly lambs and kindly people bearing good will to each other. Looking back now I’m rather appreciative of the fact that we were never force fed all the hellfire and brimstone nonsense. The God I got to know back then was a kindly and benevolent fellow who loved us all very much.
Down the road from our house was a beautiful old church around which was the most picturesque graveyard imaginable. Nestled amongst sycamores, oaks and ash trees and ringed by banks of hydrangeas and a profusion of seasonal flowers, it was a place I used to visit often. The various inscriptions on the headstones described people who had ‘passed away’, ‘fallen asleep’ or were now ‘resting with the Lord’. The fact that there were bodies buried below never troubled me. Rather, I felt a odd sort of kinship with the past and those who had lived in the village before me.
Maybe it was because I was told that Jesus was the son of God that I imagined God to be a He, although when I enquired about a Mrs. God I invariably drew stern or bemused stares along with the occasional guffaw. What I never got was a satisfactory answer. Still, at the tender age of six or seven such questions didn’t trouble me for long. Sometimes I would imagine Mary standing just behind and a little to the left of God as he peered down at me from heaven. And for me heaven was unquestionably somewhere high above the clouds.
I was baptised twice as an infant. The first time was in the church at the end of the road, the one with the wonderful graveyard. The second time was in a spiritualist church. My first middle name was given to me in honour of Uncle Les, a close friend of Mum and Dad. My second middle name, according to my mother, was given to me because that’s what was alleged to have been my real name in the spirit world.
My other two middle names were add-ons that I chose for myself as a boy a few years later.
One of the things that originally drew my parents together was a common interest in what was referred to in the family as ‘psychics’. Dad used to run a Spiritualist church while Mum dabbled in hypnotism. Both of them had an almost obsessive interest in finding out what was on ‘the other side’. They regularly organised or participated in séances, tarot readings and hypnosis sessions in much the same way others might organise dinner parties, although by the time I appeared on the scene these activities had tapered off somewhat. Nevertheless, the conversation around the dinner table was rarely dull.
Another preoccupation of my father was ‘the Sacred Tarot’. Long before such things were fashionable Dad used to generate a nice little income on the side doing long-distance readings for clients all over the world. People would write requesting insight, he would retreat into his little office and take out his set of Egyptian cards that no one had ever touched (except for me when I snuck into his office one day with the sole intention of doing just that) and proceed to dispense written advice and insight into the lives of others.
My dad the fortune teller. Ho hum!
Then there were the explorations into past life regression with my eldest sister. This involved one of Dad’s friends putting my then 14 year old sister into trances from which she produced detailed descriptions of her alleged former lives, naming places, people and events that everyone insisted she couldn’t possibly know about. These were subsequently documented and published in some of the psychic journals that my father wrote for at the time as irrefutable evidence of reincarnation.
As for my sister, she herself dismissed such claims many years later, saying she’d made the whole lot up to keep them happy.
Then there was the I Am movement.
I remember the moment when sitting aged 12 in the back of the car, completely immersed in Lobsang Rampa’s ‘Living With the Lama’, a book purportedly written by a Siamese cat and channelled through the author who himself claimed to be a Tibetan monk who had occupied the body of a West County plumber who no longer wanted his body – did you get all that? – when Mum turned to Dad and solemnly declared, “I think he’s ready for the I Am books.”
Something in her tone told me this was going to be something big.
The I Am in a nutshell: all the great visionaries who have ever lived – Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, to name but a few, are all ‘ascended masters’ who in 1933 chose one Guy Ballard to reveal the new world order to via one Comte de Saint-Germain. As with all good religions it claimed to supersede all others in its wake with the promise of uniting the entire world under its guidance in the wonderful new America of the future. Its centrepiece was the process of positive affirmations, the primary one being “I Am” along with the all-healing power of love and forgiveness.
My early years growing up on the Isle of Wight were sheltered ones, and once we moved to the satellite city of Elizabeth in South Australia I was about as far from the epicentre of the world as it was possible to get. In the absence of anyone to challenge such beliefs I bought into the I Am material unreservedly. And to be fair the influence it exerted on me was not all bad. Long before discovering Norman Peale I was training myself to use my mind constructively and to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.
The ultimate goal of one associated with the I Am was to make one’s ascension to God within this lifetime, thereby avoiding the bother of endless reincarnation. Everyone supposedly made the ascension at some stage of their evolution no matter how evil. It was simply a question of how many lives it took to do so. To make the ascension one had to be completely selfless, forego such earthly preoccupations as sex (except for procreation) and become one with God; no small feat for a pubescent teenager with raging hormones growing up in the suburban anonymity of Elizabeth, South Australia.
To be fair, the influence of the I Am was not necessarily a negative one. It was as close to religious certainty as I’d ever managed to get, which isn’t to suggest I walked around in proselytizing everyone I met. Rather, what I recall are fleeting moments of connectedness with life and the world around me. It provided me with my first experience of being able to step outside myself and see others not as other but as part of something much bigger to which we were all inextricably linked; an awareness of the inherent beauty and mysteriousness of life.
There was also a load of claptrap associated with the I Am movement, like the assertion that the centre of the sun was cold and that spiritual beings resided there in a sacred temple. It all culminated a few years later when, re-branded as the Brotherhood of Light, a date was given for an imminent catastrophe of global proportions that would decimate countless millions which some in my family took very seriously. Needless to say the cosmic moment came and went without incident, after which the I Am and the Brotherhood of Light became consigned to the family history bin.
After the I Am I developed a keen interest in Buddhism, or at least what I thought I knew about it. This largely due to the influence of my sister’s father-in-law who, before I discovered he was a serial child molester like my father, impressed me with his long and meaningful discourses on the meaning of life and the life of Buddha. He later donned the saffron robe and decamped to Thailand, thus avoiding any subsequent charges of paedophilia that may have been brought against him, where he remained until ill-health forced him back to England where he later died.
It was the non-judgmental character of Buddhism as much as its central tenets that attracted me, although I never really got beyond more than a surface appreciation of what it was all about. Like many teenagers who dabble in such matters I latched onto those bits that seemed relevant to me and pretty much ignored all the rest. During my mid-teens I had more pressing issues to contend with as relations within the family became ever more strained due to circumstances beyond the scope of these entries. Nonetheless, it served to anchor me at a time of intense teenage angst.
While my early years growing up on the Isle of Wight were positively idyllic my teenage years growing up in South Australia were more complicated. Not only was my growing awareness of my sexuality was at odds with the homophobic environment in which I lived but also with my understanding of what religion in general and Christianity in particular demanded. It was a conflict that was to rage on within me for years, despite coming out at 16 to family and friends. It would be a long time before I reached the state of equilibrium that I would later achieve.
Whenever the conversation turns to religion I often liken myself to a lapsed Catholic. Reincarnation? Communication with the dead? Numerology and tarot cards? Psychometry? Past life regression? Channelling spiritual beings? Pah! I come from a family steeped in it. We’ve even had a family exorcism. Hence my numbing disinterest in all matters supernatural. I spent years dreading the arrival of July 1999 but in the end Nostradamus got it wrong. Which isn’t to say I lost interest in metaphysics per se (I loved
The Tao of Physics
), just the narrow, pedestrian, sensationalist variety that plays to people’s insecurities and fears.
Looking back on it all now, my parents were pretty smug about their beliefs. In essence, they believed that Christianity had some of the answers but that they themselves were privy to a greater knowledge of the nature of reality that was somehow reserved for the select few. It’s an attitude I inevitably picked up as a teenager; a groundless sense of superiority born of a narrow, limited view of the world masquerading as broad-mindedness. Had I read more widely and been exposed to a more robust and intellectually challenging environment I might have been less susceptible to such foibles.
I was in my final year of high school when, unannounced, our teachers filed us all into a lecture theatre to be shown Peter Watkins’ terrifyingly authentic 1965 docu-drama
The War Game
about a nuclear strike on Britain. Totally unprepared for what we were about to see, it left me scarred for years afterwards. The utter madness of nuclear war and the ease with which it could occur, combined with my then growing awareness that at any moment the planet and everything on it could be annihilated, left me feeling more depressed than I had ever felt in my life.
I didn’t hear the storm approaching. It was one of those hot, dry nights when we all used to sleep with the blinds up and the windows wide open. I awoke to a blinding flash and the loudest explosion I’d ever heard. I immediately assumed it was a nuclear strike. Howling with incomprehension and rage I stumbled out into the hallway where my parents came running out of their room to see what all the commotion was about. It was only then that it dawned on me it had been a thunderstorm. To this day thunder still makes me nervous.
I spent much of my youth dreading the end of the world. Granted, South Australia is about as far away from the world’s hot-spots as one can get but because we lived near a highly secretive government weapons research facility, in cold war terms it meant we were a likely nuclear target. Such dread affected not only my sense of security, or lack of it, and my outlook on the future; it also posed serious questions about what kind of God, if indeed one existed, could allow such a thing to happen. It just didn’t make sense.
It still doesn’t.
One of the ways I got over my dread of nuclear annihilation was Transcendental Meditation, which during the mid 70s in Australia had a real surge of popularity. I was attracted by the warmth of the people who ran the TM Centre as well as the Centre itself which was housed in a gracious Victorian dwelling, long since demolished, in North Adelaide, South Australia. TM allowed me to find a place within myself that was hopeful, optimistic and altogether more poised, graceful and still. Though rarely practised nowadays, I still have periods when a few weeks meditation restore my equilibrium.
Mum always used to say that things went in threes. I'm not particularly superstitious but it is a pattern I’ve noticed myself, especially when it comes to air disasters. So it was therefore with a macabre relief that I read about the Iranian airbus that came down a little while ago, the third in as many weeks. It means I can rest just a little easier as I hurtle at heart stopping speed and height around the globe. I’ve often wondered what my final thoughts might be in the unlikely event of a plane crash. They’d probably be unprintable here.
After my father died and was cremated I can remember thinking how weird it was that I could search every corner of the globe and I wouldn’t be able to find him. It wasn’t simply that he was dead; it was that he had completely ceased to exist. All other issues about him aside, which were many, my preoccupying thought was about how he’d spent so much of his life trying to figure out “what was on the other side”. Now he knew. Or did he? What proof was there that anything of him remained in his long imagined hereafter?
If we never died I wonder whether the issue of God would ever have arisen? Why is it that human societies feel a need to believe in a supreme being? There are many responses to such a question, I know, but just in the way that comfort can breed complacency when it comes to religion, what impact might immortality have? My dad’s first wife died; hence me. Hence many things in fact. But for all his subsequent sins, to lose a wife in your mid-20s would prompt a great deal of soul searching and questioning about life beyond the grave.
I reached a point in life where I simply lost interest in the whole life after death issue. As for God, I guess the very fact that I spell the word with a capital G means I have some sense of something beyond what our senses and/or intellect can grasp. Whether that means we survive the grave however, who can say? People always ask where do we go after we die but how many stop to wonder where we were before we were born? Yes, the idea of nothingness is unnerving, but it’s not like we haven’t been there before.
The fact of the matter is we all change. Joni was right. Everything comes and goes: fashions, friends; faith: it’s just the way things are. Nothing remains the same for ever. I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago. Which isn’t to say that life doesn’t have its constants; rather, the things that remain do so in the face of change and allow for it. The love that stands the test of time is a love that acknowledges and embraces change. The tree that bends with the wind is stronger because of its flexibility. Change and growth – they’re synonymous.
I’ve just learnt that a former friend and colleague with whom I worked in Melbourne recently passed away. She was two days short of her 60th birthday. The older we get the more we start to hear about things like this. Her name was Jenny and together we ran the art department at one of Melbourne’s most prestigious schools. A beautiful, gentle soul, she brought a light, colourful air to the classroom and was held in high regard by her students. And despite all I’ve written thus far it does beg the question: where does all that beautiful energy go?
Today is the last time on the planet when I can still claim to be in my forties. Tomorrow at 7:07am Greenwich Mean Time I turn 50. That’s 4:07pm here in Melbourne. I’m not unduly concerned about it. I’ve had a few cards already and the number 50 is not so scary. To be honest I’m feeling quite positive. Half a century is no small achievement. Nonetheless there is a sobering side to knowing that, to mix my metaphors, so much time has passed under the bridge. “The moving finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on . . .”
Oh, how very true . . .
I don’t believe we are capable of knowing what God is, anymore than mosquitoes are capable of understanding quantum physics. Our presence in the scheme of things is too fleeting, our brain capacity too limited and under-developed. It’s simply not within the realm of our capacity to do so, which is why I have little time for those who presume to lord it over others when it comes to matters of faith. I don’t believe in a God of vengeance or a God who has favourites. It’s simply too narrow a view of the incomprehensible vastness of all that is.
The Tip Jar