The Cure for Sleep: Faith
Season 1, 010: Turning towards & away from belief, from belonging
“A sublimely written account of refusing to be defined by social constructs and embracing life-enhancing change, The Cure for Sleep is a poignant and inspiring slice of literary memoir”
We have reached the penultimate advance extract from The Cure For Sleep - and it is a little longer than usual, by way of an end of year thank you to all of you in this growing story-sharing community.
The December issue concerns faith: a time when I turned towards and then away from belief (and the belonging it might have bestowed).
After reading, do share a short true tale of your own - no more than 300 words – on this theme in the comments section. Do you have a faith? In what ways has it been tested, or tempered? Has the religion of your place or people sustained you as you have grown or gone away, or did you choose to leave it?
Read the Season One stories contributed by readers over on The Cure For Sleep website: bedtime stories | memory games | bonding | choosing | promises | size & shape | time | desire | regret | faith | rebirth
So many years after the near-death, it was only now that I’d begun to read books on faith and consider whether my dream life – with its insistent vision of grace offered and refused across a threshold – had been pointing me in the right direction all along.
Of all the unlocked churches in the surrounding area, only that one was free of the smells and shadows which always had me turn away, hackles raised, at their entrance. (Used to the Methodist chapels of my childhood – bread plain, barn simple – the buildings of this region were too dark, too rich for my instincts.) And even here, in this airiest one, the idea of ever attending a Sunday service remained both remote and oppressive, but I’d started to call in on weekdays before or after my time among the birds on the Beacon.
Much as I’d been as a child when asking Mother to take me to my great-aunts and elderly neighbours, only to have exhausted my interest within moments: how I was there usually. I’d play a few chords on the guitar left out in the children’s corner, or run my fingers along the kneeling cushions stitched with otters, hares and herons, then go.
But on this day, I’d come to sit on the vestry floor and think, looking up at the blue and gold light of its bright John Piper window. Homage to William Blake’s Book of Job. Broken sun, crescent moon. Sheep lying asleep underneath, with only one that has its eyes open, looking out.
Job 28:12. But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?
The Bible in my hand was pocket-sized with a cracked spine and its coloured illustrations coming loose. Among the things I’d carried away from Granny Shadrick’s house, I took it for the only scraps of her handwriting I could find before leaving there forever: her mother’s month and year of death, recorded in blue ink on the inside cover.
But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?
There I sat, feeling stupid to be preoccupied by such unworldly things when outside I could hear a tractor reversing, and a delivery lorry unloading by the brewing company, and the blacksmith at her work. Everybody busy with the business of living.
Effort hadn’t cured me. Love hadn’t. The peace and clear purpose I had been searching for, and was trying now simply to live without. Might I find it here, after everything?
Faith and farming. Sermons, singing and the tending of sheep. What had held my granny and the women of her line safe for generations. With all my freedoms, I envied her and them that hedge- and hymn-bound living. The rhythm of those days.
Perhaps I could just pretend at it, loving now this one church and village as I did. Give up my resistance to the idea of a God the Father, if only to become part of a tradition which, for all its misuses, had these beautiful buildings for offering aid and refuge?
I opened the Bible again. Hoping – all those years after the haemorrhage and my glimpse of the inhabited light – for a sign, a wonder.
Leviticus 12:1–8. All about birth, and bleeding and impurity: how unclean a woman is after delivering a son, and how much longer soiled by bearing a daughter. The sin offering and atonement needed so she can return to the tabernacle, and before which she shall touch no hallowed thing.
Fear felt as presence, near and threatening. Like a rabbit caught out in the open, I looked up at the vaulted ceiling as if a bird might be coming, clawed, towards me.
But remembered then my own blood, how wet and heavy the bed sheet when it hit the hospital floor. And Granny not being allowed to hold her stillborn child. The delicious smell of my daughter when delivered. There was no sin in any of this. Nothing to atone for.
My place is outside.
Words from my repeating dream shouted out loud as my legs took me away away in a fury of exclusion. Forcing me up the steep side of the Beacon, lungs hurting, while cursing men, bloody men, and their institutions.
Halfway up, out of breath, I turned towards the valley and gave the universe another chance to answer. Aware of how mad I was in that moment, a middle-aged woman, shouting at the sky.
‘HERE I AM, GOD.’
I joke guiltily about my membership in the Church of the Great Outdoors. People who do not attend church on Sundays, I was raised to believe, are worse than sinners. They’re not even trying.
Of course, I dropped that faith – or demurred when it dropped me. Later I found instead, and sunk happily into, a faith that affirms no place and no day as more sacred than any other. That-of-God is present in all. We do not say ‘church’, nor ‘Sabbath’. We do not say ‘sin’. We might say ‘loneliness’.
Our meeting places are simple, without altar or aspirational spire to direct our thoughts ‘up there’. The best meetinghouses are old and whitewashed, with bare beams and clear windows. I used to visit a tiny one in the New York woods, with an iron stove in the center for winter meetings. A practical focus, giving sufficient bodily comfort for the mind to quiet.
But there is no meetinghouse near where I live now. Instead, I find I persist in seeking the divine ‘up there’. I walk the hills of this rolling, golden land. The higher I climb, the more I meet that-of-God. I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help, says the Psalmist – words preserved on a small plaque on a mossy bench, by the Peak District stream where my grandparents’ ashes are. We are hill people; and it seems that runs deeper than their quiet Methodism, my mother’s High Anglican mysteries, my father’s salt-of-the-earth evangelism.
Again and again, I meet the sublime where the land touches sky. Where ravens are agents of the Mystery and the scouring wind sings praise. I take worship with the cattle, communion in curious foraging; and the blood in my limbs surges and circulates, throbbing: here, here, here.
Proverbs 31: 10-31 - The Closet
After her funeral, I found five coats in my mother’s wardrobe.
One I remembered from a childhood spent in the quieting-cold of weekly church services. Its silver-fox collar gave me more comfort than the priest's words usually offered my sad-eyed mum. Consolation seemed unlikely, as we hovered above uncushioned wooden pews and inadequate kneelers, listening to sibilant threats veiled as promises.
A second was a thin, green, canvas macintosh. Mum had bright red hair and green was the only colour that ever made her brave. I was sorry that the contents of the wardrobe were mostly blue.
On a padded hanger, charmed by a stiffening lavender bag, hid the slubbed-silk coat she’d worn on her honeymoon. The lining matched the sixties knee-length sleeveless shift I never saw her wear. ‘Too risky’, she once told me. And I didn’t have the wit to ask her what that meant, though the dress and coat were shot with green too.
The fourth was a long, woollen housecoat. Our kitchen was perennially cold and it embraced her against the chill during late night cups of tea, or early mornings when the fire that launched the boiler hadn’t stayed in overnight. I took it off the rail to pack away and found smoothed rosaries in both pockets. As though she’d say two at a time, if things were especially hard.
The last was a car coat I’d bought her four years earlier. Tucked at the back of the wardrobe in a careful plastic cover. Forest green. Expensive. Suede. I had never seen her wear it. I took it off the hanger and held it close. In that emptying moment I regretted the faith that had never comforted me. The coat smelled of her favourite mossy perfume. I wept that she’d worn it at all.
El Rhodes - I read the passage from Proverbs at my mum’s funeral. It was everything she hoped she’d been. The following day I faced her wardrobe. Thank you, Tanya, for a place to remember and honour both her and those days.