How I was hooked, netted and landed by the Fisher of men
Until about thirty years ago, my view of religion was that it's a psychological crutch required by neurotic people to enable them better face the rigours of life. I never accompanied my wife on her Sunday morning trips to church as I had much more important things to do with my day off work. Nevertheless, I often felt quite sorry for her, particularly on those cold, wet and windy mornings as she set off alone.
One particularly cheerless Sunday morning she seemed rather dejected and as I had nothing else to do, I thought I would accompany her. When I suggested it she seemed to welcome the idea and so we set off together. On the rare occasions I had set foot in a church it had usually been for weddings, funerals or baptisms. Churches, to me, were redolent of neglected libraries in old houses. Invariably, there were the smells of damp, decay, stale polish and musty books, and the church we visited that morning was no exception. When we entered, a middle-aged man greeted us with a smile and various books and papers were thrust into our hands. My wife guided me to a seat near the front. She seemed to know quite a few of the people, and she opened one of the books for me, pointed to the place where I assumed it was all going to begin, and then started talking to the woman who sat next to her.
By this time I was seriously wondering what I was doing there. Suddenly an organ started playing and what I took to be the choir, followed by a white robed and bearded man made its way into the church. We all stood up; the bearded man bid us good morning and welcome and we began by singing a hymn I had not, unsurprisingly, heard before. The words of the service that followed were totally incomprehensible to me and I was intrigued to see my wife at one stage go with others to the front of the church, eat and drink something, and then return to her seat. To me it all looked a bit druidic and full of superstitious nonsense.
During the service my mind wandered away from what was happening in church to more important things such as my work plans for the next day and at last the ordeal was over. Sensing my impatience to be about my business my wife declined an offer of coffee and biscuits and we joined the queue to leave. On our way out we had to run the gauntlet of the Rector's handshake. He stood in the doorway, the obligatory smile locked into place, and as he shook my hand I inexplicably found myself asking him if he played chess. I had glanced at the notice board on the way in and had read that the incumbent was a Cambridge MA, and subsequent idle speculation during the service made me wonder whether this undoubtedly intelligent and well educated man had any interests other than religion. He replied that he did play chess and there and then he issued an invitation to me to visit him one evening at the Rectory for a game. I must have looked a bit apprehensive for he said he would not talk to me about religion. I was a bit dubious about his offer but as I enjoyed a game of chess and hadn't played for some considerable time, I accepted.
I forget what night it was that I visited him but I remember that we played our game on his computer, using the screen as a board. I also remember that I won what turned out to be quite a hard fought game and remember thinking that his God hadn't done him much good on that occasion. Afterwards his wife brought in coffee and cakes and we chatted about many inconsequential matters until I could contain myself no longer. I asked him, rather rudely I suppose, why he was wasting an intellect such as his on religion, particularly when he might be earning much better money and doing a far more worthwhile job in industry. He surprised me by gently saying that being a minister was that vocation to which he had been called by God and for the rest of the evening we left the matter there and talked of other things.
I suppose I felt rather envious of his apparent certainty as to his role in life and as I took my leave I rather sarcastically asked him whether, if and how I could discover this God of his for myself. He disappeared for a few moments into his study and emerged, carrying what turned out to be a book containing some of the poems of the Victorian poet Francis Thompson. He suggested that when I arrived home I read one of them in particular, the Hound of Heaven and if I then really wanted to encounter God, I should go into a preferably quiet room, ask God to enter my life, and then let Him take it over. He did point out that I should not make the request unless I was prepared to turn myself, and my life completely over to God. I was intrigued and rather disappointed by what seemed to me to be a rather facile and much too simplistic response. Nevertheless, when I arrived home I glanced at the poem he had given me and in particular the part that reads:
"I fled Him down the nights and down the days; I fled Him down the arches of the years; I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind and in the midst of tears I hid from Him."
The words caused a rather shadowy understanding to dawn in my mind, a vague notion that was like a half remembered song that had been long put aside and I became more deeply aware of an inconsolable longing that had plagued me for many years. I then made my decision, entered the bedroom, fell to my knees because that seemed the appropriate thing to do at the time, and full of aggressive and embarrassed curiosity, challenged, for want of a better word - God - if indeed He existed, to enter my life and take it over. There was no flash or bang and the earth didn't move, but from that moment until this very second I have been aware of the presence of God, all the time and in every place even when I am tired or ill, busy or idle, happy or sad. I had discovered like so many before me that Faith is simply a question of making a quantum leap into the unknown, reaching out a hand in the darkness and then discovering that someone is holding it.
I am totally unable to rationalise this gift of absolute Faith as from that day to this, no matter how bad things have been and on occasion they have been very bad indeed, I have never once doubted the ever-present reality of God. And so began for me what has turned out to be a journey for 40 years deep into the heart of God.
My experience shows that anyone, even a vociferous, card carrying atheist like myself at that time, cannot be too careful, for God is a wily adversary who, I'm delighted to say, is only too ready to exploit any gap in our defences.