My first serious relationship with organised religion and an adult began while I was studying in Oxford. One of my best friends, a devout South African, mentioned he was going for a Sunday evensong at New College, and a few of decided to join him – albeit more for the aesthetics of listening to wonderful music inside a famously ornate medieval chapel, than for the spiritual aspects (who needed THAT, right?).
Although the singing and the chapel were indeed beautiful, what I still remember from that cold February night, was the priest’s sermon. She was talking, in very calming and wise manner, about stresses of student life, and how basically all of us there were blinkered by ambition and pursuit of careers and money so much so that we failed to see greater suffering around us.
What struck me wasn’t that this point was unheard in my relatively left-wing circle – talking about own privilege and suffering of others was a daily thing – but that, unlike in hyper-ambitious Oxford relatively left-wing circles, it wasn’t made in pursuit of ambition. There was no sanctimony. It really felt like she believed our suffering was real (it was), and it also felt like she believed we were myopic young careerists (we were) – and, most touchingly, she believed (unlike us) that these two things in did not negate one another , and that we can overcome both though truer deeper relationship with the the world (unlike us, again).
From then on, while I was in the UK, whenever I felt overwhelmed (which was relatively often), I went to local churches, and I even went to an evensong or two. I did it for the aesthetics (British churches, due to the great diversity in style are some of the most beautiful ones), but I also did it as it felt like and escape from the daily grind.
There were these often empty, ancient, structures, occupying prime real estate which were both deeply within the system (the Queen is the head of the CoE!), but also very much outside of it. They treasured things that were strangely ornate, hopelessly abstract and strangely old-fashioned in the world, which in my mind then, was – and should have been – all about sleekness, tangibility and progress. For an agnostic twenty-something, in religion and in life, they were the tangible monuments to mystery that I felt was all pervasive in a world were only place for mystery was in kitsch fiction: do they make sense any more? why do I like them? is any of that true?