Thursday, 15 October 2009

Of Contrition, and Other Prayers

Christus, Mormon Visitors' Center, Salt Lake City

Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

William Shakespeare (The Tempest. Act V. Scene I)

SHE WAS ALREADY ON THE BUS when it reached Amble, where I got on board for the ride to Hawkhill on Monday morning. There were few empty seats on the lower deck and I had to sit near the back, just across the aisle from the very elderly lady holding a fair number of small pamphlets and bits of folded paper. I took it all in, fortunately having left home wearing the appropriate bifocal glasses.

Across the top of a printed page that the aged lady was holding in both hands, I could read the large type.


I couldn't read the words below the title, but could tell they were laid out somewhat in the form of a poem. I thought it might well be some sort of prayer. The giveaway was noticing that the old woman was whispering as she read, perhaps just mouthing the words, I couldn't actually hear her over the noises of the bus and its passengers.

I wondered what an ancient person, she looked old enough to be Miss Marples's mother, was doing so fervently praying for forgiveness of sins on a bus on a Monday morning in Northumberland. Had she been out whoring all weekend? Had she broken her ASBO? Was she on her way to score some smack?

Who knows? Perhaps this little, old lady did something terrible as a young girl and has been regretting it ever since, unable to forgive herself and forget. Unable to believe that her God might have given her the all clear.

Apparently, Roman Catholics say this prayer when they confess their sins. The Church of England has a version. One might be old enough to have prayed this in Latin. The lady on the bus did not turn her page for the twenty or so minutes that I sat across from her, and she kept moving her lips. She must have been repeating the prayer. Had she been told to do this as an act of contrition? A piss-up on the Sunday, confession at sunrise on the Monday, pray it off till Noon.

The lady didn't look like a drunk. Mind you, I have known, and do know, some ancient folks who will suck on a bottle for comfort, and they don't all look the part. It can be confusing, I know one biddy who sails with no fewer than three sheets to the wind and one can tell immediately what she is up to, but she looks and acts extraordinarily like my mother (who died 17 years ago), and my mother never took a drink stronger than Tetley's Tea. Revisiting my mother in my mind, she sometimes appeared to be not only loopy, but looped.

"Oh! For fuck's sake..." I thought to myself. "Someone fervently muttering prayers on public transport. She's a suicide bomber!"

I do not recall being instructed in the ways and means of prayer as a very small child, though my first books were religious (sent out to Bermuda by relatives in England who were concerned with me having been born into a Heathen environment, blacks meaning cannibals rather than carnivals in their minds in the early 1950s). I remember I had one story, with a picture, about a little blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, just like me, who was dying. The little boy's parents told him he was going to meet Jesus, but the child was having none of that. This was hard on his parents, of course. The little boy died alone one night in his bedroom, and when his parents found him in the morning he was half-upright, reaching skywards. His parents were happy as clams because they knew he was reaching out to Jesus at that last moment of his life. I'm not sure that was a very nice story to send me when I was six- or seven-years-old. The adventures of Biggles would have been more appropriate, surely. Not surprising then that I've spent much of my life being a sad bastard instead of a flying ace.

I spent twelve years in primary and secondary schools and I believe we had some sort of morning assembly every day except during examinations when the Hall was being used for those. Our assemblies were of a religious nature, Church of England. We sang Church of England hymns, chanted its refrains and prayed its prayers. There must have been Catholics and Methodists present, I know of Presbyterians, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. I do not recall any obviously Jewish pupils, but I think we might have had some amongst the Americans. No matter what we were outside the gates, at Warwick Academy we practised the Anglican Faith. I've remembered many of these prayers and hymns for more than forty years since my last assembly in the Purvis Hall at Warwick Academy. If you repeat something enough, and twelve years is enough, God knows, it begins to stick with you.

Jesus said:
I am among you as he that serveth
Whosoever would be chiefest
Shall be servant of all
I have called you friends
You are my friends if you do
Whatsoever I command you

We had that one on Tuesday mornings. It is, when I reread it here, a bit confusing. When does one's servant start commanding and get away with it? On Tuesdays, apparently. And when that little boy died and Jesus came to collect him, to grasp his outstretched arms, did Jesus speak in this sort of Double Dutch?

We kept on muttering our set prayers for more than a decade, but in the last two or three years the Headmaster introduced audience participation. After the many Amens, somebody might play a guitar; there might be a bit of a poem or a short reading about some great event (British and white, of course); or a mini-biography of some Great Man. I don't think we ever acknowledged any Great Woman. Sorry, Mrs Pankhurst. Everything was written down and read. If somebody played a guitar, there was no singing with it. Too risky. You wouldn't want Bob Dylan's influence.

I attended the Church of England, St Paul's in Paget, for a number of years. The hymns were our school hymns, the Communion Service used the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, both of which were co-opted at school. The language was beautiful.

Then I became a Mormon. The Mormons use the KJV, thank the many gods who were once men, and the other LDS scriptures are also (curiously) phrased rather like the language of the KJV. I'm not sure that the folks in Illinois spoke that way in the early 1840s, but God was dictating the books and He does.

There are only a very few set prayers in Mormonism. The Sacramental Prayers must, repeat must, be said word-for-word as on the printed card. The Baptismal Prayer has to be word perfect. And prayers in the secret Temple ceremonies are proscribed. However, if Sister Smith is asked to give an opening prayer, an invocation, at a Sunday service, she can say anything she wants. The brethren on the platform will trust her to start with "Our Heavenly Father" and close with "In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen." The middle is inspiration; a grocery list. Most of the time it is bland enough and not offensive to God or man. I've never been shocked, though I've been bored silly when too many minutes pass.

The Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith prayed, as a young teenager, on the subject of which of the many churches in the neighbourhood was the right one, as every church, every preacher, had a different take. And those were just the Christian sects; I don't think the boy was exposed to many Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Animists, Muslims and the like. That would have really done his head in.

Well, as every Utah schoolboy knows, Joseph Smith was visited by God the Father, Jesus Christ and various angels. He had one angel, Moroni, beaming down through the ceiling of his bedroom. (Did that boy in my book have Jesus descend through the overhead light fixture, or emerge from Narnia in the back of the wardrobe?) You have to be careful when you pray: you might just get a response that will leave you mental.

I spent over twenty-five years praying LDS fairly-free-form prayers. They were conversations with finite entities at first, and then became, if you'll excuse my language, poetry imagined crossing the Infinite to whatever might pick it up on the radar. I may have been praying to Fairy-Winged Frog People on a watery planet in 1995. So long as they don't reach out and touch me!

A few Sundays ago, a friend invited me to a Church of England Sunday Family Communion Service here in Amble. I was curious and figured I could wake in time and stay awake. I went along; I even wore a coat and tie.

Things change. The Vicar was a lady, and a very nice one at that, I had a chat with her after the service, not mentioning Dawn French's show on the telly. The assistants, bar one, were all female. All elderly, I might add, except for the organist who was young and rather attractive, and married to the one young man, also attractive, in the choir. The congregation was pretty grey. So it goes. The hymns were printed on sheets in a small loose-leaf binder, the service on loose pages. Perhaps the fat hymnbooks we used back in the day are too heavy for the OAPs? I knew none of the hymns at St Cuthbert's, they were mostly copyrighted in the 1970s, many written by women. The service, including quotations from the Bible, was in what I suppose is Modern English. A bit like Art, people don't want Constable's Hay Wain above their fireplace in 2009; they want something by Damien Hirst, or worse. I hardly recognised The Lord's Prayer. The Nicene Creed was no longer a prose-poem. I'm surprised that "Amen!" hasn't been replaced with "Yeah, Baby!"

At one point we were all instructed to share a greeting of peace, or some such, with our neighbours in the pews. "However," said the Vicar, "with the Swine Flu epidemic we won't actually touch each other." I'm still wondering what that is about!

I come back after thirty-five years and everything I loved about the Church of England service that I'd missed in Mormonism and my Post-Mormonism has gone. Has become, I suppose, a bit LDS!

Have the Roman Catholics modernized to this extent? I'm not going over there, but I'm curious. Was the lady on the bus puzzling over Latin, or the English I grew up with, or was she wondering what the hell the people writing the scriptures in 2009 are on about?

1 comment:

sarah corbett morgan said...

Hi there, Ross

I enjoyed your musings on religions come and gone, or changed.

Last year I read Under the Banner of Heaven: a Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. It is quite the book. I wouldn't say it was anti Mormon, exactly, but he does cover the fringe element of the religion. Here is an excerpt from an review: In 1984, Ron and Dan Lafferty murdered the wife and infant daughter of their younger brother Allen. The crimes were noteworthy not merely for their brutality but for the brothers' claim that they were acting on direct orders from God. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer tells the story of the killers and their crime but also explores the shadowy world of Mormon fundamentalism from which the two emerged.

I highly recommend the book, especially since you spent so many years as one of their converts.

As you know, I don't go in for "organized religion," but I do feel I'm quite spiritual. No need for me to mouth prayers on the bus. I love to look out the window at all nature has for us to see and marvel at. That is enough for me.