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Breathe In Peace

If you're anything like me, then ... no. That's not a sufficiently specific construction to use; of course you're something like me. To the archetypal observer from outer space, we're all alike: all made of stars, and all so biologically similar that one of life's miracles, I often think, is that human beings manage to find enough beauty in our tiny differentials to distinguish lover from foe, neighbour from stranger. The differences between our biological machines are so small, but all of what we call humanity arises from their existence. God, you might say, must live in those tiny, tiny gaps.

Or does He? Who's not your neighbour? If you're anything like me, then one of the most upsetting aspects of the killing of Ian Baynham was the descriptions of the 'shock' of the passers-by. I'm shocked that they passed by. And if you're anything like me, you will have been disturbed by the strength of your reaction as you read about the case, by the momentary (or did it last longer than a moment, Graeme?) desire not for justice but for vengeance.

But that's no use. It's no use for me to want someone alive to be dead: it's just not like me. Let's start again.

If you're anything like me; that is, someone who wanders around, just beyond the circumference of faith, someone who loves the Christian tradition and fears the consequences, for all of us, of its diminution, but who cannot cross the boundary into the circle; if you can't honestly say you believe in afterlife, but still need to believe in the fact of love, not only that it exists, but that it's a gift which can be known to every human being, then Christmas is not just the joyful, best part of the year. It also tends to make you a bit introspective. One of the questions I have about religion is why, though I'm a non-believer, I find Quakerism so attractive.

Friends_Meeting_House,_Brighton_02 Well, one answer to that is very prosaic. The Meeting House in Brighton, where Keith and I often are, is a beautiful building on a beautiful street. We always stop to look at it when we're walking down Ship Street. We took the opportunity to look inside a few weeks ago, when it opened its doors for a Christmas fair, and it's as quietly impressive within as without. It is how my mind's eye has always imagined Imber Abbey, the setting of The Bell, Iris Murdoch's masterpiece (which does contain a warning for people who might tend to let their imagination run away with itself).

The more accurate explanation for the attraction of the Society of Friends, to me (and I suspect to Keith) is not, however, a pretty building, nor just the absence of priestly hierarchy and a liturgy. It's the idea of Meeting, what the Brighton Religious Society of Friends call, on their website, a communal gathered stillness. Given the unpleasant nature of much of our loud, vulgar, violent and callous society, the thought of sitting in silence with a group of good people is very, very compelling. This is an extract from 'Quaker Faith and Practice':

Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue.  Think it possible that you may be mistaken.

That last sentence causes a spasm of recognition. I detest myself when I use words to bully - that is, to win my point in a discussion. I am suspicious of people who have no self-doubt, even when I agree with their position. (There's a vague link there to the current Tory existential debate, which is as close to politics as I'll manage today). I require peace, and stillness, in order to reset myself - from a shuddering acolyte of bloody vengeance, back to someone who believes (as an article of faith) that there's hope for any living human. We need peace, and stillness, to be anything like ourselves.

Well, we've never gone to Meeting, and I doubt we ever will. I would feel fraudulent, in any case, and I think the Quakers' belief in pacifism would not sit well with Keith. But maybe that's OK, because the Society of Friends have done me good, today, just by the act of contemplating their existence.

Maybe you don't need to enter inside faith to benefit from the fact that it is there. Maybe it's enough to be close; to be aware of the gap between, but stay close enough to touch. A proximity to goodness lets us breathe in peace, it lets us breathe, in peace. Maybe that's enough.

Merry Christmas.


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