Epilogue: One Yellow Door
Rebecca de Saintonge, 9th Nov 2016 no comments
Extract from the Epilogue of ONE YELLOW DOOR, Rebecca de Saintonge: Darton Longman and Todd, October 2015
Rebecca nursed her husband Jack for 10 years as he struggled with Lewy Body Dementia. The experience was to shake and re-shape her faith. It was to be a long and difficult journey before she finally left the evangelical church and found a new spirituality. This Epilogue was written ten years after Jack’s death.
As I struggled to find a new spiritual reality after Jack’s death, I yearned, not for that bouncy assurance of the past, so emotionally vulnerable and intellectually challenged when the difficult questions became unanswerable, but for something altogether cooler, less embarrassingly cocksure.
Those around me told me not to think so much, to trust ‘like a child’. But I couldn’t. I’d been given a mind, I had to use it. I’d watched Jack suffer, I had to make sense of it… The more I thought about Jack’s grace in suffering, and the more I connected with the suffering of others, the more impressed I was by the courage and beauty of the human race and the more offensive the old Christian theologies of original sin and atonement became.
I rebelled against the concept that we’d been ‘born sinners’. I rebelled at the thought of a divinity that demanded human sacrifice in order to make us fit for communion, and it was inconceivable to me that a “God of love” could not only sit back and watch human suffering and not intervene, but that such a God, who was reputed to be perfect, could create such an imperfect world, riven, as it was, by illness and natural disasters. Most of all I rebelled at the simplistic answers people gave me to justify these beliefs.
So for a long time I thought I had lost all faith. I toyed with the idea that there really was no infinite reality at all, only the terrible and wonderful here and now. And yet what was ‘this great absence that seemed like a presence” as the poet R.S.Thomas so eloquently asked?
And when I looked back at the life Jack and I led together, those decisions we made in faith that seemed to be an answer to prayer, those deep, almost physical experiences of the presence of God, how could I invalidate them? I could not. In the same way that the autumn does not invalidate the spring, I could not deny the reality of my youthful faith. Every living entity transmutes, turns into something else while remaining essentially itself, and I suppose that how we experience God matures and changes in the same way. There is no doubt that while the presence of the suffering Christ became increasingly real to me as our own suffering deepened, my concept of God grew darker and dimmer. So it slowly dawned on me that what I had lost was not my belief in a spiritual reality, but my belief in the theology we had been brought up with.
What I had to face was not that there was no God, but that the concept of God I had previously held, and the understanding of how God interacted with the world and with human kind, had been a distortion. I realized I had to unlearn everything and start all over again. I had to find a new understanding, a new language, a new way of thinking about the divine. But how? I sat in silence and confusion year after year, the loss of spiritual understanding feeling even greater than the loss of Jack. In the end I came to see that, once again, God had to come to me, to find me and teach me – not to believe what anyone else believed, but to take me into a space that I could find authentic. Most of all I wanted it to be a place without concepts, that transcended words. A place, if you like, of unknowing.
It was to be a long and lonely process of shedding the skin of all the old ways of thinking that I felt in my heart just had to be wrong. I began by trying to sort things out with my mind, and I came to realize that all along I had mistaken incarnation for intervention. The cry on the cross was a sign that God incarnate was with us in the mess, suffering with us, sharing the complexity of human existence, but not changing the course of human history by waving a magic mystical wand and putting things right, or, in some moment of cruel, capricious inconsistency, not putting things right.
The disillusioned cry of “How can God be ‘loving’ and allow such suffering?” is based on the presumption that God is in control of what goes on in our world. I began to consider the understanding that God was not in control, that God did not know the beginning from the end, that God was as vulnerable as we were and that somehow the human story was still being worked out.
I began to suspect another reality too, that perhaps God was not perfect in the way we had been brought up to believe. As I watched the gracious way Jack suffered, and as together we worked to turn our mutual suffering into something positive, I had a real conviction that it was in working with the transcendent that human beings brought about the perfection of our world. God couldn’t do it alone. Our relationship with the divine was one of interdependence and mutual need.
As I read more fully I realized that many thinkers did not adhere to the interpretations of the past that I felt had kept, not just me, but so many people in chains. While human kind was indeed a complexity of contradictions, it was Richard Rohr in Things Hidden who pointed out that as people made in the image of God our core was in fact original blessing, not original sin.
For scholars like Marcus Borg, the significance of the incarnation and the Jesus story was that it showed the dichotomy between the finite and the infinite to be false, the pattern of his thought and life revealing how we can become more fully human by connecting with that of the divine within us. That made perfect sense to me. I had always related to the Hindu understanding of the soul, or self, the self within being connected to, a part of, the Self without, our earthly journey being about the consummation of the two.
Yet even as my mind is calmed by these new perceptions that have validated my own discomfort over the years, the inner struggle for spiritual connection remains and I know that, for me, that connection has to be made without words, without concepts, without mind. How can we even begin to wrap a thought around that which is Ineffable? To do so would be to reduce God to the smallness of our understandings. We cannot name the unnameable – a truth the Jewish people have always known.
It is said we come around, in the end, to a place of simplicity, or rather, a place of spiritual stillness, poised between knowing and unknowing, to a place where no answers are needed, because no questions are asked. We learn to suspend thought, to suspend emotion and to try merely to be in the presence we seek. Those are rare but wonderful moments, too often, for me, broken by periods of restless questioning when the mind scrabbles away at the surface of understanding wanting to know why and how and if, to define that which cannot be defined. But I worry less about it all now.
This long journey through the spiritual desert has helped me to be content to live, not in the bright light of certainty, with all its brashness, but in a dimmer light, glimpsing only rarely, out of the corner of my eye, that which cannot be properly expressed.
I do not know what I mean by “God”. I dislike the word because it is hung with connotations I think unhelpful, even harmful, but I live in a growing trust that we are, as Jung would say, related to something infinite. More than that, I believe this relationship can be intimate.
At times I wonder, with Tagore “by what dim shore… by what far edge of the frowning forest… You are treading Your course to come to me, my Friend?” On good days I am content to wait and see. I try to hear with my mind, and the thought evaporates. I turn towards a moment of light, and it vanishes. But if I don’t move, don’t try, if I just rest in complete internal silence, then I think sometimes, for the smallest moment, I sense, like blind Bartimaeus, the beloved stranger moving towards me in the crowd of the day. I wait for his touch.