Faith was an article of faith, growing up. Like George Michael, we knew we had to have it. So we just did.
I didn’t realise until later that this faith was just one of a variety of flavours. Mine was good ol’ ‘Catholic AF.’
My school hours were spent under the gaze of a tiny dying man, pinned up on every classroom wall. At the end of the corridor, where the milk cartons waited by the radiator (hurl), there he was again, all blond and pretty, delicately parting his robe to show off his impressively sized heart, at once on fire AND twined with thorns.
My mum and dad had their wedding photos by the life size crucifixion scene outside St Elizabeth’s in Coventry. I think I was pushing thirty before I realised just how weird that was. Yup, there’s Our Lady, sobbing, and solemn-faced Saint John, book-ending the happy couple. There’s the big man himself, looming behind them, up on the cross. I mean, nothing says ‘marital bliss’ like a tortured corpse.
My mate’s mum has a hologram crucifixion clock in her kitchen. Walk past it one way, and Jesus is alive, blood running down his brow, eyes fixed beseechingly on heaven. Walk the other way and he’s dead, head sunk on his arm. Dead – alive – dead – alive – dead. Poor bloke. He must be exhausted.
Faith of this sort is a kind of blanket. Other people have woven it, and they wrap you in it. It’s old. It’s musty. It’s full of holes. But they tuck you into its folds, really really tight, irrespective of whether it’s actually cold outside. It’s ours. And that makes it yours. Forever and ever amen.
I threw off that blanket once I realised it smelt a bit odd to me and I found it unbearably scratchy. But growing up like this, with a blanket, makes you realise one thing. Religious beliefs offer different blankets. But faith, faith of any kind, is a woven thing. It is a gift that can only be given to you by others.
That sense of trust, of belief, of home in yourself, in the world – that thing we all need, to truly become who we are meant to be, to breathe out, to grow – this is something we make for each other.
I never got why the ancient Greek punishment of exile was so bad, seen as a fate worse than death. So your city threw you out, so what? You went wandering, met some new people, made a new life, no? The cult of autonomy, the creed of individualism, is so strong in our corner of the world, it’s hard to understand the kind of loss exile held within it. You weren’t just thrown out of your home town, you were locked out of yourself.
Over the past few years, wandering my own lonely ways, I’ve felt it. Without other people, who are you? How can you exist, except in relation, in connection? Without someone to speak to, you have no voice. Others don’t just witness who you are: they call you into being.
When you’ve lost trust in yourself and what you’re for, when you feel good for nothing, a useless, broken mess, not only are you cold without a blanket, you’ve dropped your candle. You are lost in the night.
You don’t see it, at first: you can’t, it’s too dark. But your people are there. They’ve picked up what you let fall, they’ve relit it, from their own flame. They’re standing there holding it for you, waiting, until you’re ready to take it back again.
And the glow of faith is yours to share, once more. Knowing that the most generous thing one human can do for another is to keep it burning.