Thursday, 23 June 2011

A Confession: The Shop

I was going to post some Corpus Christi musings today, but there are two reasons why I'm not going to: i) it's not Corpus Christi in Leeds diocese until Sunday; ii) I don't have enough musings to go around. Instead, here's another chapter of the story of how I came to Christianity, with particular apologies to my readers, some of whom make up the subject matter of this latest offering.

I must now retrace my steps a little way, because there is one thread which, defying the chronology I have thus far attempted, runs consistently through from early in my second decade to the present day without significantly intersecting with my educational life.

Throughout most of my time at secondary school, the February half term saw me and my parents travel down to a holiday cottage at Riscombe Farm at Exford, a village in that smaller part of Exmoor which lies in Somerset. I still believe that Exmoor, with its bleak tops, precipitous coastline and green valleys, is a patchwork of the most beautiful landscapes England has to offer.

One of the children at the Farm, Sam, the eldest and closest to my own age, was a keen devotee of the science-fiction tabletop war game Warhammer 40,000. On my first visit, I looked at his collection of miniatures, a mixture of Space Marines (futuristic knights-templar) and Tyranids (aliens clearly inspired by the Aliens series of films) and had my curiosity piqued. I knew of a shop which sold the game back in Halifax, and I visited it upon my return home. At my next birthday (my twelfth, if I calculate correctly) I received the starter set for the Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000’s fantasy sister game, and began to accumulate miniatures.

I also began to accumulate friends. Wargaming is a first and foremost social activity, and through it I met a number of boys of around my age. Whilst I have fallen out of contact with most of the people I befriended at school, I still see many of those I met in the shop, and some of them are amongst my closest friends.

The shop was above a newsagent’s on Halifax’s Commercial Street. It was modestly proportioned, especially considering the number of boys who congregated there most Saturdays during its zenith. The shop’s layout altered a little over the years I frequented it, but it always had at least two gaming tables set out, and at some times more. On busy days people would queue for a game on one them. The shop was small, it was more than a little down at heel, and over the hot summer holidays it began to smell of overripe teenage boy. I would sometimes arrive at lunchtime, or before, and stay until it closed in the evening, gaming, hanging out and, if my modest means permitted it, adding to my collection.

We were mostly shy and socially awkward, as boys of that age often are, especially the sort who gravitate towards geeky hobbies like wargaming. The manager at the time, Gaz, realised eventually that none of us had properly introduced ourselves. We did not know each other’s names. As a result, he bestowed on us nicknames, some of which have stuck long after we have come to know each other much better. My own nickname, on account of my accent and manner, is Posh.

Here I met Dave, who years later was to become my godfather. He has often mused that people called Dave do not get to have nicknames and indeed he never received one at the shop. In my first flush of irreligious enthusiasm, I found in his Christianity something to be argued over incessantly. I marvelled that someone could seriously believe such things.

Scarf had a very religious upbringing. He was polite and thoughtful, and remains deeply thoughtful and caring; if he is less polite now it is in part because he is forthright in his treatment of subjects upon which forthrightness is often appropriate. He studied politics and has a deep concern for social justice. This concern has lead him, along with several other mutual friends, to be an anarchist. If I disagree with some of his conclusions I have great sympathy for his concerns. Of all my friends he is the funniest and most entertaining, his sense of right informing his satirical tirades and his eloquence imbuing even the most mundane of his stories with great humour.

I knew of Camo first of all from the shop, but became a close friend only when, at about the time I started out on my A-levels, I diversified from wargaming into roleplaying games. As with many others, my experience of roleplaying began with Dungeons and Dragons. Roleplaying is in many ways more involved than wargaming and so we would meet at each others’ houses to play on Sundays. Our sessions generally lasted five hours or so, and we eventually diversified into one or two other systems, particularly Vampire: the Masquerade and Mage: the Ascension. These Sundays continued until I left for university.

For a little while after I left, the shop remained, and I visited it when I was in Halifax. Increasingly, however, our little group moved out into the pubs of Halifax and Leeds, and the shop itself has passed into history, now an empty room above the still-thriving newsagent. We celebrated each others’ eighteenth and twenty-first birthdays in house parties, some of which were raucous enough to live in legend, and made that progression from teenage boys to young men, moving away to universities in Leeds, York, Sheffield and Newcastle but still seeing each other frequently and still meeting up in Halifax when we could. Having once been too shy to properly introduce ourselves, our lives are now intertwined in close and enduring friendship.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A Confession: The Divine Comedy

Here is the next section of the story of how I got here.

One aspect of this period has had such an influence that I believe it deserves to be addressed separately. During my GCSE Drama lessons we were often sent up to one of the English department classrooms to practice as a smaller group. Supervision, I fear, was not always tight and so we spent much of the time we should have been reading from The Crucible lazing around.

Being a huge square even at so young an age I browsed the shelves for books which piqued my interest. I can’t remember most of the books I browsed through, and the English literary canon is still, for the most part, territory known to me only by hearsay. There are two books I do remember: Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy. Both were far beyond me, and I cannot imagine either being particularly accessible to even A-level students, but something about them captured my imagination.

I have, to date, still never managed more than the first third of Paradise Lost. There is still time, I hope.

The Divine Comedy, however, is a marvel. I delighted in the maps of hell, purgatory and heaven and read each canto’s prĂ©cis and some of the notes, trying to figure out the structure and narrative of this fantastic book. I was fifteen at the time, so I had very little success but Dante went to the back of my mind and stayed there for three years until I arrived at university.

In my first semester at York St. John’s I came across the Inferno translated with notes by Dorothy L. Sayers in Goodramgate’s Oxfam, the same edition I had perused previously. I bought it and spent the next month or so slowly working through it. By the end of the second semester I had acquired and read Purgatory and Paradise.

Quite apart from the appealingly, Ptolemaically tidy vision of the universe depicted in the Comedy I was struck more deeply than I then realised by the “love that moves the sun and other stars.” This is Dante’s central theme and his final end, one which is lost upon those who only read his most famous and least lovely first canticle, Inferno.

Everything in the Comedy is somehow related to this central theme. In hell we see sin, which is not a new creation but rather a perversion of God’s perfect Creation, love unrestrained, misdirected or corrupted. Because Inferno has a certain grotesque appeal which is not at all reliant upon its spiritual or theological content it is easy to miss, and if one were to read the first canticle without reading any further one would be missing the better aspects of the work. Dante, the self-deprecating protagonist of his own tale, climbs from the depths of hell to ascend Mount Purgatory, upon which repentant sinners are cleansed (himself included), before he is taken up to heaven and converses with the saints.

Through all this, Dante is guided, either personally or by proxy, by Beatrice Portinari, the unrequited object of his courtly love. Romantic as well as divine love is an important theme of the Comedy.

I believe unreservedly that, if there is a God, love must be His most perfect principal. It is by following this belief to its sensible conclusion, maturing in my understanding of love as I go, that I have arrived in my present position.

Odd Comfort Zones

Given that this whole blog is made up mostly of me not posting, I'll not apologise for it. This time, anyway, I have a good excuse - I spent three and a half weeks in hospital, from May 8th to June 1st. It was more heart surgery, second attempt (this time successful) to give me a working tricuspid valve. Things got a little bit complicated afterwards, as I had some fluid round my right lung which wouldn't go away, but they got on top of it eventually with the use of drains.

I will confess that I quite like hospital, in some ways. Life is stripped down to the bare essentials of eating, sleeping and hopefully not being in pain. In a sense, that is easy. It's not easy if you are in pain or unable to eat or sleep, but at least your options are simple and all the extraneous details which assault you in ordinary life are taken away. Now I'm out, and there's paperwork to be done again, and money to think about. No, it's wrong to think of these things as extraneous - they are necessary, but it is hard for me to muster the enthusiasm to properly tackle them.

But I find the big things easier to sort through than all the little things. I can think of Jesus on the cross when I have a drain between my ribs, and ask Him unite my own meagre suffering with His and try to be gracious about it*, but paperwork - paperwork! I'm just not very good at it and it makes me grumpy.

I suppose He was born in a stable far from home as a result of Augustus Caesar's insistence on paperwork. That probably means something. It probably means I should get my medical certificate in the post today and quit complaining.

*That's not to say I succeed in being gracious about it - pain often makes me grumpy too, but at least the discomfort usually conspires to keep me fairly quiet through such grumpiness. I am not, by any means, a saintly invalid.