A first for me this evening. I cried - literal, actual tears - whilst listening to (the 100th episode of) The Infinite Monkey Cage. When the Very Reverend Victor Stock described Stephen Hawking's tomb, next to Newton's (hic depositum est quod mortale fuit Isaaci Newton), I found myself rather moved. Grief is a very strange thing: you can think you have mastered it, or that it has not taken hold at all, and then find that in fact it has a tight grip. It can lie dormant, almost forgotten, or it can penetrate to every corner of the mind such that no thought feels positive. I have already tried to describe the difficulty of writing about it in a convincing way. My insight - limited though it is - is that perhaps a fully realistic, psychologically rich depiction of a person grieving would be far too much for a series of books that is supposed to be at least in part entertainment.
Interesting, though, that I should be moved by the manner of Stephen Hawking's interment. Westminster Abbey is (you will be shocked to learn) a place of Christian worship, that subject much discussed, turned over and otherwise co-opted for major plot points in These Matters. My own history with Christianity is, as I suspect is the case with many, that early exposure through school in particular was more than enough to put me off. There is much that Christianity teaches with which I agree. But, as Bertrand Russell famously (apocryphally? now that would be good!) said, there is not one word in the gospels in praise of intelligence. There is a great discussion in The Name of the Rose about whether or not Jesus had a sense of humour, and it is equally the case that there are no jokes in the gospels, at least not that can be detected in the translations I have read. So there is much in Christianity with which I disagree. The further metaphysical commitment to a creator God is almost redundant in terms of what the religion tells us, or at least what we ought to learn from it, about the world.
That I chose the title This Matter of Faith some four or five years ago is significant. There's something about the promise of Christianity, something about the message of hope, forgiveness, absolution that is utterly, devastatingly compelling. It is what enabled it, no doubt, to become the religion of the Roman Empire seventeen hundred years ago, despite all the competition. It is, perhaps, what makes it so central in the minds and writings of so many thinkers, even those who were undoubtedly themselves atheist. It is certainly what makes it so central to These Matters.
So, since the next one is almost entirely about religion, here's a little snippet from book IV:
“I am not sure what path to take, Master Strelley.” Harper twists his fingers together. “The Church asks me to use this new book, but my parishioners… They would have me keep the old ways. It is what they know.”
“I cannot solve that dilemma for you. I can only say that whichever you choose, there will be someone who is unhappy with your decision.”
“That is true. But I do not propose to keep men happy. Only so far as I must to care for them. I want to do what is right by God.”
“Ah, Monseigneur,” Strelley says with a flourish, and the priest’s expression suggests he has not been addressed thus before, “then it is only by quietening your mind in prayer that you will find your way.” Strelley smiles, slightly wryly, before continuing, “I have sought God’s voice and I have never truly found it.”
Harper looks long and hard at him. “If you wish to know how it is with these people, attend the service tomorrow.”
“I shall, Sir. I shall.”
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought