Poets, priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for their submission
And no one’s jamming their transmission
A few years ago I was invited to attend the baptism of the baby of some great friends of mine. These friends are not religious but they knew that the Irish Catholic side of the family would be uncomfortable if the baby was denied the usual insurance against eternal damnation. They also thought, quite rightly, that a christening was as good an excuse as any to invite everyone to Dublin for a rollicking good party to celebrate the arrival into the world of their beautiful daughter. So the arrangements were made, the marquee ordered for the back garden, the food and wine planned and the godparents appointed.
Ah yes, the godparents. Standing by the baptismal font on the day would be the baby’s aunty and a lovely man who had been a great friend of the couple’s for many years. This man was also a great friend of mine, so I was party to the dilemma he faced in being conferred with this honour. While he knew that his atheism was of no concern to the baby’s parents – they’d chosen him for his loveliness and wanted him to be a special part of their daughter’s life – he was suddenly overcome by an uncharacteristic level of superstition about what might happen to him if, while standing in God’s very own house, he made all sorts of declarations that he didn’t actually believe to be true.
During a Roman Catholic christening, the parents and godparents of the baby have to make three declarations – that they believe in God, that they repent of their sins and that they deny evil. So the ironies here are interesting… Our friend doesn’t believe in God, but the religious superstition which still permeates even a reasonably secular country like England was enough to give him the uncomfortable feeling that God might smite him for his heathen deeds if he stood in a church and said that he did. It’s rather a muddle that organised religion has created here, wouldn’t you think?
The responses, psalms, prayers and practices of a Catholic Mass are things which I’m sure I’ll never forget, even in the unlikely event that I make the effort to try; one doesn’t come out of even a happy religious upbringing without some of its residue clinging insistently. But during this baptism ceremony, the only way in which my lips moved was in smiles at my friends and slight quivering at the inevitable emotion aroused in me by big events with friends and family. When we left the church, another lovely chum, who was also brought up Catholic and who had made the polite decision to respond to the priest and to say the prayers during the service, asked me why I hadn’t.
You must remember it all, she said, after so many years of going to church.
Yes, I said, of course I remember it, but I don’t believe in those words any more so I won’t say them.
Oh, she shrugged, they’re only words.
This morning, a Jewish Israeli man was shot dead by security guards at the Western Wall in Jerusalem because he shouted Allahu Akbar, which, of course, is Arabic for God is great. They were only words, and still this man, who had his hands in his pockets when the guards pulled their guns on him and fired, is dead. I’m writing this a couple of hours after the story broke, when little is known about what actually happened, what the man’s motivation was in saying what he did (if indeed his words weren’t misheard), or what provoked the guards to respond so brutally. All that is so far clear is that just two small words escaped from the man’s lips, and because of the place where he was standing when he said them, the circumstances in which they’ve been said before and the strength of belief and the fear and superstition that surrounds them, he will never say these or any other words ever again. This is just the latest terrible tragedy in a country which is sickeningly familiar with religious and territorially motivated tragedies, and it was only words that made it happen.
On the night of that wonderful Welcome to the World party in Dublin, there were pestilential winds of a biblical proportion. I still remember one friend doing a hilarious Irish jig in the pouring rain while the people around him struggled to secure the moorings of the marquee. Perhaps the wind and rain that night were signs of God’s displeasure at the fact that people had stood in his church and lied when they said that they believed in him. Or perhaps the wind and rain happened because we were in Dublin. Either way, while I choose not to be afraid of a potentially vengeful deity, my fear of terrified and small-minded people with deadly weapons is very well-founded. So although, as the Bee Gees would have us believe, it’s only words, I’m going to continue to be very careful about how I use them.