Sunday, 6 February 2011

Mortality, humanism, belief - so nothing too heavy today. Oh, and Natural Voice singing, too.

This post owes much to Xpiry, Vale, Mopsus, Jonathan and the source of all, Charles. It will be quite a long post, so I'll understand if you want to chuck it and wander off for a beer.

Still here? OK, I'll give it a shot.

Isn't it great when different areas of your life suddenly link up and light up? When different viewpoints contribute to one illumination.

In a characterisitcally honest and direct post, Xpiry explores with us her puzzles and doubts over how far she should go, in an apparently non-religious funeral, when families ask her for "just a hymn or two and maybe a short sort of prayer..." see for her thoughts. and valuable comments from Charles.

It's a recurrent issue amongst humanist minibrants, as it needs to be. Honesty is all, in this crucible of emotions and beliefs we call a funeral. How far to go, in what has been categorised as a non-religious ceremony, in including material that relates to an afterlife, divine authority, etc. You can't - I was going to say "please" - all the people all the time, but "please" doesn't come near it. We need to draw a line, is the worry. We can't approach our hieratic potential (thanks to Vale and Mopsus) for everyone in the congregation, because they all believe very different things. Or can we?

I guess it can be an issue for ministers of religion, too, coming from the other direction. It seems pretty reasonable to me for a minister to mention God a bit, maybe offer a prayer. If not, why the unusual garb, etc? And perhaps a bit silly of families to book the vicar, because s/he's such a dear, and then ask for a Godless ceremony.

Charles (what do you mean, "Who?" Please take yourself over to
without further ado, where you will find the rest of the commentators mentioned above.)

Charles coined the excellent phrase "Great Perhapsism" to describe the sort of hopeful belief in some kind of after-life, a post-mortem meeting place, saloon bar in the sky, etc. I bet millions of Brits are neither full atheists, nor informed agnostics, neither Christians et al nor Pagans. They are Perhapsists. That's why, in the ceremony, they want a whiff of the supernatural - and I use the term in its full sense, not as a sneer.

The only path, when I meet a family, that I can find through this variety of semi-beliefs is to:

  1. listen very carefully with all my seven senses (five plus the two super-powers I'm not supposed to tell you about) to people at the family meeting;
  2. empathise, all the time;
  3. think hard about what I've learned from the facts and anecdotes I've heard about the one who's died, and the ones I can still talk to - I mean the sub-texts, implications, echoes and resonances;
  4. keep sitting on my own aesthetic and philosophical preferences;
  5. try to help them develop the ceremony as they really want it, to push it if possible, and not give in to an impoverished idea of what a funeral is for - and so on.
  6. Then try to make sure the ceremony does something for them, something more than get It (body and event) out of the way.
It's a particular way of going out to people, and taking in who they are and what they want. Jonathan comments on this area with an eloquence that earns nothing but grattitude from me, over on the GFG post with the link above. He says:

"For me it’s about being able to love the people we represent, more than simply serving them. There is a love between human beings that can show itself for just a moment and then move from our sight. But it does not die; it simply reflects the process of living in a human body, which only happens for a little while but stirs the ethers with passion and so leaves its lasting influence. Then, actively loving those who are trusting you to take control so they can lose it if they have to, you can talk to the place inside them that is hurting. That is the joy of this work with complete strangers, the connection between souls who would have passed in the street without noticing each other at any other time."

So that's why this is a vocation, not just a service, a profound privilege and not just a duty. As he says - a joy.

In the light of all I've learned from such people, I'm coming to feel that my previous metaphysical squeamishness matters not at all. There is only one reason not to compromise, and that is my hieratic authenticity. (Yes, I know, I shouldn't read so many very clever posts.) It's not so much about if I don't believe, literally, in what I'm saying; it's more that there'll be a problem if I've been asked to say and do things I can't establish some relationship with, things I can't internalise, things I can't feel, as well as think about more rationally. Because obviously enough, if I'm uneasy with it, the audience won't buy it either. In Jonathan's terms, the love wouldn't be behind it, it would be outward form stuff. And that's why I couldn't lead the Lord's Prayer, but I can sing songs from religious traditions. E.g:

I went to a seasonal celebration recently, a spin-off from our community choir. It was for Candlemass/Santa Lucia/Imbolc/St Brigid, add whatever belief system ackowledges that the days are growing longer, that winter won't last for ever (though it's having a bloody good try round here) that ewes will be getting their milk in and we should urge on the spring in our hearts by lighting some lamps and doing Stuff.

The Stuff we did was sing a few very simple songs, grouped round candles and the earliest of flowers (snowdrops etc). The songs came from belief systems - a Christian one in English, a Christian one in an African language, a Muslim one, a Buddhist one. (They weren't actually about the festival, which mattered not at all.) Our choir leader, very much part of the Natural Voice movement, is just wonderful at this stuff.

So here's this alleged humanist, singing away about God/s and staring into the candle flame. No worries. It's only words. There won't be a thunderbolt from above: "get ye gone, infidel," nor one from 1 Gower Street "superstitious nonsense..." No abrupt conversions, either. Just a developing sense of pervasive calm as the time went by. The last one was a sort of tuneful Buddhist chant. The final effect on me was like a really good mindfulness meditation session. I was entirely present in the moment, and felt as calm, open and easeful as I can remember feeling. A wonderful preparatory session for resuming this vocation of ours the next day. (Which is why I bang on about mindfulness meditation, in singing or other form - it really helps with the work.)

I can't imagine why any of us who don't believe in a religious system would worry about the origin of the songs. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't have benefitted from the session, provided they could be open-minded about it. If religion is a human construct, then its fruits yesterday evening were for all. If religion is what it thinks it is, then ditto.

Singing has been demonstrated, by a rational, scientific experiment, to lower stress hormones very effectively. It is, undoubtedly, good for you. Or, if you want a non-scientific explanation, it's a lightning-conductor to the divine.

So in one sense, who cares what anyone believes? Yes, I think we can have that priestly function for a great variety of people and beliefs, provided we can own what we say and do, even if we go into areas that wouldn't mirror our own beliefs. And - if we can feel that short-term, unconditional love for the people we are trying to help.

Let's say it again, Mr Larkin: "What will survive of us, is love."


  1. That's a special post, GM. I'm not sure if you are allowed to be a recipient of your own Glorias, but I feel some award is in order. May I offer you a gilt-edged blanket, by way of gesture?
    Once again, it's all about breaking free of boxes - this religion, that religion, no religion – and allowing what simply moves us (wherever it originates from) to ease our minds, lift our hearts, fill our souls, connect with others, and inhabit the sacred space, or 'church', that exists within every individual. No matter what the sign outside its door reads.

  2. And that's a special sort of comment,CB. The gilt-edged blanket I shall keep by me for the sort of chilly evenings we all get sometimes, when the draughts of self-doubt and weariness whistle round our knees. Thank you.

  3. I'm afraid it was a small response to a big comment, but my heart was in it. I love your new pic, by the way. You're not eating enough, methinks...

  4. The new look comes from reading too much from Charles about the doings of the Co-op, and despairing about it; from having to type in the words "and now, "My Way," sung by..." yet again; and from staying up too late blogging. Be warned.

    And as for your comment, well, know the rest. I'm thinking hard now about the idea of a numinous space within everyone, unbadged, filled with heightened meaning and profound feeling, and ready and waiting to be reached if only we can bust enough boxes, and find the Right Stuff. It could be a guiding principle. That's not a small matter. I hadn't seen it like that. Thanks.

  5. There's no doubt about it, this work really does take us out of ourselves. And it's arguable that we are never better than when we are out of ourselves! In any case, who we think we are is not who we are; who we are is who other people think we are: our identity is expressed in our interactions. We'd be very surprised to hear some of the things that people will say about us at our funeral.

    Setting aside part of ourselves is what, as social animals, we do all the time. And we are arguably at our best when, in certain situations, we set ourselves aside completely.

    Which brings us back to love...

    (Everybody's friend is nobody's friend. Of course principles and values matter. But if they're not at stake, a little bit of anything goes helps the world go round?)

  6. Wise words, as so often, thanks Charles. Amongst them: "We'd be very surprised to hear some of the things that people will say about us at our funeral," which is why it's probably best not to write out one's own euology, but leave it to others. Then the words will be live. The one I write and insist is read out verbatim is likely to be as dead as I will be at that point.

    Seems to me that within our principles and values, there's a lot of room for "a little bit of anything goes."

  7. I too am indebted to Charles for pointing me towards the phrase "The Great Perhaps", part of the alleged last words of Rabelais.
    An updated version of this philosophy has been put forward by the neuroscientist and author Dr David Eagleman, author of the marvelous "Sum. Forty tales from the afterlife." He coined the term "Posssibilianism" and outlines this philosophy in a short lecture avilable on the internet at Poptech, similar to the TED lectures.
    I urge all to watch it, and to read his book. Strikes me that merging this with some of Auguste Comte's idea of what Humanism could be and we've got a framework for a new religious system that we could all get behind. Well, probably not the pope, Ian Paisley or Jim Jones, but most of us.

  8. Book ordered, brain buzzing. What a valuable source of information as well as new thoughts, thanks Rupert.

  9. I feel a little like a cat, GM. You said such nice things about me over on GFG that I've followed you home.

    I think this post is wonderful - the six steps alone should be part of some celestial 'minibrancy for dummies'.

    Exploring and understanding this inner life seems vital to me. Unlike good Mopsus, we have no pre-ordained template for priesthood or any reach me down creeds to clutch at. Meaning emerges after a good tussle in the dark (like Jacob and the angel?).

    It's interesting to consider, though, how the families we serve (and love - I really recognise the intensity of that short term compassionate concern) regard us. A close member of my family has, helpfully, suggested that I shouldn't get above myself . And she's right of course. Whatever we recognise as - if you like - the latent energy in the relationship, it's for the family to discover rather than ours to present.

  10. Welcome, Vale, very good to see you here at Munday Mansions. You're always welcome, particularly with such insightful eloquence, eg your bit about not getting above ourselves, but waiting for the family to discover the latent energy in the relationship. That's very good, very good indeed. Because then we can respond uniquely to those people, having been led by them, as opposed to fizzing away at them "as usual," as it were.

    There is so much to learn in this vocation, isn't there? I'm off to tussle in the dark over a funeral that's likely to be unusual, both in form and content. But I think I can trust what came from the family meeting, because the latent energy came from them. And I think that's more likely to happen more often, now I understand your point.
    Thanks. Salvete.