IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE ARE MANY MANSIONS
Although I would certainly not call myself devout, religion has always played an important, often central, part in my life, sometimes on an intellectual level, more often as a spiritual need. My journey to my current (and almost certainly final) location in the Orthodox Church has taken me along many paths. It has also introduced me to many good Christian men and women of all persuasions, who have had a profound effect on my spiritual development.
I was christened an Anglican but, when I was still very young, my mum and dad left the Church of England because the vicar had become too ‘High Church’. Apparently, he was using incense too much and hearing confessions, which didn't go down well with my Protestant parents so they moved to the Baptist Church. (The irony of where their youngest son ended up is not lost on me.) In the Chapel, the Baptists I grew up with were kind and generous souls, more concerned with the love of God and love for their neighbour than with Hellfire and the damnation of sinners. My mother seemed to combine a deep and powerful faith with a common sense approach to life and a genuine love of other people which often overrode her impatience with cant and hypocrisy. She was perhaps the first person I met who demonstrated that it was possible to be a Christian with a sense of humour. Perhaps this story might have been different had I been introduced to Dr. Ian Paisley at an impressionable age!
From my late teens and for most of my twenties, like most young people, I was in search of a meaning to my life and, for a while, this search led me away from my Christian faith. I was drawn for a while to Buddhism and Hinduism (this was the 60s after all!) but, although I still have a tremendous respect for these faiths, in the end I found them somewhat esoteric, and could never really take them seriously. During that period, I even had a brief flirtation with atheism. This, however, seemed to offer an arid and cold answer to spiritual questions and, in any case, I found atheists themselves, for the most part, a dry and dusty bunch. I'm sure there are many honourable exceptions but I still think I'd enjoy spending an evening and a bottle of wine with G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis rather than with Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins!
It was during this period of uncertainty that I was fortunate to find a whole range of 'people of faith', not necessarily Christians, who confirmed me in the belief that, whatever sins members of the great religions have committed (and they are countless), there still remain substantial numbers of good people within them. Some I only knew through their writings such as Sri Ramakrishna, Teilhard de Chardin and the wonderful Rabbi Lionel Blue. Others I knew personally. I have never seen the story of the Good Samaritan better exemplified than by a Jewish family. When I was thirteen, I spent many weeks in hospital in London. Because of ill health and the distance from my home, my mum was only rarely able to visit me. In the next bed was a Jewish boy, the same age as me. He lived in London and his parents visited him twice a day. As soon as they realized I had no visitors, they took me under their wing. Whatever they brought for Max be it sweets, fruit, books or toys, they brought exactly the same for me. Moreover, at least one of the family would sit and chat with me for the whole of visiting time. I don't know if they were particularly good or devout Jews but to the question “Who is my neighbour,” they would have answered without hesitation, “The little Christian kid who doesn't get visitors.”
For a time, I visited a Society of Friends meeting house and was moved by the extent of the love and spirituality of the Quakers, coupled with the fiery passion of their total rejection of war and violence. At the other end of the spectrum, I became close friends with a Catholic priest, who was another who never let ‘religion’ get in the way of love. When my mother, died, he said a requiem mass for the woman he called “the best Christian I know,” despite her being a 'heretic' in the eyes of the Catholic Church, an action which, in pre-Vatican II days, was strictly against Roman Catholic canon law! And then there were two great Methodists. One, Leslie Weatherhead, I only knew through his book, 'The Christian Agnostic' but it was this book which set me off on my return to Christianity. The other was that wonderful Methodist preacher, Donald Soper, who I met on several occasions. I have happy memories of my teens, when I would visit Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and watch the Protestant Truth Society fulminating against the ‘Whore of Babylon’ (the Roman Catholic Church), while, a few yards away, the Catholic Evidence Guild condemned all heretic Protestants to the fires of Hell. Meanwhile, nearby, Dr. Soper good-humouredly heckled both sides, while praying for peace and reconciliation for all men of good will! I sometimes think that, if it wasn't for Methodism's complete prohibition of alcohol (recently relaxed),these two giants might have converted me to their faith.
To conclude the story, after much wandering I eventually ended up in my early thirties back in the Church of England, where I continued to meet good and loving Christians. The story of how I came to be baptized into the Orthodox Church must wait for another time. Suffice to say that for the last thirty years my faith has remained firm, although, like most people’s it is probably not as strong as it should be. Perhaps this can be best illustrated by a story told by the English comedian Pam Ayers: A man was walking along a path at the top of a cliff when he suddenly slipped and fell over the edge. As he fell, he managed to grab hold of a bush but it was gradually coming loose and he knew he couldn’t hold on for long. He called out for help: “Is anybody there? Can anybody help me?” he shouted. He heard a great voice from Heaven saying “Yes, this is God. I’m here. Have faith. Let go of the bush and I will save you.” “Is there somebody else there?” cried the man plaintively.
Next week: Why did we become Orthodox?