I think we known each other well enough for me to let you into a secret. I used to be a right holy joe. For my thirtieth birthday my parents gave me a piece of paper they’d discovered while redecorating their house; an invitation to church I had written when I was seven years old (with my role being “redding master” and a picture of the Nobodaddy Bearded God, the lesser bearded Jesus and one of the spooks from Scooby Doo – my earliest attempt at imagining the Holy Ghost). I found one of my old books of lists where, aged about ten, I had summarised the entirety of the Bible. At fifteen I was confirmed by profession of faith and served on a Vacancy Committee to appoint the new minister of the parish.
At eighteen I discovered the heady blend of ritual, music, art and liturgy of the Anglican Church, a concoction completely alien to the stark whiteness of the reformed Kirk I’d grown up in. The splinter of Calvinism in my non-existent soul would like to attribute my loss of faith to the pernicious influence of the bells and smells brigade, but no: it was literary theory that did for me. But you can take the boy out of the church… as my atheism became more militant, I found myself prey to the most despicable of virtues: the determination not to be a hypocrite. I would go to church, and take panic attacks where my legs turned to jelly and my breathing became laboured. So it was with a certain degree of apprehension that I agreed to go to church with my sister-in-law (who was singing in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) and perform the Stations of the Cross as well as attend the Eucharist. I suppose Anglicanism reconciled me to utter atheism. There was a vaguely pre-Raphaelite piece of stained glass, depicting the patron saint of the church (St Wilfred) and the patron saint of the country (St George) flanking a figure reaching up towards a communion goblet… Sir Galahad. It was so blatantly syncretic, such a mish-mash of legend, fable and faith that disbelief seemed wholly natural and perfectly acceptable. It started me thinking about how unusual it is that we refer to the Passiontide period as Easter. Digging around in my copy of the Venerable Bede, I found this passage: “Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance”. The Spring goddess Ēostre’s name eventually derives from the Proto-Indo-European *au̯es–, meaning to shine, and she is cognate with the Greek Titaness Eos (who represented the dawn), the Roman Aurora and the Vedic Ushas, as well as the cardinal direction East. Musing on this, Tennyson came back to mind, and the poem Tithonus: Eos gave Tithonus any wish, and he chose immortality without asking for eternal youth. There is probably no greater poem on the horror of not dying.