The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.
Despite being devoutly non-religious from a very young age, I find myself emotionally attached to many aspects of Christian life. Waking up to the carillon chimes of a nearby Anglican Church every Sunday morning, I find myself strangely comforted by an institution I have never once considering attending. There is something graceful listening to a church calling out to their flock. Living in a Stalinist Legoland that is home to many different cultures, church bells feel like a wistful homage to past generations.
Even as a liberal, modern secularist I find listening to them on a Sunday morning incredibly powerful. However, I have never believed in God and find the key tenets of all Abrahamic religions (in practice) to be inherently backward and repressive. On being forced to attend Church of Scotland services as a school boy, I now only enter churches for weddings, funerals or as tourist attractions in foreign countries.
On travelling through Andalucía, I recall the time I spent in Ronda, and watching elderly nuns carrying bags of groceries along cobbled Moorish streets. Once again I found it a fascinating throwback to a more traditional way of life, although I am sure the lives of those modern day Catholic nuns were very real. Not believing in God or the repressive lifestyle it would require me to live, I find myself conflicted on why I wouldn’t like to see it disappear entirely.
Christopher Hitchens once said if ‘I could convince everyone in the world to be a non-believer, and there’s only one left. One more, and then it’d be done. There’d be no more religion in the world. No more deism, theism, I wouldn’t do it. Somehow if I could drive it out of the world, I wouldn’t’. Divided by his own intellectual disdain and personal fear of extinguishing religion altogether, I suspect he also feared what might take its place.
Sentimentality might strike at the heart of my love of church bells on a Sunday morning. As long as I am not forced to conform to something I don’t believe in, then it’s absolutely fine for others to practice their faith. Although on a logical level, I’ve always taken issue with religious institutions holding sway over people’s everyday lives. On living in a profoundly secular country accommodating many different religions, I find myself aghast at how in the twenty-first century, we find ourselves pandering to the whims of irrational faiths.
The multi-faith English school system is riddled with stories of non-religious parents pretending to be Catholic, Anglican or Jewish in order to get their children into a decent school. A ludicrous situation that only fuels my desire to see religious organisations stripped of their ability to participate in public life.
Alas the romanticism of church bells and the beautiful sacrifice of nuns does come at a price. Even with the rise of secularism, power doesn’t go away. It never does. But in the absence of God, there remains a spiritual void in a secular world where biology and science can now explain anything. Perhaps it’s the absence of grace that makes me nostalgic for church bells on a Sunday morning.
Something more profound than mere existence. The carillon chimes are just a metaphor for a way of grace. And despite firmly believing in the power of enlightenment, I do believe we belong to something bigger. Even if it is just the age old question of why we are here.