Ben and I have been rewatching Rev, the comedy series from ten years ago, about an inner-city vicar, Adam Smallbone played by Tom Hollander. Its tone and mood seem perfect at the moment, and the rev himself – flawed, human, full of uncertainty – is as funny as ever, but perhaps even more moving now.
I’ve always been an atheist, or at least, I’ve always thought so. A few years ago I devoured those books by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, revelling in all that rationality, all that rebellious dismissal of faith. But I’ve backed off a bit now. The appeal to my powers of reason was strong, and comforting, providing a kind of certainty which in itself was reassuring.
Right now what I’m trying to get used to is uncertainty – about everything. We’re all full of questions, with no answers. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Am I, or is someone I love, going to get very ill? What will life be like in a week, a month, a year? How many of us have to suffer? And for how long?
These questions sound a bit like prayers to me. How long, oh Lord, how long.
Anyone religious worth their salt always talks about doubt, of course, and how it’s as much a part of the experience as is faith. We are surrounded by it. I find myself most mornings walking around the weathered, leaning gravestones of the churchyard. If the church doors were open, I think I’d go and sit inside. Maybe I’d sort of pray.
In Rev, Adam Smallbone prays in a conversational way. His chats with God are often just him complaining. I find myself having conversations inside my own head, and I wonder, is this a prayer?
Being in the churchyard encourages the thought. I talk to my mum, who has been dead for nearly ten years. “Mum,” I say/think, “you won’t believe what’s happening. There’s a pandemic and we all have to stay indoors. Like, indefinitely. It’s really, really weird. And I’m a bit sad and scared.”
I wait for her answer, but I can’t quite catch it.
A friend tells me her parents have a memorial stone in the churchyard, so I go and find it, and stand in front of their names. After a few minutes I reach out and touch the plaque and say, awkwardly, a kind of “bless you” to them, and is that a prayer? The breeze rustles the grasses, and the shadows move across the stones, and I think about my place in the world, my place in time, and I wonder, is that a prayer too?
Lines from poems come into my head, like these from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is./I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down/into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,/how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,/which is what I have been doing all day./Tell me, what else should I have done?/Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?/Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”
And Larkin’s poem about churchgoing comes back to me, those lines about how even atheists will always find meaning in a church, “If only that so many dead lie round.” Being surrounded by graves will tend to make you dwell on mortality, but then so does everything else at the moment. Perhaps I need to shake myself out of this mood.
Returning to Rev for one last time, I realise that I love even the opening theme song, which is a remix of “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” by Nat King Cole. I decide to make myself a playlist, with prayer as the theme. I add songs which are contemplative, and songs for the dance floor; some worshipful, some secular, or irreverent. Aretha, Mahalia, Madonna. Ian Dury, and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
I sing along with them on my walks, and think of the line attributed to St Augustine, “to sing is to pray twice”. I’ve always loved that.
An old track by the Weather Prophets comes on, with its lyrics full of confusion. “Back in the same place but everything’s changed,” the song goes. “I walk the same roads but they’re not the same… I almost prayed. I almost prayed.” And I think. “Yeah, me too.”
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion