Michael Harding: How I know for sure that I am not Charlie
I am not Catholic any more, nor Jew, nor Muslim. But then neither is God
‘The Brigid’s cross is my talisman for spring, just as the icon of the Madonna carried me through the winter.’ Photograph: Declan Doherty
I stood in a field yesterday and plucked rushes to make a St Brigid’s cross. It’s only a superstition, but I feel the darkness of winter is over and the Great Mother is awakening in the fields again, fertile and bright. Soon I will speak to her, when the days have stretched and I am in my little Citroën driving up and down the countryside, admiring primroses on the ditches and daffodils in the fields.
The Brigid’s cross is my talisman for spring, just as the icon of the Madonna carried me through the winter.
Ezra Pound described religious dogma as “bluff based on ignorance” and at this stage of my life I realise that any religion swallowed as dogma is a distracting waste of time. But I also know that behind every religious devotion there exists the same human longings.
When I touch an icon and run my fingers along its surface, my gesture is only an external shadow of what is happening inside me. I am reaching inwardly, towards the most hidden core of my own self.
I long to be awake in the present moment. I seek freedom from anxiety and it comes when the mythic gods of my psyche are made manifest in the icon, and the ego dissolves in the great silence of devotion. Icons allow us to surface in the presence of otherness, and by paying them attention we realise the exquisite condition of just being here now.
Dreams of Romania
In January I headed for Romania, a place I have been dreaming about for years, wishing to press my lips against the Byzantine icons of Mary, the great mother.
My fascination with Romania began years ago, when I was studying theology in Maynooth. One day two beautiful young men arrived in the robes and hats of orthodox monks; bearded, sallow-skinned and with hair as black as a raven’s feathers.
That winter it snowed heavily, and the three of us were stranded in the old seminary during the holidays. We walked across the white fields, under the frozen beech trees and joked about the future and promised each other the world, as young people do. They joked about western culture being decadent and how Top of the Pops was the work of the devil.
There was always a home-made lamp burning before an icon in the corner of their room; a glass bowl full of oil and a small copper wire twisted across the top holding a length of string, which served as a wick.
Very often we sat in silence, although I wouldn’t call it praying. We were just sitting there, holding the icon as a shared focus; an anchor in our consciousness.
Years later, in Mongolia, I was sitting before an icon of Buddha when I realised that, although the cultural grammar was different, I was being swept up again into the same beautiful silence.
I didn’t wash for days
In Bucharest last month I had no hot water in my apartment and the bedclothes wouldn’t satisfy a cat on a cold night, so I didn’t wash or change my clothes for days. Outside it snowed, and the city was much like any other, with signs of destitution and isolation everywhere. I saw an elderly man playing a violin on the street with blue fingers. I saw a woman sleeping on the grill that sucks warm air from the metro below.
When I found the icon I was looking for in a little church of shadows, it was like finding a refuge from all the isolation and anxiety of that modern world outside. It felt like stepping again into the exquisite silence of the present moment.
And when I came home to Leitrim the snow followed me, and the silence followed the snow, enveloping everything in the garden. The magpies came close to the house. The robins looked in the window. A big hen thrush sat under a tree waiting for the ground to thaw.
I know I have long outgrown my religious origins. But occasionally icons hold me and carry me so far below the surface of the self that the shell of ego in me sometimes feels like it’s about to dissolve. I am not Catholic any more, nor Jew, nor Muslim. But then neither is God.
With Patrick Kavanagh I talk to the blackbird, and, like Kavanagh, I lose my God at the setting sun. In fact, I don’t know what or even who I am any more. But when I see Muhammad, may his name be praised, the singular, sacred and hidden icon of Islam, contorted into an ugly cartoon, I know for sure that I am not Charlie.