Michael Harding: I believe in Richard Dawkins and religious iconography

I know the universe is empty but I still slide back into a devotional life if I’m given half a chance

Twin beliefs. Photographs: iStock, Alan Betson

Twin beliefs. Photographs: iStock, Alan Betson

 

I was at a funeral in Bucharest recently. The last queen of Romania was being buried, and the procession was led by uniformed men on horseback and followed by a line of black cars full of mourners wearing sunglasses and black veils.

People ran along the street to get a good glimpse of the moving vehicles, and I ran too. I wanted to find out what was going on, because I had stumbled on the procession by accident. Eventually I asked a policeman. “The queen is dead,” he said.

“I didn’t know Romania had a queen,” I replied.

As the people were running along the street, a black dog got so frightened that he bit a woman beside him. She screamed until an ambulance arrived. I presumed the police would come to shoot the dog, but the wounded woman seemed to be a friend of the woman with the dog, so after an injection they all went away happy enough, especially the dog. And they looked like a team, because the dog was black and the two women were in black dresses. And there were so many flowers and red lamps burning along the pavement that I figured the old queen must have been greatly loved.

In a cafe later, I spoke to the waitress.

“The queen is dead,” I observed.

“She was not the queen,” the waitress snapped. “She married the king after he was banished in 1947. We are a republic. We are free, like you.”

I’m not free at all

Clearly I didn’t know much about Romanian history, and the waitress didn’t know much about me, because I’m not free at all. I’m still chained by religious superstitions that are nor far removed from the affectations and mannerisms of underlings in a monarchy.

Of course, I know the universe is empty and I try to absorb the ideas of Richard Dawkins as much as I can, but I still slide back into a devotional life if I’m given half a chance.

For example, an icon appeared in my garden during the summer. It’s a replica of the Icon of Kazan and it was a gift from an old friend.

I found a shelf for it in my studio and sometimes I sit gazing at it, without quite knowing what I’m doing. Most people would consider an icon to be a physical fact, like a work of art, but for me it operates like a compass in my psyche when I’m confused.

And there’s something very confused about putting Dawkins and holy icons in the one sentence. It’s not something I’d admit to at a dinner party.

Wallowing in icons

That’s why I went to Bucharest: to wallow in icons and incense and the music of the 16th century without anyone knowing.

So after I checked into a hotel, I went to find the monastery of Stavropoleos, where the nuns sing in the evening.

The church was dark and the icons were dulled by candle smoke, and five women clad in black robes from head to toe were singing evening prayers. The church was so small that I stood only a few feet away from them. Candles burned beneath the icons and tiny bells tinkled as an old man swung a silver bowl, spreading clouds of incense around our heads.

Overwhelmed by such intimacy, I fled to the cloisters outside, an open courtyard where I could still hear the nuns’ voices as some Vietnamese tourists in cheap T-shirts took photographs of random stones and arches.

I sat on a step and tried to imagine what it must be like to be a nun in Bucharest singing so beautifully. The tourists swept around me like a shoal of fish. I was so deeply lost in thought that I almost didn’t notice a man taking my photograph.

“Excuse me, but I’m not a nun,” I said rather sarcastically, because I presumed he didn’t speak English. I was wrong about that, too. The little man with high cheekbones and sharp, needlepoint eyes spoke excellent English.

“But you looked so lost,” he said. “I thought it would make good photograph.”

“I just like the singing,” I said, although I did feel a bit lost at that moment. Inside the church, the intensity of devotion had been too much for me. Yet sitting outside, disconnected, had plunged me into deep melancholy once again.

“What are you thinking?” the wise man from Vietnam asked.

“Therapy,” I replied. “I think it’s time I went to my therapist again.”

“Maybe for you,” he said, smiling and pointing at the church, “this is the best therapy.”

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