Michael Harding: I found Jesus in the woods as I was hugging a tree

As I grow old there is something in the gods I collect around me I am loath to renounce

 

I was buying fuel at a filling station in Cavan. The nozzle was in the tank, and the diesel was flowing. The clock flew up to €40 before I stopped.

“I heard you on the radio this morning,” a man at the next pump shouted. He was filling a white Audi. I had been on Newstalk with Ivan Yates a few hours earlier. But the man with the Audi wasn’t impressed.

“I couldn’t figure out what you were talking about,” he said. “I mean one minute you said that religion was a waste of time and the next minute you were saying you were very religious yourself. And then you were saying that people should take their tablets if they were depressed and then, in the next breath, you said that it would be good if people took no tablets at all. Sure you’re a walking contradiction.”

I tried to explain that in the winter I get depressed and I read Beckett and Dawkins and I think about the empty universe. But when May comes I lose the run of myself; I see the Queen of Heaven in every white bush.

For example, one morning last week I found Jesus in the woods as I was hugging a tree. It wasn’t easy to see him, because he was only the size of my finger, and he was lying in the grass.

In reality, I was staring at a little statue that belonged to my mother long ago.

“How did you get lost in the woods?” I wondered, but he didn’t reply.

My mother always kept him on the kitchen window ledge with his hands outstretched and his heart exposed and crowned with a symbolic flame. And she called out to him regularly if she burned the chops or left the potatoes boiling too long.

“Oh Sacred Heart,” she would cry with a kind of forlorn devotion.

Matchstick cross

How he travelled from my mother’s house in Cavan to the long grass around the house in Arigna remains a mystery.

Nonetheless I told him he was welcome and then I carried him from the woods to the doorstep of my studio and left him beside a little wooden cross which I rescued from a fire on St John’s Eve last year.

The cross was made of matchsticks and glue by prisoners in Loughan House in 1974 when I was a teacher there. The matchsticks were glued onto wood, in the woodwork class by the young prisoners under the supervision of Master Folan, the woodwork teacher, a gentle stout man with a bad hip and wonky black spectacles, who stood smiling at the door of my classroom on the day the young inmates presented me with the cross.

“Don’t burn that,” someone shouted on St John’s Eve last year, as I flung what I thought was a clump of dead wood onto the fire at the end of the garden. The cross was already burning on one side, but I was so horrified that I reached into the flames with another stick and poked it out again.

So I left my mother’s Sacred Heart on the doorstep beside the cross, and every time I go in or out I say hello.

The postman says I’ll never grow up. Which I suppose is true. Although I’ve never told him that inside my studio there are lots more little gods which I accumulated over the years; statues of Ganesh, thangkas of Buddha, photographs of the Dalai Lama, and icons of various Madonnas. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single drawer in which there isn’t some exotic deity lurking in the dark.

Constellation of hope

And as I grow old, and experience the falling away of physical desires, there is something in the little gods around me that I am loath to renounce.

When the man at the filling station in Cavan had put the fuel into the white Audi he let rip a shocking roar.

“Oh Sacred Heart of Jesus,” he cried out.

“What’s up?” I wondered.

“I’m after putting€60 of petrol in the wife’s Audi,” he said.

“What’s wrong with that?” I wondered.

“She takes the diesel,” he said bitterly, his face as white as the lovely car.

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