A friend of mine often mocks my religious beliefs, citing Bertrand Russell. A philosopher who said he had no respect for those who claimed to worship an unknown God. People such as me believe he thought in an irrational and nonsensical set beliefs that could withstand the cold of scientific scrutiny. What I believe is that they they lack is an understanding of the magic of existence. One of the benefits of a country childhood was being gifted with an understanding of the magic of nature. Now in my seventies I can see it as a time of enchantment.
As a child of the 1940s when technological advances had left the countryside largely untouched, anything could be magical. One such occasion was my first visit to the blacksmith. His workshop was dark and gloomy, the only light coming from the forge and a soft ingrained window. Usually the lack of sunlight meant he left the door open, whatever the weather so as to get sufficient light with which to work. I witnessed this man using hammers, pincers and the forge to manufacture a horse shoe. A man so shrouded in shadow, that the only feature of his that I can recall is his bare arms. As a child of a pre-industrial age I can understand why medieval man intuited magic to the work of blacksmith. Seeing him turn a lump of shapeless metal into a horseshoe for the horse tethered outside seemed to be the practice of some spectral art. Given the powers of the swords wielded by the heroes of the medieval sagas, magic had to be part of the process of their making. Excalibur could well have been made in that age old smithy in the Gloucestershire of my childhood. It was not so far distant from the reputed land of Arthur.Technology robs today’s children of that sense of wonder. Excalibur for them could feature in a game played on their tablet, becoming a sword robbed of all its magic.
Today’s urban children are remote from the natural environment. I was not only in it, but part of it. . The natural environment was an ever changing constant in my life. Nature started at the bottom of my garden. There the hidden world of the woodland started. Even those paths through the woods that were familiar to me were constantly changing. Each day there would be something new to discover. Autumn was the time to look for toadstools, what I wanted to spot was the red Fly Agaric. A red toadstool with white spots, so loved of the illustrators of children’s books. Surprisingly they were not a common sight in the woods, instead they were full of their duller cousins. Although one duller cousin the puffball gave off delightfully clouds of black dust when kicked. Once the red Fly Agaric was finally found you knew that you were a participant in those stories about fairies that you read. Not only that there was the even more exciting time when you came across a fairy circle. These toadstools grew in a circle within which you knew the fairies danced at night. Adults then never disabused you of this belief. They also knew that nature was never a mystery can could never be fully explained. In their lifetime they had seen things that could that not be contained within rational explanation.
Naturalists claim that the rooks court is but a figment of the rural imagination. Rooks courts were those held by the colony of rooks, in which those rooks that have committed infractions of the rules of the colony were judged and punished. Yet my father one day heard a cacophony of noise from the vicinity of the rookery. There he saw a circle of rooks in centre of which were two rooks. From the tone of the rook’s cries it was obvious that were antagonistic to these two at the centre of the circle. Unfortunately these rooks became aware of my father’s presence and flew off, so he never discovered how the rookery would have dealt with these two miscreants. All countrymen could recount the similar stories, so for them nature was a mystery that could never be reduced to the explanations of science.
One of the most important events in the estate calendar was the village fete. All the villagers wanted to earn the prestigious title of best of show for their vegetables and flowers. Tricks and ploys of various forms were used some whose practice seemed to be the practice of some natural magic. Some men swore by planting their vegetables during the evening of a full moon. I cannot comment on the efficacy of this practice, although my father did try it one year, but disappointingly it produced no excessive profusion of vegetables.
None of the men of my childhood ever attended church. Church was for those of a different social class. It was for those who considered themselves superior to the workers, the rural middle class. The attitude of these people towards their supposed inferiors can be illustrated by a story. When the estate agent was checking on the work of the gamekeepers, he came in a car accompanied by his wife. She while observing the workers from the open car window, dropped a glove. She said to her husband while pointing at my father, tell that man to pick up my glove. What my father and his co-workers seemed to believe in was a religion was one that predated Christianity. An older religion that was founded on a respect for nature and its ways. They knew little of the church rituals or practices. Yet they were aware were the seasonal Christian rituals, as these rituals marked the changing of the seasons and there work practices. Then harvest festival signalled such a change. By now the crops had been harvested and the pace of work slowed. Work lost the intensity of summer. No longer would men work late at night harvesting the crop to take advantage of the favourable weather conditions.
While they never delayed the ploughing until ‘Plough Monday’ and certainly never attended a church service on that day, they knew on what day it fell. Plough Monday and other such rituals sanctified their working lives, it was more than a recognition of there value to the community. It elevated the mundane task of work into something out of the ordinary, something hallowed. For a country child Ash Wednesday was not a day of penance, it was instead the day in which we played with keys from the ash tree, trying to make them spin and fly. A shortage or lack of ash keys would have meant something was very wrong in nature. If I could go back in time and tell my father and his friends, that they practised a natural religion, they would have laughed at me. Religion was not something they talked about. Although I believe it governed there lives. Nature was a certain something, a thing to be respected not abused. They always had tales about the farmer or farm labourer who went against nature and suffered in consequence.
Although I think that my father and his workmates would have implicitly understood Democritus’s statement that every changes and nothing changes. They knew that nature was both ever changing and also a never changing something that endured from season to season and year to year.The rhythm of the seasons taught them this.
What a country childhood has given me is a sense of wonder. I can still see the enchantment within everyday things. As a child I eagerly looked for the first snow drop, as being the sign of the approach of spring. Then, if my father had come across the first snowdrop of the year, I and my sister would accompany him to that spot in which the snow drop was found, and marvel at its presence. Even now in my seventies when snowdrops are so common in urban gardens, I still look eagerly for that first snowdrop that is the first sign of the coming spring.
These old countrymen seemed to me to possess the wisdom of the ages. Not the silly version shown in Hollywood films, but a knowing grounded in reality of human existence. This gave them the strength to endure the horrors of war. In my fathers unit of thirty two that went to war, only three came back in 1945. The man who came back my mother said unrecognisable, he had become an old man. Yet he and the others endured seemed to me and his childhood friends to have come through the conflict unscathed. We longed forward to adulthood when we would possess the strength of our fathers.
Unlike my father I can give a name to my religious beliefs, I am a deist. While I respect Christianity and love the Anglican Church, I cannot call myself a Christian. What I possess is a countryman’s natural religion, a sense of awe at the wonder of existence. A religion which is not one that does not fit easily within the narrow confines of a particular doctrine. One that is without boundaries, one that flows easily from one religious discipline to another. That anonymous author who wrote ‘The Cloud of the UnKnowing’ gives the title to my religious belief. It not require a name.
Having inherited the natural religion of my fathers, unlike my friends I have great respect for the religious writers of the past. I read them wishing to give clarity to my natural religion. Medieval theologians were not as I popularly believed, obsessed with silly debates as to how many angels could dance on a pinhead. Anybody who cares to read the scholastic philosophers will discover thinkers as sophisticated in their thought as contemporary philosophers. Also as difficult to read as any modern philosopher.
John Hick with his term the ‘religious ultimate’ expresses best the belief of the those who cling to the natural religion of their fathers.