Thinking with a lisp

I talk to myself. Or, I talk to others when alone. At times, the dialogue, or at least my part in it, is audible, and at others quite an interior event. The embarrassment of being caught in this most inappropriate behaviour will generally suppress it, but a period of isolation can bring it to the surface again.

If I was staying to look after him, I could hear my father, as he lay awake in the morning or after a nap, angrily engaging with the demons irrupting to consciousness from long halls of painful memories. He was old, he was deaf, and was no doubt unaware of just how his interior struggles infiltrated the quiet house. In any case, he would probably not have been concerned.

I’m not so old as to be unconcerned. Except in extremis, I generally remember to keep the volume down, but the monologues go on. There may be a vast assembly of dramatis personae, but none of them get to say much. Others with a finely tuned awareness of the motors of human behaviour may well be able to design and rehearse very practical conversations in the same arena; not me, for worse or better.

Many of these are almost entirely silent. I say almost. Sometimes I realise that the interior voice is lisping. I notice because of the fullness and tension I feel in the top of the throat and up under the jaw to the tongue. I cannot get my tongue, in silence, around the words properly: I am thinking with a lisp.

Not simply thinking, of course. Along with the imagined words must be the slightest of muscular rehearsals; far too small to be audible, but enough to suffer from some temporary dislocation which feeds back to my inner ear as a lisp. So idea, and the inchoate will to express, precedes language, which serves it, better or worse.

Anxiety burnout

Looking at the posting dates, I see that it has been nearly 6 months since the last. I descended into a pit of work-related anxiety, and now — well, it’s not that I have overcome the anxiety; more that I am getting sick of it, and need to do something else.

I’ve been out of my depth at work since I started, but in volunteering to write a particular document, I bit the bullet of learning enough about the things we do to be able to explain it to other who were starting from the same position as me. And a serious case of lead poisoning I developed.

At about the time of my last post — the last post before this resurrection, that is — my workplace shifted from the city to West End. The move itself should not have been a problem. I love West End, and I enjoy being able to walk through it at lunch time, heading for a cheap feed: a couple of tandoori chicken wings and a vege samosa at the Indian Kitchen; a piece of grilled mullet with salt and pepper from George’s; a potato and chicken filo triangle with a couple of felafel from KingAhiram’s; a small selection of sushi; a quarter of roasted chicken and a banana from Coles. And on the way the characters of West End, doomed like the End itself, to gradual extinction by the encroaching Off-Central Business District.

I work above the “new” Melbourne Hotel (The Best End of West End). It’s another depressing clone of an up-market pub/club/eatery, but, being on the site of the “old” Melbourne, at risk of attracting some of the “old” clientele. So for months I have run the gauntlet the black-clad goons on the footpath outside the pub. Not that the old clientele would have stayed. The price of a drink of the house goon was prohibitive; so prohibitive that it was a threat to the new clientele, so the management lowered the price after a week or two, explaining that they were obliged to offer a lower quality tipple, because of complaints about the price. Sniff.

The security has thinned out somewhat. On the way home tonight, as I passed the entrance to The Oasis (home of the pokies) a bloke in a yellow work jacket was coming out, and the usual guard was absent. Can pretensions be so fragile?

Albert Speer seems to be the fashionista of choice for the eatery clone studios — black-shirts are everywhere. I suppose it lends something of the distinction of the SS to these modest establishments. A touch of silver wouldn’t go astray, but most seem to make do with basic black, or, as for the Melbourne serving staff, a flash of white.

For now, Browning Street is the boundary of the intrusion, with Boundary still the centre of the End. Über tried to drive up-market, holding out for a long time with a strict dress code and the muscle to back it up, but eventually eased off and let the people back in. Over the road the Pavilion, operating under the Boundary Hotel’s licence, had already tried for glitz, but is now looking a bit tatty. They have some good music though, but better is generally playing, early on Friday night, in the public bar of the Boundary itself. There’s more music up the road, but Satchmo’s has been taken over, and the open and inviting front, through which the players tucked in the back left corner could be seen and heard from the footpath, is now a “music cafe”, and all closed in.

There’s much to be said about West End, but not now. In honour of Murri Corner and the West End goanna, here’s a little story to end. A colleague of Jen’s lived near the PA, and would walk past the Buranda shopping centre on the way home. He would regularly be accosted by one or other of the local urban blackfellas on the cadge. They always copped an abrupt refusal on the way past. One evening, one says, “Gotadollar. Go to Melbourne.” He paused. “You can’t get to Melbourne for a dollar!” “Melbourne Hotel.” I don’t know whether he got his dollar.

A visit to Medjugorje

In the autumn of 1996 I took a ferry from Ancona across the Adriatic to Split. There was a reasonable swell, into which we heaved through the night. I slept little in the “aircraft style” seats, keeping an eye on my knapsack, in which all of my travelling possessions, and a significant portion of my worldly possessions were packed. I was travelling with cabin luggage only, which kept the volume down, and made the airports mercifully easy to leave. By dawn we were sailing down the Dalmatian coast. We moved in behind the shelter of the string of elongated islands that parallel the coast, and came into Split. I’d met a Kiwi on the boat who suggested we get accommodation together in Medjugorje. I agreed, having become all to aware of the cost of single rooms. It was a bad mistake.

From Split we took a bus down the spectacular coast road, and eventually turned inland. The Dayton Agreement had come into effect, and had formalised the borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Medjugorje was well inside the the country. The border was marked by a collection of armoured cars, some IFOR and others from one of the armed forces of the area. A soldier looked at passports on the bus, and we went on. As we moved further into the country, we passed through ruined villages, the houses pock-marked with bullets, some burned out shells showing the holes from the tank fire that had destroyed them.

We rolled into Medjugorje past an IFOR post, and found ourselves in back in Croatia. There were Croatian flags strung across the street, a Croatian police station, and a Croatian post office. So much for the Dayton Agreement.

There has been a lot of building over the past decade, to judge from recent photos. Even then it was a thriving pilgrimage centre, with plenty of accommodation and plenty of souvenir shops of a Catholic character. I immersed myself in the pilgrim’s round; my Kiwi companion looked for girls and drank a lot.

Pilgrimages in Medjugorje focus on the local church (St. James), Cross Mountain, and the Hill of Apparition (Podbrdo). Some kilometers away is the Franciscan monastery; the order is responsible for the parish. Father Jozo Zovko, OFM, who was the parish priest at the time of the first apparitions,played a prominent supportive role in the early years, and was still at the monastery in 1996.

The hills in the area are relatively new, geologically speaking. Layers of sediment had been slowly laid down and packed solid into laminates of rock. Then the whole structure had been broken up, and chunks of it thrown up at crazy angles to form those hills. Their slopes were faced with dragon’s teeth; the edges of the laminates exposed at sixty or seventy degrees, harrying travellers’ footfalls. Up these slopes the armies of pilgrims clambered.

Podbrdo was the lesser trial, because it is close to town, and the site of the apparitions is not far up the hill-side. The mysteries of the rosary were presented in bas-relief on large copper plates positioned along the circuit up to and back from the focal point. Cross Mountain was more arduous. It is further from the town, the mountain is higher, the way steeper, and the cross is right at the top. The path, as well-worn as the Podbrdo path, was marked with similar plates portraying the Stations of the Cross.

The church maintained a packed schedule of of morning and evening Masses in various languages. No sooner had one Mass finished than the next group would be pressing at the entrances. In between, the confessionals were busy, and often some visiting priest could be seen sitting outside in close conversation with a penitent.

After a day or two, I met a couple of backpackers from Oz. I’ll call them Grant and Adrian, because I have forgotten their names. They were from Adelaide. They had come in the hard way; from Macedonia, presumably through Serbia, into the shattered Sarajevo, where they had spent a night in their sleeping bags, and on through Mostar.

Adrian was a robust young Australian atheist, and Grant was an easy-going young Australian Catholic. He had an auntie who had been to Medjugorje, and who had told him about seeing the miracles of the sun. What’s more, she had the video to prove it. The combination proved irresistible to to Grant, so he had made a point of visiting on his backpacking travels. Adrian was just along for the ride.

I had heard many stories about the place, but the aunt’s video intrigued me. I was sceptical about it. It it existed, then the perceived behaviour of the sun was not some psychological effect—an explanation I rejected in any case— nor even a direct miraculous and simultaneous intervention in the perceptions of a large group of witnesses, but something far more puzzling. The easiest course was to discount the story.

Grant’s attitude was interesting. He arrived with an expectation of seeing miraculous events. That expectation virtually amounted to a demand, and when they did not immediately occur he began to express his disappointment. I was more circumspect, having no preconceptions.

I went up Podbrdo one afternoon, praying the Rosary in the desultory company of many other pilgrims, and I encountered a group who were excitedly examining the sun. “Oh yes, look at the colours.” So, with many others, I squinted into the brightness, hoping for some revelation, but being forced soon enough to look away. When I did, all I could see was the after-image. Then my prayers began in earnest. “Please don’t let me have damaged my eyes.” I walked past a little, old nun who had been engaged in the same squinting, to the same effect. Seated on a rock in front of her was a woman wearing a white T-shirt. “Oh, look,” said the nun, “her shirt has turned to gold!” A couple were walking past me at that moment. One whispered to the other, “Of course. You’ve been staring at the sun,” voicing my unspoken opinion.

I was by nature cautious of the power of desire over perception, and had long been a devotee of my unscientific notion of scientific method. At the time I began to open myself to spiritual experiences, I let the guard of my scepticism lower. As a result, I learned many things, most of them false.

I became involved with charismatic Christians, and relished the release in the mild ecstasies of speaking in tongues, and the mutual prayers for healing and the laying on of hands. One of the conventions of such prayer was “resting in the Spirit”. Under the influence of the Spirit, the prayee would, for what of a better word, faint. Such an outcome was known in the trade as being “slain in the Spirit”, with its overtones of baptism and resurrection. The slain one would then “rest” before arising refreshed.

Accordingly, the ritual of such prayer involved a “catcher”; it was a role I had often assumed. At the time I became involved, much of this procedure had become ritualised, and the slain ones would collapse just so, to be caught under the arms and lowered gently to the ground. After a seemly interval, they would stir again and, if necessary, be helped to their feet. The interval tended to vary directly with the abandonment of the collapse. I was frequently slain, my falling making no concessions to safety, and my resting being correspondingly longer. I became increasingly suspicious of myself, but, suspicious as I was, I could never resolve for myself the engine of this behaviour.

A few days into my visit, I joined one of many parties travelling to the monastery. We toured the monastery, visiting the outside cellar where a group of priests had been killed by occupying German troops during WWII. Afterwards we made our way into the church of the monastery, where we were treated to a long address by Fr Jozo. He and a few fellow priests than began the rounds of the pilgrims, praying a blessing for each. A young priest prayed over me, and was clearly startled when I keeled over. In doing so, I made the effort to twist a little, as I was aware there was no catcher. I was one of the very few that day who reacted so, and it was probably this priest’s first such experience.

A friend of mine had been in this same monastery some years before, when the fever was running higher. She was a long-time devout Catholic, and had been resistant to the charismatic influence. She also had strong opinions about the dangers of mobs and the herd mentality. All of her opinions were firmly held and firmly expressed. She had described her encounter with Fr Jozo to me before I left Australia. He was praying over people, and they were dropping like ninepins. As he approached her, she resolved not to fall, thinking the display to be, at the least, over the top. He reached her, and lifted his hand over her forehead. Before he touched her, she felt a bolt of energy and down she went. All I can say with certainty about my experience is that it was nothing like hers.

Because I was living out of cabin luggage, I had to wash clothes frequently. I often faced the problem of getting them dry in time to pack for the next day’s travels. In Medjugorje, I saw something I had never noticed at home. It was getting cooler, and during my stay I saw the first snow on the distant mountains. One morning I hung out some washing on the line on a balcony near the room. The sun was not long risen, and shone in the cool air directly on the clothes. Almost as soon as its light hit the very damp washing, water vapour began to rise like steam. For me, it was minor miracle of the sun.

I had been there for four or five days, and Grant, like me, had seen nothing. He was fuming. “If I don’t see anything, I’m going to tell everyone that Medjugorje is a fraud.” His attitude amazed me, and I thought, “That’s exactly the wrong attitude.” I saw him again that evening, and he was cock-a-hoop. “I’ve seen it.” What happened? He had gone to the church, feeling quite angry. He saw a priest, and collared him. The priest was English, and had come on pilgrimage a number of times. “Have you seen it?” “Yes, I have. In fact, I can now see it anywhere. I see it when I am at home.” “What do I have to do?” Outside the church was a crucifix. The priest suggested that Grant go there and pray, asking to be shown. He did, looked up, and saw an image in the sun. He rushed off to where he was staying with Adrian, and excitedly told him the news. Adrian looked, and he saw it too.

The next day was their last, and I met them in mid-afternoon on the way back from Cross Mountain. There was a layer of thin high cloud. I asked them if they could see anything. They both looked at the sun and described something that, as I recall, resembled a delta or triangle. They simply continued to look directly at the sun as they described it. I tried to do the same thing, but despite the haze of cloud, I could not stand to look, or squint, for more than a few seconds. For them there was no squinting, and seemingly no limit to the time they could spend looking into the sun.

This experience was invaluable for me. Walking beside these guys, I could detect nothing unusual, and, more telling for me, I simply could not look at the sun in that way. I had long thought that this one aspect of the phenomenon was a challenge to scepticism, but to see it demonstrated so immediately was startling. If this external evidence was irrefutable, why should I disbelieve their description of what they saw?

I still leaned to the view that the intervention occurred at the level of the individual. There is a variety of effects displayed by the sun; pulsing, moving erratically, displaying multiple colours, and containing images. In the latter case, there were differences in what image people saw. Many Catholics saw a host—the Blessed Sacrament—in the sun; Protestants might see some tri-partite image. In all cases, the sun and retinas don’t mix, so, unless some hitherto unexplored bodily process exists by which the eye can sometimes protect itself from such intense radiation, the effect is not psychological. I was still not prepared to entertain the prospect that such phenomena were external, “objective” realities, that Grant and Adrian, as they walked beside me, were perceiving a world every bit as concrete, every bit as real, as the one I perceive; every bit as real, but different.

In the back of my mind was the aunt’s video. It only came to the foreground when I went to the web to check some details for this posting. I found a YouTube link, and following it, I found a number of videos taken by Medjugorje pilgrims. Here are a some of them.

By the same token, here is an example where the observed phenomenon did not register on the video. The comments with the video explain the observations.

It is trivial to fake such videos with current technology, and I do not offer any of them as evidence of the event portrayed. I simply say that this is the kind of video that Grant’s aunt took, and I now must come to terms with the fact that such events are recordable. It throws all of my previous thinking about these phenomena into disarray. It is as though a parallel world has been revealed to some, including Grant and Adrian, and kept hidden from others, including me. The fact that no explanation is likely in terms of the tools of our understanding of the physical environment underlines the limitations I had already detected in such tools and the philosophy they expressed.

My Kiwi roommate, as I said, drank a lot. He spent every evening in a bar, and would come back to the room late and drunk. We had found a double room in a house down the road a little from the Post Office and the bus station, on the road by which we entered the town. It was run by a middle-aged woman who seemed to have the care of a couple of children. She spoke very little English, and a neighbour translated for her.

On what was supposed to be our last night there, he came back very late and very drunk, waking me when he came in. Some time later, I was woken again by his jumping out of bed swearing at the unknown person who had “pissed in me bed”. He flipped the mattress over, collapsed on the bed, and went out again like a light. In the morning, I decided to act as though nothing had happened. We packed and left the proprietor to find the mattress and the crumbs from meals of bread and cold meats, a mess to which I had contributed.

I can’t remember why, but I decided to stay another night, so in the evening I went back to see if I could get a single room. The owner was clearly very unhappy to see me, and I felt a surge of guilt for not offering to help clean up the Kiwis’ bed. She let me a room though, for which I was extremely grateful.

I left the next morning, and was treated to another view of the glorious Dalmatian coast from the bus. In Split, waiting for the ferry, I gave some money to one of the beggars, and was soon surrounded by a small group whom I had to refuse. There was a market, and I bought a pair of “genuine Levis”, which was so ill-fitting that, back in Italy, I had to perform surgery with my tiny Victorinox scissors, a needle and thread in order to make them wearable. They saw me through the rest of the trip though.

I ran into the Kiwi again in Jerusalem in company with a young woman, whom he had presumably asked to share accommodation with him. Small world.

Oliver’s Greatcoat

I was less than ten years old when I was given a copy of Oliver Twist for Christmas or birthday. It was a small-format Collins hardcover, blue-bound, with the Collins fountain logo stamped in silver on the front cover. The pages were very thin, so much so that in places the print from the other side, too heavy in places, showed through, making reading difficult.

I read avidly, and was delighted at Oliver’s rescue. At that point, of course, things take a turn for the worse. When Oliver, carrying his benefactor’s books, is kidnapped by Nancy, my heart sank, and I put the book away.

At the moment, I’m reading Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, edited by Robert Chandler. The first story is Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades, the third is Gogol’s The Greatcoat. Reading Gogol, I had that same feeling of impending doom as Akaky Akakiyevich makes his way back from the party whose pretext is his new greatcoat.

It took me some years to pick Oliver Twist up again. I think I finished it in my mid-teens. My expectation of a satisfying resolution may have sustained me. If so, Dickens did not disappoint. Gogol offers no such promise, but I am grown-up now, so I pressed on through my dread. Gogol did not disappoint.

Speaking of dreams

Once, I had a dream. It was many years ago, some time after my conversion, or reversion. Many of the details of time, place and event are now hazy; even the details of the dream have blurred. I was still young enough in my newly-recovered faith to be susceptible to such a dream, and to go searching eagerly for its references.

Here’s what I can reconstruct of it. The scene featured a chapel whose primary focus—whose only substance, perhaps— was a wall of intricately carved wooden panels, many in the form if the peaked arch which is so characteristic of western European church architecture. There was a doorway, which led I don’t know where. There were two men in the chapel; I couldn’t identify them. Also present, in some way I can’t rationalise, was Albrecht Dürer.

The space enlarged and an angelic choir, out of sight, began to sing a Christmas hymn I had loved in my childhood, and had long ago forgotten: What Child Is This, to the tune of Greensleeves. The volume, depth and richness of the music became majestic, and I woke up filled with joy.

I began to look for the words next day. This was in the days before the ubiquitous web, and I had to employ slower methods. It took some time, but find them I did. I remembered from the dream the words whom shepherds praise, whom angels sing. In the published text, I read whom shepherds guard, but I now use my variation, and the song always brings me the delight I felt as a child, and more. It is part of the texture of my relationship with the Lord, renewed and now re-renewed; a small instance of the secret life that enriches so many of the faithful, sustenance for the long dogged daily reality of faith.


If I am not woken suddenly—by an alarm clock, for example—I often find myself in a state on the cusp between sleep and wakefulness; in reverie. And often in that oftenness some questions that have been in the back of my mind will find their way to the front. The other morning—the one that triggered this post—I “woke”, and started thinking about the West Antarctic ice shelf, as one does.

In this state, I am aware at some level just below the surface, that I am awake. That awareness is deceptive, as becomes obvious when the phase change to wakefulness actually does occur, with its accompanying I’m awake now. When that happened, I was still thinking about ice, but the context of the activity had changed. The most obvious change was my sudden alertness to my surroundings. I had moved out of that inner world to which the world that contained me—the bedroom, the house, the noise of trees and birds and traffic—was connected by only the subconscious trip-wires that will be snagged by, say, the smell of smoke; and into the state of thinking wakefulness where, while the pattern of thought may be the same, the mental terrain has become spare and hard-edged, analogously to a transition between watching a movie and reading text, even if a movie that I am present in, a book that I am writing.

Where I had been following a seam of argument through a dream-rich montage of images from the ice down into the Southern Ocean to the ice-scarred bottom, I now found myself working it in the dimly lit bedroom, with the morning light seeping in at the edge of the vertical blinds. I’m awake now.

My waking mind would maintain that the drowsing mind would generate conclusions less reliable, more appropriate to a dream, but I have too many times woken with a new approach to a thorny technical problem, to accept that self-serving hypothesis from the well-lit side. The contrast with the spare environment of my waking thought brought home to me the paucity of visual imagination that I have taken for granted, relegating the imagery of dreams to a completely separate realm.

Yet they are not as separate as I had imagined, as the experiences just mentioned ought to have led me to suspect. Such enlightenments had, however, happened in the dark, simply presenting themselves to the waking consciousness. In this instance of the emergence of wakefulness I had the chance to see a process of thinking happening within the the context of dreams, with all of the imaginative richness that implies.

I don’t conclude from this that I might be able to draw the imaginative content of dreaming into the conscious process of following the quirky trails of ideas. That gate closes with I’m awake, but it gives a tantalising glimpse of the mind’s sleeping mode, complementing the now far too infrequently remembered fragments of my dreams.

Drifting off

I was in the Blessed Sacrament chapel at St Stephen’s a couple of days ago, listening distractedly to the sermon echoing in the body of the cathedral behind me, as I drifted off sleepily. The almost indecipherable words commanding attention from some unseen source reminded me of another sensation. I suddenly realised that one of the defining characteristics of the state of drifting into sleep is a similar loss of precision in things heard.

As you slip over the edge, some sounds retain a grip on the attention longer than the rest; familiar voices, for example. It’s not that these foreground sounds echo—indeed they seem to become sharper—but that the auditory background becomes blurred, so that the voice that arrests your melting attention becomes detached, and drifts off above the blurring and echoing sounds below. It was a sensation frequently noticed and immediately forgotten, brought back by this auditory accident before the tabernacle.

Night Vision

I don’t enjoy aspirin the way I used to. Aspirin used to be a taste sensation for me. I would always chew the tablets, for that shrapnel burst of salicylate, almost as mouth-curdling in its own way as lemon, and it seemed to me that the analgesic effect was kick-started with the absorption of that distinctive taste. I don’t think that the generic aspirin I buy tastes any different, but it has lost most of its interest; a consequence—another consequence—of the breakdown of discipline and morale in the body’s engineering corps that comes with advancing years.

Another area that has been impacted is my driving. I’m not thinking, here, about the sudden desertion of the steering wheel aggression that had me pushing up over the speed limit enough to keep me totally focussed on the road, ahead and behind; such complete concentration now replaced by wandering attention and slow reactions. I’m thinking, rather, of the sheer visual pleasure of the road at its most beautiful—the freeway at night.

My special delight was the South-East Freeway, approaching the city. At night, a freeway is all about the architecture of light, from the flashing white lines and cats-eyes to the polygonal white curve of the concrete barriers, up in the great suspended sweep of the light standards wrapping the space like so many radiant moonflowers. And hanging in that tunnel of light, floating above the tarmac, are signs; guidance for strangers, reminders for the distracted, and for all an intermittent arbour of luminous green and white, shade from the dark above. Sweeping under Vulture Street, across the Captain Cook to the city, my sense of sight would be ravished by the river to the left reflecting the lights of Southbank, and Victoria white on the water, and on the right the city, thousands of glinting cubes piled up in patchwork towers of darkness and light, and on the top the luscious neon, and all the while the forward rush towards the crush of city exit signs.

It no longer thrills me in the same way. Maybe it’s the freeway that’s getting old. Maybe age has dimmed the lights and corrosion has filmed the signs. But the city itself is bigger and brighter than ever, so I fear it is aspirin syndrome.

There is another, more austere pleasure that I took in driving at night. It is the pleasure, out on the Bruce or the Warrego or the Newell or the New England, in the many miles between the towns, on the two lane asphalt, of driving a long night towards some distant city, with no other cars in sight; of gathering the narrow world into the dimmest extent of the headlights—a hint of the road, the far sparkle of a reflector, a line of white or yellow streaming in, the sudden clumps of roadside grass, the bowing trees, the tarmac suddenly filled with flashing aggregate—then discarding it to the outer darkness.

Beneath the back and forth of the road across the bright windscreen, was constantly the delicious cosy glow of the dashboard, like light rain on a tin roof. The intimacy of this cocoon, the comforting glow within the enclosing darkness, is in hypnotic contrast contrast with the reality of speed. It’s an example both of classical relativity and the revolt of our kinetic perceptions against physical realities unanticipated at the birth of the species. The reality of speed is unappreciated, and unappreciable, as when, in daylight, we slow down to pass through a town, and at 60k, the road seems to be passing slowly enough for us to run beside the car.

There must always be someone in the design factories of each of the car makers who understands this; someone who can summon up the darkened world, the sleep-inducing tremors and swayings of the car and the zone of light ahead; someone who will then dream of a perfect glowing intermediary to talk to the driver of the world outside so seductively as to bring a thrill of anticipation to the prospect of a distant night on the road.

Then there is the switching off—the breaking of the spell. Out by Coonabarabran, say, on a moonless and cloudless night, find a spot on the road to pull over, turn off the engine, turn off the lights, step out into the night and experience a stab of fear. Suddenly, you are immensely alone in a vast blackness without markers except the road dimly perceived beside you, and only the night sounds of the bush and the ticking of the engine as it settles and starts to cool.

But overhead…. Lift up your face to the stars; where have they come from? How did this teeming sky become so full? How did this display, normally so pale, become so bright? Stand under it, and let the river of light, ceaselessly turbulent at the borders of perceptibility, wash into your spirit.

It’s been twenty years since I have done this. I think, though, that the delight and wonder I felt dims much more slowly than my eyesight. Writing about it now I recover such shades of the sense of it, that I believe its power would be undiminished. I have re-ignited my imagination at the prospect of such everynight delights, and I want to drive the freeway again, to drive the dark cool road again, to see the stars again. How much capacity for seeing have I lost, then, doc? Chew two aspirin, and tell me in the morning.


We had a day for it, all right. It was, I think, the 3rd of August, a Friday, in what we would always have considered the depths of winter. It’s a Brisbane winter we’re talking about, and it can be cold and windy on Moreton Bay, but that Friday was, as you can see, balmy—blue sky, green-blue water, and a light wind. The water-taxi took us from Redland Bay out between Macleay and Coochiemudlo Islands, then up to Peel Island. Once we rounded Peel, we were looking across the broad expanse of the bay, with the port just visible to the west, Moreton Island to the north-east, and northern-most part of North Stradbroke to the east.

A person’s ashes are surprisingly heavy. You can see below (1) the size of the container. It was by no means full, but when the woman at the crematorium handed it to me in a shiny white paper carry bag with rope handles, of the kind that more up-market retail stores will give you, she cautioned me to support the bottom of the bag. Dad’s mortal remains sat at home for a week or more before I got around to arranging the trip onto the bay. Jen and I met J, C and K at the ferry. I was pleasantly surprised to see my daughter, M, there.

The boat was noisy, so we didn’t talk much. I was expected to say something before we scattered Dad’s ashes, but, predictable as that expectation may have been, I was at a loss for words. I was thinking about M, I was thinking about Dad, I was thinking about Mum. When Mum had died, in keeping with the desire to “keep things from the children” which had rendered her inevitable death a massive shock to both Cherie and me, her ashes were scattered by Dad, alone, on this same bay. It was years before I was able to ask him what had become of Mum’s ashes, my silence no doubt reinforcing a belief that his silence had all been to the good.

Aunt Alma tells me that she had pointed out to Dad that it was a provocation to Mum’s uneasy spirit that her final resting place was in the ceaseless movement of the Bay. Mum hated the Bay. While I was a baby, and up to the time that she had Cherie, the Bay would take Dad away from her for unpredictable periods doing inherently dangerous work. Every time he went out, there was a real risk she might never see him again. If the weather blew up while he was out, her anxiety would rise with the wind. Dad saw Alma’s point, but the deed was done. Dad took decisions without asking for advice, let alone consultation; like his father, and like me.

So I stumbled through some words of farewell, and took up the ashes. The crematorium had thoughtfully provided a plug in one end of the container, and I had brought a screwdriver for the purpose. The ashes averaged out to a mid grey, but as I poured the first cast into the shallow green water beneath the boat, it looked almost white in the water. No-one else wanted a part of the process, so I continued. Cast after cast sank in a spreading cloud into the water, and passed underneath the boat, carried by the tide some distance into the Bay, before settling into the sandy bottom of Moreton. Towards the bottom of the container, the material grew coarser, and I realized that these were small fragments of bone, which I assume had been ground from the larger remaining bones. I resisted the urge to rinse the container, fill it, and let it fall to the bottom. Dad’s nameplate, taped on (and visible in photo 1), should have carried it down.


Me with Dad’s ashes


M (off frame), me, K


Me (casting the ashes), M, J (with petals)

When the ashes were gone, everyone threw some rose petals into the water after them. J had collected a bag of them for the occasion. That done, we toasted Dad in scotch and ginger ale, thoughtfully provided by K, and we had the captain of our little ship turn and head for shore. Back on shore, M asked Jen and me for a lift, but K said immediately that she was going past M’s door, and so she went with K. I was kicking myself that I hadn’t pressed the point, and so missed an opportunity to talk with her on the way home. Next time. Jen and I went to the Redland Bay pub for lunch, walked a way along the foreshore, and watched the lorrikeets, before dusting the red soil from our shoes and heading home.

Tell me why

I’ve started going to Mass again, although I am not in communion, and I don’t know that I will be able to take that step. I feel the pull of it again though, and I feel a great deal calmer than I have for some time. The pressure of existence, especially the pressure of time, is not now so unrelenting. The wreckage of the past is not now so intolerably present. These benefits are, for the moment, associated with being present at Mass. They are a mild form of the consolation of prayer.

This development is, of course, causing some puzzlement and amusement around the table. It has led to the odd full-scale rant on the absurdity, or alternatively the flagrant injustice, of the spiritual economy of Christianity, generally fuelled by alcohol or resin. For instance, if the human story is drawn as a particular form of the vast interlocking graph of all human genealogy, then the shock-wave of the Christian experience travels out from Jerusalem on the first Easter and Pentecost forward in time and broadening in space like a cone through the graph. All those who lie outside its reach, including all who preceded the event, are condemned, as are those over whom the wave passed without effecting a change. Where’s the justice of the condemnation of those who lived outside this cone of the Christian narrative? There are many similar complaints, but they come down to a deeply offended sense of justice. If God were as God was claimed to be, He would have done a better job. This particular polemic came from an ex-Catholic (R), and was unimpaired by the fact that the Church does not teach such a thing. (More interesting was the What about the Neanderthals? question. Do they get a Salvation guernsey?)

On earlier occasions, while I was still considering my reconstituted agnostic options, conversation had turned to the Virgin Birth. This article of faith, and consequently the Faith complete, was to be rejected on the following grounds. Leaving aside the reported conception of Jesus and modern scientific interventions, conception has only ever been observed over the millennia to occur in one way. Even our recent tinkering builds on our deeper understanding of this process. It is therefore only reasonable to reject the theory that some completely unrelated phenomenon can be responsible for the conception of a single individual. It’s usually expressed more elaborately than that, but there’s the nub of it; fairly, I think.

The unstated assumption in the argument is that we are considering events within the natural order. Therefore the tests that we have developed for such events are appropriate and applicable. The problem is that the putative virginal conception of Jesus is not such an event; it is, by definition, an event outside the natural order, that is, supernatural. The original argument reduces to: there are no supernatural events. Unfortunately, you can’t say that the apparatus of reason dictates that there are no supernatural events. The commitment to a strictly material universe, or one produced by a hands-off, disinterested creator, or the one assumed by, for instance, Christianity, is philosophical, and independent of the application of scientific methodology to the physical universe. There’s a nice discussion of this distinction by Phillip E. Johnson in First Things.

With that preamble, I can give a start to answering why. You can approach Christianity from many angles, but you come soon to the consideration of another supernatural event – the Resurrection. Belief in the historical reality of the death by crucifixion, and the resurrection to bodily life of Jesus is a necessary condition for becoming a Christian. St Paul puts it like this: But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15; 13,14,19)

The Resurrection is an interesting category of event. While it is, in the nature of faith, unprovable, it is not without reasonable support. The evidence, I consider compelling. Others, with the best will in the world, will not. However, anyone who denies that there is something to be seriously considered here is either acting in bad faith, or is in the grip of a confusion between methodology and philosophy, such as described above. Or so it seems to me.

Accepting the historical reality of the Resurrection will necessarily re-order your thinking about literally everything. It may not lead you to the Church, defined in the broadest possible sense. Indeed, depending on the extent and elaboration of your existing view of the supernatural, it may lead you far away. If, though, you are trapped in a sterile materialism, accepting that this event occurred will be the first step in your liberation.