The truth is this. My family had no interest in visiting historic churches, my musical tastes rarely extended beyond the latest pop music charts and my school’s RE provision was restricted almost entirely to our infamous grave-rubbing excursions in an attempt to avoid causing offence to parents who were afraid to expose their children to any intellectual stimulus that might challenge their child to think critically about their (often parentally-enforced) belief systems. My real interest in theology was prompted by an incident that took place when I was a young child and - although I am willing to concede that my impressionable age may have contributed heavily to my interpretation of the events of which I will now relate - upon reflection as a rational adult I can assure you that every sight that I witnessed and every sensation that I experienced that evening was very real indeed.
It was a bitterly cold day in December, the kind of miserable mid-winter day when the light of the morning lasts for only a few hours and the darkness of the evening creeps in around mid-afternoon. I was nine years old and easily excited by the time of year; Christmas was almost upon us and I spent my afternoons watching out of the classroom window in the vain hope that it might snow and, if I was exceptionally lucky, that school would be cancelled the next day.
It was already getting dark by the time that I arrived home from school with my best friend in tow and I succeeded in persuading my parents to allow her to stay at our house for the night (this was a regular arrangement since her family bothered very little with her and she stayed whole weekends with us on occasion). My mother insisted that it was too cold to play outside and so we were confined to the house and amused ourselves by telling ghost stories under the bedcovers in my parent’s bedroom. I recall the bedroom even now with an unsettling unease. The house had previously belonged to my grandparents and I once overheard my mother telling a neighbour over coffee that her father was terrified of hospitals and he had chosen to die at home, presumably in the main bedroom. Discovering this fact only served to compound my existing anxieties about the room.
My parents did not have the time or funds to redecorate the house after my grandparents died and so the bedroom had retained that ‘old person’ smell of carbolic soap, lavender and floral perfume. On the farthest wall was a disused fireplace and whenever I crawled into the bed as a young child to sleep alongside my mother I would lie awake and watch the fireplace for fear that someone or something would climb down the chimney while we slept. In addition to the creepy fireplace, two large antique walnut wardrobes stood at the side of the bed and each was large enough, I would convince myself, for a fully grown man to hide inside. The lighting in the room was another cause for concern because, although there was a central light fixture in the ceiling that worked perfectly adequately, my parents used the bedside lamp as the main source of light in the room and the pathetically poor light that came from it was quickly swallowed up by the impenetrably thick burgundy material of the lampshade. Each time I entered the bedroom I was afraid that I might catch sight of something in the dark recesses of the back wall and so I would switch on the main light, which always led to a scolding from my father. But a sharp telling off was entirely preferable to braving the brooding darkness to hunt for the tiny switch on the bedside lamp.
On this particular night my friend and I had been frightening one another by sharing ghost stories beneath the bedclothes and we had succeeded in whipping ourselves into the frenzy of nervous hypersensitivity that inevitably results from an exchange of tales about ghosts and demons (and in later years from watching a particularly disturbing horror film). I was aware of the sound of a strong wind blowing up outside and it was only a background noise at first, but then a fierce gust of wind caught the house, causing the timbers to contract and creak loudly. The strength of the wind was not unusual since it was a corner house and often bore the brunt of the bad weather, but within seconds the swell of wind had grown in ferocity to the point that it sounded as though a dreadful beast was raging in the street outside and poised to rip the roof off the house and steal us out of our beds. To make matters worse, earlier that evening I had opened one curtain halfway to allow a little light from the street to fall into the room and the strong gale was causing the branches of the oak tree outside to sway violently and cast wild and fantastical shadows onto the bedroom walls and onto the sides of our makeshift tent beneath the bedclothes.
We stopped talking and lay silently under the covers, listening nervously to the eerie whine of the wind and the laboured creaking and groaning of the house. These noises alone were far more disturbing than any ghost story that we had told. My parents were watching television downstairs and I knew that a desperate dash to the safety of the front room would not only expose me as a pathetic coward but it was also completely out of the question given that I would have to brave the darkness of the bedroom, stairs and hallway in order to reach them, so I swallowed my fear and lay motionless on my back as my friend rolled onto her side and curled up into a tight ball, neither one of us daring to speak while we listened to the screaming winds and watched the dark shadows dance all around us like tiny demonic figurines.
Unrelenting gusts of wind continued to strike the house until we were completely enveloped in a high-pitched turbulent whine and, just when I honestly thought that the house could not withstand one more second of this persistent battering, the wind suddenly ceased and there was absolute silence. It was an eerie and anesthetised silence as though every living creature on the street outside had been frozen to the spot and there was no sound whatsoever, except for the occasional sobbing gasp of air coming from my terrified friend beside me. I waited patiently for the whine of the wind to resume and I was beginning to adjust to this unnatural silence when my nerves were once again set on edge and I was gripped by the alarming sensation of a third presence in the bedroom. At first I thought that my mother was checking on us, but I knew that I would have heard her footsteps in the hallway and she would have spoken upon entering the room. Although my heart was pounding in my chest and I was sure that I would be confronted by someone or something as soon as I emerged from the safety of the bedcovers, the compulsion to peek out was too strong to resist and so I bravely snaked my hand out from beneath the sheets and peered over them into the darkness of the room.
I was relieved to find no ghostly figure, but I was equally shocked by the sight that greeted me. My attention was drawn to the window at the foot of the bed and, as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could clearly distinguish the side profile of a woman’s head against the windowpane. The profile was in shadow and it appeared to be female as a head covering - a veil or similar decoration - protruded out from over her forehead. Since the bedroom was on the first floor I knew that this was not a figure peering in from the street outside and my heart convulsed in my chest when I realised that it was an apparition in the glass. I could hear the faint hum of voices from the television downstairs and I wondered whether my parents would hear me if I screamed, but my tongue was like lead in my mouth and my legs were frozen to the mattress. Pointing towards the window with a shaky hand, I whispered to my friend who was huddled in a foetal position beside me and coaxed her out from beneath the bedcovers. She shifted alongside me and as she surfaced I asked whether she could see the woman’s profile at the window. Her sharp intake of breath confirmed this, but no sooner had I spoken when the ghostly image began to change.
We both watched, completely transfixed, as the outline of the woman’s head started to lose its shape and gradually implode into itself, while at the same time glowing increasingly brighter until it had become an intensely radiant ball of light that pulsed and undulated like a ball of molten lava suspended in the air. It burned with a deeply golden glow against the darkness of the night outside and the centre shone with a piercing white light that was unbearably bright and impossible to look at directly. The ball of light then began to slide diagonally across the window frame and onto the bedroom wall and we watched as it poured slowly like molten liquid up the wall and onto the ceiling, leaving shards of burning white light in its path. At first I thought, grasping at what little rationality was left in me, that the light was coming from the headlights of a car outside. But no sound of an engine could be heard. Just a deafening silence and the laboured breathing of my friend beside me. When the bright shape reached the top of the wall it began to stretch itself across the ceiling towards us and it continued to chart its steady path until it had formed a column of blinding white light that almost divided the ceiling in half, at which point two further columns of light shot out from the centre and stretched in opposite directions from left to right until it had taken on the shape of a Latin cross directly above us. And then, to my absolute horror, this bright cross of light began to slowly descend downwards from the ceiling onto the bed.
I still curse myself to this day for my cowardliness and I wonder what the consequences would have been if I had been brave enough to endure a few more seconds of the vision, but, rather than hold our nerve, we both screamed with fright and buried ourselves deep under the bedclothes where we remained sobbing for some time, far too afraid to come out. We were severely traumatised by the incident and made a promise not to tell anyone about what had happened to us. My friend – unsurprisingly, given her naïve and impressionable nature and her neglectful parental situation – believed that we had received a sign from God and she later joined a Christian youth group and became a regular worshipping member of the congregation at her local church. She described her ‘calling to faith’ in the parish magazine and, although she did not divulge too many details, I presumed that she was referring to our shared experience that night. I, on the other hand, remained deeply disturbed by the incident and I was haunted by the memory for some time. I deliberately avoided any contact with religion until my mid-teenage years, but I was forced to overcome these fears when, following a chance encounter with the choirmaster of St. Bartholomew’s Church when attending a family wedding, I was offered the opportunity to put my musical talents to good use and earn a modest income at the same time. Shortly after accepting the position of organist I found myself spending whole evenings alone in the dark organ loft practising hymns for the Sunday Eucharist and almost daring something to appear to me again. But it never did.
By the age of sixteen I had developed a passionate interest in the study of religion and I found myself becoming increasingly involved with the life of the church, but any blossoming seeds of faith were crushed when Daniel, my thirteen-year-old brother, was killed while crossing the road on his way to school. I spent the remainder of that year swinging viciously between a melancholy desire to be with him and a formidable and indignant anger towards God and I developed an overwhelming and entirely irrational fear that everyone I loved would suddenly die without warning. Fortunately rather than turn my back on the church I had the presence of mind to channel these bitter emotions into practical study and I joined a church-based discussion group in an attempt to understand why God would allow such terrible tragedies to take place in the world. I also sought distraction in my organ playing but I was forced to relive the memory of Daniel’s death when playing for funeral services, each committal reopening the painful wound that God had ripped into my soul. Even now I sit on my organ bench like the great Archangel Azrael, presiding over the interments of the victims of mindless violence, unfortunate accidents, cruel illnesses and desperate suicides and adding each wretched name to a list of grievances that I fully intend to raise with God upon my entry to heaven....
So these are the genuine reasons for my interest in the study of theology. A little too intense, as you can imagine, for a pleasant chat over orange juice and sandwiches on a wet and dreary Friday afternoon with an elderly man who I barely knew. Hence the well-crafted response involving choral music and my grandmother that I had prepared for precisely this kind of occasion.