An agnostic sermon
By Jan Morris
June 9, 2014
Not long ago, my sisters and brethren, I heard somebody eminent and elderly discussing the giving of lectures. For him, he said, the worst part of the experience was getting up to the platform in the first place, and I knew exactly what he meant. Oh, the challenge of those brief steep steps into the limelight, the murmurous hands stretched out to help, the stumbling instant of relief when I reach the podium at last, panting a bit, desperately clutching my script, and preparing a feeble quip about senility! It really is at those particular moments, those brief moments of display, that I have first felt myself to be getting old.
Mind you, I am not in the least ashamed of my advancing age. I am rather proud of it, and I have thought about it with interest for years. I am a convinced agnostic, untrammelled by religious conviction, and the prospect of death, the destination of age, has always fascinated rather than perturbed me. Forty years ago and more, I prepared a gravestone for my beloved Elizabeth and me, on a slab of gray slate that has been waiting ever since among all the jumble under the stairs. Its words provide my first text for this conceptual sermon, and this is what they say, in Welsh and in English:
Here are two friends,
Jan & Elizabeth Morris
At the end of one life
By this I mean that whatever happens in life, friendship can see you through it; and that, well, you never know, there may be more lives to come. I conceive of those simple lines in the slate, patiently waiting there among the bric-a-brac, as a reassurance for their eventual readers, and as a comradely greeting, too!
Nevertheless, my fumbling few steps to the lecture stage do offer another sort of message. I am getting old, and they remind me of that fact. I forget names these days. I lose things. I trip a lot. I am easily irritated. I tell the same stories twice. I need the support of the banisters to help me down the stairs, and I can’t abide new pronunciations of the English language. One day you will understand.
You will find increasingly frequent reminders, too, that life is finite, at least in its present form. For instance, consider my library, for so long my pride and my delight. Why go on, as I have for so many years, buying and stacking successive editions of the Times Atlas: surely in my time there can’t be many more frontier changes or newborn republics? However necessary I feel it to acquire the latest revisionary research into the imperial administration of British Somaliland, 1922–1928, how many of my heirs will care that it is not in the collection I bequeath them? Am I quite sure that I shall go on enjoying The Guardian or Private Eye for the rest of their subscription periods, or should I cancel their direct debits on my computer now, if I can discover how to do it?
Making a will is a definitive memento mori. In my case, everything will go to Elizabeth, but if I outlive her, it will all be distributed equally among my four children, except only my house in Wales, along with its library. These I will leave to the most dedicated Welsh patriot among my offspring, with the proviso that he use it always for the benefit of Wales. But I wonder, will his siblings feel misused? Will they squabble? Will they sue each other? For that matter, while I know that Twm will loyally accept that one pro Cambria condition, what a wretched trick it will be if he finds himself saddled with cracked window frames, leaky drains, or the early signs of dry rot. Bugger Wales, even he might cry—and he certainly doesn’t know the protocol for refusing a bequest. But there we are. All I can do for my children, before I go, is clear up the mess as best I can, lovingly thank them, and wish them luck.
(And what about my dear cat Ibsen? Don’t mention him. Don’t even think about him. He has already Gone Ahead.)
One must make the most of old age. We can laugh at it, we can be lachrymose about it, we can certainly deplore it, but we must seek the best in it. During the Second World War, when I was very young, half the popular songs of the day were about looking forward to a happier future, or being sentimental about the miserable present, and among them I thought I might find a second text for this homily. Those songs were about bluebirds flying over the White Cliffs of Dover (so far as I know a zoologically unprecedented event)—about how there would always be an England (though not necessarily a Scotland or a Wales)—about waiting with Marlene Dietrich tearfully in the lamplight for the return of the Wehrmacht. They were, in short, soppy songs. I have therefore had to reach further back for my second text: to an earlier war, and to lines that better express the spirit in which I recommend a contemplation of old age—jauntier, to-hell-with-it, up-yours sorts of lines. They were written by the Welsh pacifist George Henry Powell and set to music by his brother Felix in 1915, the year in which British casualties in the First World War reached half a million. Here they are:
What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worth while, so
Pack up your troubles in your
Old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile!
No matter that six weeks before he was killed, in the last week of the war, the poet Wilfred Owen ironically used that very text for his bitter poem “Smile, Smile, Smile.” It was a fine injunction anyway. I often use it myself to help me through the unkindnesses of old age—and I urge you, my friends, to quote it to yourselves, too, when the time comes. Keep smiling, not sentimentally, not bitterly or in irony, but cockneylike.
For there are a few advantages in getting old, and to some degree they compensate for the disadvantages. Make the most of them! With luck, never again will you have to stand in a crowded train: somebody is sure to offer you their seat with a sweet smile, and if that smile strikes you as just a little patronizing, well, you just have to get used to it. You will see it when your car runs out of gas, when you can’t find your credit card in the depths of your handbag, when you interminably hesitate before crossing the road, when you offer the bellboy an insufficient tip (it was perfectly sufficient 20 years ago), or when you forget that it’s Angela, not Rosemary, who’s married to poor George now, who is the father of dear little Christopher, or for that matter, when you forget which of the whole lot you are talking to, if any!
From most such predicaments you will be rescued with that ever-understanding smile. Accept it gratefully. It is never meant unkindly, and when I see it, I wryly think of my third text, written in 1922 by T. S. Eliot:
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
For even if we haven’t all been as lovely as ancient Phoenicians, we’ve stayed the course like champions, have we not, and anyway one of the prizes of old age is its release from competition. To hell with Phlebas! To hell with critics! To hell with gossips and jealousies and snide allusions and petty libels! Be honest with yourself—it really no longer matters what people say or think about you. I myself have been all too conscious about posthumous opinions; but I have come to realize that so long as I am not remembered with shame or embarrassment, posterity’s views are unimportant—meaningless even, for posterity too is transient and unreliable.
It doesn’t matter—that’s the thing. To my mind, death will be the ultimate freedom. Phlebas the Phoenician was allegorically free anyway, because dead or alive he existed only in Eliot’s brain. But we on our way to death have at least achieved a real liberty of our own. Old age is the right to be absolutely ourselves. Laugh, cry, satirize it, my friends, when your time comes—but make the most of it, too!
Here is my fourth text, taken from a Victorian poem by Henry Newbolt. It propagates the upper-class English ethos of the stiff upper lip—a morality long since reduced to mockery, but which offers a good enough ideal for an extradenominational sermon. It concerns a game of cricket, and the last member of a team who can alone rescue his side from defeat. The sun is beginning to go down, there are only a few minutes left to play, and just the solitary batsman can win, lose, or draw the match. It’s not a matter of fame or reward, Newbolt assures us, but a simple matter of self-respect; and as evening falls we hear a lonely voice from the crowd around the field shouting what I think of as a proud agnostic exhortation, a godless sermon from the mount:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
We shall never know how he ended the match. He could risk a flamboyant flourish, of victory or defeat, or he could stonewall for a draw. The game has really been played already: only the finale concerns him now, and there is a lesson in his situation for you and me. It is this: like that cricketer in his last over, forget the strategy that has brought you to your maturity, and concentrate on your final tactics.
The people you love, your children, and your Elizabeth will find their own way home from the pavilion.
The aging process has at once bewitched and dismayed poets and philosophers since the dawn of thought. Shakespeare, as usual, capped it all with his seven ages of man, ending with nothingness, but for my purposes I prefer some lines of Thomas Hood. He was good on melancholy in general—I saw old Autumn in the misty morn / Stand shadowless like silence, listening / To silence, … And here he is specifically on getting old:
Thou’lt find thy Manhood all too fast—
Soon come, soon gone! and Age at last
A sorry breaking-up!
I particularly admire the italics of that breaking-up, because believe me, there is to the erosion of old age something alien and uncertain, like a foreign language. For me at least, the difficulties of getting up on that lecture platform are complex: embarrassment plays a part, of course, and physical debilitation, shortness of breath perhaps, the odd pang in the knee, traces of shame and self-mockery; but there is also a cloudy sensation of disbelief and separateness, as though all the kind people giving me a helping hand are not really there at all, but are figures of illusion, unknown to me. Only when we reach the podium, and they release me laughingly to my microphone, notes, and glass of water, then like the ending of a migraine the cloud clears, and I know them, bless their hearts, for who they are.
There is no denying the physical breaking up. Some people, naturally, break sooner, more completely, and sometimes more acceptingly than others. For years I pretended, to myself and to others, that it was not happening at all and I still do. I take my regular breezy walk beside Cardigan Bay near my home, and stick resolutely to its self-imposed disciplines, come drizzle or high water. I try to evade the inevitable exchanges with my contemporaries about the inconveniences of age. I dismiss the awful possibilities of Alzheimer’s—“well, dear God, don’t we all sometimes forget what we’ve come upstairs for?”—and I make the comic most of my tendency to fall over.
This last is nothing new, anyway. I dare say it was accentuated by some minor brain surgery in the 1970s, an experience I have enjoyed dramatizing as a late demonstration of the ancient Inca technique of trepanning; but actually I have been falling about since I was in my 30s and have made frequent professional or artistic use of the habit. I much enjoyed, for instance, falling over while jogging at speed along a crowded sidewalk in Los Angeles and finding myself skidding between the legs of astonished pedestrians in a most exhilarating way. I was touched when, falling over in a New York cab stand beside Central Park, I woke from a moment’s concussion to find a circle of sympathetic faces, some cabmen’s, some horses’, compassionately observing me. I was entertained when I fell over in Llandudno, at home in Wales, the morning after I had appeared on a local television show. I was sitting dramatically bloodied and bandaged in a public first-aid center, but as they saw me sitting mutilated there, most passersby merely remarked, “Hey, Jan, great TV last night!” Yes, falling over has often given me useful literary material.
Not so useful lately, though. There came a time when I found myself crossing city streets with exaggerated caution, slower and slower, carefully and more carefully, until one fateful day I discovered that I needed to walk with a stick. A walking stick—that very symbol or declaration of old age! For a time I persuaded myself that it was merely a swagger stick, something to flourish stylishly: but I know now that it is an essential part of me, something that is not an encumbrance, but a friend. Not without humor either, especially when I trip over it trying to get up to that lecture platform.
Still, the day when I first realized I needed a walking stick was a day when I needed that exhortation from the cricket ground—Play up! play up! and play the game! I recommend the text as a pick-me-up, when old age debilitates.
Agnostic that I am, I accept with wonder and gratitude the beauties of religious conviction, and my fifth text comes from the Holy Bible. I have known its words since I was eight years old, when I sang them in the choir of Christ Church, Oxford (though even in my childhood I kept my fingers crossed during our recitations of the Creed). This is St. Peter’s injunction, in the first years of Christianity, to the Christians of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia:
See that ye love one another, with a pure heart fervently!
See that ye love one another!
Some of the Bithynians and Cappadocians, I suppose, assumed that the Apostle was counseling them about storing up treasures in Heaven. Skeptic that I am, I prefer to interpret his lovely words, to which I have added my own exclamation marks, as purely temporal advice. We can never know the truth about the afterlife, so I see no point in worrying about it; and I believe, anyway, that sincere adherence to just one essential rule of conduct should be enough to earn us redemption if the matter unexpectedly arises when we are committed to our graves. St. Peter called that ultimate essence Love, pure and fervent. I prefer to think of it as Kindness, an all-embracing, omnipotent virtue, encompassing love, compassion, unselfishness, mercy, and all the other values that almost every religion respects, whatever divinities it prefers to honor. I myself require no holy mumbo-jumbos, miracles and exorcisms, angels and ascensions. I simply believe that everything one does in life can be measured against a scale of kindness. None of us can ever achieve full marks on the scale, and kindness itself must sometimes be weighed in the balance—is it ever kind to be cruel?—yet it seems to me that if there is any ultimate judge out there beyond the Milky Way, we can hardly be faulted if we have done our kindly best.
So soldier on, dear comrades in kindness, keep smiling,
Fervently love your loves, play your later years with a straight bat,
Forget Phlebas and greet old age not as a breaking-up, but as an
Overture to a new program, waiting there under the stairs with
The rest of the junk.
Jan Morris has written some 40 books of history, travel, biography, memoir, and fiction.