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Sighs Too Deep for WordsOn Being Bad At Reading the Bible

It would be absurd to pretend that I have ‘read the bible’. Ten years ago I sat down with three translations and toiled my way through it, taking months. It was an experience of weird, laborious intensity. But you can’t just read the bible once. All that this endeavour did, in the long run, was to give me a sketchy map of an enormous, madly complicated territory (a map which passing time has blurred and distorted), and to offer certain touchstones of beauty or mystery which I desperately hang on to when life leaks meaning, or which leap spontaneously to mind when I’m ‘surprised by joy’.

Every two months the reading roster from church comes in the mail: a list set out in boxes with dates. A helpful person at the parish office has highlighted my name in pink or green. I never imagined that I would be one of the people who get up and ‘read the lesson’. I used to think that the people who were allowed to do this had something I knew I didn’t have: unshakeable, worked-out faith. Well – there are people like that at our church. Or that’s how they appear, from outside. One morning a woman whose husband, I’d heard, had died only a few days before got to her feet nevertheless to read her part. She held the book out flat in the air in front of her and almost shouted: ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away: blessed be the name of the Lord!’ Her face was shining, but tears were streaming down it.

I have done a fair bit of reading in public; I can get up in most company and read without raising a sweat. But when I have to read the bible at church, my knees shake and I can hear my voice go squeaky. It’s because I am having to struggle to get the meaning out of the words, and the meaning is often not clear to me. There’s a man at our church who lost his job at theological college because he left his wife; when he reads the epistle, he does it with a lovely intelligence and excellent intonation. It is clear that he understands it syntactically and as an argument: he makes it sound as accessible as ordinary speech. I like the way the three readings in each communion service – Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel – are linked thematically. I like sermons in which these linkages are embroidered or explicated. Sometimes I take notes in the margins of the pew sheet. Often I think, ‘When I get home I will read these passages again and see what I can make of them.’ But by the time I get home the concerns of ordinary life have overwhelmed me again and I have forgotten my resolution.

And anyway there is always this feeling of intellectual inadequacy: I don’t know enoughto read the bible. The job of it is so colossal and complicated and endless; I am already too old; whatever response I come up with will have been shown by some scholar somewhere to be feeble and ignorant – or so my thoughts run.

In the early eighties, when I wrote theatre reviews in Melbourne, there were nights when I had to pinch myself to stay awake through turgid, self-important productions of the classics: my inner thighs were black and blue. But once, long before I realised I was interested in the godly business, I sat – and the punters, now I come to think of it, paid money to sit – in a dark theatre while an actor put his elbows on a wooden table with a book open on it, and read – or spoke – the Gospel according to St Mark. I can’t recall the expectations I had of this ‘performance’: just another job, I suppose I thought, and I must have had the critic’s notebook on my knee and the pencil in my hand. But Mark’s Gospel was such a story – so fast and blunt and dramatic, skipping the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus, starting with his baptism, rushing headlong to the Cross – that by the end I was on the edge of my seat, thrilled and trembling.

When I read in the paper, a few years back, that Rupert Murdoch was buying the publisher Collins, whose biggest seller is the New English Bible, I got hot under the collar.

‘Bibles should be handed round in typescript,’ I said crossly. ‘Every hotel should have one ragged copy, and if you need it you call up the desk and they bring it to you on a tray.’

‘But what if more than one person calls for it?’ said a passing sceptic.

‘Well – then they invite all of the inquirers into a special room, where they can share it. And maybe talk about why they feel they need it. Have you got a bible?’

‘Yep. A bloke I know gave me one. It’s a Gideon.’

‘You mean it’s a stolen bible? He stole a Gideon?’

‘They want you to steal them. That’s the whole point of ’em. Isn’t it?’

I used to have an American friend who’d been a nun in a French order that started in the Sahara, the Little Sisters of Jesus of Charles de Foucault. She got leukemia, and for a variety of reasons, including the fact that whenever she left the nuns’ house for a month or so her blood picture improved, she quit the order and went to live in a caravan at Wilcannia on the banks of the Darling River. She came to Sydney one winter, when I lived in someone else’s house and couldn’t offer her a spare room; but somehow we managed. One morning the excitement of being in the city, plus too much coffee on top of her chemo pills, brought on an attack of enfeebling nausea. She stayed all that day under the quilt on my bed, lying silently behind me in the room, while I sat at my desk and worked. I suppose nuns have to learn how to absent themselves: I felt as if I were alone. Later, when we had set ourselves up for the night, with the French doors open on to the balcony – she with her aching bones in the bed, me with my menopausal ones on a foam strip on the floor – she read me Rilke’s Ninth Duino Elegy. She was such a pragmatic person, I was surprised – not only that she liked the Rilke, but that she read it with such ease: beautifully, with natural feeling for the syntax, so that it made sense as it left her lips.

Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any smaller…Superabundant being
wells up in my heart.

We lay there quietly. Then she said, ‘Read to me in French, Hel.’ She passed me her Nouveau Testament: ‘it belonged to a Little Sister in Peru who died. And they gave her bible to me because they thought I was going to die too.’ I opened it at random : ‘L’annonciation’ in ‘L’évangile selon S. Luc’. (‘Yes, read Luke,’ she said. ‘He’s fairest to women.’) ‘Le sixième mois, l’ange Gabriel fut envoyé par Dieu dans une ville de Galilée…Salut, comblée de grace, le seigneur est avec toi…

Yes, she did die. Of course she died.

Last time I was in England, I found at an antique market in Manchester a very small, very old, very wrinkled black Book of Common Prayer: small enough to hold in your palm, its print so minuscule I could hardly read it even with my glasses on. I bought it and gave it to a friend of mine, a man in his seventies who was about to have surgery to repair a damaged aorta. I have never quite got over my surprise that this man, a journalist who used to be my boss when I first started writing for newspapers, went to church. Until he was preparing himself for the operation, until he gladly accepted the little prayer book, I had imagined that he went to church as some middle-class English people seem to – as a comfortable patriotic act, an observance of social ritual. But on this day he said to me with a sort of urgent wonder: ‘Have you ever thought about the fact that everybody who’s ever lived on the earth has died? All of them. They – all – died.

We were sitting in the garden outside the tiny house he and his wife own in a village in Oxfordshire. You step out their low front door, open the gate, cross a lane, mount a sloping green field, and there it is, their church: smelling of oldness, with old, old tombs. You go in. You pray, if you know how.

‘But where are all the bodies?’ I said. ‘With so many bodies, you’d think the whole surface of the earth would be covered with graves.’

I once interviewed a young woman who had blasted her way out of the Moonies. She told me she had been so brainwashed in the sect that the mere sight of whatever the Moonies’ holy book is, a single glance at the arrangement of the print on the page, at its type-face, was enough to flip her back into her state of mental servitude. Nevertheless, I venture to remark that sometimes just picking up a bible is calming. At other times, though, I only need to see its spine on the shelf to feel sick. Sick with fatigue; with ignorance, and the sullen anger of the ignorant.

I saw at somebody’s house a book I coveted: Brown’s Dictionary of the Bible, an eighteenth-century publication which had come down to this man through his Scottish Calvinist family. I wanted the book because it was a sort of concordance, fanatically useful, with its thin paper and mad tiny print and passion for accuracy; but the thing that drove me crazy with desire to possess it was the first entry my eye fell on: ‘Grass: the well-known vegetable.

On the phone to a scripturally literate friend I mention the separate books of the bible recently published, pocket-size, by Canongate/Text. I rattle off a list of the twelve books in question. He laughs and says, ‘ – And a packet o’ Quik-Eze!’ The editors of the Canongate bibles, which are the size of those tiny $1.95 Penguins, and each of which has an introduction by some contemporary writer or thinker, chose the King James Version. Of course. At an Anglican private school ‘one’ was brought up on it. You cannot beat it for grandeur, rolling periods blah blah blah – all the things people want who are reading the bible, as Auden narkily put it, ‘for its prose’. But a lot of the time, with the King James, you don’t actually know what it means.

One day, a long time ago, I picked up in an op shop J. B . Phillips’ 1950s translation of the New Testament. I flipped it open snobbily and came upon a passage in one of the gospels about the arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. What I was used to, from schooldays, was along the lines of ‘they smote him’ or ‘they laid hands on him’; these King James phrases had a dull familiarity that could no longer reach me. But Phillips’ text was blunter; it said something like this: ‘Then they took him outside and beat him.’ For the first time the story touched the world as I know it. I grasped that he was beaten up, like a man in a police station or a lane behind a nightclub – that he was sent sprawling, that blood came out of his mouth, that his eyes closed under swellings. At that moment the story smashed through a carapace of numbness: it hurt me.

You can’t really read the bible without some sort of help. This is why I need to have at least two translations open at once: the King James, plus an edition which is cross-referenced and copiously annotated. (I like the New Jerusalem, though some people I’ve mentioned this to have narrowed their eyes and said, ‘It’s Catholic, do you realise?’) Here are three versions of the same text, which I mention because once I asked Tim Winton about praying: I said, ‘I want to do it but I don’t know how’: he referred me to Romans 8:26, which goes as follows:

(King James): “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”

(New Jerusalem): “And as well as this, the Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness, for, when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words…”

(Revised Standard Version): “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

The third. No contest. Because of the phrase “with sighs too deep for words.”

Cynthia Ozick in a recent New Yorker quotes Vladimir Nabokov on what he demanded from translations of poetry: ‘copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers…I want such footnotes and the absolutely literal sense.’ That’s what I want. Often, though, I can’t face it – the studiousness of it. I’m just too tired and impatient and lazy. I have late twentieth-century reading habits: I want to rip along, following the path of narrative. In great stretches of the bible it’s a long way between meanwhiles. You need a different sort of reading style, and most of the time, at home by myself, I lack the discipline.

You can sit down, open the bible at Genesis chapter one, or Matthew chapter one, or anywhere you like, and start to read. Or you can scan it like a magazine. People do this! I have done it. But the thing is so immense, so complex, so infuriating, that it forces you back on yourself. If you’re in the wrong frame of mind – restless, demanding, looking for a quick fix – the book will fight you. It will push hideous violence in your face, or stun you with boredom, or go stiff with familiarity – then just as you’re about to give up and go into the bathroom to put on a load of washing, it will casually tell you, in Exodus, that the God of Israel, when Moses saw him, was standing on ‘what looked like a sapphire pavement.‘ Or, in Judges, that when Eglun the greedy king of Moab was stabbed, ‘the fat closed upon the blade.’ Or, in Bel and the Dragon, of the Apocrypha, that the angel of the Lord took the prophet Habakkuk ‘by the crown’ (still holding the dinner he had just cooked in Judea) ‘and bare him by the hair of his head, and through the vehemency of his spirit set him in Babylon’, right over the lion’s den where Daniel had been thrown and was lying hungry. Or, in Tobit, that ‘the boy left with the angel, and the dog followed behind.’ Or, in John, that Christ came into this world so that people ‘might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.’

Abundance! And an answer to what Kafka calls ‘a longing for something greater than all that is fearful.’

During the months of first reading the Old Testament I saw Lawrence of Arabia again. Four hours of male codes, not a single woman character, and a vast absence of psychological insight. Those desert landscapes, though; the violent tribal life of war and travel… Around that time, sick in bed, reading Genesis, I came on this: ‘Jacob on the other hand was a quiet man, staying at home among the tents.’ The marvellous visual flash this gives, of what their dwelling was, of how they lived. All these wanderers! Jealous, envious, lustful, cruel – lying, cheating, fucking the wrong people – just like us. And Abraham, when his wife dies, has to buy a piece of land to bury her in!

I shared a house in Melbourne, back in the eighties, with the Quik-Eze man, who had recently, as he put it, been “saved”. He was, at the time, one of the most maddening people I have ever known. When confronted by life’s setbacks, he used to say in a way I heard as smug, “I’ve got a resource in these matters.” I feared he was determined to convert me. He carried a small black New Testament in his shirt pocket wherever he went, and kept the big fat bible beside him on the dining room table while we ate. I hated this. The book seemed to radiate an ominous, reproachful righteousness. I knew he would have liked to say grace, so as soon as I put the food on the table I picked up my fork and started to eat, to deny him the pleasure. Secretly I longed for grace – to hear it, say it, receive it – but I was too proud to admit to him that my heart was broken, that I was all smashed up inside. And I was damned if I would let him preach to me from his horrible black book.

In our loneliness, that year, the Quik-Eze man and I used to read aloud to each other. His mild suggestion, once, was the Acts of the Apostles. I stonewalled him, and insisted on Conrad or Henry James. That Easter we sat every day on the famous Oak Lawn in the Botanic Gardens and read The Europeans. It was good, but now I wish I hadn’t been so dictatorial and defensive. Years later, when I was happier, I saw Fred Schepisi’s movie Evil Angels, based on John Bryson’s excellent book about the Azaria Chamberlain case. The scene where Meryl Streep and Sam Neill, as Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, lie in bed reading the bible aloud together, for comfort, filled me with silent longing.

There was a time when it comforted me to see a daggy sign on the front of a fundamentalist church in Newtown: ‘God loves you, with all your troubles.‘ Even now there are days, as I go about my business along certain streets, when my past cruelties, my foolishnesses, my harsh egotisms hang around me like a fog – or, rather, when they haunt me like a pack of cards which offer themselves to my consciousness one by one and with a clever appropriateness, as if a tormentor’s mind were actively choosing and shuffling them, so that their juxtapositions are forever fresh, always bright and with a honed, unbearable edge. Because of this I understand and treasure the bible’s repeated imagery of water, of washing; and of the laying down or the handing over of burdens. I like the story of the woman at the well. First, she was a woman. She belonged to the wrong race. She had had five husbands and was living with a man she was not married to, but she was the one Jesus asked to draw water for him. She bandied words with him, but he told her about the other kind of water – the sort that never runs out – the water that he was offering.

The Quik-Eze man once said to me, and now I know what he meant, ‘Communion – I’d crawl over broken glass to get to it.’ It’s quite simple. You examine yourself, formally, in calm and serious words, together with everyone else in the building; you acknowledge that you have, well, basically stuffed things up again; in the name of Christ you are formally forgiven; and then they say to you, formally, Come up here now, and we’ll give you something to eat and drink.

In Ingmar Bergman’s memoir The Magic Lantern he visits a church with his aged father, a clergyman. The pastor of the church announces that he is too ill to conduct the communion service.

“Father started rising from the pew. He was upset. ‘I must speak to that creature. Let me pass.’ He got out of the pew and limped into the sacristy, leaning heavily on his stick. A short and agitated conversation ensued. A few minutes later, the churchwarden appeared. He smiled in embarrassment and explained that there would be a communion service. An older colleague would assist the pastor.

“The introductory hymn was sung by the organist and the few churchgoers. At the end of the second verse, Father came in, in white vestments and with his stick. When the hymn was over he turned to us and said in his calm free voice: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord most high’.

‘Thus I was given the end of Winter Light and the codification of a rule I have always followed and was to follow from then on: irrespective of everything, you will hold your communion. It is important to the churchgoer, but even more important to you. We shall have to see if it is important to God. If there is no other God than your hope as such, it is important to that God too.’

Dorothy Sayers: ‘There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity.’

Well, that’s a relief, anyway.

I told Tim Winton that the Holy Spirit was the only aspect of God that had any reality in my personal experience. He wrote to me: ‘How it works for me (which is all I can honestly go by) is that the stories work on me. That they seem true as stories, and that I believe them. Not just because I accept that their authors are reliable and their witnesses numerous and their repercussions beyond anything I know of in changes of human history…but because they convince me emotionally, instinctively. As stories, as lives…They ring true to me…Probably a matter of imagination, for what else is belief mostly built on?’

Martin Buber, according to the editor of his book The Way of Response, in dealing with ‘the immense Hasidic literature…disregarded its intricate theology and concentrated on the folk tales and legends where the heart speaks.‘ Buber himself, about someone reading the scriptures, wrote: ‘If he is really serious, he …can open up to this book and let its rays strike him where they will…He does not know which of its sayings and images will overwhelm him and mould him, from where the spirit will ferment and enter into him, to incorporate itself anew in his body. But he holds himself open. He does not believe anything a priori; he does not disbelieve anything a priori. He reads aloud the words written in the book in front of him; he hears the word he utters and it reaches him.’

My second sister has a passionate hatred for the parable of the prodigal son. ‘It’s so unfair! and such terrible child-rearing practice!’ There’s a novel in there somewhere…as there is in the Book of Tobit, from the Apocrypha. Ten years had passed between my reading of Tobit and my urging a Jewish friend to read it. He came back a week later pop-eyed: ‘Fabulous! And the way it ends with the destruction of Nineveh!’

It does?

I had recalled only a tight plot, a boy and a dog, a sad girl with a curse on her, an angel loftily explaining to people who’ve seen him eating that it was ‘appearance and no more’, and a blessing the father gives to his daughter when she leaves his house: ‘Go in peace, my daughter. I hope to hear nothing but good of you, as long as I live.‘ That’s the blessing I’ve been longing for all my life, the one I have given up hope of getting from my own father. I need it. I have to have it. What’s the destruction of Nineveh, compared with that tender and trusting farewell?