For want of a better place, I will begin with a prayer, which in some ways, considering the quest, is not inappropriate. But it was and is a prayer that was more than itself: a prayer said by many, by law and by custom in a polished school hail that smelt of sunshine and linoleum and carbolic soap. It was a prayer that was a challenge, a problem and a question. And what on earth—or in heaven— (but I didn't believe in heaven, so that place could not be resorted to for help) was I to do with it? This prayer of the Gentiles, that I listened to every day: this prayer with its startling, heart-shaking, unbelievable assertion right at its beginning.
`Our Father who art in heaven…’
You see what I mean by beginnings not being where you expected them! I mean, how on earth could you make such a statement? This was no beginning. In many ways it was an ending: the claim to have discovered the Tree of Life or the Philosopher's Stone that turned all to gold. Here was this absurd, this mind-boggling, bold, fantastical, simple assertion ...and what was I to do with it? I didn't know and so remained silent, listening, thinking, asking questions.
Questions—what a spiky, uncomfortable pack of them. They tweaked and poked and prodded and tore, like a dog, worrying at a bone that it will not let go. They did not let go, my questions. They tug away at my feet and sleeves demanding to be followed. They do not give up. Many’s a time I have given up on them, but back they come, tug, tug poke, poke . . . it’s time to be on the move again. If you desert us, we will not desert you. You can’t get rid of us" that easy. Drat them!
‘We will not let you go! . . .’ Now who said something like that?
A memory shyly inches forward into sight. ‘I will not let you go except you bless me . . .’ Jacob said that wrestling with the angel.
What good is that to me? I look crossly at the words remembered from reading from the Scrolls. What good is that to me? I am not surprised the memory was shy to come forward. What good is that to me? I know now . . . but that is many years, oh, so many years on. Why are we so deaf? Oh woe, another question. Before my unruly pack get out of hand completely I will move on and listen again to that prayer in that sun-filled hall. So the beginning will, at last, in one way at least begin
‘Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name…’
The unthinking incantation wound its way to the ceiling tiles of the new school of which I was a proud and fearful member. So many new faces; a sea of faces, a positive tide and torrent, that flowed down seemingly endless, highly- polished corridors. The current of these faces atop of their regulation grey-cladding, swept this one, small, rather fat, outwardly puddingy child, past door after mysterious door all leading to mysteries that I could only guess at. Sometimes smells were an interesting guide but not always. In one room of smells, whose closed door I dared to open, highly polished equipment glared from behind glass cases. Rubber pipes coiled in waiting on silent obedient wood. The smell was not inviting. I decided to close the door on it.
The school was a new glass and concrete box, an experimental box, for those who were neither quick nor slow . . . a fox~trot box . . . slow, slow, quick-quick, slow; for those m the second band of a tripartite system, defunct now, like the dodo. I was a second child, so in some ways, if not in others, it was appropriate. It was a gleaming box, with bright: sunshine yellow squares included in its concrete steel and glass. Yellow, the colour of the sun and warmth. I was always cold as a child, cold sometimes outside and in. I was glad the school had yellow patches on its dress. Yellow, the colour of the sun; the colour of summer’s light.
I was glad it was yellow. It was a proud box. It stood straight and proud against the horizon. It was there and unashamed. It was a foursquare box, with no nonsense about it; no higgledy-piggledy awkward corners; no messing about. It was a very modern box. If you took the lid off, you could see all sorts of smaller boxes arranged inside it; smaller boxes with doors in one side, all neat and in geometric rows, standing in obedient and regular lines along ruler-straight corridors. And the doors, the holes in the walls, could open and shut. These holes in the walls, covered with wood, so that they got renamed doors, could open and shut. Just imagine, opening and shutting holes in walls. And what did these holes in the walls let in and out? Ah, there’s the rub, for any nice, neat regulation, obedient box: the holes in the walls let people in and out. Or at least people in the making. Otherwise known as children but living, breathing human beings all the same. The trouble with human beings is that they are all higgledy-piggledy with awkward corners and lots of messing about. In many ways they are highly inappropriate contents for a neat and tidy box. Still, in its way it was a friendly box. It did what it could. In some ways it changed my life, or rather the life that went on inside it did. I certainly have never been the same since. But I suppose in some ways that is true all of us, all the time in one way or another. Still, I’m ever so grateful to that gleaming: sun-yellow-harlequin-squared box: my school. In a way it saved my life. I will never forget it.
Schooldays: no, they were not the happiest days of my life, but they were a refuge, a haven of predictability and routine that was safe, because of its sameness. You knew what was coming. Well, at least most of the time you did. What others hated, I welcomed with relief. The boredom-scarred desk invited an escape; it spoke of protection and a partial defence against the unknown. Behind a desk I knew what was expected. The desk was a kingdom, small, but a kingdom all the same. And a kingdom-even a very, very, small one-is worthy of a certain pride. I gloried in its neatness: books, brown-paper embraced, labelled and layered in obedient piles; pencil-case, polished, docile, awaited my attention, eager to help me in my studies. I wished that other parts of life could be so neatly and conveniently ordered, but wishing, unlike in my much-loved fairy stories, did nor help. My life at home had a different, disturbing, darker, oh, so much darker pattern. It made me shiver with the cold of it. Shiver inside and out.
‘Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done; in earth as it is in heaven.
give us this day our daily bread …’
I listened. I had to listen, because I was there . . . and not somewhere else. Now that’s an interesting thought …All sorts of things come out of being in one sort of ‘there’ and not another.
So I listened, the outsider, to this prayer: this prayer of the Gentiles. I knew as I listened that it was a dutiful saying of a prayer of habit. How did I know? How do we know any such things? Because, of course, I had also said years-full of prayers of habit, of unbelief, of duty. So I recognized the tone. One can usually distinguish the dead from the living.
As I listened to the shape and colour of this prayer, said by so many, given a kind of breath by so many lips, I wonder if it is not said as an incantation at times: a prayer of magic that will somehow make the world go right, that will ward off the evil eye, when it glares in our direction.
This prayer . . . what a prayer! What-a claim! What a demand! A demand for the kingdom of God to be brought to earth. As a Jew, I had not always seen concern for the kingdom of goodness to prevail against the desire to mock the outsider and to feel the stronger and the safer for such mocking. And I should know-it happened to me.
Even now, now I am on the inside and can say those words, those startling words-when I feel strong enough-even now, now I am on the inside it has happened to me. But it is for different reasons, I think, or perhaps it is in some ways the same. Just that I am different and yet just the same; the outsider on the inside; the stranger within the gates-and as such dangerous.
‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’
These words, so over-familiar to my classmates, so unfamiliar to myself; what did they mean?
‘Our Father, our Father.’ There were so many fathers represented here: human fathers, who like the mothers, carried with their title the image of the ideal in the spoken word.
Father, the Strong One; the Provider; the Hunter, the one who defends his family from danger and hurt; the source of food and home. ‘Father’; the Protector; one on whom to lean-so the legend ran.