A chapel is a lovely space. Cool, quiet, reflective. The chapel at the University of the West Indies‘ campus in Kingston, Jamaica is fringed with palm trees and the favorite venue for society weddings. When the Petchary visited King’s College Chapel in Cambridge a few years back, its flying arches of stone took her breath away. And the choristers’ voices rose up like flowers. The Petchary’s son has often spoken of the artistic glory that is the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s masterpiece, which he visited on a tour of the Vatican.
Yes, we can float away among the columns encrusted with gold, the intricate designs like embroidery on the wall of a mosque, the glowing stained glass windows. We can find, as the Petchary did on one vacation, astonishing art in the dark corners of every church in Venice. It’s a positive magic carpet ride, that may include the slender minarets of Istanbul‘s Blue Mosque, the weight and wonder of the Vatican buildings, the ornate scripts and beautiful language of the Torah and the Psalms. The Petchary is particularly fond of Rachmaninov‘s “Vespers” and often reads Khalil Gibran‘s “The Prophet,” and never tires of them.
And yet, these works of art, although inspired by various religious beliefs, can be admired as exquisite expressions of the human spirit alone, can’t they? What do they really have to do with organized religion? Moreover, as a writer to the “Jamaica Observer” comments today, “The evidence is that there is no need for a person to subscribe to a religion to become spiritually developed.”
The writer, Dr. S. Victor Evelyn, is worried about the planned construction of a chapel on the University of the West Indies campus in Cave Hill, Barbados, with the expressed intent of strengthening the spiritual development of the students. His concern is that the chapel will simply strengthen the religiosity of the campus, with a particular bent towards Christianity, thus indoctrinating the students rather than guiding them towards spiritual enlightenment. A university, argues Dr. Evelyn, should encourage an opening of the mind, a healthy skepticism and a willingness to embrace all points of view… Isn’t that what the word university means?
Dr. Evelyn takes his argument further. He suggests a Museum of Religion instead… a no-holds-barred historical exhibit that documents the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, the barbarism of the Crusades, the hatred of Northern Ireland, the brutality of sharia law and the mindless slaughter of suicide bombers.
Indeed, the Petchary agrees with him that organized religion has not just inspired works of art – which can be viewed as simply art – but also racism, cruelty, prejudice, extreme human rights abuses… and yes, wars, both civil wars and bloody conflicts between nations. The Petchary vividly remembers an incident when, as a student at Oxford, she was entertaining a group of children from Belfast, who were on an exchange to escape from the nasty situation there in the 1970s. One ten year-old’s first question was, “Are you a Catholic or a Prod?” The Petchary was lost for words. And what was the correct answer, anyway? A trick question, indeed.
Yes, organized religion has done us proud.
And the Petchary was taken aback a few days ago when, on entering the reception area of a Jamaican government ministry, she was confronted with a large frieze on the wall, exhorting all visitors to “embrace Jesus.” This is the same kind of thing as the proposed chapel-building. So is the recital of a prayer before meetings of any kind, which has become almost de rigeur. Those people at the meeting, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist or agnostic, have no choice but to murmur “amen,” or else they appear churlish.
Perhaps the answer is to have a Museum of Religious History that honestly depicts the dark side of organized religion (which we cannot and must not deny) and the kindness and benevolence it has also inspired. In other words, the two sides of human nature, the Yin and the Yang.
Well, and perhaps all this good and evil stuff would have happened anyway, with or without religion – but didn’t the religion add that extra spice? Didn’t the Spanish torturers go about their work with added zeal because God was on their side? Doesn’t Allah give the bomb-makers extra special skills, and patience?
The Petchary’s appeal is… I am happy for you that you are attached to an organized religion, if it gives you comfort. But don’t tell me that makes you a better person than me. And don’t assume that it’s OK to force your beliefs on me, either. If I don’t want to close my eyes and fold my hands piously, or dress in my Sunday best to spend hours in church, I am not a wicked person, nor am I to be pitied. Oh, and by the way, the Haitians aren’t “wicked” either because they “believe in voodoo” and are not Christians the way Jamaicans are. (Which country has the highest murder rate, I wonder, if we are talking about wickedness?)
Going back to those beautiful chapels…Thanks to Dr. Evelyn for these words: ”For too long we have also been seduced and mesmerised by the cultural beauty associated with religion: the magnificent music, architecture and art. But beauty and truth are different muses. Excellence of the one does not imply excellence of the other. The magnificent Hagia Sophia Church, still standing today, was built in Constantinople by the same Christian Emperor Justinian who ordered the bloody purge of 532AD. When beauty is used to promote an ugly falsehood, she is being forced into the role of a harlot.”
You brought us down to earth, Dr. Evelyn.
The journey is the reward.
The Petchary just returned from her travels, and realized that one of the rewards is often…a simple taxi journey.
The rather mundane, vaguely French (German?) origin of the word comes from the “taximeter” on which the fare is charged. But putting that aside, when you step into a taxi, you enter a fascinating and unpredictable world – one that can be intimate and personal, if you want it to; or brisk and business-like. The nature and quality of your taxi experience depends on how much physical, and indeed mental distance you want to put between you and the driver. And that can very much depend on your mood, stress level…and, of course, where you are headed.
In Ohio, the Petchary family was ferried around by a small taxi firm operated entirely by retired people. There was Ron, a pale and fragile man with a gentle disposition and lots of grandchildren. There was Ken, thin and long-haired, who was highly amused when we had driven a couple of feet before picking up a puncture in the parking lot. There was also a Vietnam vet with a scarf round his head. There was no way you could hold these people at arm’s length. They were much too interesting.
On her travels, the Petchary also enjoyed the company of Barbadian taxi drivers. There was the jovial Denny, and the cool and composed Lascelles (a stately name), whose six-year-old son chirped to himself in an incessant monologue in the back. “Oh yes, that’s my son,” said Lascelles laconically. The Bajan taxi drivers were well-informed about the travails of poor Jamaica, and seemed to be trying hard not to sound complacent. They complained about the “bad drivers” on Barbadian roads; their version of road hogs seemed remarkably docile to this Petchary, compared to the frenzied “robots” of Jamaica.
One more thing about taxis: London taxis, the traditional kind. There is something darkly menacing about them, despite the cheery Cockney drivers that are supposedly always behind the wheel (at least in the movies). The young Petchary was actually afraid of them. For a start, they are a funereal black. And when you get inside, with a slam of the huge, heavy door, and sit back in the huge seat, you are in a kind of netherworld of blurry silence. A sliding glass window separates you from the driver. He rarely turns his head, and if there is any conversation he talks into the rear view mirror at you – the lonely passenger, so far away. Then the glass window slams shut, leaving the traveler alone again. Petchary’s husband once traveled in such a cab where a large German Shepherd dog sat in the passenger seat next to the driver. A long, threatening screwdriver was attached to the dashboard. He couldn’t wait to disembark.
By contrast, yellow taxis are a delight, a cheerfully scruffy symbol of a grimy, cluttered, striving metropolis. And you get a different nationality, a different accent each time. This time an extraordinarily right-wing Iranian; next time perhaps, a rakish Serb. But disappointingly, those New York taxis were originally imported from France; not indigenous, after all…
The last verse of Joni Mitchell’s sprightly, yet wistful hit song of 1970 goes like this…
“Late last night/I heard my screen door slam/And a big yellow taxi/Took away my old man/Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got/Till it’s gone/They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot.”
Warning: If you don’t know this song, it’s unbearably catchy. So approach with caution!