01 / 06 / 21
by Elaine Cusack
Looking back over my 50 odd years, I see a meandering but fairly constant trail of footprints. My spiritual journey has taken me from C of E and back again (for the time being, at least) via atheism, Buddhism, agnosticism and several Quaker Meeting houses.
There are artistic landmarks on this journey of discovery, including the poems of Philip Larkin, Stevie Smith, e.e. cummings and Mary Oliver. Books by Karen Armstrong, Stephen and Martine Batchelor plus Thich Nhat Hanh have been read and then revisited over the years.
I’ve walked most of my personal pilgrimage alone but for some of that time, I’ve been joined by kind souls who have helped and supported me on my quest for true faith. These friends, family members and acquaintances have inspired me through words, actions and the ways in which they lived and died. Let me tell you about three of my walking companions.
I’m a Geordie. I grew up on the south side of the River Tyne. We Geordies don’t have mothers or mums, we have Mams. My Mam’s Mam was my Nanna, Eleanor Watson.
Ella was with me for the first 17 years of my life. She lived five minutes’ walk from my first home. I visited her several times a week and often stayed over on Saturday nights. I’d share her double bed in the upstairs front bedroom of her council house.
A copy of Holman Hunt’s painting Light of the World looked down on us from the wall above the bed. I was fascinated by this Pre-Raphaelite work with the words “Behold I Stand at the Door and Knock” from Revelations printed under the image.
Nan was a Methodist and taught me hymns as we sat beside her coal fire. I loved There is a Green Hill Far Away. I clung onto the notes of the mournful-sounding third line in each verse. I thought the hymn Hills of the North Rejoice was about the fields around us.
Eleanor attended chapel on Sunday evenings. This meant my weekend stayovers included a Sunday morning lie-in. When we woke, she would get up and warm the room with the gas fire and turn on the radio (permanently tuned to our local BBC station, Radio Newcastle) in time for the Sunday morning religious programme, Songs for Singing. We’d lie there listening (and singing) in cotton sheets smelling of rose water before Nan went down to sort out the coal fire and make our breakfast of porridge and tea.
My dear Nan’s belief system was uncomplicated, joyful and easy for me to grasp. The God she sang about seemed real and I felt safe in her home, wrapped up in her faith.
My lifelong interest in comparative religions was fuelled at the C of E school I attended from the ages of 9 to 18. Jewish, Hindu and Sikh pupils’ faiths were discussed and celebrated in class and school assemblies. One R.S. teacher, I’ll call her Cool Teacher, fed my interest in other beliefs and helped me to make sense of the world outside our school gates.
I must have been 14 when Cool Teacher used “she” in reference to God during class. Pupils waved their hands in the air and yelled “Miss! Miss! God’s a He!” Cool Teacher replied that our language was inadequate when trying to describe something beyond human. Wow! This experience opened the Velux window in my brain and transformed the way I viewed language and spirituality.
Cool Teacher took me to Newcastle’s Hindu Temple and organised a study trip to the Holy Island of Lindsfarne. She lent me books on art, poetry plus Leonard Cohen records and accompanied me to London for a CND march.
Almost 40 years on from our first meeting, we are firm friends. We talk most weeks on the phone and continue to swap thoughts on politics, poetry and faith. She giggled when I told her I was going to write about her. I’ve always loved that laugh. It’s infectious.
Politics and religion were the main topics of conversation with Robbie Burns. No, I’m not talking about the 250 year old Scottish bard but the septuagenarian I started visiting on Wednesday afternoons as part of my school’s community service programme for 6th formers. These visits served as an introduction to volunteering, which is something I have kept up alongside paid work and study since then.
Mr Burns was not at all like the ladies my school friends visited. Pals told me about the delicious homemade cakes and scones they were offered on every visit. Not so with Mr Burns. He’d start talking before I’d sat down about the news headlines, the environment and history. Wherever the conversation travelled to, it would always come to rest on his belief that Christianity is pure socialism.
Mr Burns was not a churchgoer and liked to remind me I needed to read the Bible rather than “those theologians” ahead of my A level exams.
Born into Georgian Britain, Mr Burns lived through the two World Wars. He never married, worked hard and could not understand why anyone would want a credit card or go on exotic holidays. Mr Burns was self-educated, with a fascination for astronomy. I admired the accuracy of his moral compass and was drawn to his pure, positive outlook on life.
When I left school I continued visit him. He moved to a modern flat on the top floor of a tower block with stunning views of Newcastle. He used to smile and declare: “I have the world at my feet!” An adult now, Mr Burns fed and watered me with tea and cake, but only after we’d had at least an hour of deep conversation.
Almost 30 years after his death, I can hear his voice, “Mr Burns speaking,” when he answered the phone. By the time he died I was living and working in London. I wonder what happened to his precious handwritten astronomy book he started in the 1930s and completed half a century later? I wrote to the solicitors overseeing his estate about the book but never received a reply.
Nan, Cool Teacher and Mr Burns chose to share their passions, morality and beliefs with me. Like them I have no desire to convert anyone or to save souls. I want to maintain the courage I have to keep walking my route, between certainty and uncertainty, in search of peace, truth, forgiveness, reconciliation and creative inspiration.
Elaine Cusack is a writer living on the North East coast, 11 miles east of Newcastle upon Tyne. In 2019 she published The Princess of Felling, an illustrated, poetic memoir of growing up on Tyneside in the 1970s and 1980s featuring The Rev Richard Coles, Gyles Brandreth and more.