Tuesday 4 August 2020

Following Presbyterians

     Yesterday I spent several hours composing a Blog to which I gave the title "Scottish Presbyterians"  and which I ended up accidentally deleting.  It was all about a couple of members of my Scottish mother's family who were full of doom and gloom and premonitions of disaster and considered this a right attitude to religion.  I went on about this in considerable detail, not realising that by so doing I was becoming thoroughly negative myself.  But she was not negative herself at all. Calling the Blog "Scottish Presbyterians" I was giving the impression that all Scottish Presbyterians were like this.  And yet my mother was just as convinced as they were about the rightness of the religion in which the whole family had been brought up although she was quite different.   She was both fun-loving and kind.  She was also very far from believing that she had all the right answers.  As a result she tended to admire the one  Presbyterian relative to whom I was particularly hostile and tell me to be like her, simply because this relation was so steeped in religious observance that my mother had to believe that she was really good.
     I feel I have to go back to the beginning again, so instead of calling this Blog "Scottish Presbyterians" I am calling it "Following Presbyterians", meaning to imply that I am following up on  what I said before even though I hadn't actually published any of it.  I just thought I had.

     I could go on in some detail and at some length about the ways in which  my mother and Aunt Mary (as I was taught to call this particular relative) professed the same beliefs and yet were quite different in their attitudes and behaviour.  In fact I think I will.

     But first I would like to comment on certain aspects of human behaviour.  It seems to be typically human to form groups which protect their own members in opposition to other groups, starting with the nuclear family and then going on to link together people living in a particular place or belonging to a particular profession, class, race or religion.  Tolerance seems very hard to acquire and requires quite a lot of effort,  "I am better than you are because my group is better than yours" seems like a nearly universal reaction.

     Aunt Mary felt like that about being Scottish rather than English and Presbyterian rather than Catholic.  She went back to Scotland every summer, returning with a large bouquet of white heather, and felt she had to do this to maintain her moral fibre  while being obliged to earn a living in the sinful city of London.  As for the difference between her and Catholics, she was quite sure she was saved and bound for heaven while they were all going straight to hell.  It didn't bother her in the least that Catholics might feel the same way about her.  They were simply wrong.

     In contrast, after the departure of Nurse Boone and as her family continued to grow, my mother hired a much less prestigious nursemaid  by the name of Evelyn Shephard who was staunchly Catholic, apparently quite unconcerned that Evelyn might try to convert us.  In fact Evelyn did make this attempt, filling me with such admiration for the saints that I still feel it today.  In fact as a child I even wanted to be a saint myself until I discovered that becoming one wasn't that easy.

     It wasn't exactly that my mother didn't care what we believed.  She did become quite upset when my sister Ann, having been sent to a convent school in India, started attending mass on her return to England.   She only calmed down when Ann pretended that she was thinking of attending the University of Geneva.  My mother thought Geneva was still the city of Calvin, which it, not.  Rather my mother was so convinced of the rightness of her own faith that she tended to regard other faiths as comic rather than dangerous.  When Evelyn responded to the news that my parents had married in a registry office by saying that they were living in sin and we children were bastards, my mother thought this was hilarious.

     When I think about that, I realise that my mother didn't feel threatened by religious differences any more than she felt threatened by the company of the gypsies or by the presence of an unmarried mother next door.  This girl, who called herself Mrs. Lamb without anybody  believing that she was actually married to Mr. Lamb, lived together with him and their two children.  Her own mother had disowned her, saying that having one child could be a mistake but if you had two, you were doing it on purpose.  To say they were ostracised is putting it mildly.  Mrs. Lamb couldn't do her own grocery shopping without being insulted by the shopkeepers, so my mother sent me to do it for her without anyone suspecting and she always gave me a large tip for it because Mr. Lamb had money.  I  almost forgot to mention that Mr. Lamb had a legal wife who refused to divorce him and was paying child support to a third woman.  Hearing all this, I took a good look at Mr. Lamb one day to see if I could see anything special about him but I couldn't.  Where my mother's acceptance of Mrs. Lamb was concerned, she was motivated not by easy  approval but by pity, while my Aunt Mary insisted so stoutly on perfect chastity that she regarded all men as potentially evil and to be strictly avoided.

     The total difference in attitude which I perceived in so many respects between my mother and Aunt Mary is liable to occur in every group and religion.   Just how far does this go?  What seems to be involved is the contrast between those who have a real feeling for humanity and those who are wrapped up in their own self importance, whatever they claim to believe.




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