As a reverend gentleman of the cloth hailing from the leafy and undramatic Home Counties of England [non-Brits, think: “The Shire”], in an unscheduled departure from usual programming, I have decided to exercise for the first time, my God & Queen-given right to compose a cozy Christmas homily.
Were I to do this in line with tradition, following my leafy Anglican roots (as opposed to my jungly Buddhist present manifestation) then this would most likely be an exercise in what is called “Jesus-smuggling” where we start out telling some kind of commonplace anecdote that everyone can relate to, such as some minor incident in a supermarket. Somewhere in the middle we will do a funny. It probably won’t be all that funny. It may – with a co-operative congregation who know the rules – provoke a mild ripple of the kind of laughter where people actually say the word “Ha” a few times, quietly.
That’s really all that’s needed before we move on, because the true purpose of the (alleged) funny is to maintain the thin pretense that this is a story, like any other that we might tell to an acquaintance, simply because we think it might interest or amuse them. And now, this is where we really get to see what a vicar is made of – where we get to rate his moves. The core skill of an old-skool Church of England vicar is the smuggle. We award points for how seamlessly and elegantly, he manages to look as if he has almost finished, but then it suddenly occurs to him…”You know – I couldn’t help being reminded of the time when Our Lord was in the marketplace in Mehethle-fethlephat – which, in a funny sort of way, is a kind of supermarket, if you think about it – and, etc., etc.”
Now, I haven’t really planned this piece, having just woken up this morning and found myself to be the proud owner of a whim. Which I have decided to indulge. So I don’t yet know quite where I’m going with this, but thought it fair to warn you that something like that may happen, should I revert to stereotype, under pressure. As we so often find ourselves doing…
[now, check THESE pro-skillz on the segue…]
And so (dearly beloved) this quite suddenly and unexpectedly reminds me that Christmas is a strange time to be an addict. Or perhaps the strangest thing is how not-strange we suddenly become. Christmas through New Year is of course the period when the “normals” create a safe-space in which they normalise much of the behaviour which at any other time is considered dysfunctional, and evidence that one has “issues”, and therefore does not belong amongst their midst. Or even amidst their mongst.
For many of us it properly kicks off with the office party, where we are not only allowed, but actually required, to be drunk and incapable in the workplace. In the past this amnesty might only extend to alcoholic incapacitation, but of course in these loucher, more bohemian days, few would be surprised to see little wraps being passed semi-discreetly around, perhaps accompanied by obligatory lame jokes about having “snow for Christmas”.
[Btw. Did anyone clock that cool thing that journalists do sometimes, where they get access to parliament on some pretext, but actually sneak around testing all the toilet cubicles for traces of cocaine? That happened a few weeks ago, timed with Boris’ announcement of his new, tough drugs policy initiative… yes – every single one of them. Positive. Of course…marvelous work.]
Then ensues a week and a half during which you can actually stand out as an anti-social weirdo if you are NOT: drinking in daylight hours, neglecting everyday responsibilities, delegating childcare to TV/devices, spending the day in pyjamas, running up crippling debts, etc., etc. Pretty well the whole playbook (with the possible exception of trading manual sexual acts for crack – for particularly hardcore members of the congregation).
So it’s easy to just go with the flow, and it’s quite an odd gig should you be among those trying to be a bit less inclined in those directions than you normally are/have been.
I chose to duck the question entirely when I quit my multiple major addictions back in the day, and chose the very numerically pleasing date of 21/12/2002 to enter detox at Thamkrabok Monastery. Sorry, I have a very nerdy thing about palindromes, so I find myself unable to not point out that my recent 19th anniversary had an even better one, if written in short form – 21/12/21.
But I have done many Christmas Holiday periods since then, so I have picked up a little (hopefully) useful stuff about strategies, from which I would like to now pass on one or two snippets.
I just wrote and deleted “seems like the least I can do”, because it may actually be the most I can do. Since this whole Covid shenanigan got rolling, and the actual physical Thamkrabok suddenly became a rather inaccessible resource for the outside world, we have been on a tense countdown to the re-opening of the country. That of course was the main reason why I started this blog, thinking then that it was a matter of just jollying everyone along – “Chin up! Stiff upper lip! Wartime spirit! Everyone just hunker down for a few more months, and then you can come and do the thing, and try not to hit the old furlough-merlot too hard in the interim. Altogether now – Weeeeee’ll, meeet agaaaaaaain…” And then that went on a bit…
And then – eventually – Thailand partially re-opened on November 1st, and then almost completely on December 1st for double-vaccinated people, and two – count them, two! – whole western patients slipped through, and now – Omicron. Serendipitously coinciding precisely with the anniversary of my own arrival in detox at Thamkrabok (and the last time I was munted on class-A pharma) comes a Thai government announcement that entry to the Kingdom is once again only via pre-booked (expensive) quarantine until further notice, and therefore not a feasible or affordable option for the majority of people. Damn. So we may meet, and although we could perhaps take a reasonable guess about where, we still really don’t know when.
So – where’s a good place for an addict to be over Christmas? Since we have already established that – unless you are already on your way here – Thamkrabok is off the table this year, I often found that Midnight Mass at any convenient church was not a bad place to start.
Does that strike you as a surprising suggestion? I am, after all, on another team. And furthermore I opened this very piece by (slightly cheaply, although I hope affectionately) demonstrating how easy it can be to mock such mainstream versions of it as we find in the Church of England. Nevertheless, I have not infrequently found myself in church on Christmas Eve, and at other times over this period. There is much to recommend it, even (perhaps even especially) for the unbelieving heathen:
Firstly, if you are the kind of person that normally wouldn’t (if you normally would, then I’m not talking to you in this bit) then all the more reason why I think you should perhaps consider it. In fact, there is a precise correlation between whatever degree to which you might find that idea odd, ludicrous, or even offensive, and how much I would then urge you to do it. We are trying to interrupt physical and mental habit patterns, so that is actually reason enough. But there’s more, much more.
What’s the alternative? A very significant quantity of people will otherwise simply be bum-trolleyed, and busily getting more so, at midnight tonight, and so you could well find yourself either joining in, or very self-consciously NOT joining in. Simply not doing something is a difficult activity to get your teeth into (monks work on that – it’s quite advanced, just not doing something with full attention and effort). So there are two highly practical and utilitarian reasons, but I’m going to try to take things a little deeper than that.
To expand a little on the theme of breaking mental habits, one habit that I found to be very well-developed during my chemical mayhem years, was cynicism. I am of a basically sceptical cast of mind, taking little on trust or at face value, and am very quick to see what’s wrong with things. Maybe that could be framed as a positive quality (I often attempt to do so) but it is easy to tip over into being even a little (or a lot) too eager, to see what’s wrong. To debunk, to call “bullshit”. To prove once again, that the world is full of things that are mediocre, ridiculous, if not downright fake, hypocritical, or even awful. And that we are awfully clever for not buying in.
There is indeed plenty of dross in the world, but so often I found myself the smirking smartypants on the sidelines, too sophisticated to get with anything. Too readily, too plausibly (I got good at it!) justifying my abstention, my rejection, my heel-dragging, about even things that might have served me very well indeed. Such as – hmmmm…let me seeeee…quitting heroin? And anything that might perhaps lead to me being better placed to attempt such a thing. Anything that might lend a sense of value or purpose to life, or undermine my smug-but-self-pitying nihilism by suggesting that the world might not in fact be entirely a crock of shit, populated by idiots and asshats. And that the fact that I experienced it largely as such might be in fact rather more down to me than I cared to admit.
Seeing beauty, truth, and value in the Church of England – that easiest of targets for smirking cynicism, especially from a middle-class English clever-bastard like me – was therefore an exercise in seriously heavy lifting. At first, at least. I made my first breakthrough on such a wild and challenging enterprise in a somewhat unlikely place – the late lamented 12-Bar in Denmark Street, just off the Tottenham Court Road. The (then still) beating heart of London’s grass-roots quality music scene.
For a while during my second stint in the London music industry, following my first stint in the monastery, I was working quite regularly with a band called “The Penny Black Remedy” (mentioned by name because they’re still going, and they’re really, really good). They had a pretty loyal crowd, which included some diverse characters, and I got friendly with many of them. One guy who turned out for nearly every gig was Father Jim, who occasionally showed up straight from work, still in his dog-collar. He was 50-something, I guess, and had moved to London from the U.S. as a young man, drawn by his love of the original punk-scene. By a number of unlikely twists and turns (so you might think, proceeding from that starting place), he had ended up ordaining in the Church of England.
This rather intrigued me, and when Father Jim found out that I had been a Buddhist monk, that rather intrigued him. We would frequently end up in conversation in-between sets, and he was very enthusiastic about learning all he could about meditation, and our godless creed. He already knew quite a bit about the more Hindu side of mystical experience, and indeed the psychedelic approach-ramp to such things. And lots of other stuff. And punk-rock, of course. We always found loads to talk about.
I am on occasion capable of tact, and so it was a while before I asked him outright the question that absolutely baffled and flabbergasted me. That being – “Father Jim, you’re all cool and underground, and punky, and open-minded, and don’t even seem to necessarily believe in God, per se, or at least in the way I imagine you’re supposed to, in order to keep your job. What on Earth are you doing in the Church of England? The most boring, straight-laced, lukewarm, version of Christianity in the whole shop. Which could very arguably be written off as barely a religion at all, but more just the “soft power” arm of the British establishment, representing little more than social conformity and nobody using any sexual swear words. And the one with hands-down the worst tunes. And you’re not even English. Since you’ve gone with team-Christ, why aren’t you at least in one of those much cooler little left-field acts like the Quakers? I mean – what the actual fuck, man?” Or words to that effect.
If Father Jim was offended by my bluntness, then like a true man of Christ, he forgave me. But I don’t think he was. He told me that, although he really didn’t know, or assert, or even care much about, the ultimate truth of any particular doctrine within his sect, or even religion; he knew only that he found the way Jesus had lived to be beautiful and inspiring. Jim’s ministry was right there in the heart of the city, where hardly anyone actually lived, except the homeless. His unstable, shifting flock was almost exclusively drawn from the mad, the drunk, the hopeless, the raging, the obnoxious, and the petty criminal. And the odd-person he had known from back in the day, of course, who might have been over-fond of the old glue-bag, and never quite came back. Most of them weren’t even his flock until something really bad happened. Often something bad and terminal.
It seems that, when English people are asked if there’s anyone they would like to talk to, and they truly have nobody; approaching them as the most-familiar manifestation of a man-of-God is one of the best ways to ensure that they don’t die alone. Well, fair enough, Father, that’s me told, and that was the first deathblow dealt to my smirky, sophisticated cynicism about mainstream religion. Although I remain of course, a smartarse Buddhist to this day. Kinduv…
Since that night, whenever I’m in the Western world, midnight mass remains one of my favoured places to be to usher in this period. Preferably in the most mainstream and square-o church I can find in the locality. Look around you, and you will of course see a lot of “straights” and “normies”. It would be the easiest thing in the world to compose wry and cutting soliloquies about how everyone is going to do the God-bit, so they can feel like “good people”, before going back to their orgy of consumer-excess, and their guilt-free life of comfortable, blithely unquestioned privilege. And that might well hit the mark some of the time, if not much of it.
But it would also be missing that there are also many people present mainly because it is somewhere warm and free to get in. That’s certainly true in any medium-to-large urban church, and in any church anywhere there are those who attend mainly so as not to be alone. And once I see that, then I can extrapolate that there are others who see that, which might then be a significant part of their own motivation for being there. Quite possibly including the guy at the front in the frock.
Very possibly in fact, these days, since I have a theory that religion is always a victim of its own success. And so then paradoxically benefits from its own decline. In the modern UK, the church is no longer an automatically high-status profession to be in, or a ticket to the heart of the establishment. An increasingly fringey thing to go in for in fact, which I reckon correspondingly increases the chances that someone has entered into it for the best of reasons. It’s possible that the supposedly iconoclastic attacks of the aggressive atheist movement are a few decades too late to be appropriate, and not nearly as heroically David v. Goliath as they think they are. Quite possibly the other way around, in fact.
Whatever else it may be, church is a place where common humanity is affirmed. Or if it isn’t, then it’s not a church. Nobody was beneath Jesus’ notice – the rabbi born in a stable, to working class parents, natives of an occupied colony, on this very night (never mind whether literally or not – it’s the mythical symbolism that’s important). He would hang out with beggars, lepers, hookers, criminals and despised tax-gatherers for the colonial power, and tell parables of people who weren’t even Jews (let alone Christians) showing greater virtue and kindness than those most respected among his own people. Not even the vilest behaviour would put you beyond the pale for J.C. – the guy would forgive anything, even nailing him to a cross.
I don’t find it necessary to be in any active way a “Christian” – I’m down with stuff he said (insofar as I’m familiar with it, which is not very) but I find that the bits I like most seem to be already covered, and in a way that works better with my personal taste and inclinations, within my own sect’s teachings [when it comes to Bible stuff, I actually get more from specifically analysing the older material, in its own terms]. So whenever I’m in a church I usually don’t concern myself overmuch with what is actually being said there. I think more about where we are – the place where everyone belongs, if they want to, and nobody has the right to say that anyone else doesn’t.
There’s a thing that usually happens in most churches at some point during this mass, when the sermonising priest asks everyone to shake hands with the person on each side of them and say “peace be with you”. Now, I’d say that if you can do that with a straight face, and a sincere heart, and not have any snidey voices arising saying “yeah – one day out of 365” then you’re doing pretty well on driving out cynicism. Worth a shot, at least as an experiment and possible talking/pondering point for the following morning. Certainly if the next most obvious alternative is shots of another kind and dozing off in front of the TV.
Now, to be absolutely clear: I am certainly not saying that contemplating the Christian message is in any way superior or more profound than that of any other faith, or creed, or philosophy that may appeal to you, or be more in line with your own culture and upbringing. Just that it is Christmas, it’s a Christian festival for which most other things grind to a halt. It used to be the only show in town at this time, but now it’s the only OTHER show in town, which it might do well to check out, if it seems that all that is presenting itself otherwise is an orgy of consumerism and consumption. And if you choose wisely, then there might be a lovely choir, and stunning acoustics. So don’t try to claim that there was nothing else to do except polish off the rest of the whisky, and then start on the weird stuff that nobody really likes, such as Crème de Menthe, and that gloopy yellow stuff that’s made (I think) from eggs.
So, yeah – try church, ya crazy bastard! At the very least, anytime you swing by, you’ll be almost guaranteed to encounter someone less fortunate than yourself, and if you take the time to notice that, and to care about that, then it’s a wonderful cure for self-pity. Compassion and self-pity are like oil and water – they can’t co-exist in the same place, so whichever gets in first will tend to repel the other. Kind of like a waxed Barbour jacket. And since self-pity leads an addict almost invariably to fire-water (AND makes him drink) then there, I have perhaps made a case for a completely practical, and even self-interested reason for being a “good person”. I have to say, that I’m quite pleased with myself there – mad vicaring skillz… I may take the rest of the year off.
Apart from that, the best thing I can offer for if the family starts to get a bit much is – COOK. Presenting people with delightful edibles is never a bad option for keeping occupied, increasing the peace, and is a perfect excuse to keep removing yourself in non-pointed ways from situations, without laying oneself open to a charge of being not much of a “joiner-inner”. Feeding people, with care and attention is one of the finest ways I know to manifest solidified love (or at least goodwill), and the really cool thing about it is that you can even use it to express that to people you couldn’t – or even wouldn’t – say it to. I always basically install myself in the kitchen during festivities.
Of course, the kitchen can be a contentious area, where ego and control issues get played out, so my advice in such a case would be to volunteer to take care of some lower-status side-dishes, which you can then cunningly turn into quiet masterpieces.
The clock is creeping, and I want to get this up in time to perhaps sway someone on Euro-time, who is beginning to wonder what to do with themselves. But by tomorrow morning I intend to have updated it with at least my killer Brussels Sprouts recipe, and some useful pointers for roast potatoes, ensuring airy fluffiness on the interior, enclosed by toffee-like caramelised crispy goodness. There may be time to address the gravy issue. I hope so.
So, ‘bye for now, and peas be with you brother/sister.
P.S. Failing all of that, there’s always this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QCBTfDTcu0 Tim Curry reads Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. Utterly magical, all 10 hours of it.
And this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFHLFriGQCQ [The Penny Black Remedy]
And this, for good measure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0zBUjea-hM
Gosh, and this. Having made an unscripted reference to the late, great, one-of-a-kind journalist A.A.Gill in my Brussels Sprouts recipe, I suddenly remembered that he was famously once a very dedicated alcoholic, given 6 months to live by his doctor at the tender age of 30. He writes movingly and insightfully about it in his book Pour Me, and also in this article, the first he ever published: https://www.tatler.com/article/aa-gill-tatler-articles
Aaaaaaand this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBJ05EPno6k A Holmes at Christmas, and the classic seasonal mystery of “The Blue Carbuncle”. Holmes wasn’t much of a joiner-inner, either (in addition to being a bipolar, chain-smoking, coke-fiend, with a dim view of humanity, and a bit of a dick). Perfectly brought to life here by magnificent Jeremy Brett.
For my esteemed and beloved cousin, Nick de Souza – a finer yuletide co-chef, one could not possibly wish for