I am a member of a local choir and four years ago we had the great good fortune to sing for a week at the cathedral in York, England, locally known as The Minster. There has been a church on the site of The Minster since the 7th century, while the cathedral as it stands was finished and consecrated in 1472. We took a guided tour of the building and learned that its Great East Window is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in all of England, and that it owes its existence to one man: Thomas Fairfax, a peer of the realm and commander-in-chief during the English civil war.
Henry VIII ordered the destruction and looting of Catholic churches and institutions during the Reformation, and Elizabeth I continued in the same vein after her father died, demanding that all traces of Catholicism be eradicated from places of worship. One of the things that therefore had to go was the stained glass. Lord Fairfax, who was in charge of the northern armies, was expected to get the job done in York. Fortunately for us, when faced with the transcendent beauty of the Great East Window as well as the other glorious medieval stained glass around the building, he decided that he would cheat. He ordered his men to shoot one cannonball through a window (the guide showed us the resulting perfectly circular patch job), then went back to London and declared he had fired on the glass at the cathedral. Times being what they were there was no easy way for anyone to check, so he was taken at his word as any gentleman would be. It’s amazing how one act of courage (he would surely have been beheaded for treason had his lie been discovered) can ripple across the centuries.
I found a lot of the material we had to sing in the cathedral off-putting at worst, and ridiculous at best. I am an atheist and find belief in God, and religion in particular with all of its concomitant rituals and dogma, to be completely incomprehensible and oftentimes quite silly. Every time we sang I was reminded of the chapel scene in “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” wherein the prayer is,
“Oh Lord, oooh you are so big. So absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you. Forgive us, oh Lord, for our dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery, but you are so strong and well, just so…super.”
To which the congregation enthusiastically replies,
Then they all say “Amen” and sit down. And next comes the hymn,
“Oh Lord please don’t burn us, don’t grill or toast your flock. Don’t put us on the barbecue or simmer us in stock. Don’t braise or bake or boil us, or stir-fry us in a wok. Oh please don’t lightly poach us or baste us with hot fat. Don’t fricassee or roast us or boil us in a vat. And please don’t stick thy servants, Lord, in a Rotissomat.”
I know this is taking the whole thing to its absurd extreme, but it does get to the question I always have about worship: why would an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent being need constant attention and adoration? Also, why would he require service and obedience when he gave us free will, and how do the concepts of sin and guilt help when you can simply be forgiven if you are contrite? People who do believe in such things tell me that I would have to take a leap of faith in order to understand, but I am not willing to do so because that feels to me like taking a large step away from rational thought.
I am happy to report that I did not give any indication of my deep distrust and incomprehension of faith and worship while I was singing in the cathedral because it was clear that those in attendance, including most of my fellow choristers, really believed in Christianity and found comfort therein. My ethos is that you are entirely welcome to give validity to and act on any credo you wish, as long as so doing makes you a good person and you don’t proselytize to me.
The gathering place for the choir in the cathedral is up a set of winding stone steps and consists of two rooms. The first of these is quite large and holds a piano, and the second is a much smaller change-room lined with hooks and containing a small washroom. The daily routine was to gather around the piano and rehearse whatever parts of that afternoon’s repertoire needed extra work, then change into our choir robes (a bright blue cassock topped by a snowy white surplice.) Next we’d line up in a room just off the chapel, ready to process (a Britishism which describes the act of walking in a procession, pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable) into the choir stalls.
We were all very excited, if still somewhat jet-lagged, as we prepared in the choir rooms for our first performance. Everyone had put on their robes, we all lined up, and down the stairs we went. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, age-worm and exactly the same colour as the stone floor beneath, I thought I had hit the lowest step when I actually had one more to go, and I fell. My glasses and music went flying as the floor rushed up to meet me. Winded and disoriented with pain in my nose and a definite throb beginning in my right knee and elbow, I was immediately helped into a sitting position by those around me. I learned at that moment that three of my fellow choristers were doctors, and while I did feel grateful for their ministrations as they fussed and fluttered about, the main emotion I felt was embarrassment.
We have all had the experience of falling, or even just tripping or sliding but staying upright, and the thought which immediately follows such a misadventure is inevitably, “Did anybody see that?” Even if you are hurt and bleeding, as I was at the bottom of the cathedral stairs, the overriding feeling in that moment is one of shame. Why is that?
Whatever causes this reaction, I spent enough time on schoolyards watching kids take incredible headers and then get up as if nothing had happened to know that it is not innate. Young children always sprint out of the school when the bell rings, whether they have a particular place or game to get to or not. Chins up and arms pumping with a look of sheer joy on their faces, they race into the yard at top speed, unaware of anything other than their destination or perhaps just the unbridled pleasure of running as fast as they can. This means that when they fall, as regularly happens, they fall hard, after which even the meekest kid will just get up and start running again as if nothing had happened. I never once saw a kid look around to see if their tumble was observed nor appear the least shamefaced as they picked themselves up and continued on their reckless way.
As an aside, it is the case that kids also race back into the school when recess is over. When I was on yard duty and the end bell rang, I would position myself on the pavement facing the oncoming tide, standing like a boulder in a swift coursing river as the children streamed around me, bubbling with excitement and energy as they passed. Mostly I would just observe them, giving the evil eye to any passing kid who was misbehaving, but otherwise still and silent. Sometimes I would imagine myself quickly sticking my foot out, so fast that no one would notice, and sending someone flying. I didn’t always have this fantasy and obviously I never acted on it, but it was immensely satisfying to picture some little shit – my imagined victim was always a rotten kid – brought low in front of their peers. Not injured, at least not badly injured, but humbled. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the librarian!
So, if we are not born with the impulse to feel ashamed after falling, then where does it come from? I was thinking about other times when I’ve been ridiculously embarrassed and/or apologetic in my life, and it has always been at times of vulnerability or lack of bodily control. When I’ve thrown up in front of others, when someone has accidentally walked in on me while I’m on the toilet, or when I’ve been dizzy or faint and needed to sit down. Such occurrences roll off my back or even make me laugh when I’m alone, but if there is even the possibility of a witness to my completely accidental misfortune, I feel ashamed. Even more inexplicable is that I feel compelled to apologize profusely if I happen to have witnessed a similar fate befall another.
At first I wondered if this reaction is Darwinian in nature: weakness is definitely not an evolutionarily advantageous trait and surely one is showing weakness in all of these instances. Shame and embarrassment do not live anywhere near the primal part of the brain however, so it makes more sense that this reaction is not evolutionary but rather cultural. We are expected as adults to be capable at all times – upright (in both senses of the word), self-controlled and intentional. I think we can all agree that laying spread-eagled on a church floor after a major fall is about as far from these things as one can get, so to be seen in this way naturally engenders humiliation. Furthermore, when we see another in such a compromising situation, one which removes the carefully constructed mask of competence every adult wears, we are immediately sorry because there is an unspoken understanding between us that such a revelation should be the prerogative of the wearer, not the observer. Perhaps it’s also because we feel empathy for that person, knowing from personal experience how mortifying it is to be caught in a vulnerable position.
We inhabit bodies which sometimes poop or fall or vomit or faint, and we recognize that everyone else’s bodies do the same, so there really is no point in being embarrassed or apologetic when such unavoidable occurrences happen in front of others. These reactions are simply social constructs, and I am going to make an effort from now on to cast aside shame and contrition when such things happen to me. I’m not saying I’ll be successful, but one can only try.