For someone as sedentary as a tree, flying Virgin Atlantic to Washing-ton DC on Ascension Day feels vaguely confusing. By the time the cabin crew reaches the whistle stage on the life jacket blow into the whistle to attract attention Ive renewed my conviction that flying in an airplane requires as much blind faith as the belief that Jesus ascended into clouds.
In fact, the ordeal of flying removing shoes, filling plastic bins with pashmina, keys, watch, books, jacket is like a modern-day hair-shirt. Despite my silent prayer for a beep-free crossing into the promised land, I trigger the magnetometer. A body search traces the danger to my bra. Im surprised, because I long ago replaced my lacy under-wired La Perla with an organic cotton garment that suggests Amish middle age. When Im finally allowed to pass, Im so relieved I almost forget the more imminent threat of foot fungus.
When commentators proclaimed that after 9/11 the world would never be the same, I bristled at the exaggeration. Now as Im frisked and patted down, I realise they were right. Its useful to remember that there were dangers before 9/11. When we arrive in Washington, two security guards lead my husband to a room that I cant enter. Im told this could take three hours. When he emerges a mere half hour later, he confesses his crime: he wrote farmer on his landing card. I look at him in disbelief. Farmer? You said farmer? How could you be so stupid? But this is a man for whom lying does not come naturally, whose shoes now have been X-rayed for signs of ploughed earth, whose bags have been searched for agricultural products. In the space where you write your occupation, only terrorist triggers more alarms than farmer.
But in Washington, the dogwoods are in bloom and the city looks like a wedding. Its Flower Mart weekend at the National Cathedral, and the stalls surround the great Gothic church like a medieval village. Families stroll around the sacred space eating lobster rolls and South African bobotie. Children ride the carousel and climb the bell tower as mothers buy turquoise beads made by Navajo Indians. It feels like an Ascen-sion party, and its also good timing, because the visiting preacher for this great feast is the Rev Peter Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University. Until the Rev Jeremiah Wright appeared on YouTube, Rev Gomes was probably the best-known black clergyman in America.
Religion was meant to play a different role in this presidential election. When Barack Obama told the 2004 Democratic convention that we worship an awesome god in the blue states, he sought to overturn the long-held belief that Jesus is a Republican. Hillary Clinton responded in her holier-than-Obama voice that Rev Wright would have never been her choice of pastor, a fact obvious to Americas segregated churchgoers.
Clips of Rev Wrights sermons about America bringing 9/11 on itself and the HIV virus being an invention of the US government have caused Obamas white supporters to tremble. But when televangelist John Hagee who blamed Hurricane Katrina on Gods wrath at homosexuals and condemned the Harry Potter books as witchcraft endorsed John McCain, no one batted an eye. In the face of all this lunacy, Rev Gomes is masterful and wise. As he speaks of the mystery of Jesus disappearing into the clouds of unknowing, my mind wanders to the title of a book by Flannery OConnor, Every Thing that Rises Must Con-verge. Perhaps thats the message of Ascension. Red and Blue. Black and White. Obama and Hillary. Republican and Democrat. A world where we no longer stand in stockinged feet putting our worldy goods in a plastic bin. A world where nothing beeps and we all feel safe.