It’s Holy Week and my godson Tom calls. He wonders (gracefully) if I might write a letter of reference. He’s hoping for a travel grant that will enable him to investigate the urban land-scape of Detroit, now described as the world’s first ‘post-industrial city’. If he succeeds, the grant will be a well-deserved reward for completing his professional exams as a postgraduate student of architecture at UCL.
Becoming an architect is a long haul. I’ve been a vague witness to this journey for 10 years and I suspect that for Tom-and his parents-it’s felt even longer. Honoured as I am by the request, my credentials as referee are questionable. As the years go by, my architectural preferences are closer to those of Prince Charles than Daniel Libeskind. I used to say that my pleasure in modern music ends with Stravinsky. Now I say that my taste in modern architecture stops with I. M. Pei. Fortunately, I’ve been asked to write about the intellectual and emotional trustworthiness of my godson, not an essay on the 21st-century school of Deconstructionist architecture.
In fact, I’m happy to write a reference for Tom for reasons that have nothing to do with space, light, beauty or human habitation. I feel a lingering, residual guilt about my defects as a godmother. Although I renounced evil at his christening and attended plays at Aysgarth whenever he had the leading role, I never provided him with anything that could be called spiritual guidance. For his confirmation, I gave him a portable Shakespeare printed on India paper, and, when he left Eton,
I gave him a crash course on waiting on tables, complete with reference and two shirts and black trousers from Matalan. For his 21st, I gave him a round-trip ticket to New York, but never once did I attempt to look under the rock of the words ‘godmother’ or ‘godson’.
I suspect this belated remorse stems from a book I’m reading called Letter to a Godchild (Concerning Faith). Originally composed as a letter, it was a christening present from the southern writer Reynolds Price to his godson Harper Peck Voll. It’s a thoughtful and gentle account of Mr Price’s own religious life, a quiet examination of objects, places, events and buildings that have deepened the writer’s religious sensibility. He begins by saying that, ‘near the start of a new millennium and at the age of sixty-seven’, he is still able to believe, with no serious effort, ‘that the entire universe was willed into being by an unsurpassed power whom most human beings call God’.
He’s not attempting to convert his godson-or anyone-to the Christian faith, confessing that he doesn’t have an evangelical bone in his body. He simply and truly believes that God communicates through a few human messengers, sacred and secular, and through the mute spectacles of nature in all its manifestations, around and inside us-‘the human kidney is as impressive a masterwork as the Grand Canyon’.
Mr Price is sensitive to all the obstacles to faith, especially the one that looms as large as the Sun, that half the world’s human wrongs are done in the name of religion. He makes no bones about its mixed rewards-‘faith is more difficult than unbelief’-but to anyone who is curious about faith, he urges them to read the thoughts of the great believing minds-Kierkegaard, Flannery O’Connor, Albert Schweitzer, W. H. Auden-urges them to go to the lives and works of the great believing musicians and painters Giotto and Michelangelo, Palestrina, Rembrandt, Bach and Handel, Mozart and Beethoven.
‘None of those believers was a fool nor a mere hired hand of the pope nor some prince with an idle and unadorned chapel.’ It’s Holy Week and I’m listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Agnus Dei. I lack the certainty to write a letter to a godchild that might be a brief guide for a spiritual future, but I can write a letter for a valued godson who is carving out his own. Call it an act of faith.