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Cold Comforts

On the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, James Wood thinks it can still be useful to people who don’t really believe what it says:

For [Jane] Austen, belief was stable enough so that the liturgy could be mocked, fondly and without danger, exactly as a silly vicar could be safely made fun of. Both [Virginia] Woolf and [Samuel] Beckett approach Cranmer’s words without easy mockery but with something closer to reverent irony. Yet they both use the language of the Prayer Book to enact prayers that have no hope of answer: at best, we are “vouchsafed” something, but cannot say what it is. The words persist, but the belief they vouchsafe has long gone. A loss, one supposes—and yet, paradoxically, the words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger.

Which serves as a reminder that James Wood is the 21st century’s answer to Matthew Arnold: someone raised in an Anglican version of Christianity who has lost his faith but feels ongoing regret for its loss. Similarly, Julian Barnes, who wrote in the first sentence of Nothing to be Frightened Of, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”

In a late essay, Arnold argued that the prayer book “has created sentiments deeper than we can see or measure. Our feeling does not connect itself with any language about righteousness and religion, but with that language.” But this does not mean that we believe the prayer book’s teachings in any traditional way: “Of course, those who can take them literally will still continue to use them. But for us also, who can no longer put the literal meaning on them which others do, and which we ourselves once did, they retain a power, and something in us vibrates to them.” Arnold thinks this appropriate, since “these old forms of expression were men’s sincere attempt to set forth with due honour what we honour also”; therefore “we can feel” the doctrines of the prayer book, “even when we no longer take them literally.”

It’s an old, and sad, story: the deep desire to hold on to whatever vaporous comforts remain in religious rites or words after belief has departed. It reminds me of a scene from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the one in which Harry and his friends attend the Deathday Party for Nearly Headless Nick:

On the other side of the dungeon was a long table, also covered in black velvet. They approached it eagerly but next moment had stopped in their tracks, horrified. The smell was quite disgusting. Large, rotten fish were laid on handsome silver platters; cakes, burned charcoal-black, were heaped on salvers; there was a great maggoty haggis, a slab of cheese covered in furry green mold and, in pride of place, an enormous gray cake in the shape of a tombstone, with tar-like icing…. Harry watched, amazed, as a portly ghost approached the table, crouched low, and walked through it, his mouth held wide so that it passed through one of the stinking salmon.

“Can you taste it if you walk through it?” Harry asked him.

“Almost,” said the ghost sadly, and he drifted away.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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