Before the Anaesthetic: John Betjeman on Doubt

There is a persistent tendency amongst many clergy today to place doubt on something of a pedestal – to speak of it as being almost essential to the life of faith, and to make agnosticism something of a virtue. This stems, I believe, from a misinterpretation of the highly sensible pastoral imperative to ‘meet people where they are’ as instead leaving people where they are – an often sincere desire to reach out to a generation that finds it hard to believe Christian doctrine tries so hard to appeal to and reach out to unbelief that it ends up adapting its own teaching in the process. It is good to recognise that many people doubt – including those who believe the doctrine – and to reassure them that this is a perfectly normal part of human nature; but to then confirm people in this state by not presenting them any alternative is to fail in pastoral responsibility.

Doubt is, as they say, a part of faith, in the sense that it is something natural to us all and thus part of the process of growing in discipleship. However, to truly grow in discipleship, it is necessary to recognise that we are called to move past this purely natural state of affairs and at least try to place our trust in God and His will for us. To enshrine doubt as a permanent aspect of Christian faith, as many clergy are unfortunately wont to do, is to deny that Christ has any power to raise us up to another level, beyond the purely natural, or that He can deliver us from our doubts, fears and anxieties. Nevertheless, I am confident that this common tendency to present doubt as a permanent and necessary aspect of Christian faith does at least have its origin in a genuine desire to reassure us that doubt is something present in us all and not an abnormality.

It is this latter way of looking at doubt that John Betjeman observes so well in many of his poems – a recognition of its commonality and persistence within the life of faith, but alongside an equally persistent striving to believe in the teeth of nagging uncertainty (c.f.; Mark 9:24). In a radio address given on Boxing Day 1958, Betjeman was asked to read some of his own poetry on air, and chose Before the Anaesthetic, or A Real Fright, a poem that he had written in Oxford’s Ackland Home prior to being operated on many years before. In the wait before he went through to receive the anaesthetic, he could hear the bells of Saint Giles church tolling in the distance and wrote that:

I am a practising Christian like a good many people are but of course, like all practising Christians, these moments of doubt in one’s faith keep coming along and to me it’s an eternal struggle whether there’s an afterlife. I would rather there were an afterlife and that I should go to Hell than there should be extinction. That’s how I feel about it. And I have an awful feeling too, and I expect a lot of people do who believe in an afterlife, that they will go to Hell…

…And while I was waiting that half hour, the bells of St. Giles’s church were practising and the overwhelming loneliness of it rather got me and I wrote it down afterwards, when I’d recovered from the operation, lying back comfortably and happily, knowing that I wasn’t going to die for a bit, in the Ackland Home.

taken from Trains and Buttered Toast (2007), pp.339-340, John Murray.

            The extent to which Betjeman was prone to dwell on his own death, and on a perceived likelihood of damnation, is not of course common to all. But, the doubts he entertains above are, I think, universal – that what we have believed may not be true, or that it may be but that we’ve taken it all for granted and never developed true faith at all, having instead built our houses on shifting sands (c.f.; Matthew 7:26-27). In the poem itself, Betjeman goes on to place his particular feelings of habitual guilt and fear of death in this larger, more universal context, presenting the feelings of doubt in the Faith and oneself with those small but persistent strivings after God that continue to give one hope.

And all the while the ‘mellow bells’ – the sound of which Betjeman so loved, and in which he found so much symbolic scope for uncovering emotional insight and portraying different psychological tempers – toll in the background, reminding the poet and the reader of the loneliness that springs from doubt, but also of the hope that will not let us go and which continues to bring us back to faith and away from fear. Amidst the familiar sound of tolling church bells, we are consoled in the knowledge that doubt is normal, and also that others have experienced the unhappy feelings it produces; but more importantly still, we are gently reminded by those very same bells that it is not the only option – there is a way out from our fears, and into Life:

 

Intolerably sad, profound

St. Giles’s bells are ringing round,

They bring the slanting summer rain

To tap the chestnut boughs again

Whose shadowy cave of rainy leaves

The gusty belfry-song receives.

Intolerably sad and true,

Victorian red and jewel blue,

The mellow bells are ringing round

And charge the evening light with sound,

And I look motionless from bed

On heavy trees and purple red

And hear the midland bricks and tiles

Throw back the bells of stone St. Giles,

Bells, ancient now as castle walls,

Now hard and new as pitchpine stalls,

Now full with help from ages past,

Now dull with death and hell at last.

Swing up! and give me hope of life,

Swing down! and plunge the surgeon’s knife.

I, breathing for a moment, see

Death wing himself away from me

And think, as on this bed I lie,

Is it extinction when I die?

I move my limbs and use my sight;

Not yet, thank God, not yet the Night.

Oh better far those echoing hells

Half-threaten’d in the pealing bells

Than that this “I” should cease to be –

Come quickly, Lord, come quick to me.

St. Giles’s bells are asking now

“And hast thou known the Lord, hast thou?”

St. Giles’s bells, they richly ring

“And was that Lord our Christ the King?”

St. Giles’s bells they hear me call

I never knew the Lord at all.

Oh not in me your Saviour dwells

You ancient, rich St. Giles’s bells.

Illuminated missals-spires-

Wide screens and decorated quires-

All these I loved, and on my knees

I thanked myself for knowing these

And watched the morning sunlight pass

Through richly stained Victorian glass

And in the colour-shafted air

I, kneeling, thought the Lord was there.

Now, lying in the gathering mist

I know that Lord did not exist;

Now, lest this “I” should cease to be,

Come, real Lord, come quick to me.

With every gust the chestnut sighs,

With every breath, a mortal dies;

The man who smiled alone, alone,

And went his journey on his own

With “Will you give my wife this letter,

In case, of course, I don’t get better?”

Waits for his coffin lid to close

On waxen head and yellow toes.

Almighty Saviour, had I Faith

There’d be no fight with kindly Death.

Intolerably long and deep

St. Giles’s bells swing on in sleep:

“But still you go from here alone”

Say all the bells about the Throne.

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8 thoughts on “Before the Anaesthetic: John Betjeman on Doubt

  1. My son-in-law and I were talking last night, as it happens, about doubt, in a somewhat different but related way. He has taken a course in philosophy that focused on the continental philosophers, who, to oversimplify, reject Aristotelian Thomism. One of his class mates literally held up a coffee mug and said, “Prove to me this is real.” Nathan responded, “What?” “Prove to me this is real.” “What?” with more emphasis. The guy never got it.

    But, we were struck how doubting existence, doubting that you can know anything, is seen as a hallmark of intellectual sophistication. The mind boggles. Doubt is a sort of anesthesia, right? It numbs you to reality.

    Beautiful poem. Thanks.

    • Yes, I’ve come across this sort of thing before too unfortunately, and it really is strange beyond belief – a sign of how completely disconnected we’ve become from reality. On a similar note, have you have ever read Allan Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’? I heard it referenced in a talk recently, and the premise sounded interesting – that, basically, he found it nigh on impossible to teach his students anything at all, because their prior education (in school, college and from the surrounding culture) had trained them to reject anything that smacked of a truth-claim; they were so soaked in scepticism and relativism that he couldn’t pass on the basic information required to teach the class! Anyway, it’s going on my ‘to read’ list I think.

      And yes, the thing that underpins all this is that to doubt so radically is seen as a way, perhaps THE way to mark oneself out as an intellectual, or even worse, as a ‘free-thinker’. My only hope is that the various schools of thought we are discussing have kind of reached their end-point now – people can live with errors of various kinds, but radical scepticism and relativism lead to living in a sea of contradictions which is intolerable to practical reasoning; surely now we are reaching the point that people will hold their hands up and say ‘nice experiment while it lasted, but this is just ridiculous’!

      Anyway, Saint Thomas, who I have just finished reading a book by Ralphy McInerny on as it happens, is always a breath of fresh air – he begins with the fact that the coffee mug is a coffee mug, and moves on from there. Ironically, today that is the ‘radical’ position to take 🙂

      Oh, and one more thing – has your son-in-law encountered a lot of people rejecting everything Aristotle wrote because he said a couple of things about women and/or slaves which, although common in his time, are considered a little politically incorrect now, or because he didn’t know as much about matter as us, or suchlike? This is (unfortunately) something I’ve come across a few times as well.

  2. Yes, actually my son-in-law has read it. It was recommended to him during the reception after my graduation by one of my theology professors. We have talked about it and it too is on my (lengthy) list of books I simply must read…

    Ralph McInerny was a brilliant author, described by his brother DQ McInerny as a formidable philosopher and staunch Thomist. On of my favorite text books is “Philosophical Psychology” by DQ. Brilliant pair of brothers.

    I have read people pooh-pooh Aristotle because he didn’t know things like atoms are made of quarks, and the like, but that’s silly. Nathan, to my knowledge, has not run into anything as mundane as that. The folks in his class simply think “He’s so two millennia ago…”

    • That’s good to hear (re your son-in-law’s professor recommending such books) and yes, the list does tend to grow and grow doesn’t it!

      The McInerny book on Aquinas was the first I’d read by him, and it was a good one – very clear, and managed to be both thorough and succinct too. I had no idea he had an equally brilliant brother though – will have to investigate. I also hear his (Ralph’s) fiction is rather good too.

      It is also good to hear that your son-in-law has not come across anyone discrediting Aristotle because of the views he held along with everyone else in his time – but unfortunately such views do exist. The problem in countering such criticisms is that they are so manifestly ridiculous the people holding them do so with a great tenacity, presumably to avoid having to confront their ridiculousness. So, when critiquing such views, reasoned argument often gets batted away and the subject usually has to be changed. Nevertheless, the views I mention can I guess be seen as part and parcel of the ‘so two millennia ago..’ school of thought as well! Another one I have heard as a reason for dislking Aristotle is that he asserts his conclusions too confidently – again, ridiculous, but sadly not uncommon.

      • It’s kind of funny, the last part about Aristotle asserting his conclusions too seriously. At least he had cogent argument. Few people seem to find fault with Dawkins, who asserts his conclusions with arrogant certainty, and whose conclusions are based on mere opinion. Yet, people think he is a freaking genius. I guess it boils down to confirmation bias.

        • Yes indeed – a very apt comparison. Thankfully though, I think the number of people who find fault with Dawkin’s arguments is growing, and he seems to have become an embarrassment even to a good many atheists. Those who continue to see him as a paragon of intellectual agility tend to be the same who adhere to scientism and wouldn’t know a syllogism if it kicked them in the behind.

          But yes, when one stops despairing of all this, and the genuine influence it does have in many parts of our culture, it is rather funny! 🙂

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