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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

07 August 2020

Malcolm Guite, motorcyclist, ponders his Christian take on Robert Pirsig’s classic book

LIKE many of my generation, I was deeply moved, formed, and informed, by the late Robert Pirsig’s classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

It gripped me both as an introduction to some vital distinctions in philosophy, distinctions between quantity and quality, between reason and imagination, the classical and the Romantic as modes of knowing, but also as a moving road-trip: a reflection on the relations of father and son, and the part played by memory, fractured, as it often is, in making us who we are.

I was reflecting on that book as I gave my lumbering old Harley its final ride before selling it, with a view to acquiring a slimmer, nimbler, lighter Royal Enfield, against the days when I shall have only a shed, and not a garage, to keep my bike in. Retirement means that motorcycles, as much as libraries, have to be slimmed down and accommodated in smaller spaces.

I read Zen and the Art in my late teens, when I was very much a spiritual seeker, exploring Zen and Taoism, on a journey that turned out to be a return to the Christian faith that I thought I had left behind. And, when I did become a Christian again, and found myself, almost by accident, a “biker-priest” and unofficial padre to various biker groups, I began to wonder whether, maybe, I should write Christianity and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and see my faith, as Pirsig did his, bodied forth in the emblems of the bike and its rider.

I never wrote that book, but, if I had, I might have focused on the way in which embracing one’s own vulnerability is at the heart of biking, intrinsic to its joy and freedom. Bikers refer to cars as “cages”, and to their windscreens as “frames”. To be a rider is to have escaped from the cage and the frame, to be immersed in the constant flow of the real world as one snuffs up the wind and trusts oneself to an exhilarating and seemingly impossible balance of forces, leaning the bike right over into a bend, almost kneeling with one knee on the good earth as it skims away below you, all the more alive for the danger and proximity of death.

When I eventually learned to drive a car, my instructor said that bikers often make very good car drivers, because their experience of exposure and vulnerability makes them alert, aware, and courteous drivers, whereas those who have bought a cage — especially a car like a Volvo, which sells its self on the cage of steel which renders its driver secure — are tempted by their sense of invulnerability to drive with less regard for other road-users.

In my unwritten book, I might have said that, in the incarnation, God abandons the invulnerability of heaven and comes down to ride with us the fragile, vulnerable, delicately balanced vehicle of our humanity, tender to us because his exposed skin is as tender as ours to the hurts and wounds that this world might inflict, banking with us into the curves of life, holding and protecting us even if the vehicle skids away beneath us.

To find faith, I might have said, is not to retreat into the secure cage of a comfortable religion, but to leave all the cages and frames behind, and taste freedom with a trusted friend who knows the road ahead.

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