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Press: Nick Cave on grief, faith, and the ‘vast river of suffering’

by
10 March 2023

Megan Cullen

Nick Cave coming off stage in New York City

Nick Cave coming off stage in New York City

I AM not saying that I would have made a better Archbishop of Canterbury, but Lord Williams could have been a first-rate profile writer: sympathetic, acute, and knowing when to shut up. His interview in The Sunday Times Magazine with the rock star Nick Cave (Features, 25 November), who has lost two sons, one in adolescence and one in adulthood, was a stunning exploration of grief and faith.

“Cave’s faith is not that of a man looking for shortcuts or consolations. At one point he speaks about the ‘spiritual audacity’ that he felt coming to birth in the wake of Arthur’s death — ‘a kind of reckless refusal to submit to the condition of the world’. That recklessness is what I want to hear more about as we meet.”

The interview is cleverly stitched together from fragments both of the book that Mr Cave is plugging, which was written out of conversations with another journalist (Books, 25 November), and lectures that Lord Williams has clearly attended and brooded over himself.

So, the interview is in part about grief and faith, and in part — as shown by its presence in The Sunday Times — about a certain respectability, as tenuous as hope, returning to the idea that grown-ups might actually go to church.

For Mr Cave, the Church has something of the same purpose as an online forum that he runs, the Red Hand Files: both are places that offer “the time and space to breathe momentary life into the one you love”.

“Isn’t that, he asks, what the church is there for as well?” Lord Williams writes. “The communion of saints, the whole company of Heaven?”

To this, the former Archbishop gives a characteristically self-deprecating reply: “If only that were what it felt like more of the time, I respond, but yes, that is what it’s for.”

Mr Cave himself tells Lord Williams: “I don’t feel that sudden cold panic I used to feel when I attended church,” and that he has moved on from the idea that religion is useful — “the idea that it’s OK to believe because it’s good for you. . . It’s words like worship, gratitude, devotion, grace — these words make many people feel deeply uncomfortable, but they are at the heart of it all. The thing is, I’ve not been a particularly spiritual person. I haven’t had that 21st-century ‘spiritual’ journey at all.”

And what Mr Cave says about the experience of grief for his 15-year-old son, Arthur, is just wonderful: “It became relational, a kind of vibrational feel within the world that feels like the presence of a third entity. I am part of a vast river of suffering. . . It was shocking to find that my own tragedy was ‘ordinary’ on some level. And I felt a part of something. Someone called it, ‘the club no one wants to be in’. I found for the first time that I started to become a more complete, fully realised person, as opposed to a personality that was partially formed and fragmented.”

 

AGAINST this, it is worth looking at the interview that Matt Chorley, of The Times, conducted with Frank Field (Books, 24 February). It is quite clear that Chorley has no comprehension of how faith works.

“I believe that my efforts have clearly resulted in failure,” Lord Field says. “But the coming of the kingdom is a prophecy to be fulfilled, and to be seen by other people, so that although I will die with it being incomplete, I’ve no doubt at all that at some stage, it will be completed. And that will be the end of history.”

Chorley’s response is first that “It is odd to hear any politician talking about faith like this,” and then: “What can seem odd to the non-believer is that politicians from the same faith can come to different policy prescriptions.” Is anyone going to tell him about the English Civil War?

This does have journalistic advantages, though: it provokes Lord Field into entertaining bitchiness about the wrong sort of Christian altogether, Gordon Brown: “I totally underestimated his ability to keep peddling failure. I think he had a different view of human nature to me.”

 

THIS does seem to have been a column that is almost entirely about death; so it had better finish with a Guardian piece by Anna Tims on her experiences of working in a hospice.

She realised that she wanted to become a volunteer while listening to a tragedy on the radio one morning: “I had never seen a body. I’m frightened of the raw grief of others and I’m squeamish about blood. My volunteering roles have always been with children. I’m used to beginnings, not endings.”

Yet, by the end of the story, she was transformed: “Hospice volunteering has changed my understanding of life and death. There are no happy endings in the conventional sense. The patients won’t get better. One has to accept one can’t save them. There is no counsel or comfort one can offer strangers facing the inevitable. That’s been hard to learn.

“Now . . . when I finish a hospice shift, I want to take back into the outside world that sense of life stripped back to its essentials, where what ultimately matters is love.”

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