Sometimes it is quite comforting to follow religious devotions without much thought or awareness, but Neville Symington sees doing this without being emotionally present as ‘a self-righteous middle class pseudo-religious attitude’ ‘self-centred and self-congratulatory’. He says that when he was ‘awake’ what he benefited from was a wider, more human understanding of life and the world. He is particularly critical of his own adoption of what he calls the worst of superstitious practices when he decided to become a priest. He traces the start of this back to when he received instruction aged about 8 on how to take the host at communion:
‘I was to flip it back and swallow it and not allow it to touch my teeth. To let it touch my teeth would be making Jesus fall when he was carrying the Cross to Calvary… It would be a mortal sin… I believed implicitly all these superstitious injunctions … I was a frightened paralysed child … and how I trembled before such a ferocious God.’
Reading the lives of the saints as an adult Symington decided he too would become a saint and so he put a stone in his shoe to suffer pain, saying the rosary throughout the day, fasting, going on pilgrimage and saying confessions. ‘I had retreated into an awesome cave filled with the worst of superstitious practices.’ Looking back many years later, and writing in his eighties, he sees that he was in the grip of something that was crushing his individual creative self, but that he was determined to follow. Whilst acknowledging that giving oneself to something greater is ennobling, he saw that there is a difference in taking possession of something rather than being possessed by it. ‘The real difference which all great mystics knew is being possessed by being itself rather than some particular sensual part of being.’
Entering a seminary he continued in what he saw later as a renunciation of his own person and his own thinking to doctrines and dogmas, and to the ceremonial duties of the church. However over the six years he was there, he moved from this immersion in what he called solipsistic principles to a gradual realisation about relationship and relating to other people. This he calls an ethic of compassion. It comes about he thinks from a move from hate to love and a movement from superficial thinking – ‘the packaged thoughts of others wrapped in a synthesised language’ to what he calls ‘deep thinking’ where new thoughts or ideas are generated, perhaps even from reading or having contact with something outside the usual.
A breakthrough into the true God and away from this dictator God who had become more benign over the years came when Symington, now a priest in the East End of London, recognised suddenly that he was not God’s slave but rather his free responsive partner: ‘God was not a dictator but a Being who invited me to be his friend.’