“Each molecule is a Little Angel’s Harp” by Philip Newey

This is a brilliant book: gentle, profound, understated and beautifully written. It portrays its protagonist’s attempt to understand what it is that makes the core of his being occasionally vibrate with wonder. I think Keats was grasping at the same thing in his Ode on a Grecian Urn when he concluded: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Alan’s quest leads him to train as an Anglican priest, where he learns that the human response to those moments when the molecules reverberate inside you with a mystical sense of the music of the spheres doesn’t have anything to do with the ‘spirituality’ appropriated by organised religion. This is the story of his search for what makes an “angel’s harp” sound suddenly in the ‘soul’. His high expectations date from early childhood. He planted seeds and “eagerly awaited the emergence of beanstalks, but none so far had lived up to my expectations.” When, one day, Melanie (the girl next door) “brought him something which, in her opinion, was probably the skeleton of a Martian,” he wasn’t so sure, “being an expert in such matters.”

There is so much in this story with which I identify. It delves deeply into the human psyche and asks a number of interesting questions. Here are some important ones: “But what if, just what if, the thing that makes people believe in God is this very thing, the music, the beauty?  That doesn’t mean that all the other stuff about God is true. But what if, somewhere there at the bottom of it all, is music? But why? Does it mean anything? Does it serve any purpose? Is it all just some accidental by-product of chemicals, just an unintended side-effect of evolution?”

How many of us have ever tried to pin down ‘joy’? For Alan, it had nothing to do with ‘God’. Alan has an acute awareness of the discrepancy between the potential and the actual when it comes to the Anglican take on Christianity: “Alan’s years at theological college, and his subsequent experience with the Church, had done more than any exposure to religious delusions could to disabuse him of any spiritual tendencies.” However, he finds evidence in books that others have felt this ‘wonder’ too and gone in search of its source. There is something ‘mystical’ in the uncanny synchronicities that sometimes almost impossibly reverberate in life; and then we glimpse, as Wordsworth did in his Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey: “sensations sweet, felt in the blood and felt along the heart, and passing even into my purer mind with tranquil restoration.”

Alan makes real progress in his quest. It’s a fascinating journey, and any reader could be forgiven for thinking that happiness would eventually be his just reward for an exceptionally virtuous and altruistic life. The ending, however, is a stark reminder that no matter how sensitive and intelligent and good and kind and caring and thoughtful you are, you are still striving to make order out of a chaos that can, and often will, kick you in the teeth. Hamlet was on the same wavelength. “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, … in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! … And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

You will come across a book of this quality only rarely. I recommend it to you without reservation.

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