A thank you to my high school chum(s) who responded so favorably to my last post. It’s always great to know you weren’t alone, even when you thought you were, and it verifies that I am NOT bullshitting you all on how these people behaved. And thanks for the compliments on writing, this was obviously something that I needed to say. And for those who were worried (like you, Mom, when you read this), here’s the rest of the story. I consider it a happy ending.
Autumn at Pacific Lutheran University, my very first semester at college, finally away from home. It must be said that PLU was only slightly more Christian than your neighbor who only attends service on Christmas and Easter. As a Christian and as an Ex, I still abhor that as an incredibly fake way to “keep up your faith,” but anyway. My sweating feet were propped up in their grey socks on the dashboard of my roommate’s CRV, as the last of the hot weather baked us, waiting for her friend to arrive and for us all to drive home for the weekend together.
Poor Erin had no warning when I blurted out “So, I think I’m a Deist,” which probably explains her slow response of “Okaaaaay….” Of course I wasn’t a Deist, but Lord knows I was trying. It was a term I’d picked up in my required religion course, and since I liked the Founding Fathers, and I also didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, it seemed as good a label as any. We are a culture obsessed with labels. If I wasn’t going to be a Christian, I had to be something. A Deist seemed like it may do.
I was not a Deist and Hanna told me I was not a Deist. But Atheist carries with it a very negative connotation, and I was scared to take that final leap of giving up on God altogether. But Deist didn’t work either, because it was no more comforting to have a God create the universe and abandon it than to have no God exist at all.
I did not tell my mother this. One of the few things she prized about herself was her religious devotion, it had been something we were united with (a very rare thing in my college days), and I did not want to start yet another fight. Certainly Erin and my other college friends couldn’t understand it, as they were almost all still Lutheran without question (which was not true of most students at my school). For this reason, I did not bother bringing it up with Erin again and instead stuck to talking about which Star Wars movie we’d watch that weekend and when her boyfriend would visit next. The system worked, albeit poorly. It worked for me through my spring semester, when I really began a worldly education, including comparative mysticism. That is, mystical experience. Personal moments with the Divine.
Get your laughs out now, because I believe everything I learned in that class without question. It’s easy to make fun of people who “saw” or “talked” to God or what have you. Very often those people should be laughed at to keep them from being taken too seriously. But this was one of the most academically rigorous courses I ever took, with hundreds of pages of reading from very old texts, with scholarly and scientific research to back it up or tear it down, and to examine it critically. For the reader must be made aware, not all mystical experiences are the same. We don’t all develop the stigmata, or speak in tongues. For Orthodox Jews, there is the Chariot Throne of God, with written instructions and accounts of transcendence (as a disclaimer, don’t try this at home, or you will risk the annihilation of your soul for any mistakes in the procedure). The devout Buddhist can Become Oneness through weeks of agonizing meditation and prayer. All different types of mystical experience have different categories. There is non-dualistic ergotropic experiece, unative trophotropic experience. It was all mind expanding – indeed, mind-blowing” – stuff.
And I wanted it, too. I wanted to be able to talk to God in ways that weren’t just empty prayers. But I wasn’t an Orthodox Jew, I wasn’t Suffi, I wasn’t a Buddhist or a Taoist, or the many other subgroups with written experiences. I practiced the closest mystical experience I could, the Pseudo-Dionysus, a form of Christian mysticism you won’t see at your local church rummage sale.
Start by saying God is dirt. God is a worm. God is a leaf. For surely if God is everything, he is all these things as well. God is a Tree. God is a forest. It’s easy to skip straight to the glory and majesty of the Almighty, but aren’t these meaningless terms when not compared to the simple? When you feel yourself “becoming;” when you feel a calmness or numbness or whatever you may feel, if you are very skilled, you may be able to say “God is.” And then eventually say nothing. My friend, congratulations. You have just achieved transcendence.
Of course, I never got that far. It was good practice, but I had other classes that needed studying for as well, so it was a fine form of meditation, and it seemed like maybe it was getting me closer to God – but not really. I was never one with the universe, I never talked directly to God and heard an answer. I never just “was.” God takes more strength than what I had in me.
When I was a little girl, curled up alone in my bed, I would start thinking about my dead cat Kitty Cat, or various other family, or my dad yelling at me throughout the day, and start a highly dramatic but appropriately underplayed little cry fest. I would do this, because without any thought on my part, I would feel the bed become surrounded by a golden light, and feel a very slight pressure starting at my feet and working my way up – like a cat jumping onto your bed at night. This was Kitty Cat, and also different feelings, and these I knew were angels, telling me “Don’t cry, Child. Do not cry.”
I was a proper dramatist. Once my angelic friends arrived, I always waved them off, sniffling “No, no, I’m fine, really. I don’t need anything, I’m fine.” But I reveled in the attention I received and drifted off into a happy and comfortable sleep after that. I don’t want to imply I was a psychotic and actually seeing or hearing any of this. It was just a feeling. Like my belief in Santa Claus, I lost it after a while, and sometimes wondered if I ever really had it to begin with.
I’m not sure I ever told anyone that until J. J, naturally, has a name that is more than one letter, but he hates when I tell this story, so I shall reduce it out of respect for him. Those who know him already need no further clarification, and those who don’t have no need to know more than what I will relate at present.
Without doubt, J is one of the best of men everywhere. He is kind, he is thoughtful; he is talented, he is handsome; he is funny and acerbic and takes every opportunity to poke fun at my expense that he can, and it was in my second year of college that we really started becoming friends.
In yet another fall with similarly fraught thoughts on the nature of the universe, I got an email from Hanna. “Holy shit, dude. J is having some kind of attack.”
“Well, what do you mean?”
Violent thrashing about in a prone position, but without the same signatures as a seizure. Dilated eyes and murmurings, feverish symptoms. Signs of the cross. And because afterwards it was unavoidable to discuss, he would grudgingly admit, “Yeah. Just talked to God.”
Nobody believed this at first – excluding me, who excitedly dashed off a list of technical descriptions: “Ergotropic dualistic mystical experience!”
“….what the fuck is that.”
“God’s talking to him.”
“Or he needs to see a doctor.”
“I don’t need to see a doctor.” J did not need to see a doctor. This had been happening since he was five, and no, with many medical evaluations, he is not schizophrenic or psychotic or any label you would like to address. God talks to him.
It’s perfectly reasonable to dismiss this, and it really doesn’t matter to me if you do. I feel no desire to prove anything because it cannot be and it would be an insult to do so. Had I been a different person from what I was, I probably would not have believed it either.
But J would bleed spontaneously, go into a fit, and flop onto some poor girl in a wheelchair in Central Park – and then she’d walk. He’d know without my telling him (without either of us wanting him to), that I would engage in the most pathetic of cyber sex as a thirteen year-old. Most valuable of all, he’d appear when I was in distress, and help me out. Not just as the chosen mouthpiece of God. But as a guy. Most importantly, as a guy.
No, he does not charge for this. He has a perfectly legitimate (and quite successful) career that has nothing to do with the supernatural. He does not advertise. He does not sell tickets. He’s just a guy who wants to live his life, and God picked him. That was taught in my class, too.
Maybe we were in a perfect way to understand each other because of this. Those that believe in such things can see the hand of God in it. It was not always the topic of conversation, but it was a little unavoidable
“Do you talk to God?” he once asked me, a little at random to the current conversation.
“Well….sometimes I pray, you know. I think that’s kind of the same.”
“I just don’t always get an answer.”
“That’s fine, too.” And I told him the story of my bedtime angels, and he liked that as well.
I think that’s enough of J, he tends to steal the show wherever he is since he is so talented and handsome and gregarious (and sorry, ladies, he’s happily married). And anyway, J did not make me believe in God. I felt incredibly stupid, because I believed God did talk to him, this class had led me to believe no other, and I certainly didn’t think he was crazy, like some posited. But I admitted that I just couldn’t quite make myself know God was real or not yet. It was of no concern to J. For being the recipient of God’s knowledge or not, he claimed absolutely nothing but this: “The only thing I know about what God thinks is that we should love one another. I know nothing else.” And indeed, that must be the ONLY God worth believing in, mustn’t it?
Much like knowing exactly when I lost my status as Christian, I am lucky enough to know when I found God again. There were loose ends that still needed tying up, perhaps it is an issue I will always wrestle with, but I am very lucky: I found God without needing to be born again, without needing to go to the depths of my own evil, or weakness. I found God in the love J promised existed.
I speak here often of my friend Chris. At this time, he was just a boy whom I had not known for very long, in danger of being thrown out completely to fend for himself, already an orphan and alone in the world. Our relationship has always been a special one, and when I knew he was facing such a challenge, I had done what I had not been able to do with such potent sincerity in some time: I prayed.
I bent my elbows in an upside-down V over my green desk, and I prayed. I folded my hands, the yellow pollen from those stupid pine trees blew in through the window, I bowed my head, and I prayed. I prayed harder than Mother Theresa. I prayed as if my own life depended on it.
“God,” I begged. “Save Chris. PLEASE, save him! He’s so young!” I was in tears. “He needs help. He needs so much, don’t do this. Please, please, please for Heaven’s sake. Don’t leave him all alone in the world.” This went on for some time. And a miracle totally free of J occurred.
A softness came over me. Warm and sweeping, it moved down my shoulders into my belly and my core, and without words I heard “Do not worry. I promise you this.” That’s not a direct transcription, because it was speaking without words. It was the feeling I had lost all those many years ago, of angels in my bed – only much stronger. I had received a promise from God, without rainbow, without covenant. I owed nothing. I loved Chris, I prayed for him. What more was there?
I worried still. I collected my textbooks and scurried to anthropology and worried like it was going out of style. But within my heart, the feeling of calm persisted. My logical self had not yet accepted it, but I knew Chris would be alright. He was. And while many weeks still persisted of examining my faith, I had God back. I had heard him without needing transcendence.
Please, do not mistake this as proselytizing. I agree most and often most respect atheists, for blind faith is a poison that can only do us harm, as we have already seen. I do not believe in God because it is logical, because there is proof, or because “science” backs it up. That would be an insult to science and to the struggle I went through to find God again, when I was missing him in the darkness of the unknown. I know nothing about the mind of God, if indeed there is such a thing. Excepting perhaps that all we must do is love one another. Even if that is not what God wants, surely that is what we should all want. And if God is not real, it will not prove to be my great undoing, for I have not built my very self around it like many who cling to blind faith must do.
I tell this story because I needed to. Because I needed to write again, and because it was important to me to share such an experience. I doubt it will convert anyone else, nor should it. My experiences have meaning to myself alone, for they are mine. I spent the dark nights and cold mornings wondering if I was all alone in the world. And I do not regret a moment of anything I suffered, for deciding your ultimate cosmological belief deserves nothing less, and any faith easily come upon is valueless.
I am happier and more confident than I was before, as a non-believer and as a Christian. I also pray a great deal more. If I am asked if I believe in God, I will say yes, but if pressed, I need no other answer than “Because I have experience that is meaningful to me.” I do not need to use evolution or the Big Bang or any sort of justification to make him real to anyone else. He is real enough to me. I respect most humbly that he is not real to everyone, and that any actions he may take are not necessarily fair. I do not believe in reducing the vast suffering of the world by saying “God works in mysterious ways.”
That God works at all is enough for me, in my own time. And so I have the greatest joy that I have felt, that comes from a struggle more vast than any that most of us ever dare to take on. Its fruit is that I walk among the trees and feel their life and I feel God. I give of myself not out of fear of some tyrannical king or made up hell, but because I wish to. And in every moment, both of noise and of silence, I am blessed with the music of heaven.