‘While you’re burning in hell, monsters stab you with pitchforks, and make you stand on your head in poop, and it gets in your mouth and you can't do anything about it.’
Creation is an ongoing, prescient process. And our knowledge increases. That which we used to think of as mysticism is now science — and now science hints at an expanding universe that may be conscious.
While forgetting to suffer the little children
By Steve Hawthorne
Notions dawn in the minds of children. At the age of 5, the idea came to me that I should attend church. I wasn’t altogether unfamiliar with the concept of god: A spirit that pervades and animates life and is far bigger than we can see. I’d already begun to fish, and was a frequent sojourner to local woods and fields, brooks and ponds, where I’d experienced the implicit ecstasy in catching a big bullfrog, or landing a brook trout and wondering at its sunrise flanks adorned with spots as red as dead suns, emitting incandescent blue halos. I’d considered the brook that speaks in tongues, and entertained the cryptic whispers of trees on the edge of hearing. I guess you could say, at that stage of development, my leanings tended toward the “animistic,” you might even say the “shamanistic,” though at the time I had no language to describe dogmas or philosophies. At 5, I was an operator in the field of perceptions. And what I perceived was a life, world, and universe, juicy with pregnant potential, where everything is as it should be. To my forming mind there was no argument between Creationism and Darwinism — I simply accepted an evolving world, defined by the ongoing process and mechanics of creation.
Even at 5, my domestication was well underway, tinting me with the significant input of dogma that is inescapable when one has contact with other humans. “Good people go to heaven — bad people go to hell,” one grandfather enlightened me; and a cousin elaborated on that for me: “When you’re in hell, you burn forever. You can feel yourself being burned, but you never burn up. You just feel it. While you’re burning, monsters stab you with pitchforks, and make you stand on your head in poop, and it gets in your mouth and you can’t do anything about it.”
That bit of knowledge caused some dark concern, but I remember not being able to completely accept that punishment/reward view of how things work. It didn’t seem to mesh with the reality I was glimpsing. But I kept an open mind on the subject. Not taking any chances.
It was beginning to look like there were two realities. One, the lowercase reality, like the picture on a TV screen that we watch while the flickering drama of life takes place on it. A picture screen showing dad drinking too much. Mom and dad fighting. Mom shredding the couch with a kitchen knife. Grandma getting a shot from the doctor twice a week for her heart…. And, two, the uppercase Reality, the one we don’t see, behind the TV screen, where the strange components that serve to project and animate the picture array on a forlorn, alien landscape, that few of us understand or will ever see, hidden from sight, bound by electronic law.
Maybe my grandmother’s death earlier that year had got me thinking about eternity. My mother made the announcement at supper while ladling spaghetti onto my plate: “Your grandmother died today.” She tried to sound nonchalant, like mentioning the arrival of something in the mail. Maybe she thought that if she spoke the words innocuously enough they wouldn’t hurt me, wouldn’t be strong enough to take hold of me in their inevitable grip, and toss me into the yawning, black mouth of a deep well where I would tumble in freefall. “Grandma is with God now.”
My grandmother died at the age of 58, her fragile form beaten by a con-genital heart defect that both shaded and lightened her life, that set her apart and made her different. She was possessed of that resigned grace, the strange knowing, the delicate joy we sometimes see in those who are long dying.
Ariel Russell was the gentle and gifted daughter of Nova Scotia Yankees; she played the piano and sang in a sweet soprano; she accomplished what few women of her time could, rising to prominence as the manager of a bank while still in her 20s; she married, and raised two daughters while patiently suffering her husband’s constant philandering.
From my birth, until her death, I spent a lot of time with Ariel. We worked in her garden. Her favorite flowers were the raucous little pansies thronging the borders and lacing the garden, cavorting like drunken clowns beneath the more stately breeds. As soon as I could talk, my grandmother began to teach me to read; and, by the age of 3, I was driving my parents crazy, reading out loud, of course, every bit of print I saw. Billboards. License plates. Soup cans. Everything. Nothing special about me, just regular dirt who, in the future, would be often parched; but Ariel planted the seed, imbuing me with her love of words and music, like the gardener she was, cultivating good things into me, hoping those things would come to a sweet fruition, even if she wouldn’t be there to enjoy the harvest.
On the Vedic battlefield of Armageddon, when all the armies of the world are assembled at the height of their glory, radiant in their power, Krishna says to the warrior Arjuna: “You can stand with me or not, but with you or without you, I am going to slay every hero assembled here, and none will stand.”
None will stand.
Maybe I thought that going to church would somehow reconnect me with my grandmother. Surely, she was in heaven; and the church people seemed assured of their connection to that place, vocal in their assertions that they possessed the roadmap to it.
My mother and father were both the progeny of New England Congregational (Puritan) mothers and Catholic fathers; both of them agnostics who didn’t attend church; and though they were surprised, they weren’t opposed to the idea of me going when I made it known that was my wish. Especially my mother, who took up the cause, hauling me off to Ware and Pratt where I was outfitted with the then-prerequisite stiff, scratchy, gray wool suit, a pair of slippery-soled, hard-leather Stride-Rite shoes that were of no practical use that I could discern, meant to “train” the feet of children to walk “correctly” (very uncomfortably), a white shift, and a clip-on bow tie that felt like a finger pushing into my esophagus. It was tacitly impressed on me that being presentable to God required a certain degree of discomfort, “sacrifice” you could say; a modicum of suffering that one bears with humility, that is somehow pleasing to God. Of course, my small suffering was laughable compared to the passionate scourging and nailed crucifixion that Christ suffered; or the suffering of Peter, hung upside-down; or the suffering of the Irish Druids who failed to convert, and were thrust underwater, in lakes, by St. Patrick’s armed escort. I do remember feeling a twinge of humble pride as I suffered in front of the store mirror, trussed-up in my Sunday suit.
Come Sunday, my mom helped me into the suit, anointed my head with Vitalis, and marched me toward the white-clapboarded and sharp-steepled Congregational meetinghouse at Webster Square. Mom, who had the final say on my indoctrination, remained true to her Puritan roots and we marched right past the rococo Our Lady of Lourdes, the local Catholic church founded by French Catholics not long after the French and Indian War, but still the new kid on the block to the minds of some who attended the Bethany Congregational meeting house that faced-off with it across Webster Square. [Webster Square is named for Daniel Webster, the protagonist in the story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Pious folks tempted into deals with the devil are a popular and recurrent theme in New England. It is something they know a lot about.] Sunday-suited white people with English surnames were gathered outside the Greek Revival entrance to the old church when we arrived. My mom asked a lady the location of the Sunday school. The lady directed us to the clean, brightly-lit basement downstairs under the church’s main vestibule where I was introduced to the pretty, young Sunday school teacher who took me by the hand.
That was the only time my mother ever walked me to church. Every Sunday I would rise, put on the suit, and traipse the mile to Bethany by myself, as pious and faithful as Cotton Mather. [Those over 50 may recall the days when children were allowed to range more freely.] My first Sunday school teacher was a gentle and kind young woman who stayed with the more positive and affirmative aspects of Christ’s teaching. Christ in his softer moments: “Love thy neighbor as thyself, and do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” Us kids learned these things from coloring books while the grownups upstairs wrestled with Leviticus: “I will also do this unto you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague that shall consume the eyes and cause sorrow of heart; and ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.”
On Easter, after a year of perfect attendance, I was awarded a nickel-sized cloisonné pin, red crucifix on a white background in a gold setting that had two little gold hooks on the bottom where bars were to be added for each additional year of perfect attendance — not unlike a Boy Scout medal. I never saw the women wear these, but men of the church seemed to favor them; stiff Yankee men with square, pink, restrained hands, ushered the flock to their pews, their long attendance medals hanging from their lapels like fire-ladders to the cross, wagging like old testament beards.
Christ informs us: “You must become as children to enter unto Heaven.”
My second year at Sunday school, I moved on to a new classroom with a different teacher. Not like my first Sunday school teacher. She asked me who my parents were.
I told her that my parents didn’t go to church. She asked me how I got to church. I told her that I walked, by myself, from my house at 21 Sylvan Street.
The next Sunday when I arrived at church, I was met at the door to Sunday school class by the stern-faced teacher and a tall, stern-faced man, wearing a long attendance medal, who I knew to be one of the church ushers, a Mr. Flynt, (Flynt bore a strong resemblance to Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry) who grasped me by the shoulder and leaned over to whisper in my ear, “Your parents don’t go to church here, and we can’t be responsible for you. You can’t come here anymore without your parents, young man.” That said, he led me upstairs by the arm, showed me out the rear exit, and closed the door.
Christ advises the flock: “Suffer the children to come unto me.”
I wasn’t going to be easily denied, so I went over to the basement window that looked down on my classroom, and laid on the grass with my face pressed to the window, hoping the teacher would take pity on me and let me back in. Didn’t my attendance pin count for something? Was I just an imposter who didn’t deserve to be among the cherubic flock happily working in their coloring books on the other side of the glass? I heard a door slam and looked up to see Mr. Flynt hustling across the lawn toward me, his shoes squeaking, his suit rustling like a black flag. “Hey!” he yelled, pointing his finger while he came at me, “I told you to get out of here…,” he grabbed me by the upper arms, and I dangled like a trophy carp while he gave me the bum’s rush toward the sidewalk, “…and I’m not going to tell you again!”
Christ warns us: “Avoid worshiping in the temple of stone.”
Don Miguel Ruiz, the Toltec shaman who wrote “The Four Agreements,” gives us this one: “Don’t take anything personal.”
It was a shiny-black, irrevocable moment of disenfranchisement, of alienation; and even Adam, cast out from Eden, could not have been more miserable, more sick, or void of hope. I died on the sidewalk in front of the Bethany Congregational Church. Died my first little death — the aching, desperate death that comes before a resurrection.
I didn’t stay dead for long. Children are resilient, thank god, a lot tougher than people might think; and smarter too. Although, at the time, I hadn’t mastered enough of the language to be able to articulate the ambiguous mewing of the situation at Bethany, I knew a few things about it: I didn’t blame God for my rejection. I knew there were good people in the congregation. My new Sunday school teacher and Mr. Flynt had conspired to nip me in the bud before my attendance medal got any longer. They were jerks.
“Those rotten bastards,” my mom said, “I’m gonna have a talk with the minister and you’ll be back next Sunday.”
I told her, “No.” I didn’t want to go to church anymore.
The Son of Man promised: “There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.”
Somebody once asked Einstein why he worked in the field of mathematics, his reply: “To prove the existence of god.”
If you could go back to colonial Boston, stand on the town Common and declare or even suggest Einstein’s blasphemy; you would be set upon, seized, pilloried in public while your fate was being determined, pronounced a heretic, and probably a witch; then either hung, drowned, dragged, or crushed under stones.
But Creation is an ongoing, prescient process. And our knowledge increases. That which we used to think of as mysticism is now science — and now science hints at an expanding universe that may be conscious. Quantum engineers seeking to design computers that store information on atoms have discovered that atoms may already store information; and the fabric of the universe may actually be computing the equation. A mystic equation that we are only beginning to decipher. There are secrets in water and stone, twig and leaf. Maybe I AM is the equation, love is the prime, and the full-circle 0, the alpha and omega.
Lao Tse offers a yin-yang of divine irony: “The name that can be named, is not the real name. The way that can be named, is not the real way.”
Maybe language has to evolve more before we have words to fill the chaotic and dangerous gap between the pre-medieval semantics of dogma — and scientific jargon. A more precise language. And this language will become more comprehensible, more unobstructed as the angry, jealous, and vengeful war-god-from-the-desert sheds his leathery carapace to reveal the compassionate God; who rewards questions with knowledge, humility with wisdom, kindness with kindness; a loving Creator who reflects, like a mirror, the universal dimension of our human passion.§
Steve Hawthorne is a freelance writer who lives in Morro Bay where he contributes to the evolution of language and consciousness.
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