Valentine’s Day 1998
When Patsy told me point blank at dinner that she didn’t believe there was anything after death, my first impulse was to agree with her. Having been an agnostic for so long, I reverted to what seemed a natural response for me.
But it then occurred to me that I was a Christian now, and that I should have a more hopeful answer. As I groped for something to say...it hit me full in the face--- I knew right then, with no doubt whatsoever, that she was right!!! I sat silent for a moment, dragging on a cigarette.
How ironic it all was. I had been praying for her conversion for years. That she would gradually become more open to coming to church regularly. That she would grow into our little community at Holy Trinity. But in the blink of an eye, her confession brought my whole pietistic edifice tumbling down like a tower of mahjong tiles.
It was as if I had known all along... even through the two years I’d been with Holy Trinity, that I had only wanted to believe in the Christian myth.
The next evening we talked some more. She was despondent--“there isn’t anything more than this. I’ll never see my father again... nor my brothers. When you’re dead, you’re just dead...It’s so sad. There isn’t a God who can help us.” None of this was new to me. I had been there before. But my anguish had grown numb...like a dull, nagging headache. A cobweb of memory from some distant Ash Wednesday service played back in my head—“dust you are, to dust you shall return...”
And yet the implications of such an insight had never struck me with such magnitude. Even during my days of agnosticism, a shadow of my childhood faith had always stalked me. For instance, I would find that I would revert to a habit of prayer (of silently talking to God during difficulties in my life). My worldview, though consciously agnostic, was subconsciously religious.
That Valentine’s Day, however, the sheer finality of it seared me all the way to my heart and stomach, penetrating my very spirit, my guts and pancreas--all within the time it took me to finish that cigarette. I tried to wash the sourness of it down with beer: there is no “other world”, no “heaven”, no “hell”, no after-life. There isn’t a personal God watching over us. But only a concept of a “God” that we’ve created in our own image—-of a super-human parent, with all the qualities of a perfect human being who possesses our most supreme values. Now I understand Byron when he said:
Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most
Must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth,
The tree of knowledge is not that of life.
How do I relieve Patsy’s pain? In the Christian scriptures it is written: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).”
No, I’m afraid the truth does not set one free. It is a horrifying prospect for someone who once thought herself eternal --as a soul. I’m afraid that Nietzsche will ring truer to her ears than John: “In man’s awareness of the truth he has now seen, only the horror and absurdity of existence are evident to him.”
The abandonment of religious constructs means that we are left with no choice but to try and live life without the comfort of the illusion of a caring God. Having moved on from Valentine’s Day, the dark clouds of despair have dissipated. There doesn’t seem to have been any obvious effect on our day-to-day living. It’s been business as usual for Patsy and me. But crises will come. Nietzsche’s image, of a new journey on an infinite sea no longer defined by religion and conventional pre-suppositions, mirrors how I’ve been feeling, and articulates what I fear:
“We have left the land and have embarked! We have burned our bridges behind us— indeed, we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us! Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom— and there is no longer any ‘land’!”
Desperately, I find myself reaching again for dry land...for some sort of transcendental construct. To weather a storm, especially one of immense proportions, one requires a sturdy boat. In a Greek legend, it is told that Odysseus had himself bound to the mast of a ship in order to hear the song of the sirens without having to follow it to his own destruction. He dared to listen to the temptation of truth, but accepted the fetters of culture in a quest for self-preservation. The siren’s song is Patsy’s confession. Its peril is despair.
Perhaps out of an ultimate sense of unease, perhaps out of sheer horror, I find myself backing away from the abysmal call to atheism that tore open before me that Valentine’s evening.
I find myself venturing anew towards the concept of God that I held during my days as an agnostic-- God as awesome reality, in all its quantum and astrophysical dimensions... God as a “bigness”, a “smallness”, a “one-ness”, a unity, even a multiplicity. Perhaps “God” is no longer the right word to use. It carries too much baggage.
But I can no longer, in all honesty, conceive of a super-consciousness, a supreme being with power over history... certainly not a “someone” who listens to our prayers, much less answers them.
Since Valentine’s Day, I continue to wonder what to do about Church. I’ve come to love our little community at Holy Trinity. I’ve come to love the Anglican liturgy, the hymns, and the solemnity of its high church tradition. I’d hate to leave it.
As I’ve pondered this over the past few of weeks, I’ve come to realize that the Christian myth might yet remain open for me as a doorway to the profound...as a way for contemplating transcendence—the bigness and the smallness of it all!
The Christ-myth that we celebrate with all of its stories and rites- Christmas and the Emmanuel (God-with-us), the Passion and the Resurrection, and most compelling of all, the Eucharist--all still speak to me as awesome metaphors and symbols of transcendent reality. Yes, and the liturgy, though laced with intercessional prayers, is a supreme movement in itself—much like a musical composition that uplifts one out of the ordinariness of daily life and propels one outward into that bigger, wider, deeper realm of “being-one-with...”, towards that “all-ness” which the pre-modern mind once called divinity. Prayer has become for me an act of connecting with “it all” rather than communication with a super-human helper and fixer of things.
As I assisted at Communion that first Sunday since Valentine’s Day...as I offered up the chalice and uttered the words, “the blood of Christ, cup of salvation”, I was overcome by the experience of that “thin place” between the everyday and the transcendent that has always spoken so powerfully to me through the liturgy...it gripped me forcefully...that cup with the wine conjured up an image of the dry land I had left behind... and more...with it also the infinite sea... and with it too the dreaded abyss...all converging in a transcendental experience I cannot put into words, but which was both horrifying and exalting at the same time!
I think I may be back at church again... though I fear I cannot in all honesty say I am a Christian... I do not subscribe to mainline doctrine... but I am gripped by the mystery of the cross, the beauty of the liturgy, the boldness of the glad tidings proclaimed, as it were, in the face of the siren song....
And yet, in my heart, I cannot help but feel that these Christian constructs, rooted in my childhood, are really nothing more than my own Odyssean tethers....
My post-Valentine experience has been a humbling one in that I find I am now essentially no different from a scapular-wearing Roman Catholic or a Bible-quoting fundamentalist-- alas our pieties are similarly motivated by sanity-preserving instincts! There is one point of departure, however-—and that is on the question of honesty...
I am afraid that this queen of virtues will now linger on as the “thorn in my flesh”....Honesty-- she cuts deeply, relentlessly... constantly beckoning towards the abyss that has remained open since that Valentine’s evening. Now, when we sing hymns at church, I cannot help but wonder whether I am not in fact offering up dirges as the madman once did who mourned the death of God...