Margot Fillip hoped for an epiphany. Not a major one like Saul on the road to Damascus. Not even one like that of Count Andrei Bolkonsky, hero of War and Peace who lay wounded on the battlefield of Borodino, looked up, saw the scudding clouds of a wintry sky and felt an all-encompassing beauty and peace. No, Margot would settle for a lot less. A door opened a crack to get a glimpse of something promising would do. As it was, she plodded along making breakfast for her husband, and just like Emma Bovary, felt that her husband was as dull as a flat sidewalk.
Margot, however, was not simply frustrated by her lumpen husband, and her predictable, routine life in New Brighton and on the lookout for a paramour. She was existentially challenged and saw herself as a latter-day Tolstoy who spent his whole life looking for meaning; or a Nietzsche who was able to find meaning in a meaningless world by rising above the herd as an Ubermensch. No, she could quite easily find a lover, if not in New Brighton then certainly in Farmington or West Hartford, tony little towns of the upper-middle class whose young men had leisure, sexual ambition, and money. And, if for some reason she was unlucky, there was always Plainville or Bristol.
At one point in her mid-married life, she did take a lover; but not out of any great passion or adventure, but just to know what it was like to have another man. After one afternoon of Happy Bickle grunting and flapping about on top of her at the Super 6 on the Berlin Turnpike, she had found out all she needed to know. Sex, if anything, was a younger woman’s game; and besides, auto-eroticism was more than enough for anyone.
Konstantin Levin wondered at God’s irony in creating intelligent, sentient, creative, human beings; permitting them to live for a few decades; then consigning them to eternity in the cold hard ground of the steppes. What was his purpose?
Worse, thought Levin, he gave us no inkling about life after death, and thus equally consigned us all to a life of terror at the unknown. “Too soon old, too late schmart”, say the Jews, and both Tolstoy and Margot Fillip wanted to be sure that they didn’t end up old, feeble, frightened, and still not knowing what’s what.
Tolstoy himself, in his long pursuit of the truth chronicled in A Confession, hoped that he would have an epiphany like those he wrote about – Andrei on the battlefield of Borodino; Andrei on his deathbed; Pierre in Moscow; Anna Karenina just before her death – but he never did. The great man slogged along for his 82 years, more than thirty years after writing his religious autobiography without having the heavens part. It simply wasn’t to be.
Margot knew that real epiphanies happened infrequently. Yes, there were the famous ‘Aha!’ moments of scientists when the solution to a troubling problem suddenly becomes clear; but that is just a function of the brain finally digesting all that it has been fed letting the nutritive juices flow through the synapses and finally cause that moment of electrical-psychological whizz-bang called understanding. But there were millions of such moments. Archimedes (“Eureka!”) was only the first and best remembered.
“I saw God”, said Linnette Parsons one morning as she and Margot met on the way to school. “He was a chipmunk with a mouthful of hickory nuts. When he saw me, he spit them out, said, “I am the way”, and ran off into Mrs. Brierley’s hedges.”
She pulled the hickory nuts out of her pocket and said that at night she placed them on her dresser next to a picture of Jesus and lit a votive cinnamon candle.
“What did he mean?”, Margot asked about God. “He meant for me to follow him; and since that day, I always have; and I always will.”
Linnette Parsons, of course, had just had an early adolescent romantic dream. She was one of the most unattractive girls in the class, so it was no wonder that she would be seeing God on her doorstep instead of Ray Cummings or one of the other cute boys in the 7th grade.
Mrs. Kimmer, the Fillips’ maid was a born-again Christian who said that she had seen Jesus Christ come down on the cross during a Pentecostal ceremony at the New Hope Baptist Church in Aberdeen, Mississippi. The Reverend H.P. Last presided over the ceremony, and just at the moment when the choir was singing the most powerful verses of “Oh, Come to Me, Sweet Jesus”, Our Lord and Savior appeared in white robes and a beard right there a few feet above the congregation “Hallelujah!”, said Mrs. Kimmer to Margot, “for I have been saved.”
That cockamamie born-again nonsense was only for dummies, Margot thought; and once again turned back to her hero, Tolstoy, who had never given up his intellectual discipline and logical rigor, even after his conversion. “I don’t care if it is faith”, he said. “I want it on my own terms”, which meant with at least a dash of rationality.
The priests and nuns at St. Matthew’s parish in New Brighton had not even mentioned the Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, the most famous logicians of the early church. They gave Catholicism its rational foundation and its imperious power; and it held the fort for many centuries until Luther upset the applecart with his doctrine of grace and individual salvation. No matter how desirous of a religious epiphany would she ever become a Charismatic, Pentecostal, or any other brand of theatrical religion. if an epiphany were to come, then let it come without the mediation of some sappy hustling preacher.
By the time she was forty and still had not had anything resembling an epiphany, she concluded that perhaps they didn’t happen all by themselves, but resulted from some kind of partnership between the mystical and the ordinary. In other words, she had lots a lot of time sitting back and waiting for revelation to come; and it was time to be proactive. She was badly nearsighted and myopic, and whenever she took her glasses off at night, every streetlamp had an aura. She knew that this was simply because of a serious distortion in her corneal lens, but still, such visions of distorted reality had always been behind the visions of mystics and seers. “Go with the flow”, a hippy friend of hers had told her back in the Sixties. “Whatever will be will be”; and seeing the world as a haze of indistinct shapes, auras, and interceding sounds might indeed be just the disassembly and deconstruction she needed to provoke a vision.
Nada. One afternoon on the way to the dentist on the Metro, she had taken her glasses off. There was something dark and brooding about the empty train station, the long dark, forbidding tunnels, and the silent vault of the soundproofing; and something special might happen here. She took off her glasses, peered around her, and watched the penumbra of lights as the Silver Spring train came into the station. The suddenness of the train’s arrival had surprised her, and in the rush of air and noise, she dropped her glasses onto the tracks. No more glasses, and no epiphany either.
That did it; and the last vestiges of a hopefully spiritual life left her as quickly as the westbound train.
Not entirely. Upon reflection, she realized that she had spent far too much time and had placed too much importance on these transformative moments – God appearing to the Israelites, Christ appearing to John the Baptist and the disciples – and not enough on the progressive, deliberate searches for meaning. She had meandered too far from the path of her hero, Tolstoy.
He and his character Levin had realized late in their lives that there would never be any fireworks when it came to revelation. That, if one could believe the Bible, would come sooner rather than later:
And the fifth angel sounded…and he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit. And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power….
And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses…and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months…
And so on and so forth, none of which Margot believed; but even so, she still saw silhouettes of Durer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse when she stared at the clouds.
So, plodding academic study would have to do until the Second Coming. Just like Tolstoy and his character Levin, she would have to either give it up entirely or keep on plugging; although the older she got, the less she knew what she was looking for or what was the point.
Tolstoy ended up by saying that if billions of people had had faith over the last ten millennia, then why shouldn’t he? How could so many people be wrong? Levin decided that to do good was the only act that gave meaning to life. Andrei waxed eloquent on his deathbed about the all consuming power of love. Pierre embraced the inclusiveness of Man and Nature. Simple, obvious, easy answers. Why, they all asked, did they spend so much time looking?
Tolstoy in A Confession described the different categories of people in the world relative to spiritual revelation. There were those too dumb to even understand the question; those who understood that life was meaningless, so why fret. Eat, drink, and be merry; those who saw that life is evil and must destroy it; those who are weak and who know that life is evil, but simply roll over or hide. Tolstoy of course was none of the above; and therefore was always unhappily frustrated. No matter how he searched, answers never came.
Margot’s children were the reason she finally shelved Tolstoy and got on with her life. A little sense of humor, they chided her, would go a long way.
Dostoevsky created one of the most fascinating characters in literature – Ivan’s Devil, a dapper, slightly shabby old gentleman who describes himself as a vaudevillian. “Without a little evil in the world”, he said, “Life would be very boring indeed.” I spice things up, Ivan’s Devil said, never take anything seriously, and enjoy every minute of my eternal time on earth.
“Lighten up, Mom”, they chimed; and so she did. Finally neither too old nor schmart, but better off for finally giving up the quest.