"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Search For Epiphany–The Tale of Randall Popper

Randall Popper hoped he would have an epiphany.  In fact, he thought that by focusing on a page of random numbers, a pattern would emerge, and he would discover the code of the Kabbalah leading to a Talmudic truth.  Or if he stared long enough into the low grey clouds on a late November day, a ray of sunlight would turn the dark sky a kaleidoscope of colors and reveal the soul of God.  Or if he listened to a Bach concerto enough times, the mathematical patterns would coalesce, and he would understand some fundamental element of being.

He always thought of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky who had an epiphany on the field of battle at Austerlitz, understanding as he lay dying that all men were equal; that Napoleon and the Russian soldier manning the cannons behind the berm were brothers in spirit. He hoped that he could have the epiphany of Ivan Ilyich at the moment of death when he says, “So that’s it! What joy….Death is finished.  It is no more.”

He read with interest the publications of the Eternea Foundation and the writings of its founder, Eben Alexander who had a transforming transcendental near-death experience.  Alexander, a Harvard professor and recognized neurological surgeon, said that he had a glimpse into the after life and felt  ‘sweet, soft, Spring breeze’ that was the breath of God.

He had a copy of Mont Blanc by his bed, and could recite Wordsworth’s lines by heart:

Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears,—still, snowy, and serene—
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps
Power dwells apart in its tranquility
Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
And this, the naked countenance of earth,
On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind....

He wanted to climb the Alps, see the clouds part and see Mt. Blanc in the distance – powerful, immanent, and a sign that the Glory of God is with us.

“Epiphany doesn’t just happen”, said Sri Ramakrishna Rao, a Hindu ascetic who had come to Washington and presided over the Light of Asia Ramakrishna Mission. “You have to work at it and be worthy of it.”  He instructed Randall on the the Path to Enlightenment, the principles of Preparation, Meditation,and Obedience which lighted the way. The Indian sadhus who lived in Himalayan caves and rejoiced in their unification with the One, Brahma, the Universal Creator, did not get there by waiting.  On the contrary, they worked at it.  They patiently and dutifully passed through the Hindu stages of life – Student, Householder, Hermit, and finally Sannyasa.  Only then and by the grace of God would they understand the universal riddle of Creation, Destruction and Rebirth – the endless cycle of becoming.

“You are waiting for enlightenment”, Ramakrishna Rao said, “and you will never find it.” The way has been made explicitly clear in the Vedas.  Work, discipline, and faith are the only ways to the epiphany for which you are searching. “

This was a hard lesson to accept, for Randall Popper was a lazy, idealistic romantic who had things upside down.  God was meant to come to him, not the other way ‘round. Before abandoning himself to the celibate life of a monastery high in the Himalayas, he thought he would give God a chance.  If there was anything to the ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Our Savior’ preached every Sunday at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in St. Louis, then Randall would chance it.  If the relationship was significant – that is, if he knelt before the divinity in humility and faith – Jesus Christ himself would show him the way.

Yet, despite his devotion, fealty, and absolute conviction in the salvation promised by Jesus Christ, no epiphany was forthcoming.

He wondered what he was doing wrong or how he had offended God.  If there was indeed a personal relationship between the sinner and the Almighty Lord, then He would certainly guide him on the path to celestial paradise.

Randall became an ascetic, left his family, and joined a severe monastic order.  The Prophetic Order of St. Clement whose home was high in the French Alps, was unsparing in its discipline and rigor.  Its discipline was Medieval, and all who served there sacrificed all to God.  There was no hot water, the beds were straw ticks covered with unrefined muslin, and the food spare, cold, and meager.

Randall knelt before the cross in the cold alpine winter and waited for a sign which never came.  He disciplined himself like the saints before him, lashing his back with horsehair and slept on a bed of broken glass and nails. He stood in the garden, hoe in hand and unweeded row of turnips at his feet, and looked up at the troubled winter sky.  “Give me a sign, O Lord”, he said crossing himself. “I will be forever your servant and evangelist if only you will acknowledge my will.”

Weary, cold,and hungry, Randall left the monastery and returned to life as he had known it.  He dismissed the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Rao and the Good Fathers of Mercy both of whom had counseled belief, patience, and discipline. Enlightenment was not, as these self-serving priests had counseled, a matter of flagellation, endless prayer, and rigorous training.  It was simply a matter of paying attention to God’s inclinations.

So Randall ignored the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, and traditional Christianity; and still felt that personal epiphanies would come if one were only open to them.

It must be noted that Randall was a member of the ‘69 generation which had an overweening, absolute belief in personal enlightenment and redemption. Traditional religions were bullshit, manipulative, elitist institutions created to manipulate and exploit the ignorant. He, more literate than his fellow activists, always referred to The Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan challenges the returned Christ. God is a deceiver, Randall concluded, but that deceit does not deny the existence of an eternal realm. “His wisdom can be found”, Randall said, “but only in the experiential realm”, by which he meant the pseudo-occult.

Randall joined the Adherents of the Kabbalah, those ultra-Orthodox fringe Jews who believe in mystical revelation.  Far apart from traditional Jews who believed that God’s word was in the Torah and the Talmud, and that assiduous study could decipher meaning, the Adherents of the Kabbalah relied on revelation and mystical insight.

Despite months of indoctrination and rigorous study, Randall was still no better off than before. He had to conclude that God’s plan would be revealed in His own good time; and that human attempts to decipher His code of the universe were all arrogant, venal, and self-serving.

So Randall kept looking towards the heavens, waiting for the clouds to part and the Truth of God to be revealed; but nothing of the sort ever happened.  November skies turned from grey to rain without the epiphany of slanted, golden light.  Summer clouds passed without incident. Deep, obedient prayer in cold monastery cells produced no more than scuffed knees and catarrh.

“Do I have to wait for a near-death experience to find out what’s what?”, he wondered. “And what good is epiphany seconds before extinction?”

Fortunately he was only fifty-five when he had his epiphany; but it was not what he had expected at all. He was sitting front row center for a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, and during the third scherzo movement, the second violinist became so impassioned and elated that a long blonde curl came undone from its tight chignon and fell to her shoulders.  He was transfixed as more curls came loose.  The faster and faster she played reaching the climax of the score, the more transported, smiling, and beautiful she became.  Randall was elated and exalted.

At the end of the movement he was happy.  He was surprised at the pedestrian nature of his vision after so much laborious and tedious searching – his angel had no wings – but that’s what an epiphany was – revelation, but not in the gift wrapping he had anticipated.  He had been looking for enlightenment in all the wrong places.  His glimpse into meaning was no different than that of Ivan Ilyich.  “So that’s all there is to it? A loosened curl? The joy!  The joy!”

After the epiphany clouds were happily no more than clouds; sunlight no more than the warming rays of summer but glorious.  Randall gave up on the pedantically heavy texts of Schopenhauer and Kant and the tedious sagas of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and turned to much lighter fare. Life was short, as Thomas Hobbes famously said, but not at all as brutish and nasty as he thought.  It could actually be fun if one gave up trying to figure it out.

So Randall Popper had his epiphany after all. He went back to grilling steaks, voting his conscience, and hoping for grandchildren just like everybody else. He was liberated. In fact after some time had passed, he wondered how and why he had got himself so twisted out of shape because of insoluble conundrums.  He had been duped by Church and evangelists alike, but better late than never.  Who cared what happened after death after all? And if you got sent to ‘the bad place’, so be it. 

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