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

Friday, December 19, 2014

Epiphanies–Not All They’re Cracked Up To Be

Harlan Bock wanted an epiphany in the worst way. The Pentecostal Johnson brothers were born again after taking Jesus Christ as their personal savior.  Our Lord had visited the Charismatic Doobey twins thanks to the passionate invocation of Pastor Dinkins; and Mr. Alphonse, the black man from rural Georgia who still shined shoes at Jimmy’s Smoke Shop, swore that the Holy Ghost had hugged him one day as he was walking home on Burritt Street.  Why not Harlan?

“I felt him, Mr. Harlan”, said Mr. Alphonse.  “He wrapped his arms around me, and whispered that everything would be all right.  That Mama Mabel would recover from her cancer, and that we would have a mild winter. It turned out that Mabel only had indigestion, and the snow melted so fast in February that the sewers overflowed, so that the ol’ Ghost was right. “I never prayed much to him”, he said.  “Never could figure out how the Holy Ghost fit into the Trinity; but there he was as plain as day, a kind of misty cloud just floating over the bank building until he settled on me.”

Harlan read stories about aliens who not only visited Earth but who took humans up with them in flying saucers, readjusted their DNA, rewired their circuits, recalibrated their blood chemistry, and returned them with a telemetry system connected directly to Alpha Centauri.

Magazines are filled with stories about near-death experiences.  The dying see their souls rise up out of their bodies, swirl to the ceiling in whorls of color, and get vacuumed up to a bright light. Others see their relatives who have been transformed by God, purified of all the nasty bits they had on earth, and beckoning to come to Paradise.

War and Peace is filled with epiphanies.  Count Andrei who lay bleeding on the battlefield of Austerlitz saw Napoleon and in an instant of clarity realized that he was only a man, and that the two of them shared a common soul and link to the Almighty. There are no mighty and no fallen.  All are brethren in Christ’s embrace.  On his deathbed surrounded by his sister and his beloved, it all once again became clear to Andrei.  Love was everywhere. Pettiness and strife were but distractions from God’s love.

Wordsworth was crossing the Alps in the cold winter fog when all of a sudden the clouds and mist cleared and there in front of him was Mt. Blanc in brilliant sunshine.  He too, had had an epiphany, a glimpse into the spiritual nature of the universe.  God had smiled upon him.

In other words, thought Harlan, it happens to everybody.  Father Brophy had preached endlessly about ‘the occasion of sin’ – situations in which sinning was easy. If you went to the beach, for example, you were bound to have unclean thoughts because of all the young girls in wet swimming suits, prepubescent nipples hard after a dousing in the cold surf.  Why couldn’t it happen the other way around? Occasions of epiphany?

Brother Mark, a cousin on his mother’s side, had joined a Benedictine monastery after his second year at Yale.  He had had an epiphany, but this one had no rhyme or reason.  He was walking back from a drinking night at Mory’s when everything on Chapel Street looked garish, tacky, and shabby.  “I know that Chapel Street is no Broadway”, he told Harlan, “but it was painful to look at.  It was as though God had turned on high-octane floodlights to show me life’s ugliness.”

Everything after that looked like the Las Vegas strip, Times Square, and the Ginza combined. “I knew that my only refuge would be the monastery”. 

The Benedictine Oblate Monastery was located high in the Adirondacks.  The Oblates were a conservative order, and although they were by no means ascetic, they observed partial silence, lived by natural and candlelight, and worked the gardens, beehives, and poultry sheds in quiet communion.

“It is a perfect place for me”, Harlan’s cousin said, “and maybe for you.”  Harlan had never considered the religious life.  To be honest he was after the quick fix of inspiration – a bolt out of the blue.  It didn’t seem to take much to have an ecstatic revelation – Southerners had them all the time – and rather than plod through the tedious life of seclusion, prayer, and hard bread, he had always hoped for the one unique personal experience.  If he were even more honest, he had to admit that it was not a glimpse of God or Jesus he was hoping for; just an open window to something other than the old bags and waiting rooms of his life. Spiritual ecstasy was not necessary or expected.

His roommate at Trumbull suggested that he do acid.  “Now that will clear your jaded sinuses”, he said.  “Talk about epiphanies!”

After all the hoopla and fol-de-rol surrounding LSD, Harlan had to try it. Maybe this was what he was looking for after all – a shot of chemicals, a quick boost into the unknown, and momentary but temporary ecstasy. If he didn’t like it, he could sell back his tabs.

As fate would have it, Harlan had a bad trip.  Instead of beckoning lights, flashes of brilliant inspiration, images of The Risen Masters, and feelings of unbounded and limitless peace and compassion, he witnessed first hand the visions of Hell described by Father Brophy at nine o’clock Mass.

“Do you smell his foul breath?”, Father Brophy asked as he looked out over the congregation. “Does the fiery brimstone burn your eyes and your throat? Do you feel his scaly cold skin when he brushes against you? Do you hear the anguished, tormented screams of thousands of sinners desperately trying to pull themselves out of the Lake of Fire?”

So Harlan smelled the foul, fetid breath of the Devil, touched his reptilian skin, felt the fire of Hell lick at his feet, and heard the awful screams of the damned.

Despite his misgivings and hopes for a short-order inspiration, he decided to spend a weekend at a monastic retreat at Brother Mark’s and see if the pious, prayerful environment might be conducive to some sort of a revelation.  He tried really hard, followed his cousin’s instructions to the letter, and woke up full of good intentions and better expectations.  However, no matter how hard he prayed; no matter how penitential the cold, stone surroundings; and despite the devotional fervor of the resident monks, he could only think of Mary Jane Remlin and her bounteous, full, and succulent breasts. Or his mother’s pasta fazool; or sailing off of Martha’s Vineyard.

Each time his mind wandered, he pulled himself back, stared at the large crucifix over the altar, and meditated on Christ’s suffering, Calvary, la via dolorosa, and His glorious ascension into heaven.  When that didn’t take, he fixed his mind on the fearful Old Testament God of punishment, righteousness, and the Exodus of the Hebrews.  No good.  Nothing worked, and his thoughts always returned to Mary Jane lying down with her legs up.  Mary Jane in the shower caressing her thighs.  Mary Jane on top of him.

Harlan was disappointed and angry at himself.  Not only did he not have an epiphany, he couldn’t even muster up enough mental discipline to keep sexy Mary Jane in the background.  Perhaps the monastery was not the most conducive place for enlightenment – too quiet and too pious.

He tried everything – walking through mountain meadows and climbing high peaks; attending Holy Roller services in Indianola, Mississippi; listening to Bach fugues on the great organ of St. Sulpice in Paris; mortifying himself in Easter processions in Barcelona.

“How did it happen?”, he asked Herman Beatty, a Mississippian who had found Jesus at the First Baptist Church of Indianola.  “I don’t know”, Herman replied. “It just happened.  One minute I was sitting there listing to Pastor Dinkins, and the next I was on my knees in the middle of the aisle, looking up at Jesus with tears running down my face. “

Harlan knew that nothing ever ‘just happens’.  “Preparation, preparation, preparation”, Don Logan says in Sexy Beast about bank jobs, an adage which could apply to anything. Herman Beatty had been primed for his epiphany.  Years of Bible study, prayer, inspirational sermons, and an environment where the presence of God was never any farther than the corner drug store.

“Maybe I should just give up”, he said to himself. “Let it all hang out. Chill.  Cool it. Relax.” He practiced what he called a ‘demi-Hindu’, a technique adapted from Indian sadhus who were able to clear their minds in order to let the spirit of God enter. As he walked along K Street to his office, he deliberately freed his mind from critical observation (ugly woman, bad shoes, brooding lawyer) and tried to record sensory perceptions without cognition. Seeing without thinking, Swami Sri Ramakrishna had written.

Again, no go. By trying to free is mind from cognition, he found that he was even more critical than before.  Now everything he saw turned on some switch in his prefrontal lobes, hypothalamus, and cerebral cortex.  His neurons were firing on high-speed automatic. His mind raced a mile a minute.

Eventually he gave up.  It hadn’t been a total waste of time, he thought.  He was able to finally put to rest the cockamamie, cracker ideas of ecstatic revelation, spiritual vision, and rebirth.  He filed away Swami Ramakrishna and his Way to Nothingness; and shelved Wordsworth and his hopelessly romantic notions about the divinity of Nature.

More importantly, once he had given up his weird search for Something Else, he found that The Here and Now was just fine.  He loved Mary Jane Remlin’s tits. He loved rolling around with her on her nasty shag carpet.  He helped himself to seconds and third on his mother’s pasta fazool and eggplant.

“Epiphanies are not all they’re cracked up to be”, he thought. cracking a crab claw at Waterson’s by the Bay. 

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