Sunday, June 2, 2013

Why I Believe


Despite the attacks of writers like the late, erudite gadfly Christopher Hitchens, I sustain my faith. Or rather, my faith sustains me.

On which more directly. I feel, however, that I must indulge in some autobiography before I consider any such issue

I was raised among what some call God’s Frozen People, the Episcopalians. I rather liked all the ritual and liturgy (my father’s church was High; I can still smell incense); I liked even more the sonorities of the King James Bible, especially the Psalms, the basis of responsive readings between priest and congregation; and I simply loved the music performed by Tommy Something, church organist, a master of that unruly and elegant instrument, who could vernacularize when he chose -- slipping into such rock-ribbed things as “Old Rugged Cross” and “Amazing Grace” -- even if his main repertoire was German baroque. I felt closer to God by way of the music than ever I did by way of the priest’s rather plummy sermons.

The music took me someplace. It still does, but that’s another story.

When I arrived at Yale College in 1960, I discovered that the hippest and most sophisticated of my schoolmates were atheists, or at least agnostics, and, provincial and sheepish as I was, I tried as hard as I could to affect such edgy secularism. But God, or at least a thirst for God, simply wouldn’t let me be.

As I proceeded with my education, the modern civil rights struggle began to boil. I was instinctively drawn to its ambitions, and conscious that many of its most cogent spokespersons were driven in large measure by Christian urges. This was of course most evident on a national scale in the person of Dr. King; locally, the fervor and eloquence of Yale’s own controversial chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, bore down on me mightily.

By the time I needed to decide what to do with my life as an adult, I was torn between graduate programs in the humanities and seminary. Luckily (and I say this more for the sake of whatever parishioners might have had to put up with me than for another reason), I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature.

In due course I took a job in the English department at Dartmouth College, and after four years or so, my chairman (a friend until he died) said that although I was reasonably well regarded by my senior colleagues, I needed to publish, lest as the cant phrase had it, I perish.

I dusted off my dissertation, a tract written under the influence of the early Yale theorists, one inscrutable to everyone including its author, and hied me to the college library. In those days of the early seventies, Publish or Perish did not yet mean that one had to write books that no one would read, merely articles that no one would read, and I thought I might tweak one or two chapters from the dissertation for periodical publication.

But merely to consider the job literally nauseated me. (To indicate how perverse I had been in choosing my topic, with which I won’t bother anyone here, suffice it to say that most of the texts to be considered were in German... which is the one major western European language I don’t really know much at all.)

I suddenly said, aloud, at age 34, This is not what I want to do when I grow up.

I proceeded to work at my crude poetry, and like a tiger. I was lucky early, even getting a few poems in the likes of The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and landing a first book of poems in a scandalously short time. (Competition was less keen in those days, thank God.)

Now publishing “creative” work did not count in those days as real publishing, and I knew my persistence in poetry would cost me my job. But Jesus’ old injunction to take no thought for the morrow, though I wasn’t yet thinking in such explicity Christian terms, prevailed, and I trusted that, if I let the chips fall, they would fall in a good place. I soon had a job at Middlebury College, where the tradition of writer-professors was pretty longstanding.

I will now cut to the chase. Though I believed even then that my choice had been God-directed, and had put me in a good circumstance, there was something radically amiss in my spiritual life. Alcoholism, which has always run riot in my family, was taking that life over, spirits replacing the Spirit, and I didn’t even know it, though my marriage had collapsed, and though there seemed less and less point in churning out this poetry stuff.

I would, I needed to -- bottom out. I found myself in a locked psych ward, with nothing I had or had ever done a thing to be proud of. I had a wonderful new wife and terrific children, but I was, despite myself, alienated from them, because I had become a drinking machine; I worked to support my addiction. Drink was, incredibly and horrifyingly, my life.

My two oldest children had delivered me to the hospital, God bless them, and I’m not sure what would have happened in the absence of tranquilizers and sedatives those first two days.  On the third day, however, as I lay there in my utter shame and desolation, a Voice said, It’ll be all right, and I can remember a great weight lifting from my body then, and a great tranquility settling on my soul.

The voice was colloquial, undramatic. No bolts of thunder, no great supervention of light. Just the peace that passeth all understanding.

By the grace of the God I heard, along with the fellowship of kindred souls in recovery, I have not found it necessary to take up alcohol or any substitute since that third day. And that’s been a long time now.

To loop back a bit, the peace I felt that night was something like the odd and disembodied feeling I had on hearing the great church music, low and high, of my childhood. I can’t adequately describe it, even if I sometimes (perhaps always?) try to do so in my written work. It does not admit of syllogistic consideration.

This sustaining peace has nothing therefore to do with theology, an enterprise that once tempted me and that still fascinates and stimulates. Theology (and anti-theology and all modes of “criticism”) are, after all, human constructs, and my faith is not in humanity but in a higher power... without which, I am convinced, I would be either drunk or drugged now -- or likelier, dead.

I pray a lot. I pray almost constantly, more out of church than in. I pray for other addicts, especially those still sick and suffering, and I also pray for family, friends, saints and strangers. It just seems important to get outside myself: devotion to liquor was, after all, devotion to self in its least exalted avatar, and insistence on the superiority of my own thinking took me to the nuthouse.

The two principal prayers I reserve for myself are as simple as simple gets: Help me and Thank You.

Uncannily, or perhaps not uncannily at all, there is a pragmatic benefit in this mode of living: whenever I put myself into the hands of the power I choose to call God, my life goes well, my heart feels serene; when I take it back and try to run the show unaided, I don’t drink, no, but I revert to that mess of a man I want to leave behind.

I don’t usually talk about my faith except to people who share it, primarily fellow addicts in recovery. It is not something that lends itself to ratiocination, let alone sound-bite rebuttal of the Hitchenses and Dawkinses of the world; it is at once too profound and too simple. It doesn’t make good controversy, because controversy, to me, runs against its grain.

I don’t engage, either, in hostilities toward people of other religious persuasions (I intentionally imply that Hitchens and his ilk, deeply sentimental about their skepticism, have their own “religious” orthodoxies) -- I don’t fight with Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Seventh Day Adventists, whatever. Paul enjoined me from such dispute in a letter to the Romans: Who are you to judge another’s servant?

I recently heard of a judge’s asking a Native American to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” His translator seemed to struggle, and at length rendered the man’s reply: “I don’t know what the whole truth is,” he said. “I only know what I know.”

Same here. I am an ignorant man; I do know that much. But so, I suspect, are many of the refined intellects that would call my experience a vapid emotional cure. They are ignorant because they don’t know the whole truth. They are, after all, human.

I do know the hospital experience I’m recounting was real, because I was there, as surely as I am here now with a prospect onto the Vermont woods that have surrounded me for years. Real as that. If this constitutes an emotional cure, Ill surely take it over no cure at all.

There is one who has all knowledge. I’ve met Him/Her/It, and more than once.

That One helps me. I thank that One.


“I’ll be quick,” he says, and he is.

To speak to our group you’re required to qualify

so he begins: “We found the bottom of stupid and dug us a hole.”

He says at the end he was runnin on empty.

He says even in the joint they didn’t have no trouble gettin product

and once when they couldn’t, why, a bunch of them shot up whatever, fools

that they all was -- even lighter fluid, skim off of boiled mayonnaise.

And then some died, or started floppin around “like chickens

after you axe them.” (He was raised a farm kid,

never mind the crude blue stupid tattoos).

Just like he was sayin,

the bottom of stupid. The bottom: that was it,

and the hole we dug below it. The hole we all dug.

“They did that partly because they loved the spike.

It’s crazy: they loved the drug first, true,

but also the spike.” There is stupid and stupid

of course, he says, because in some ways they wasn’t stupid.

Like they learnt how you could go to the rec room and when the screw

was noddin or readin or talkin to someone else

you yanked out a wire from the beat-ass piano.

Now if you could get a Walkman motor and a bottle cap,

you could put the motor in the cap and fill the cap with ink

and take that plastic tube from a ballpoint

and run the wire through it down in the ink. That was that,

your tattoo kit: start the motor, the wire’s your needle, slicker’n shit.

He has Truth on his left forearm for some reason.

He has 1% on his right.

He says Charlene’s on a buttock, but of course he doesn’t show us.

He says he don’t know what God is and truth is,

he don’t care: somehow or another he’s right

here with us, “And meantime a lot of them’s dead or crazy or still in stir --

so why me? Why any of us?” He thanks God.

He remembers how he read about the wise man’s knowledge

turnin out to be foolish. Read it in solitary (for the tattoos). In the hole.

And the fool’s foolishness the other way around.

He was both a wise-ass and a fool -- no high school, let alone college --

so if he has any wisdom he’s here to prove a fool can get it.

There’s a lot of appreciative laughing, but some of us

feel more than a little uncomfortable with the God stuff so we stay silent.

Some of us don’t really want him to read

what he reads, which is Psalm 28, including the part that says

O Lord my rock be not silent to me lest if thou be silent

I become like those who go down in the pit.

“He’s a Bible nut” someone whispers.

But then again we are all of us alive.

A lot of people aren’t. That mayonnaise stunt. The lighter fluid.

The time when one of us drove through the bridge

across the river and we hung till we got saved.

The time one of us came to in our bathroom

with the toilet seat all bashed to bits

in the mess of puke on the floor and we stood up and didn’t know ourselves

and fell again and stood up again

and the blood was like a brown mask on our face in the mirror.

We didn’t know our own face but we didn’t die.

Down in the pit. Down in the bottom of stupid.

“Someone, I don’t know what it would be...   or something,”

he claims -- “Something could hear me cry.”

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