My earlier spiritual journey I documented in Bicycling across America. At the end of that account, I related how I had experienced a sort of revelation in Arizona, which could basically be summed up “Your problem is that you think you can do everything yourself.” I gave away my bicycle along with my money and almost all my worldly possessions, and started walking along the back roads of Arizona. After three days of this, having driven myself to walk forty miles with almost no sleep, I gave up. I walked back into Wickenburg, Arizona, contacted a good friend of mine, and got $200 wired to me for bus fare to California.
In the eight years since, I have often wondered about that experience. Did I set a pattern for the rest of my life by giving up? Did I commit, then and there, some fatal error from which I can never recover? If I had kept walking, would I have experienced some life-changing revelation like those of the prophets? Did I abandon God?
In my nights of despair, I plead with the Lord to forgive me this and my other sins of omission. I beg him not to give up on me. I implore him to make me an instrument of his will, to grant me the wisdom to know that will, and to bolster me with the courage I so often seem to lack. In depression, I muse that my life is already a failure, that I’ve already missed my fate, that everything for here on out is just a shell of a life, for “the man who liveth not his dream is living death.”
Then I pick myself up and carry on. I view my experience in Arizona as just one stumble among many, many that I’ve committed. I reflect on Christ’s promise that “he who believes in me shall not perish, but have eternal life,” and trust that God will find in his heart the mercy to do his will in my life, imperfect as it may be. I haven’t given up. Though the light was dim, and at times appeared to have vanished completely, I’m still moving forward.
Three years after the bicycle trip, in 1996, I returned to one of the places I had passed through on my bike – the Shiloh community in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas. A non-denominational Christian community nestled in the Ozark mountains, Shiloh numbers about a dozen long-time members, and various transients. The community provides the no-stop-light town of Sulphur Springs with it’s only industry – a commercial bakery in the basement of the community’s main building, a one-time military academy on the crest of a grassy knoll. No doubt about it – Shiloh bakes the best bread I’ve ever tasted.
The community’s led by Pastor James, the aging inheritor from Shiloh’s founder. A quiet man, James reads heavily in mystical Christianity, and always conducted a meditation session at the outset of the community’s morning meeting. Prayer, singing, and some kind of spiritual reading (usually of a mystical nature, never the Gospels) were always mainstays of the hour-long meetings. Never, during the two months I was there, did I witness James take or administer communion.
Probably the most dominant personality was the pastor’s wife. In her late fifties and blessed with good health, Anna Lee managed the bakery, often donning a white hair net and helping work the assembly line. She was also one of the chief proponents of the community’s philosophy, which she usually summarized in the “Four Rules”: no smoking, no alcohol, no drugs without a doctor’s prescription, no sex outside a heterosexual marriage.
I made several friends at Shiloh, Paul Clough and John Knoderer, the local computer programmers, and including Anna Lee herself, I think. Most significant were two local teenagers I got to know – Jeremiah, a seventeen-year-old whose family rented a house from the community, and Robert, a thirteen-year-old who was good friends with Paul’s son, Micah.
Jeremiah’s interests included fast driving, loud rock music, and smoking marijuana. We hit it off right away. I tried to be a bit of a calming influence – teaching him how to start a stick-shift on a hill instead of just grinding the gears; driving slowly through town and saving Speed Racer for the highway. I remember him using my computer to research Marylon Manson on the Internet and asking if I thought demonic influences are real. I replied in the affirmative, and Jeremiah later told me that he had destroyed all his Marylon Manson CDs.
Robert, on the other hand, was a quieter boy who played Dungeons and Dragons with his friends and came up to visit me and browse the Internet almost every day, enjoying the interactive role-playing games, the net’s Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). Robert would also practice on the piano while Jeremiah and I would fool around on the guitar. I adored Robert; found him quite attractive, really. Yet I was afraid of a sexual relationship developing, not because I was worried about the police or what people would think, but because I myself am very reluctant to explore gay sexuality, especially with a thirteen-year-old. The bottom line was that, to my lasting regret, I never told him how I really felt about him. Putting sex aside, the truth is that I loved him. Yet I never put my arm around him, never said the words, “I love you”. Teenagers need to know the difference between love and sex, I think, otherwise it’s easy to get them confused. Coming from a broken home, I think Robert needed love, and I desperately wanted to give it to him, but never could quite manage.
Finally, somebody smelt the marijuana smoke from Jeremiah’s and my near-daily smoke-outs, and all hell broke loose. After being confronted with this charge at the community meeting, a vote was taken that I was to leave in a week and not have any contact with the children in the meantime. I began preparing to leave, but the part about the children I ignored. Jeremiah’s father came to the next community meeting to voice his support for me, but Pastor James refused to let either of us speak and ended the meeting. The next day, one of the older ladies came into my office while Robert was there, told him to leave, and in about the nastiest voice you could imagine, told me “we’re not going to let you hurt these children”. I left, but not before literally wiping the dirt from my shoes, as the disciples were told by Christ:
And if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your message, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or that town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that town.
Friends, let me exhort you never to lay down any curse, even if you proclaim the Gospel and be rejected in everything. We are taught to love our enemies, not to curse them. That curse I laid has brought so much grief into my life that at times I can not fathom how I could possibly have cursed the town where two of my best friends lived. It’s most obvious effect was on me! Even though I wanted badly to maintain contact with my friends, I took the curse very seriously and broke off all contact with Sulphur Springs. After two years, my nagging concern for my friends began to win out over the curse. I wrote Robert a letter for his sixteenth birthday; it was returned undelivered, as he had moved. The next year I actually returned to the town, and it took another year to track down my friends. Jeremiah had married, had a kid on the way, but was in most ways the same person; we now stay in touch. On the other had, Robert had changed completely, becoming very materialistic and selfish, and wanting nothing to do with me. Can I blame him? During the years when he needed me most, I was nowhere to be found. He was the closest thing I ever had to a little brother. I fear I’ve lost him forever.
The Drug War
Early in 1997, having returned from Arkansas, I lived with a college friend of mine who was waiting tables at a Glen Burnie restaurant. He was also a small-time drug dealer, keeping marijuana and cocaine in the house in addition to the usual alcohol. At any rate, the police found out and the house was raided. Five days later, we were evicted. What followed was the most profound faith struggle of my life.
In the midst of this crisis, I sought re-baptism. Through my prayers and contemplations, I recognized that Jesus had been baptized, not as an infant, but as a grown man, at the outset of his ministry. I decided to pursue the same course, though not for the redemption of sin (perhaps a serious error), but in search of an answer from God to this political campaign I was complementing. Just as Christ received a sign at his baptism, before pursuing his ministry, so I sought a similar sign at mine. While this may seem incredibly arrogant (it seems so to me, in retrospect), I can honestly tell you that I entered into the venture with the profound conviction that if God wanted me to pursue this campaign, he would give me a sign at my baptism.
I fasted for a week, then traveled to Ohio, where I had met a minister during my bicycle trip who baptized by immersion. After attending his service, I asked him afterward for baptism. Since he was busy that afternoon, he said that unless I could wait a few days, it would have to occur immediately. And that’s exactly what happened. He announced the baptism to those of his congregation still mingling after the service, we drove to a nearby lake, and with perhaps fifty witnesses, he baptized me in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I received no sign.
I drove home to Maryland telling myself that I didn’t have to do it, that I had no calling from God, that there was no obligation for me to pursue this campaign that so deeply troubled me. While I had many more doubts and agonies over it, I believe my baptism in Ohio was probably the turning point in my decision to scrap the campaign. In a moment of paranoia (What if the police busted me again?) I burned the notebook I had prepared in planning the campaign, and mostly got on with my life.
I would return to the drug war again. In early 2000, I had what you might call a relapse. I had rejected civil disobedience, but still considered the possibility of a speaking and protest campaign. I published It’s the Drug War, Stupid. Looking back on that document, I have to tell you that what disturbs me most about it is not the anger it relates, because that was real, but how political it is; how totally coaxed it is in political rights and strategies; how God has been completely edited out.
Some of what I proposed in that essay came about, though I had no part of it. The “shadow conventions” of 2000 highlighted the drug war as one of their issues, and were labeled as “ultra-left” by a society that split its vote between Al Gore and George W. Bush. I’m increasingly coming to a disturbing conclusion – that the majority of the people of this country want a war in their own land, against their own people, and are absolutely committed to a policy of “zero tolerance”.
I’ll probably end up as a monk, if not in name than at least in fact. My earliest direct exposure to monasticism came on the bike trip, when I visited a Benedictine monastery in Oklahoma. St. Benedict, the founder of this order, spent three years living in a cave, his only nourishment being bread lowered to him on a rope by a friend. Later, he founded the monastery at Monte Casino and the Benedictine order. He lived about 1500 years ago.
More recently, I’ve read a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order. St. Francis’ response to the Christian gospel was similar to St. Benedict’s, but also much different. Both men took their religion very seriously, and neither were content to just sing about heaven on Sunday mornings. Yet while Benedict cloistered himself in a monastery, Francis took to the road. After giving away all his worldly possessions, he began traveling around Italy by foot, preaching the gospel and begging for his food. Any money he received, he gave away immediately.
I don’t completely subscribe to Francis’ philosophy; you won’t catch me sprinkling ashes on my food because I think it tastes too good! Yet we are in agreement on many and the most significant points. I consider it a religious obligation to give to beggars, and recently have found myself on various occasions without a penny to my name. Yet I have no intention of getting a job just to produce money; I have plenty of important work to do, and frankly, pride. I despise the capitalists and will not support their nightmare system by working for them simply because I’m forced to if I want to eat. Like Francis, if I lack benefactors, I will simply go hungry. Yet God knows what we need, and will provide it – I’m not starving away, thanks to those who give to me and particularly Bruce Caslow, my most significant supporter over the last few years. It’s Bruce that paid for an apartment in Washington when I couldn’t afford the rent; Bruce who was always tossing twenty bucks my way when I didn’t have anything to eat; Bruce who was always there to review an essay or discuss my spiritual trials.
I think we need both the Benedictine and the Franciscan ideals in our lives; we find both motifs in the life of Christ. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness, withdraws onto a mountaintop to pray, spends all night in prayer. We need to withdraw into seclusion, perhaps best the seclusion of nature, to experience God in solitude. Christ also travels from town to town, stays with friends in Jerusalem, sends forth his disciples and tells them to take no money, or packs, or extra clothing. We also need to come down from the mountaintops and express our love of God through our fellow man. Honestly, the great saints seems to know this. Francis at times withdraws into seclusion, and Benedict finally left his cave. Ultimately, we don’t need a ten-acre monastery or public vows to life as brothers in Christ. The monastery was wherever Jesus went, and the most important vows are the ones we make to God.
New Age Christianity
I’ve been exposed in the last year to New Age Christianity, most particularly through Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God books. For those unfamiliar with this, Walsch claims that his books are essentially channeled from God. He would take a pad of paper, write a question, and wait for an answer to come into his head. Sometimes no answer would come, and he would put the pen down until the next day. When an answer would come, he would write it down and then ask another question. He wrote three books this way.
The basic tenet of these books is that We Are All One. When the Bible states that God made us in his image, it means this spiritually, not physically. We are, each of us, a little piece of God, which God created in order to experience the universe as individuals. Those who become completely self-aware, such as Jesus, realize their own oneness with God and, through faith, find power even over death.
This theology is radically different from traditional Christianity. It claims, among other things, that there is no Devil (we invented him ourselves); that we reincarnate again and again; that Jesus was not the only one to rise from the dead, and that we, like him, can conquer death, through faith; that spiritual masters generally don’t marry, not because they don’t have sex, but because they can’t make an exclusive commitment to one person.
I can’t quite figure what to make of this. If true, it means that we can pass through death, and if our faith is strong enough, be resurrected. If false, then it represents a temptation of the Devil and a path only to our own self-destruction. Russ Wise notes that The New Age offers man the same deal the serpent offered Eve in the garden. If you eat of this fruit, you will become like God. The fundamental question it poses is simple – is Christ a guide and teacher, to be followed and emulated, or is he the unique Son of God, whose miracles can not be duplicated?
At a seminary, it’d be interesting to conduct a class on Modern Prophets. What do we make of people like Nostradamus? Edgar Cayce? Joseph Smith? A Course in Miracles? Conversations with God? We can’t just ignore them – the claims they make are too serious. Yet we’ve been taught there will be false prophets, so we can’t just accept them at face value, either. They require careful consideration.
Cayce lived in the early twentieth century, and would enter a sleeping, hypnotic trance in which he’d respond to questions with answers from a “Source” that appeared to have extra-worldly knowledge. The Source revealed that reincarnation occurs, that among Cayce’s previous lives was that of a priest in ancient Egypt, that the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza was actually a prophecy in stone that records the exact moments of Chirst’s birth and death, as well as the imminent entrance of humanity into a new age symbolized by the King’s Chamber, etc, etc.
In addition to the New Age ideas here, like reincarnation, I find Cayce disturbing because of some of the prophecies he made that I tie into my own life. He prophesied his own return “in the capacity of a LIBERATOR of the world in its relationships with individuals; for he must enter again in the age that is to come, or in 1998”. At the time of my contemplated drug war campaign in 1997 I knew none of this, but in retrospect I ask myself if that wasn’t the “appearance” that was to have occurred a year later, in the election year of 1998. And just when is “the age that is to come”? Is it a subtle shift, like the turn of the millennium, or the change from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius? Or is it a dramatic change, to be characterized by political upheaval, environment disaster, or global unrest?
In retrospect, I wish I’d never read any of this! I’d rather just not know, and stumble along, making the decisions as best I can without have all this extra stuff nagging at me in my head. Others have similar doubts about Cayce; some of his prophecies just flat out never occurred.
Early in 2001, I had a dream in which I saw a newspaper tabloid on a supermarket checkout stand. It’s headline gave three prophesies for the coming year – disaster for the United States, war in the Middle East, and the appearance of a great saint. Of course, my ego thrusts me into the later role. Am I a great saint? If so, how do I “appear”?
New Age Christianity and the Cayce prophecies raise even more disturbing questions. Could I duplicate the feats of Christ? Be the reincarnation of St. Peter? Become a Messiah? This is the fundamental question raised by these teachings – was Jesus the unique Son of God, or all we all sons of God, who can seek to obtain the same level of faith and power?
Is this insanity? Not exactly. I don’t actually believe that I am Jesus, or God, or a Messiah. Yet the reading I’ve done raises these disturbing questions. It’s more an intellectual insanity, generated by competing theologies, than a physiological one with some chemical imbalance at its source.
The Spirit at Thirty One
In another dream, I was running through a cave-like maze of passages, fleeing in terror from some attacker. I soon realized, though, that my attackers weren’t really attacking me at all – they were mocking me and my books. Mocking my attempt to learn Spanish by reading it. I emerged from the cave and decided to return to the place I was fleeing from. Perhaps I thought I had killed someone, in fact, it was only a flesh wound. There was really nothing to run from at all; then I awoke.
So what am I running from? From my failure at Wickenburg? From human society? From the Drug War? From God? And what do I make of all these ideas and theologies I’ve been exposed to? Ultimately, I can’t answer these questions, and I doubt that anyone can. Only God holds the answers. So, through prayer, I’ve asked God to reveal these answers to me, and I trust that this way, I’ll get the answers from the only source that holds them.
As I finish this essay, I’ve just turned thirty-two, so perhaps the title is becoming something of a misnomer! In the last year, I’ve given up on spending all my time in front of a computer screen, thinking I’m going to save the world through a website. I’ve hitchhiked across the United States, down into Mexico, and back. I’ve become a lot more comfortable having no money, am willing to go hungry if need be, and don’t feel tied down to a nice apartment and a pile of possessions, though I regret that I can’t fit my piano into my backpack. I’m on my way now to spend at least a few weeks in the Appalachian Mountains, fasting and praying. Certainly Jesus did this at critical times in his life, and many were the saints and prophets, from Abraham to Francis, who found God in seclusion, in the wilderness. Hopefully, I’ll find these answers, too. In any event, I haven’t given up. The spirit at thirty-two is still searching…
The peace of Christ and the love of God be with you all.
2 Replies to “The Spirit at Thirty”
Thank you for your insightful thoughts on Christianity as an explanation of a deity. I was raised a Roman Catholic that included attending a private Catholic school, and have a decent understanding of the Bible. I later converted to a born-again Atheist and then converted to a Seventh Day Agnostic. After 911 I became even more bewildered about the various religious concepts and am even more comfortable with my agnostic disposition. History shows us that Religion is the cause of most wars and that all the tyrant regimes declared to have “God on their side”.
It appears we have learned nothing from that history and have not evolved one bit over the last melinium. I call this phenomena devolution. We have digressed to such a pathetic level it makes Sodom and Gamora look like a convent.
To me religion is on the ropes. 911 has exposed the hate filled roots of Islam, I don’t know what to make of the conflict between the Jews and the Muslims over in Israel and then there is this issue of the pedophile priests in the Catholic Church. What a mess.
At last count there exits approximately 200 religions each with its own convictions and description of a deity. Some are aggressive at how they promote their concepts some passive. If you take in to account the religions that fell by the way side as science disproved those flawed concepts you arrive with way to many explanations of a metaphysical entity. Some day, as science and technology progresses we might be able to verify and connect with these paranormal quantities. Until then I will be comfortable in waking up every seventh day, Sunday, and acknowledge that there is a god and not go to war over it.
The spirit at Forty Seven
Dear Brent, your essay almost exactly mirrors my spiritual journey. From your discoveries during your bike ride (though I’ve never done that, but I have enjoyed the beauty of God’s creation locally where I live) to your study(searching) of different spiritual and mystical philosophies. All of this reading did nothing but confuse and depress me. When I turned forty, I discovered, through the saints, especially St. Francis and St. Ignatius of Loyola, that true freedom and peace comes from the constant (every minute of everyday) practice of keeping every thought focused on the presence of God. Make a vow to never do, say or think anything that would displease the Lord every day. This is done in your mind and heart. This practice is not easy because our minds stray. When that happens just bring your thoughts back to God. Dedicate everything you do to God (writing,eating,working,walking, etc.) If you fall(sin), confess your sin directly to Him with your mouth and then continue being constantly in the presence of God who is love and extremely merciful. If you stay with this practice, you will find it to become easier and easier. There is no more fear or anxiety. You will have sanctified yourself which will sanctify your friends, which will sanctify the world, May God give you peace,