Fear and trembling in Las Vegas
The perfect metaphor works both ways
Maybe 6 years ago or something, I told the joke the first time. “I got sober without having to find God. And honestly, I feel like I got jibbed”. The year before that, I told no one but myself: “Oh fuck, fuck, fuck, I have to fucking just stay not drinking without getting religious. I can’t do it. I can’t be that. I don’t want to be one of THOSE GUYS”. I don’t want to be a stereotype. I don’t want to be a hero with a thousand faces.
I don’t count the days. I have a bad sense of time. Couldn’t tell you what I spent the last year doing. An alcoholic once told me that he didn’t count time in years any more, but in jobs and ex girlfriends. I think that’s right.
I’m renovating a house. I’ve been doing it for a week. Medium sized town in the other end of the country, never been here before. Job came out of nowhere, and any reasonable person would be outraged at the living arrangements provided. I sleep on the floor, in the same rooms I paint, I take baths in the neighbours apartment every evening. No kitchen appliances, lots of salads. Sometimes actual craftsmen show up to do this or that thing, sometimes I’m alone. Every day I count the amount of work hours I’ve done in my head and run the math on income taxes. How much money have I earned. I go to the store a few streets down to steal wifi to download episodes of hardcore history and cumtown. I have two sets of clothes, changing in and out to signal the end of the workday to myself.
A few weeks ago, a new friend asked me whether I knew about Jordan Peterson, in the same tone of voice I presume underground resistance-movement people use. Highest amount of plausible deniability he could muster. Just in case. I told him, sure, I wrote him a letter once, back when he had his first internet controversy, because he articulated in so many ways, how I had stopped drinking. I never decided to stop drinking — I decided to stop lying. Sobriety was a consequence of that. I was daydrinking at least 4 days a week though. In the heat of it all, I couldn’t bear the idea of saying, I will never have another drink. So I said, I won’t have a drink for an undetermined amount of time. No fixed end date. And then I focused on other stuff. Such as not lying.
I had come to that notion because my web of lies had spun out of control, and I couldn’t keep track of it all any more. I felt schizophrenic, that I wasn’t the same person with any two people, and most particularly, no one knew — or cared enough to bring up — that I was drinking myself stupid. For the longest time, the thought that ran through my mind was, “as much as I can get away with”, over and over. “until I get caught”. Turns out, it’s a lot. People don’t care unless you give them a reason to care.
My friend felt encouraged that I wasn’t going to turn him in to the Girlstapo. We had a long talk about politics and the lack of meaning provided in life in late modernity. I told him I wasn’t a big fan of Mr. Peterson, and I thought he didn’t go far enough. My friend asked me whether I was a Christian. I said no.
It’s Sunday morning. Not a cloud on the sky, gorgeous. I checked the internet yesterday for the surprisingly large amount of churches in town, and cross referenced against female priests. I may not be a Christian, and I don’t care to back it up with scripture. My argument is in mysticism. It’s not that I don’t think a woman can be holy. I think all pregnant women are. But I don’t think a woman can be a priest. To be a priest, a necessary condition is knowing the fullest spiritual separation from creation. A woman can create life from her own body. A man is one degree further separated. A man is always alone. A woman is never alone. Each are a unique terror. It’s not a competition.
I’ve started praying occasionally. I don’t “talk to God” or anything like that. It’s not personal, all formal. Last Christmas night frustrated and unhappy about being a disappointment to my parents, I dreamt about an enormous peacock and snake, fighting on a galactic scale of destruction. A Godzilla fight among the stars. When the crazy comes a little too close in my mind, when I panic and feel trapped like a rat, I’ve started to recite the lords prayer, surprised to find that the half a year of bible study we did in grade school somehow stuck. Of course I don’t believe in it. It’s just a koan, a meditative exercise, a little psychological trick to distract myself until the purely physical phenomena of terror passes chemically through me.
I step inside, look at my phone. I’ve made good time. I walk outside, walk in circles.
My friend asked me if I was a Christian. I said, man, boy howdy, I wish. When we did have a little bit of induction into Christianity in my childhood, I took it extremely seriously. I got confirmed, after great deliberations, when I had decided to chose to believe in a God, because to imagine the universe without one was simply too terrifying. Then I got in a car accident, had a near death experience where I met a terrifying butterfly creature that was my mother and all women and all that is green and “all things sustained by the sun”, which held me and cradled me as I faded painfully into a great black void, feeling like I was being chewed to pieces by great fangs, until I realised that I was the one doing the chewing, I was also the weird butterfly creature, and I gave birth, to myself, which then again separated me from it, and I drifted into a different coma dream - And then when I came to, I thought, fuck it, life can’t get any worse than that, and there was definitely nothing about all that shit in bible class, and become a teenage atheist, enlightened by my own intelligence.
People tell me that one explains a lot about my personality, but they rarely explain what they mean by that. Probably the misogyny.
I go inside, I’m handed a book of hymns. I think about my dad talking about one of our neighbours, who in his words, took great efforts to be the loudest singer, be the first to rise, and the last to sit. My dad thought the guy was a joke. But the story wasn’t told to ridicule him. Not only, at least. He was mystified by him.
My friend asked me if I was a Christian. I said, I don’t want the easy way out. I never did. I’ve always wanted to make things as hard for myself as possible. I don’t want to believe in God. I want to KNOW God. I want to reason myself to God. I want to FIND God. I don’t want to “buy into a simple narrative and mythos about the world that makes all things fit into nicely shaped holes”, I want the most complex mythos possible. I want the whole thing. I want the whole world, with nothing left out. I want the penultimate truth. I want the Highest Principle. I want the perfect metaphor, for which, what it is a metaphor for, is also a perfect metaphor, for it. I don’t give a shit about the “historical” aspect. I want the Truth. The only thing I’ve ever loved, that didn’t betray me, was Truth. But to be fair in that regard, I did seek out and attach myself to narcissists and sociopaths for most of my life, so some of that may be on me.
It’s an old church. Big. Not cathedral, but getting there. Late middle ages probably. The alter is classic, and the decorations are not fantastic works of art, but not gauche modern shit either. I sit in the middle on an empty pew. I’m joined by an older gentleman to my left, and a couple in their 30’s maybe, on my right. People keep coming in, until the entire church is full. I’ve only ever seen a full church once before, at my granddads funeral. All his surviving cop buddies. When my uncle called to report the death when he found him, he told us, the voice on the phone recognised the name, and asked, “wasn’t he in the service?”. My uncle said, “Yes, he was a policeman”. Then the operator corrected him, “he was a police sergeant”. Anyway, he was a social guy, knew a lot of people. Well liked in the community.
It’s mass, and I’ve been thinking about taking communion. I’m hoping to take communion. I’m worried about whether I should have, I don’t know, told someone in the foyer? Do they plan out the biscuits or whatever, what if they run out? Is there a list?
The service starts. The organ player is good. They have a good choir. I think about my ex girlfriend who sang in a choir, who’s heart I broke. She was a drinker too, but had gotten sober before I met her. Young. I borrowed James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” from her brother, and related to it more than any other book I’d read at the time. I left her because I would rather do a bunch of drugs and get fucked up and have a lot of sex with a lot of strangers, ideally. I didn’t tell her why, until years and years later, when she called me out of nowhere to ask. She still loved me then. Then I told her. When I saw her singing for the first time, I imagined having children with her.
It’s mass. There are four baptisms. The service starts with rituals, readings, prayers, songs. I feel it. Lump in my chest. I haven’t been to church except for burials in years. I think about my grandmother. My other grandfather. I tear up. I sing along as best I can, I don’t know any of the hymns. I think about how both of my grandparents on my mothers side had favourite hymns that they had requested for their burials in their wills. I think about Christmas. I don’t know anything. I don’t know how these things are supposed to go. I hope there is communion. I barely think, but focus on the rituals. I start to actually cry. Not bawling, I don’t want to make a scene. I sniffle. Wipe my cheeks. I’m worried about the couple to my right thinking I’m strange, that I’m one of those guys who prays in public. That I think I’m “saved” and “holy”. I imagine for a second, just in case there’s no communion, I could ask the priest afterwards to let me. But maybe he’ll think that’s weird. The intensity of the desire surprises me.
The rituals end. The Priest is glowing in a very human, down to earth, kind of way. He’s a very down to earth kind of guy. He stumbles over the readings, stutters occasionally. All too human. But I can tell, this is the part he was looking forward to. He is so incredibly, genuinely happy, to be baptising four children. A child’s happiness, gentle and un-intrusive and genuine. The families are all beaming. Young, all of them. Younger than me, I think. But I don’t envy them, even though I, you know, envy them. I’m just happy for them. It’s beautiful.
The priest asks any children present, to come closer. He explains the sign of the cross as being an invisible tattoo. They sort of get it. He adds, but don’t get tattoos, kids. Not until you’re a lot older at least.
I haven’t been to church except for funerals in years. When they buried my grandad, I felt angry because I had a deep sense that the woman doing the burial service didn’t believe in God. I didn’t either, of course, but I couldn’t stand that she pretended to, but believed in modernism and moral relativism and dressed it up in Christianity as some kind of hyper-edgy “spiritual but not religious” shtick. Presumably. That I, a Non-Christian, knew more about Christianity, in both popular and mystical sense, than her — enough, to be able to tell, she didn’t believe in God. The God that I knew about, at least. When my grandmother was buried I felt nothing but rage at everything.
So of course, I was merely reacting to the psychological load I had been carrying, watching birth in place of death, a ritual of life to give me therapeutic closure for all the feelings I’ve had suppressed and curled up in my chest about my grandmothers suicide. Of course.
The ceremony is beautiful. I cry a little more. This is what it’s all about, I think. Life in place of death. Life in triumph over death, I think.
After, he reads his sermon. It’s terrible. It’s terribly written, over-written, and he’s falling over himself in the presentation. It’s about a parable Jesus made about corn, before Easter. You’ll forgive me for not remembering which verse, I’m sure. The long and short of it is, the grain must “die” in the ground, to sprout new life. The parable is Jesus has accepted death, to sprout and give life to all of mankind. I think to myself, that’s right. The priest is hamming it up terribly though, and I can tell he’s desperate to fill the allotted time, but doesn’t really have much he can do with it. Harping on and on and on about a easily understood parable. I drift out of it a little bit. Not as focused as during the rituals. My mind wanders.
He finishes up, and it catches me off guard when he calls to communion. I haven’t regained the focus I had before. I’m not in the zone. I’m back in my nervous little body. The older gentleman to my left gets up before me. I follow him. The amount of people standing up catches me off guard. It’s mostly older people. I notice a few younger ones. One of the dads from before. It makes me happy for reasons I do not quite understand.
We go in rounds, being too many to fit the kneeling-half-circle-alter contraption. If it has a name, I don’t know it. I go in round 2. I’m grateful that I can see how everyone else is doing it, so I don’t make some kind of embarrassing mistake. I don’t want to let everybody down.
I kneel. This is the body of Christ. I put in on my tongue. I forget whether you’re supposed to do it one at a time or all together. I accidentally make it stick to the top of my mouth, and have to carve at it with my tongue to get it free. It comes apart in bits. This is the blood of Christ. I’ve heard there’s no alcohol in communion wine, but I wasn’t sure. It feels like it. It feels like it’s the first alcohol I’ve had in my mouth in 6 years. It feels like real wine. It burns. I can feel it in my nose.
I recite the apostles creed in my mind. I have it burned in there because I memorised it for a piece of slapstick spoken word poetry I wrote a few years ago, and performed over and over for hundreds of people for about a year. The joke is the following: I act out a lot of little characters, who all step forward, introduce themselves, say what they believe in, and what they eat. Starting with an animals right person, who only eats vegetables, escalating from the literal into the figurative, e.g. “Hi I’m X, I just got married but I don’t believe it’s good to have kids too young. So I only eat pictures of my cat I post online”, until we reach a guy who recites the creed, and of course, only eats the body of Christ — which is then punchlined by a girl who believes in spirituality and “energies”, and who only eats dream-catchers. It kills. It’s called “You are what you eat”.
I walk back to my pew. I notice that the couple on my right had followed behind me. Turns out they were the real Jesus freaks all along, and I got all my anxieties up for no good reason at all. I’m soothed. It’s all right. Pieces of the body of Christ is still stuck to my upper mouth, and frankly, I’m embarrassed about it. It wasn’t quite everything I had hoped, the day before. I didn’t feel a rush of the holy spirit. I didn’t become certain. All the rush of emotion I felt during the ritual, and during the baptisms, was far stronger. I had expected to cry. I had hoped to. I had expected to make a fool of myself and be a big mess. I had been worried about making a scene.
The priest walks down to an old paraplegic man in a wheelchair, sitting a few rows behind me, and gives him communion. And then I think, this is what it’s all about.
We sing a few hymns to close it all out. The last one I really liked, but I haven’t been able to find it again. From the 13th century. Ends on the phrase, God is All in All. I thought that was nice. All in all.
When we’re done, I ask the older guy if I can scoot past him, he seems like he wants to sit around for a bit. I’m not the first one to exit, but it’s close. I shake the priests hand at the door. He’s jovial and friendly and down to earth. He recognises that he doesn’t recognise me, and he smiles and holds me hand for a split second longer than formality requires. He’s happy there’s an unfamiliar face. It’s not too much. It’s not trying too hard. He’s just happy. I think I said thank you. Then I went back to work.
The perfect metaphor works both ways.