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Monday, February 28, 2000
By Scott Rahin
My personal experience of faith, faith, faith.
My mother was a spellmaker, a shaman who knew beings in the sky. She and I went to Jesus Church in Elmsboro, where people sat on backless benches and Pastor Timothy Peter Brian sweated and screamed about the blood of Jesus until his nose began to bleed, a gusher, and he would keep screaming, his white moustache turning pink, then dripping onto his furious lips. This came several times a year, and the pews would gasp and murmur.
The pastor would raise his head to the roof - we had acoustic tiling, no rafters - and cry out Jesus come down, come down and redeem us, there is revival here in Elmsboro Jesus Church. Can you hear us, this is Pastor Timothy Peter Brian, all of us are saved, we're ready, thank you Jesus, thank you, but as he yelled his hand stayed on the Bible, finger pointing to the sermon's verse, as if his arm were an antenna tuned, scared to lose the signal if he moved. On the few Sundays he bled, after service, we walked silent to our cars in the gravel lot, and ate our afternoon suppers quietly, and while my father watched television, my mother would ask me to pray. It was like someone had run electricity direct to your spine. It made me believe in everything.
There was also this: as a child, people saw lights around my body; mostly women in their 40s, who told me I was chosen by God, that I had sacred utility. One example of many: a woman behind the checkout at a grocery store, a stranger, said to my father, as he pulled out his wallet to pay: "your son has the look of greatness in his eyes." My father shook his head, smiled, said "well."
"What the fuck is that craziness?" he asked when we carried the groceries home.
"I don't know," I answered.
But I did know; I had heard other people say the same thing about me. I received their pronouncements willingly, filling my gut with their vaticination: "you will tear a hole open in the world. Something is marked in you, Scott Rahin." This was what my best friend's mother said when I was 15, drinking her ice tea on her patched screened porch, dark green paint flaking at our shoes. I rocked on her blue metal glider, and she sat across from me, in a cushioned wicker chair, predicting. "You can heal people, I believe," she said. "People with your look about them can heal people. And that you had the accident, you understand healing." Here she was talking about my right foot, which I lost in a motorcycle accident with my father, when I was 8.
"I never tried to heal anybody," I said.
"You'll be given a chance, and you better take it. God doesn't give more than one chance for healers, Ray. My husband was a healer, but he ignored it, and it killed him."
Her husband had been a machinist; she had called him to tell him to pick up some ground beef on his drive home, because there was a sale. Running to the phone to take her call, he tripped over a wrench and fell into the awl he'd held in his hand, puncturing his heart exactly. She had seen a lawyer to ask if she could sue the supermarket for offering the ground beef on sale, but the lawyer had taken her hand and said that her grief must be terrible, and she was definitely a victim of an awful circumstance, but no, not at all. Forever after she blamed that lawyer for bilking her out of her rightful millions. How this death related to her husband neglecting his gift as a healer was past my understanding, but I understood from her that I had a gift, that she was in a position to know, and she was charging me to protect it. "I told other people about that I think you have the healing gift, and they say they see it too."
"Who?" I asked.
"Don't worry about that. I don't want you to get ideas."
Some angle of light refracted through my eyes; these people thought it shone out of me. Like them, I took it all as truth, every superstition, believing in demons, angels of the air. I waited patiently for the end of the world, possessing myself with spirits, imagining my brain as a radio tuned to God's private shortwave band. I lay naked on the roof after midnight and listened for voices.
Then, all the pressures to be God's Chosen Ray began sinking deeper, turning harder, until I was carrying the center of a star around in my stomach. I felt: I am swimming in subzero water. Pull me out, or my life will freeze over; I will only come up to breathe in the inch of air below the sheet of ice.
In 1993, when I was 19, I lay alone after midnight on wet grass on a hill in the far west of Pennsylvania, where my friend's family had a hunting cabin, and absorbed the stars, one in every pore. I took off my foot and let the ugly stump touch the grass. It was the first time I'd taken the prosthesis off for anything but a shower or a doctor in 11 years. The grass touched the spot where the thing strapped on, and the contact made me shake, suddenly intense. I'd been reading Walt Whitman, books about science, books about Zen and the Tao, suggestions from a professor who hired me to landscape his backyard. For the first time, I was full of my own stupid ideas, no one else's.
I thought, living at home was an 19-year hostage situation. Kidnaped from birth for reasons that had nothing to do with me, I had fallen in love with my kidnappers. On that hill, I negotiated my own release, and left behind a world of being chosen, a planet of ghosts and secret meaning, drifting towards a bright sphere full of gamma rays, of particles, and waves, and it was enough of a world for me.
I understood that I had loved the attention, the pressure from these older women, that what my friend's mother had been asking was for me to heal her, to lay my hands on her pain. I had played along; I loved feeling as if I had some slice of God in me. I wanted to be a window between the sacred and the mundane, feeling like I had swallowed the universe. I wanted these people to know the greatness radiating from my body, to believe in me, to reinforce my faith in my own divinity, even though I had never done anything except get average grades and lie in bed and listen to the classic rock station, and read, a book a week: science fiction, comic books, the basic Christian apologetics that get handed out in Bible study, and plays from the library, checking out anthologies, going through True West, Volpone, Antigone. I was so ignorant I couldn't tell the difference, but I forced myself through the words; I had never seen a non-Christian play but I had the idea that theater was the true voice of the world. My high school had a theater club but it never occurred to me to join; the members belonged to a culture that never touched my own; I fantasized about their stage until I remembered my stump leg clumping, my grainy voice.
When I climbed the hill in Pennsylvania, I felt sure I could heal with my hands, but the healing drained out beneath me before I came back down. I had been sure my prayers were heard, but now I felt them spreading into silence. I felt new sympathy for those who had believed that a bright and lonely boy could be a worldsaver, sympathy for the bleeding pastor. But no empathy.
I gave up on their beliefs, and told them I was giving up, accepting their promise of hell, of a useless and meaningless life. I took steps in a slow and ugly journey, one where my actions cannot be cleansed by the blood of Jesus, where my sins have clear and predictable consequences. The religion in which I was raised claims ultimate predictive power - it states clearly that I will go to hell unsaved - but it does not deliver on its more immediate promises. The Bible describes horsemen, but they do not come; the Bible brings the dead back, but the experiment cannot be reproduced. These are broad and thus thin criticisms, but I can give specifics if someone wants the whole boring hermenuetic exegesis of a former believer.
Science predicts curved space and the elliptic path of Mercury; the culture of science gave us the knowledge to create television, computers, rockets on the moon, voices over wires, radio. The same set of beliefs that allows for computers to operate - and allows for readers to see these words - touches the set of beliefs that explains the nature of time, the properties of light. The predictions intertwine; the faith can be reduced to atoms, then to quanta, or magnified past the universe's edge. From the careful breeding of fruitflies we learn our own motives. So, do I still have the look of greatness in my eyes, and healing in my hands?
No, and that delivers peace. Please understand, I am not better as an nonbeliever; I simply filter the world differently. In me there still remains the boy's dream that I will tune the radio and it will read out my life story; I still wish I could look at the sky and see constellations spelling "Scott Rahin" and hear black holes collapse with my name on their lips, but I know I this is not what can happen. The bleeding preacher recedes into dreamlife; now, I idolatrously worship dead authors, in a church of books and language. Thomas Hardy, Richard Dawkins, James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Yeats, Blake, Montaigne, Pound, Hofstadter, Henry James, Don Delillo, William Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, they invite me into their skins, behind their eyes; I possess them; I cannot tell I am not one of them when I read their words in books, and then they are whispering my name, the dead poets, my stars.