Stone, Lightening

A large delivery van pulled up in front of our house. It came as Laura and I were standing near our front door looking out. It came at just the day and time it was supposed to.

Stepping out onto the large concrete porch, we watched as the driver put a small pallet with a package on a dolly.

“Where would you like it?”

“Right here,” I said, “on the porch.”

“You sure?” Laura asked.

“Yes.”

I watched the driver closely as he set it down. His eyes avoided mine, and his intermittent smile was friendly but awkward. I wondered if that was his personality, or if it was the package. Did he know what it was? He must have.

“Do you know how much it weighs?” I asked.

“Two hundred pounds.”

There was a time, a long time, when its weight seemed infinite, too heavy to contemplate. But that time had passed as we took delivery of a headstone for our son.

More than once in the ten years since Paul died – in a wreck the day before Thanksgiving – more than once we had tried to take up the task of getting a marker in place. It was a task made of smaller ones that were not small but mountainous, and at first we could not begin to think of tackling them. The first attempt came only two months after the funeral. I picked up a catalog of headstones from the funeral home. The first task, I suppose, is choosing a design, then the words, then the color of stone. At our dining table I thumbed through its pages and found a section depicting the designs for children and infants. I brushed my tears from the pages, closed them and returned the books.

Sometime later, a year or more, Laura did the same. Looking at gravestones for children, it turns out, is not chicken soup for the soul. The weight of the stone, our stone, was more than we could lift. The weight was not the mass-times-gravity of a chunk of granite cut from a quarry in Vermont. It was our grief – which was more like our hearts cut from inside of us, broken, crushed. Are there words for that to cut into stone? Then mark his grave with that.

We did not go back to the books. Instead, we considered what the stone should say. For me, this was the real difficulty. Paul lived for just a little less than fourteen years. But a headstone, this stone, is supposed to say something about the person buried beneath it. A headstone is a memorial, after all. The thought sickened me a little of having to choose only a few words, a single phrase, to sum up the person who is Paul Dehner. I didn’t want to do it. And not wanting to, unable to bring myself to it, I didn’t, for years.

I was only adding to the weight of the stone. It would never become lighter if I was standing on it. Over time, I came to relieve the stone of its burden. It did not need to carry a lifetime. It did not have to hold memories, or stand for love. It would mark a place, a temporary place, an allotment of the earth given to hold and receive a body back to itself — but not Paul himself, who lives forever, whose memories are kept by God, who is missed in ways that can never be committed to a few, bitterly few, words.

The stone became lighter and eventually we came to see that it was a small thing, or at least, small enough. We die, and most of us are forgotten when everyone who knew us has also died. The memory of our lifetime can only outlive us by less than a hundred years. Then, our gravestones will be passed in the cemetery by people looking for a different, fresher one. Someone may look at my grave and wonder who is buried there. The stone is there to tell them. For those who know the deceased, it marks a place to visit, to remember, to mourn.That’s all.

But it did take ten years. Now we are ready to place the stone. Today the funeral man came and took the stone away, and in a few days we will meet at Paul’s grave to see him set it in the ground.

We ended up ordering the stone from a company in California. And yes, we chose the words, and then the design, and then the color. We worked with them through several drafts of the design. Laura did most of the initial work, sharing as she went with my mom, and asked me to select a verse of Scripture to include. Finally we chose the kind and color of granite. It’s a flat red granite stone with Paul’s name on top and a Celtic cross centered beneath. On either side, are the dates. Instead of saying, “Born” and “Died,” recalling his love of performing, Laura wrote “Opening Night” and “Final Bow.” Across the bottom, in italics, from 1 Corinthians 2:9:

No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined
the things God has prepared for those who love Him.

After some adjustments to the design, we approved it. They cut it, polished it, and sent it.

+   +   +

The Hillside Cemetery lies seven miles north and mountain-ward from our town, on the gentle slopes rising to the Coastal Range, founded in 1887 by pioneers who settled the area, and whose descendents still manage and care for it. Among them are some friends who offered us a plot when we suddenly needed one ten years ago.

We drove out with our daughter Elyse, to find a man about our age finishing the work. A couple of shovels and half a bag of sand lie between him and the open tailgate of his pickup. It was raining only faintly, and a mild wind swept the slopes. Kneeling in the well-soaked turf, he poured water across the shiny face of the stone, and brushed off the sand that framed it in the ground.

Our conversation struck me as strange; perhaps more for what was not said. Yes, Laura asked him about caring for the stone, and he explained that keeping the engraved portions clean with a brush was most important. He also talked about how long the painting in the lettering should last – about five to ten years, after which it could be re-painted if we like. But the stone, and the inscription, they would last forever. Or, I thought, as close to forever as anyone would care about.

We talked about our own arrangements. I want a burial, Laura cremation.

“Have you thought about being green-barreled?” he asked me. “If you’re environmentally-conscious.”

“You mean putting me out with the trash?”

“No, buried,” He said. “No casket, no box, just wrapped in a shroud and put in the ground.”
Laura was surprised that it was legal to do that. Not in the city limits, he said, but out here, it is.

“Oh, yeah. I think I’d like that.”

Then he explained the downside to cremation.

“It has a huge carbon footprint, because it uses so much fuel. If you drove an SUV from here all way across the country, to DC, and drove back as far as Colorado, you would burn the amount of fuel it takes to reduce a single body to ashes.”

“That would explain why it’s so hard for me to burn calories.”

But in the course of talking, as we stood next to Paul’s grave, and stood over the stone, he mentioned that he’d also lost his son. Yet, apart from muttering, “I’m sorry,” which I don’t think he heard, none of us offered our sympathies, and I thought it was odd, a funeral director not offering any condolences, until it occurred to me, looking at the dates carved in the granite: it’s because it’s been so long. Ten intervening years. The lightening years, the softening, normalizing, easing years. They were long and hard – long enough, I suppose, that condolences might not be thought in order. Long enough that the sorrow is not such a stabbing pain. They were years that could bring devastated parents to smiling and laughing at the graveside where on that ever-receding day they had wept inconsolably, canopied from a downpour.

Now we listen as the funeral man tells of disinterring someone who died in 1968 – “There was nothing left of him except a few vertebrae. But his polyester suit and tie was good as new: it was perfect.” – and we all laugh.

We tried to remember how Paul had been dressed, but couldn’t be certain – another memory lost in the awful, swirling haze of grief over a son lost and a daughter yet in a coma. We remembered the simple but beautiful wooden casket a friend had made – Paul’s youth leader at church, and how Paul’s friends had gathered together to write messages on the inside of the cover – words of love and sorrow and farewell.

If our grief has lightened over years, it’s still heavy, hard, sharp around the edges, and insoluble against the years of our remaining lifetimes. But like the stone, it is a lighter, a bearable sorrow, a thing we don’t want to have or to need, but which we can and we must.

Planted in the dirt and grass, the marker is surrounded by the life of the ancient hills draped with bean-rows and vineyards, evergreens and yearly-renewed flora – life that stubbornly goes on, indifferent to death or graves, to past pains and sorrows. Grief is also like this: it moves little, if at all, as life and the world go on their way.

The stone is here at just the day and time it could and should have come, for our sakes and the sake of everyone who loves Paul’s memory. It will outlast us all, past the day that each of us who knew him in this world will greet him with inexpressible joy in the next, lighter than light.

 

The Trip that Changed My Life | Part Two

In California in the early spring
there are pale yellow mornings
when the mist burns slowly into day.
The air stings
like autumn, clarifies
like pain.

-Robert Haas

March 28th-29th
Saturday the 27th we slept outside a truck stop somewhere in El Monte, near the Pomona Freeway and I-605.

Early Sunday morning, the fourth day of our hitch-hike to the oilfields of New Mexico, we caught a ride going south on I-605. The driver was a young Mexican man named Antonio who was driving south in a small pickup full of fruit. He was very friendly, but didn’t speak more than a few words of English. He understood we were headed south as well. He let us off in Anaheim, where we parked ourselves near an on-ramp to I-5. We rode all the way to San Diego with a flashy Mexican-radio DJ who lived in California and worked in Tijuana. He took us to where I-805 meets the 8 going east.

Almost every driver who gave us a ride talked with us, asked about our destination and told us about themselves. Not the next one. He zipped to a sudden stop in his sports car, picked us up and sped down the highway. He was nervous, and didn’t talk to us or even look at us. I thought he must be running drugs or something like that. Then, only minutes later, just as abruptly as he had stopped for us, he pulled over and let us off. We we were a little to the east of San Diego, into some hills, apparently not near anything.

A white Toyota pickup pulled over with a man in his 50s and two younger men. I don’t believe in accidental meetings; I do believe in divine appointments. This is one of the reasons why.

The older man, clearly in charge, said they lived nearby. And as the day was growing long, he could offer a place to stay for the night. We hopped in the back of the pickup and rode a few miles further to the town of Descanso, two miles north of the freeway. To the rectory of a Catholic church.

The man was a priest, a well-known and well-loved one, as I came to learn. His name was Father Ben Carrier, pastor of Our Lady of Light Church, and helping the poor, including hapless drifters like us, was part of his way of life.

“After he became pastor of Our Lady of Light the rectory was never without strangers passing through or staying on for weeks or even months. They included drug users, ex-addicts, alcoholics, felons on parole or just nomads roaming the roads, homeless, purposeless, twentieth century gypsies. “Lost children,” he called them.

- Enid Lanyon*

He treated us with same kindness and respect he became legendary for among transients up and down the highways a hundred miles north and east – so he never made us feel like ‘lost children,’ even thought that’s just what we were.

Father Ben told us he had come to California in the late 1950s, with one-quarter of a lung and six months to live. Here we was, over twenty years later, full of life and receiving every day as gift. He suffered from TB and brochiectesis. Ben was a raconteur, and regaled us with stories. He made us dinner, and let us sleep on a couple of couches in the living room and shower in the morning.Then he made us breakfast.

Over breakfast he looked at me and said, “What did you say your last name is?”

“Dehner.”

“Do you know if you have a relative in San Diego?”

Suddenly I recalled Dad’s next oldest sibling, my Aunt Ada, a Carmelite nun.

“Yes, I have an aunt – “

“Ada Dehner?”

“Yes! Sister Ada. But I’ve never met her. She’s been cloistered for forty years or something.”

“In the the Carmelite Monastery. Ada and I have been the dearest of friends for twenty years. I’m her spiritual adviser.”

“Wow. Tell me about her; we’ve never met.”

“Well, you’re going to meet her today. I’ll take you to there to meet her, if you like.”

Fr Ben Headshot

Fr. Ben Carrier

Just a wild coincidence, right? But it was hard for me to see it that way. Something that day turned in my mind, especially when we entered the reception room and this beautiful sister, who I immediately recognized as a Dehner, appeared on the other side of the grille – something about how every time I turned around for the last year, I was bumping into God and his people, someone wanted to tell me about Jesus, or their religion, or their salvation. Or they didn’t mean to tell me anything at all – I just  knew what they were, or saw it. Back in Seattle, at work alone: Cliff the African-American kung-fu Christian; freshman Huskies center Barney Giles and KT the high school senior, friends and Christians; the Mormon couple and the Scientology Squad… And there had been the Christian peaceniks in Missoula… The Christians at the Poverello center, and the Children of God. I never even meant to go to San Diego, never even thought of my aunt the nun – until that moment. And now I have been picked up by my aunt’s best friend the priest and he’s bringing me to her monastery.

Ada was warm and radiant, and I instantly felt her love. She talked to me as if she already knew me, something so characteristic of my dad’s family. She told me childhood stories about my dad he had never told (she was ten years older), and about the grandparents I never knew. What an unexpected and profound gift. It just came out of nowhere. Or did it? It began to make me wonder.

That day Ben drove us east into the desert, and dropped us in El Centro, where we failed to get a ride, and ended up wandering around until late looking for a place to sleep.

Carmelite Monastery of San Diego

Carmelite Monastery of San Diego

March 30th – 31st

If you don’t die of thirst, there are blessings in the desert. You can be pulled into limitlessness, which we all yearn for, or you can do the beauty of minutiae, the scrimshaw of tiny and precise. The sky is your ocean, and the crystal silence will uplift you like great gospel music, or Neil Young.

-Anne Lamott

We thought we would take I-8 and connect with I-10 in central Arizona, which would take us as far as Las Cruces, NM. After that would be on state routes to Hobbs. But we ended up getting a ride in the back of a speeding little pickup with a cooler full of beer (“Help yourself!”) that headed north at Gila Bend to Phoenix. I don’t remember why, but in Phoenix we decided to walk to Arizona State University in Tempe.  It was about eight miles. It took us three hours. We must have figured we could find a place on campus to crash.

Near some dorms we encountered a group of students who invited us up to their room. They were fascinated by us: real live hitchhikers. By this time, hitchhiking as a youthful fad had already become a thing of the past. It was not as common to see kids our age doing it for fun or adventure. And it was harder to get a ride, because a lot of people were afraid to.

The students gave us some food, asked about our trip and told us we could sleep in a study lounge. In the morning a couple of them got us some food on their meal cards. We ate with them in the cafeteria. We thanked them and left, walking to I-10 to head south again.

From there we hitched to Tucson. We were dropped at an off-ramp at the outskirts, and as we approached a man at a service station to ask some directions, he yelled at us, jabbing his finger at the air.

“You just turn your asses right the hell around beat it back out of town. We don’t have any use for your types here!”

Without a word, we looked at each other and did just as we were told.

From Funset Strip. com

From Funset Strip. com

Before long we had a ride, and and made it as far as Benson. Suddenly it was harder to get a ride. We slept near the road that night. I was always thinking about rattlesnakes and scorpions, both of which I had encountered in central Oregon. To those I could now add my worry of waking up with hypothermia, though it wasn’t actually that cold at night. Finally we got a ride going east from Benson. When they dropped us off, one of my fears was realized: We were left on a remote stretch of the road in the desert. Instead of a hundred or more vehicles per hour, only a half-dozen or so passed by.

The temperature climbed toward 80 degrees. We sat on the edge of the highway, and the occupants of passing vehicles would honk, or roll down their window and yell, “Get a job!” One car slowed down, and then stopped. We hurriedly gathered up our books, packs, sleeping bags, and ran towards the car. And then it sped away, with hands and laughter flitting from the windows.

Time had begun to slow. Today and the days that followed grew long. Mark and I read and talked and slept. But we never brooked the subject of our last months in Seattle. I was reading a book I began there, a history of medieval Europe. It wasn’t exactly captivating, but I would have pored over insurance contracts at this point.

Waiting, waiting…for the next car.

A driver saw us from afar, far enough to decide to stop, not past us, but right where we sat. We jumped to our feet, but before we could approach, he bounced out and over to us. He greeted us cheerfully, and handed each of us a little book.

“Here’s something for you to read over while you’re waiting for a ride. God bless!” With that he returned to his car a drove away. Somewhat amazed and disappointed, we looked at our tiny books. The Gideons’ New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs.

The car disappeared down the highway.

“A ride would’ve been nice.”

“Yeah, we could’ve read in the car.”

Again, silence under the sun. Eventually we pried open our Gideons and read. I was looking for a verse, something I heard long ago, but couldn’t quite remember. I had tried to use it once in something I was writing, but I didn’t get it right. I didn’t know how to find it. Eventually I did, some months later.

This is what I was looking for, in Matthew 5:45. It didn’t say what I thought it said, but it was still good.

“…he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

—-
*1995. Simply Benjamin. Nashville: Scythe Publications. P. 5

The God Question | Part Three

[Moral] practice has not been able to keep pace with the mind. Man has begun to say, “This is wrong, that is wrong.” Whereas previously he justified his conduct, he now no longer justifies his own or his neighbor’s.  He wants to set right the wrong but does not know that his own practice fails him. The contradiction between his thought and conduct fetters him.
-Mohandas Gandhi
Non-Violence in Peace & War, II-76

I don’t really understand myself,
for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.
Instead, I do what I hate.
-Romans 7:15

The Problem of Me
In the summer of 1981, at the same time I was reading my friend’s pharmacology textbooks on LSD, I was also reading Gandhi. This was in part my Looking to the East phase. But it was also my looking within. I had begun to suspect myself as possibly my biggest problem.

That probably reaches back over my entire life up to that point. But over the last nine months I had come up against some unsettling indications that I was perhaps not the person I thought or hoped myself to be. The one I remember best had been the previous fall, when my friends asked me to help them with a proposed pot-growing operation. My gut told me was it was stupid and wrong, but the money that could be made turned my head. I was quite disgusted with myself over that. Why would I not only think but also act in a way so at odds with my self-professed values?

If I could be hard on myself in a very selective way, I was even harder on others, and also extremely defensive. I couldn’t take any sort of criticism; to me, it was always personal and never welcome. As a harsh judge of others, it seems I always assumed the same sort of harshness must have been behind the least bit of criticism directed at me. Underlying my assessment of myself and of others, was a complete lack of insight. I really did not get people. It followed that I didn’t get myself.

When I looked in the mirror, seemingly every part my persona had an opposing aspect. I was a clown who made others laugh but actually took himself far too seriously. I was violent yet peaceful, sensitive yet capable of being really mean, even to friends; serene and patient, yet plagued by anxiety and frustration; compassionate yet judgmental; wildly gregarious but often a loner, vain yet at times overcome with contempt for myself.

It wasn’t a pretty picture, fractured into these paradoxes, and obscured by shadows of unknowing. I wondered what do with myself. That summer I picked up a compendium of Gandhi’s writings. I thought initially that he could inform a decision I had already made to personally adopt a nonviolent lifestyle. Up until the age of 14, violence was part of my life. I chose that it would not be anymore. But in Gandhi there was more, a philosophy of living and working in the world that resonated with me. Non-violence does not sufficiently convey in English what he meant by Ahimsa. It was something greater and deeper than merely refraining from physical violence. It was peaceful and just action, not mere pacifism. It required much of the individual, from within the heart.

This is the only permanent thing in life, this is the only thing that counts; whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent.
-Non-Violence in Peace & War, I-114

It also answered the militant Left and any others who saw violence and destruction as the only means to their utopia –  something I had only awakened to in the last few months in Seattle. And Gandhi insisted that freedom was for all, regardless of their beliefs or station in life.  Ahimsa met me where my desire for personal betterment intersected with my desire for social and political change – inner peace and world peace, so to speak.

However much I was taken with these values, reading about them and pondering them was as far as I got before I was distracted by life and the tumult of the next twelve months, and events that would send me in a very different direction.

* * *

House on Ronald AvenueI stayed with my parents for the summer, who had rented a daylight basement just across Bonner Park from the house on Hastings. Right away I started looking for a job. I had hoped to get on as a YCC crew leader, but was notified in March that I hadn’t been selected. I ran around to all the movie theatres in town, but couldn’t find a job. Dad told me that if I couldn’t get a paying job, I had to line up enough volunteer work to stay busy. That was the deal. I readily agreed, and right away went out to do it.

Missoula Art Museum

Missoula Art Museum

First I lined up a few shifts on the welcome desk of the Missoula Art Museum. We were showing a fantastic exhibit of the photography of Philippe Halsman. Between the exhibit and the hours I sat reading art magazines, my knowledge and appreciation grew, especially for painting and black and white photography.

Then I started serving at the Poverello Center, a NPO that served the hungry and homeless of Missoula. I would come and help with the food line they had every day at lunch. This proved a revelation to me. First, the admonition Gandhi made that we ought to live in service to others, that helping the poor was a special obligation, was now something I was suddenly able to practice every week. It also happened to have been what my parents and Church had taught me since I was little.

Second, it had a lasting effect on me. It was Christianity in practice. It was a direct and effectual expression of the way that Jesus said his followers should be in the world. I was struck by how I felt, giving my time and labor on behalf of others. It was awesome. I didn’t feel so bad about myself. In fact, while I was there, I didn’t think about myself. A year later this sense would revisit me and change my life forever.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

I argued a lot with Mark. Daring to relate my dalliance with Gandhism, I was met with exhausting objections: it isn’t practical, it doesn’t work, they are hopeless ideals. I wasn’t able to defend something I had just begun to read about. I felt deflated. Back in Seattle (before or after the summer, I don’t recall) Mark also contended vociferously against altruism, that nothing humans did was truly selfless. I believed that we could act for the benefit others and against our own.

Well, of course I did. I hoped I was doing good, and not solely to satisfy myself. Just a little bit of good work did a heck of a lot to counterbalance how badly I felt about myself most of the time. It suggested that I had at least some good impulse, that I wanted to serve some higher purpose. Sometime in the past year, I had what I considered a revelation. I don’t know how it came to me, but it was the realization that bad people – selfish, mean, violent, treacherous – must be unhappy people. Which was the cause of the other, I couldn’t say, but happiness and badness couldn’t reside together.

I had read enough to know that according to Buddhism, human suffering comes from selfish desires. When I turned for a few hours a week from my selfish desires to the needs of others, to help feed the hungry, I felt perhaps that was true. At the Pov I also met some Children of God who lived a vagabond lifestyle as ‘missionaries,’ denying themselves many physical comforts ‘for the sake of the Good News.’

This was not the end of the variety of spiritual paths I was presented with. In Seattle the Church of Scientology spotted me as a promising target, and I couldn’t seem to get away from them: three or four of my co-workers were Scientologists. In fact, I seemed to be wearing a t-shirt that signaled to all the major cults: “Easy Mark. Proceed with Confidence.”

Yes, the religious smorgasbord was spread before me. Yet for all my searching over the last couple of years; all of the different religious people, ideas, groups and cults I had encountered; the books I read, the hallucinations I had, the hours of pondering and debating, I was still in the dark. Neither the Catholics, the Protestants, Gandhi, Camus, Aquinas, the Scientologists, the Mormons, nor the Children of God had shown me the way out of my questing and confusion. And, right or wrong, I hadn’t latched onto anything that seemed to answer the problem of me. I was no better off, as far as I could tell.

One day I was standing at a bus stop in Seattle, wearing my Easy Mark t-shirt. A girl approached me with a clipboard and a pen. I knew right away that she was a Scientologist, and I knew exactly what she was going to say. This had happened a couple of times before. They ask you questions, and don’t even pretend to mark down your answers. The questions are meant to make you emotionally vulnerable to their recruitment pitch: “We can help you with that.” One thing leads to another and a few months later you are penniless and insane, awaiting the big alien invasion. In Portland once, I went as far as being walked to the downtown Church to get a personality test. But I got the heebie-jeebies and left.

“Hi! I’m taking a survey,” she said, flashing a friendly smile and standing about six inches closer than a complete stranger would. “Could I ask you a few questions?”

I am constitutionally incapable of telling someone to get lost. And saying no was just plain rude.

“Okay.” How was I thinking this was going to turn out? I don’t know, dear readers, I don’t know.

“If there was one thing about yourself you would like to change, what would it be?”

Only one? I thought. “Hmm, I’m not sure,” I lied. Now I just wanted her to go away.

“Isn’t there something about yourself you’d like to change?” The smile was fading.

I squirmed. Without even knowing me, she had my number. How’d she get it? I had a fresh incision from my chin to my belly button, and she was tugging at the stitches.

“Probably.” But I’m not telling you.

Her tone became impatient. “Like what?”

“Um…”

“Come on, all of us have something!”

I shook my head. Angered at my failure to comply, she walked away in a huff.

There were a lot of things I would change if I could, including knowing how to talk to someone like that without becoming flummoxed, and letting myself feel guilty for making her mad. Weak, slow on my feet, not knowing what a boundary was between myself and another person, not even a stranger. “No, thank you, I’m not interested, have a nice day,” would have sufficed. But no, one question from her and I need some medication.

Worse was the real answer to her question. I couldn’t have begun to put it into words, but the feeling plagued me of not being good, or good enough, or knowing what to do about it. I never killed anyone, or raped or tortured anyone, but what if what’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with other people, the people I judge, the people who anger me, shock me and repulse me with their outrages against my sense of moral order? If I can’t change, then how can they? I have no interest in becoming some kind of saint, but something is wrong with me. Maybe it means I’m in the same fix as the people who make the world so wrong. The people who made the world wrong a thousand years ago as well. In other words, the people who made me question the faith of my mothers and fathers. Where do I look next?

Who knows?

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

Part Four (coming soon)

The God Question | Part Two

Warning: drug use, scholasticism.

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
-John 4:48

The Knowledge Problem, or Doubting & Thomas

Let’s talk about Sunday mornings. Circa 1976, when I was twelve. There was fighting over the bathroom, lots of hollering. Bickering and jostling in the car on the way to church. Morphing from brat to boy, as we went from the car to the sanctuary.

I would sit through the Mass, bored, compulsively fidgeting, and occasionally entranced by the wondrous interior of the neo-gothic building. I would stare at the brilliant stained glass windows, which portrayed the saints, mostly as they were being martyred. I found the St. Lawrence window a little hard to accept. It showed a large grill ornately carved from solid stone, which I was told was the device on which the saint was, uh, fried, I guess. Broiled? Simmered to taste? They burned him. That seemed very cumbersome to me. Once I said out loud, “Why didn’t they just drop that thing on his head?” Very likely I was more suited to making martyrs than being one. The window of St. Stephen, my namesake, also fascinated me. He was being stoned to death. I had no idea who he was.

The Mass is beautiful, smells good and is gorgeously adorned, but I could make no connection between the rite and my life as it was the moment we walked out of the building back to the car to jostle and bicker our way home.

The warm feelings I often felt during the service were, I thought, the most you could experience of God. The only other time I felt anything like that sense of awe and coziness was watching sunset or the ocean. It was nice, but it didn’t answer any of my questions. It may have hinted at it, but it didn’t put me in touch with God.



Confronted with serious questions about the nature and character of the Catholic Church, at 13 I began to wonder how it was that I was to know anything regarding God. I really did not have anything to go on.

The following year I was back in Portland. Perusing my mom’s books, I first reached for the Bible. I turned to the Gospels, looking for the Jesus that so impressed me a few months before in Jesus of Nazareth. What I found seemed to be in a foreign language, incomprehensible. The words on the page were dead to me.

I put the Bible back and pulled another book out. It was a collection of writings by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), derived mostly from the Summa Theologica, his 3500-page exposition of Christian doctrine. There, in Part One, under his treatise on God, I found his reasoned arguments for the existence of God.

Concerning the Divine Essence, we must consider:
(1) Whether God exists?
(2) The manner of His existence, or, rather, what is NOT the manner of His existence;
(3) Whatever concerns His operations—namely, His knowledge, will, power.

Concerning the first, there are three points of inquiry:
(1) Whether the proposition “God exists” is self-evident?
(2) Whether it is demonstrable?
(3) Whether God exists?

-Summa, Q. 2.

I took it to my bedroom, and struggled with it for some time, trying to draw out the answer, the dawning truth, the solution to the problem of knowing.

Thomas_Aquinas_by_Fra_BartolommeoI answer that, Everything which is raised up to what exceeds its nature, must be prepared by some disposition above its nature; …Hence it is necessary that some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height. Now since the natural power of the created intellect does not avail to enable it to see the essence of God, as was shown in the preceding article, it is necessary that the power of understanding should be added by divine grace.

-Summa, Q. 12. Art. 5

Thomas holds that apart from God’s gracious intervention, the human intellect lacks the understanding it needs to see the the essence of God. What about seeing, perceiving God himself? How does one obtain this grace?

It seemed like a mirage. I could see the dim outline of what he was saying, but as I looked at it, the tangible and certain truth I needed would fade. I wanted something I could grab hold of, and his logical arguments weren’t giving it to me. His thinking was way beyond my grasping. Even if I could follow him, he could only help if I were trying to reason my way to God.

Too, Thomas was a product of the same medieval church that was so problematic for me. He endorsed one of the singular crimes of the Church, something unique neither to Catholic Christianity, medieval Christianity nor to Christianity at all:

I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.

-Summa, Q. 11. Art. 3.

People_burned_as_heretics

Of course, not only Christian dissidents but infidels aplenty fell victim to the stake, the sword and the torture chamber: Jews, Muslims, pagans and the falsely accused. Poorly done, boys.

* * *

In the medieval world, called by some ‘the age of faith,’ I noticed that the supernatural was a present reality to those who believed, at times entering the natural realm in the form of miracles, visions and spirits – both good and evil. It seemed to me that if an angel or a long-dead saint, or Jesus himself visited you, your days of doubting and questioning were over. That would pretty much seal the deal. Of course, I doubted whether such events ever took place and did not expect any such visitation, but I did think it would sure be helpful.

This thinking led me to the conclusion that instead of philosophical or theological arguments, what I needed to settle the question of God’s existence and the truth about our faith was an experience, some glimpse of the other side, the eternal, the transcendent – hopefully real enough that my questions would be answered in a moment. It was like wishing I could fly, I sensed, but with a little more hope of the possibility. I was a dreamer, though, and this was likely just another dream. I never even made it a prayer.

In the absence of such a unlikely occurrence, I was left where I was. I wanted to believe, but more, I wanted to know. I remember about this time (eighth grade) reading Thoreau’s statement that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Wow, I remember thinking, I feel like that. I don’t want that to be the way I lead my life. If there was no God, and I never had an answer, and I was left thinking that my life had no apparent meaning or purpose, then that is exactly what my life would be: quiet desperation. The prospect was depressing.

Over the next year or two, I could no longer honestly make any profession of faith. During my sophomore year, Dad had strongly encouraged me, stopping short of insisting, to attend a youth group at the Catholic church that he and Jane had begun to attend. I did so for a few months, but when they stopped attending, so did I. This was the same time that I began to party, drink and use drugs. They were a nice group of kids, and the leader was a guy in his twenties who showed real caring for us but had little to offer someone in my situation. What does an apologetic for the faith sound like from someone who lends little or no authority to Scripture or to the Church? I don’t know. I never heard one.

At 16, I remember telling my girlfriend – who had been raised a Lutheran – that I was an agnostic. I told her my doubts started with the Church. By this time I had undertaken to look beyond Christianity for answers. With my exposure growing up to the counterculture of the 70s, I naturally looked to the East. I read some Buddhist writings. It did not, and never has, made much sense to me. It just did not resonate with me. I was thinking within mindset I was raised with. In fact, it made me skeptical of claims by Westerners to fully embrace and comprehend the traditions of the Eastern mind. It’s really very different. I freely admit: I didn’t get it. But I didn’t give up on it right away.

Further, I was also wary of New Age spirituality. A girl in English class once asked me in a dreamy voice, quite out of the blue, “Have you ever tried astral projection?”

“Have I what?”

“Traveled out of your body to the astral plane.”

“Uh, no,” I confessed. “Have you?”

“It’s like totally intense. You should try it.”

Given my desire for a supernatural experience, you’d think I might be tempted. But I thought she was loopy. I wasn’t entirely sure she had returned from her travels. Besides, I had my own travel plans.

I was going to drop acid. I was very interested, but I put it off for quite a while because I had reservations about it. I wanted to make sure it was safe. After I had already taken two trips, I decided  should consult a travel agent. In the summer of 1981, now 17, I returned to Missoula from Seattle, where I had moved in February. My friend Matt Crowley was a freshman at the University of Montana, studying pharmacy. I asked if he had any information about LSD. He loaned me two or three of his pharmacology textbooks, and I read very word they had about the hallucinogen. There were two things I wanted to learn. One, How dangerous or safe was it? And two, What kind of supernatural experiences had people reported after taking it?

I have only a vague recollection of what I read about the risks, but I concluded that the danger was mostly psychological, and based on my first two experiences, decided it wasn’t a concern.  Instead I fastened onto the users’ reporting they had “seen the face of God” or had some other opening to the cosmos or the eternal. My thinking was right out of the 1960s. What if there was something to it, what Timothy Leary and others have been claiming? What if the effect of LSD is to open an unseen reality to our conscious minds that we cannot see otherwise? Suppose it was the missing ingredient: “some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height.” As far as my friends were concerned we were all doing it for fun. But known only to myself, I was hoping for something more: a spiritual experience that would lead to knowledge.

I never received the experience I sought. But that summer, I took acid with perhaps five or six friends. We were at the house of a friend who’s father was a minister. I found a small icon hanging on the wall near the front door. And I was hypnotized by it. It was an image of Mary and the infant Jesus. I stood and stared. Perhaps five minutes, perhaps twenty – who knows? In their shimmering faces I thought I was understanding something, connecting with something that reached across time, as if persons thousands of years and miles apart were suddenly face to face and knowing each other, smiling at each other, communicating without words. I believed I was looking into the infinite beyond. It made some kind of sense to me, and I told myself I needed to remember, after I came down, what it was I had just been shown or discovered or felt. But I couldn’t. It completely eluded me.

Is that how it is?, I wondered. Is experience always that temporary? Can it be just as much a mirage as Thomas’ logic, or Zeffirelli’s movie? Does it just dissipate like holy incense on Sunday morning? I know it was a hallucination. But how much more convinced would I be by any other sensory experience? Doesn’t every experience fade with time and doubt? Am I hoping for something that won’t actually give me what I need? Am I looking for the wrong thing?

Who knows?

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul,by Caravaggio.

Detail, The Conversion of St. Paul, by Caravaggio.

Part Three…Part Four

The God Question | Part One

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
-Matthew 16:18

But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
-Matthew 16:23

From the age of thirteen to the age of eighteen, I wrestled with what to think and believe about God and the Christian faith in particular. This not a polemic or an apologetic or a critique or an argument. It’s just a story. The ending of it is not here; it will be here in a few months.

I was raised in the Catholic Church during a time of considerable change. It was the Vatican II church of the 60s and 70s, and my parents found themselves in the liberal stream of change and reform. Questioning official dogma, institutions and customs was inherent in the liberal tradition. So was a modernist (as Rome called it), skeptical view of the Scriptures. Eden was allegory,  Noah’s flood a fable. Its history was unreliable, many of the commandments outdated.

As liberals we accepted the conclusions drawn by the secular world: we believed in Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and Freudian psychology. We went with general drift of the day, and mostly agreed with the cultural shift in values. After all, morality, in some arenas, needs to be updated to modern life. For example, why should premarital sex be considered a sin? Who says birth control or abortion or divorce are always – or ever – wrong? The very notion of sin is archaic. Hell is a preposterous conception in light of a loving God. In fact, psychology, medicine, and political and social progress offered more reliable, rational and scientific solutions to the human predicament than anything prescribed by ancient writ. When we look at the patriarchal, superstitious and pre-scientific worldview that formed the minds of the biblical writers, there is very little of what they wrote that can speak to us today. Yes, there are beautiful passages there, but we have to sift through the text to find what is inspirational and uplifting, and leave the rest. It is not, in its entirety at least, the divinely inspired Word of God.

I have told friends the religion I was raised with was defined more by what we did not believe than what we did. That may sound harsh, but it isn’t meant as a put-down. It’s meant to describe my experience. Though we affirmed many things that corresponded pretty closely with a secular-progressive worldview, when I asked if we believed one Christian tenet or another – the creation, Adam and Eve, the flood –  the answer was often No. But we did believe in God. That was foundational. We did believe in Jesus, and, even if the relationship might be strained, we did believe in the Church.

Where did this leave me? Well, let me spell it out. I have many friends who were raised in more conservative/traditional religious homes, both Catholic and Protestant, including fundamentalist homes. They commonly came to a point in their lives, if not as teenagers or young adults, then later in life, when they had to scrutinize their beliefs – those things that had been bequeathed to them as unquestionable certainties – with a more critical mindset. Usually this will result in walking away from faith or finding it strengthened by making it their own. They might become critical of the way they had been taught their faith, or adopt an easy bemusement toward the quaint backwardness of their parents and their church. I think they might not understand what an alternative would have been like.

So here is one. If the Bible is not a reliable source of information about what I should believe, and the Church is flat-out wrong in some of its bedrock doctrines, then what is my source, my authority? Me? How am I supposed to know anything regarding the faith, or what to believe? What is the truth about the most important things, and how do I discover it? This was at the root of my wilderness wanderings as a teenager.

The Historical Problem, or What if you are the gates of hell?
camelot 67It all began with King Arthur. Over my Christmas break in 1976, I spent a few days with my grandparents. At the time I was living in the country with my dad while Mom was away at grad school. I was 13. I watched the movie Camelot and was absolutely carried away by it. I watched it about three years later in a theatre and hated it, but when I saw it on TV, I was captured by the Arthurian story. When I got back to school, I spent the rest of the year in libraries consuming every book, historical or literary, I could find on the Arthur cycle. This led to an ardent interest in medieval European history and culture that lasted for years. I read up on the Norsemen, the Norman conquest, art and architecture, the Holy Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England, the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades. I read the poetic Eddas, the chroniclers, and the epic poems. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Again and again I came up against the ugly character of the medieval Roman Church. It was politically powerful, enormously wealthy, and sometimes callous, manipulative, merciless and cruel. It sought to control the minds of people and the fates of nations. In short, it was a complete bummer.

I  began to think of this problem in a whole new light when I saw something else on TV at Easter: Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. I am not exaggerating when I say this was the single most important thing I ever watched on TV, and it was a singular milestone on the journey I am describing.

Simply put, this was the first time I ever saw Jesus as real, immediate, relevant or alive. Every Sunday morning I beheld him as a dead man hanging on a cross, and we read a mere few words from the Gospels. In six hours, I heard more of his words than I had in my whole life. The experience was profound for me because it was fresh. There wasn’t anything stale or statuary here. The flesh-and-blood man made sense. He answered something now.

The conclusion I drew from this experience would make all the difference in the next five years: If the character of a loving and compassionate God could be known, certainly no one has reflected that character better than Jesus. I still believed this when I came to question God’s existence. If there was a God, I thought, he was like Jesus.

Now I looked at the problem of the historical Church in light of this television Jesus I had just been confronted with. Now, not only the sins of the Church glared at us, but its very nature didn’t bear any resemblance to the small, mostly poor band of followers Jesus knit together with his message of love and hope. The disparity I now saw made the Church – both medieval and modern – seem that much worse. How was I supposed to believe that this was the same thing Jesus established with his own words 1,940 years ago?

That was about as far as my 13-year-old brain could take the problem. You might wonder why I didn’t simply embrace this new-found appreciation for Jesus and carry on. Because it was movie on TV, a fading memory, and it didn’t begin to answer my questions.  I was left wondering where this remarkable Jesus was in the world. In the Roman Catholic Church? In a book, or a miniseries? Is there a forwarding number?

Is he nowhere, dead and buried, and just a great guy with some great ideas? Or was he everywhere, alive yet unseen and actually God in the flesh?

Or is he just one of many standing in the religion pantheon, with Buddha and Mohammed and Moses? Pick your favorite guy and exit through the gift shop?

Who knows?

jesus of nazarethPart TwoPart Three…Part Four

Laugh Your Life | Part One

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine's Day! I couldn't resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you're taking the steps too soon. And - there is a safety net, don't forget. Much love from all of us - Mom

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine’s Day! I couldn’t resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you’re taking the steps too soon. And – there is a safety net, don’t forget. Much love from all of us – Mom

Living in Seattle is like being in love with a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.
-Anonymous

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Nowhere to go
-Lennon & McCartney

In mid-February, 1981, I dropped out of high school. The plan my friends and I had hatched was this: move from Missoula to a big city, make a lot of money, then travel around  Europe until it ran out. Pure genius, right? A high school dropout like me would find it a cinch to make and save loads of money in a short time. The only puzzle is why others don’t follow this simple sure-fire plan.
Cosmo Motel SeattleAt first we thought we would move to Boston – I don’t remember why. But we settled on Seattle, in part because Troy’s mom lived there. None of us knew much about Seattle, but that only added to the sense of adventure we had about the move. It was anticipation that distracted me from the consideration that at only 17, I was leaving a place I loved more than I realized, for a place I didn’t know, away from parents and friends.

Cosmo - 1976 map

Before shouting, “Hi, Seattle,” make sure you’re in Seattle. -Mick Jagger

We drove the 480 miles to Seattle on February 19. None of us had a car, so a fourth friend drove us. Between us we had $400. We stayed 3 nights at the Cosmopolitan, at that time a cheap downtown motel situated along the Monorail line on 5th Avenue. (It’s a King’s Inn now, and not to be confused with the condo tower on Virginia Street.) We took acid and walked around downtown, then back to the Cosmo where we passed several hours that swirled with hallucinations, buffoonery and maniacal laughter. My only previous visit of note to the city was in 1978 for the King Tut exhibit that was confined to the Seattle Center. Thus my first look at my new home was through a kaleidoscopic window of imaginary color and light, melting, erupting and shimmering in the cold winter night.

* * *
After the Cosmo, we stayed in the apartment of Troy’s mom, Sharon,  and his younger sister. We were there about five weeks. It was crowded. Sharon was gracious, but it must have grown annoying having us at such close quarters for so long.Troy was first to land a job, and I was second. The difference between the job he was able to land and mine ought to have glared at me as the obvious first clue to the consequences of quitting school. Troy began work proofreading multimillion-dollar contracts for a re-insurance company. It paid an excellent hourly wage for an 18-year-old just out of high school. I went to work at the Ballard McDonald’s. A couple of weeks before that I had been hired to call people while they were eating dinner, try to sell them frozen meat and fish, get yelled at and hung up on. I was humiliated and relieved when I was fired after my first shift.

Mark got a job at a downtown movie theatre. Once one of us had a job and a paycheck, we got our own place. We rented a 3-bedroom walk-up in a four-plex in Ballard, on 20th Ave NW near 58th Street. At $345, the rent was on the steep side, but it was spacious and we each had our own room. Our landlord, whose name was Wen Lee, spoke little English and would come to regret renting to us, we dubbed Obi-Wen, the Jedi Landlord.

Thurs. Feb. 19 – Missoula-Seattle/Cosmo Motel
Fri.              20 – Cosmo Motel
Sat.             21 – Cosmo Motel
Sun             22 – Sharon’s – Dave (our driver) left
Mon            23 – Job hunting begins – slowly.
Fri               27 – Hired – Pacific Meat Co.
Mon  March 2 – First nite – fired
Mon             9 – Troy started work/ my interviews
Thurs         12 – McDonald’s – orientation meeting
Fri              13 – First day. Grueling and grubby.
Sat             21 – Mark starts work at theatre selling concessions.
- my notebook, 1981
* * *
I found Seattle in 1981 glittering and gritty, grass-green and pavement-gray. I saw similarities to my hometown of Portland, but it was bigger and in some ways better: It rained less, at least in that year. It was circled by water and mountains, and I was intoxicated when I caught the salt-sea air. Downtown clubs like Wrex and the Gorilla Room shook with local bands like Student Nurse, the Refuzors and the Fartz. There was so much more than we were used to, especially for Mark and Troy, who hadn’t lived in towns bigger than Missoula, MT or Corvallis, OR. There were art-house movie theatres, restaurants of every kind, music stores that blew our minds with thousands of records. There were Broadway shows, big rock concerts, under-21 clubs and bookstores I could lose a day in.
Seattle Ent 75
But we were broke. So, living in Seattle, for me at least, was like being invited to a banquet but not permitted to eat. I remember standing around outside the clubs, but I don’t recall ever going in. There was a cover charge, and I wasn’t about to pay money to get slam-danced.  I probably missed some good music; mostly I missed the early 80’s Seattle pre-grunge punk scene. Almost any of the interesting things we would’ve wanted to do cost money and we didn’t have much of that.

Theatres & the Absurd
I hated working at McDonald’s. Mark told me I could get on at the theatre, so in May, I applied there and quit McDonald’s after five weeks, when I was hired by the King Cinema. It was a single, 900-seat movie house, supposedly the biggest in Seattle, at 6th & Blanchard (currently the King Cat Theater). I worked concessions mostly, sometimes tearing tickets and cleaning the lobby. We were open all day, opening around noon, and usually not busy until Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the week, it was very slow.
The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974.

The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974. It’s the laughter we will remember.

When I started, we were showing Roman Polanski’s Tess, certainly one of the most visually beautiful movies I have ever seen. Two, three, maybe half a dozen patrons would come in, and once the concession counter and lobby were clean, we kicked back until they emerged 3 hours later. It’s good thing we liked movies, because it was the one form of entertainment that was wide open to us, any time we weren’t working. It was at least one table at the banquet we could eat from. All we had to do was have Gigi, our manager, call the manager of most any theater in town, and ask them if we could have a pass into their show. We could see about anything we wanted. Good and bad, we saw dozens of movies. I saw more new movies that year than any other in  my life: Reds, Gallipoli, Prince of the City, Body Heat, Blow Out, An American Werewolf in London, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Time Bandits, True Confessions, Pennies from Heaven, American Pop, Excalibur, Whose Life is it Anyway?, Ragtime, The Hand, Wolfen, Eyewitness, Fort Apache the Bronx, Taps, They All Laughed, Arthur, The Border, Cannery Row and more. If we really liked a movie, we went back and watched it again. We must have seen Breaker Morant five times. (I saw the big summer movies when I was back in Missoula.) And the ones that showed at the King Cinema Mark and I saw over and over, until we could recite large sections of dialog: Tess, Absence of Malice, On Golden Pond, Bustin’ Loose.

We also made it to art houses like the Harvard Exit where we were dazzled by stunning and strange foreign films, including some foreign and Hollywood classics. The two that stand out in my memory: Lawrence of Arabia, and a truly bizarre, wonderful and labyrinthine 1965 movie from Poland, The Saragossa Manuscript. (For a great slide show of Seattle cinemas, go here.) We saw some lesser known films, like Breaking Glass and McVicar. I saw a great documentary on James Agee.Nineteen Eighty-One, in my mind, was and remains the year of the movie. In the year and a half after I left the King, I saw only two movies.

* * *
I’m a little lost lamb
in the heart of the city

-Nick Lowe

At the outset we had no friends in Seattle. The only people we met were those Mark I worked with at the theatre, and they became our new friends. It was a diverse group of people who ranged from about age 17 to their mid-twenties. We had the good fortune of meeting some excellent people who made our lives richer than they would have otherwise have been. Some of them we only saw at work, but at least half-dozen we saw after hours all the time. We went out to shows, and sometimes partied together. Interestingly, of our dozen or so co-workers, three or four identified as Christians,  a young married couple were LDS, and another contingent hailed from the Church of Scientology, including a guy who taught Scientology classes. There was no shortage of lively and stimulating discussions about religion and the meaning of human existence.

In fact, I was thinking about these things all the time. For that, I needed some mental space – a lot of space – and time alone with the these thoughts I was wrestling with. I would not happen upon that kind of space until a year later, but as long as I kept these thoughts to myself, I could manage some reflection.

But Mark, well, he crowded me. He didn’t mean to. He would draw me into long debates that lasted into early morning hours in which I would put up lame defenses of things I may have wanted to believe, but which crumbled under his persistent and unrelenting arguments. When we first arrived in Seattle, Mark had given me Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I read the first week at Sharon’s. This essay was nothing less than a blitzkrieg against my liberal idealism and fuzzy agnosticism. I came face to face with the flat-out assertion that our existence is absurd, a result of the collision of our desire for reason with an unquestionably unreasonable world. In a godless and absurd universe, the only real question is suicide. Life, death and everything in between leave us without any claim on hope. But suicide is not an option: paradoxically, the absurd man must reject the “invitation to death” in favor of a life lived on his own terms.The only thing to do is rebel against the absurdity of the world, and live life to the fullest, in “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”

Of course I could not begin to accept the premise, even if his solution sounded fine. The world is insane and nonsensical on its face, but that does not force upon me a surrender to this fact as the ultimate and defining truth of my existence. Not everything is absurd. Some things do make sense. Many things are beautiful and good, and if nothing else, as rational beings we have survived by constructing a reasonable reality – if even in our minds – that we can cope with.

If I were certain there was no God, then this premise of the absurd might make sense. But if I am not certain, I cannot choose to live as if this absurdity were inescapable: it might be have an escape. I just don’t know what it is. Knowing about God, if that were possible, would sure help.

Despite my rejection of Camus’ statement of the human problem; despite the apparent seriousness of my thoughts; despite the high unlikelihood of success in Seattle; despite my occasional loneliness and fairly constant confusion, I was, in my day-to-day life, taking Camus’ advice: I was kicking at the wall, I wanted to kick it down, I was taking everything life had to offer, I was trying new things, I was looking for a girl to keep me company, I was feeling my passion and letting it rise, I was drinking whiskey and smoking the herb, I was laughing, laughing every day, laughing down the dead-end street, laughing my life.

We all were laughing, that’s just how we were, how we are, the three of us. We looked at the situation we had put ourselves in, saw the absurdity of our own mistakes and missteps, and we thought it was funny. We laughed our lives.

Down? No, not yet, anyway.

sisyphus-1549 titian

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
-Albert Camus

When Was the First Christmas? A Minority Report

You’re a Superstar
What difference does it make when Jesus was born? Answer: Identifying the Star of Bethlehem as both an astronomical event and a meaningful sign. If the star was a natural phenomenon, then which one it was depends on when we date the birth of Jesus. I happen to believe the date most commonly accepted – between 6 and 4 BCE – is open to question and a later date to be preferred – and I’ll tell you why.

The dating of Christ’s birth is calculated from one event: the death of Herod, a specific historical event referenced in the Gospels. And how is the death of Herod dated? It is calculated from a specific astronomical event, namely a lunar eclipse. Most historians assume this eclipse to have been the one that occurred on March 12/13, 4 BCE. But that is not the only lunar eclipse that could be used to date it, and if a later eclipse is more likely, we also find an even more dramatic series of astronomical appearances in the Middle East – whose meaning would have been profound to star-gazers of the day – that occurred before and at the time of this later date for the birth of Jesus. We call these appearances the Star of Bethlehem.

Someone is bound to object that the Star of Bethlehem was a purely miraculous, i.e. supernatural, event. However, there is no explicit statement in the gospel narratives that requires us to believe that the star is something more than a natural, albeit extraordinary, phenomenon. (Regarding Mt.2:9, see below.) It served as a sign, I would contend, because of its timing and its meaning. So what was the timing and the meaning?

When did Herod die?
According to Matthew and Luke here is the order events around the birth of Jesus:

  • Augustus orders a census for tax purposes
  • Joseph and Mary travel to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem
  • Jesus is born, circumcised and presented in the temple
  • The Magi arrive in Jerusalem and are questioned by Herod
  • The Magi find Jesus in Bethlehem
  • Herod orders the massacre of Bethlehem’s male infants
  • The family flees to Egypt
  • Herod dies
  • The family returns from Egypt

In order to date these events, at least one of them must have a fixed date, and that event is Herod’s death. The Jewish historian Josephus describes the circumstances of his death. Herod ordered the execution of two dissident rabbis on the same night as a total lunar eclipse (Antiquities, 17.167). He died shortly afterward. Most historians hold that the eclipse referred to is one that happened on March 13, 4 BCE. Shortly after his death was a Passover, indicating that it was spring. Herod had ordered the death of all boys two and under in Bethlehem, strongly suggesting that the Magi told him the star had first appeared some two years before their arrival.  Herod concluded that the birth he was worried about had happened sometime in the previous two years. Thus, Jesus’s birth is placed in 6-4 BCE, on the assumption that Josephus’ eclipse was in 4 BCE.

Jesus’ birth                                                   6/5 BCE ?
The Bethlehem Massacre                        5 or 6 BCE ?
Herod’s death                                March/April 4 BCE

Are there reasons to question this dating? Yes, a few.

1. According to Josephus, a lot of things happened between the eclipse and Passover, which fell on April 11 in 4 BCE. That’s less than a month. The other proposed early date of 5 BCE has a lunar eclipse on September 15/16, but Passover is seven months later.

2. A proper reckoning of Herod’s reign begins with beginning of his first full year of reign on April 11, 35 BCE. Josephus places Herod’s death in his 34th year of reign, which began on April 6, 2 BCE.

3. Most of the early Christian scholars date Christ’s birth to 2/3 BCE: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Africanus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hippolytus of Thebes, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Cassiodorus Senator and Orosious. All these people had a much better handle on the reckoning of time in the ancient world, and likely had access to records that no longer exist. No early historians give a 6-4 BCE date.

4. Another, later eclipse fits the timeline better. It was on Jan. 10, 1 BCE (there were no lunar eclipses in 3 or 2 BCE). The Passover was twelve and a half weeks later, allowing time for the events between the two, while Herod’s death could still be described as shortly after the first and shortly before the second.

In other words, Herod may in fact have died three years after the accepted date. In which case, the early historians, forming a consensus, may have been correct in assigning a later birth date. But there are even more compelling facts to consider.

“We Have Seen His Star”
How about celestial occurrences that we could identify as the Star of Bethlehem?

“Some may regard the star as entirely mythical, some as completely miraculous, but it is also possible to suppose and inquire after an actual celestial phenomenon back of the account.” – Jack Finegan (1908-2000)

We should go where the evidence leads, but I favor the  latter approach – investigating an event that can be verified independently of Scripture – for the following reason. The star as presented by Matthew is a sign to the non-Jewish world, and it is a sign that was not to be read about 60 or 70 years later. An immediate sign for people who would take note of it and seek to understand what it meant and what it pointed to. A miraculous star does not rule this out, but how much greater a sign it is, if in fact it is an astronomical event whose factual-historical nature stands unquestioned throughout all history to come – like the stars and planets themselves. So if there is such an event, and it happens to line up with the other events under consideration, we should not rule it out because it is not strictly supernatural. But Matthew 2:9 has this peculiar account:

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the

Zodiacal light: after dark, sunlight is reflected off of space dust and scattered.

Zodiacal light: after dark, sunlight is reflected off of space dust and scattered.

East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.

Not exactly how you expect a star or other celestial body to behave. But the planets could have reached their stationary points at that very time; they would seem to “stand still.” Also, there could have been a concurrence of zodiacal light which creates the appearance along the ecliptic of a beam of light (actually sunlight) and can seem to be shining down on the earth like a spotlight.

In short, a completely natural phenomena, but serving a divine purpose at a divinely appointed time.

Those who hold to 4 BCE for Herod’s demise can point to a number of astronomical phenomena which could account for the appearance of the star.

The Chinese recorded a nova (or a comet) in 5 BCE (appearing for 70 days, perhaps more), and another in 4 BCE. In 7 BCE there was was a triple conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in Pisces, with Mars also coming close.

But what if we accept a later date of 1 BCE for Herod’s death? If Herod ordered the massacre sometime in the last months of his life, it points back to 3 or 2 BCE for the birth. In those years there were no novae or comets, but there was something even more remarkable for its astrological meaning and its allure to the Magi.

Finegan (550*. Emphasis mine):

On the morning of August 12, 3 B.C., Jupiter and Venus rose in the eastern sky, an event which could ave been what was meant when the magi said, “We have seen his star in the East,” or “in its rising” (Matt 2:2). (The word ἀνατολῇ means both the “rising [of stars]” and the “place of the rising [of the sun],” i.e., the East.) In this conjunction Jupiter and Venus were so close they were almost touching each other. From the point of view of astrological symbolism, Jupiter is the king planet and Venus (Ishtar in Babylonia) a female; so their conjunction can suggest a coming birth. The conjunction took place in Leo (the Lion) and near the bright fixed star Regulus. Regulus is the king star and the Lion constellation is the tribal sign of Judah…Afterwards Jupiter moved on to be in close conjunctions with Regulus three times (a triple conjunction on Sept 14, 3 B.C., Feb 17, 2 B.C., and May 8, 2 B.C.), then June 17, 2 B.C., came into again into conjunction with Venus, this time being so close that without a modern telescope the two planets would have looked like a single star. In the fall and winter 3/2 B.C. Jupiter appeared to stop several times against the background of the stars; and on June 17, 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus were in extremely close conjunction and shone almost like a single bright star in the west – in the direction of Jerusalem as seen from Babylonia. With these phenomena we may compare Matthew 2:9: “The star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.” If the magi were students of astronomical events it can theorized that the appearance of this star on June 17, 2 B.C., was the final heavenly sign that impelled them in the late summer or early fall to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where they found the child Jesus, ‘who was born some time during the previous year and a half.’

This is what the magi saw that foretold something they perceived as of immense importance to the world:

The king planet came together with the woman/maiden/mother planet in the constellation of the tribe of Judah – the tribe of David, Joseph of Nazareth and Jesus. Then the king planet came together with the king star – emphasizing the royal significance – not once but three times. And during the first of these, the sun was in the constellation of Virgo – the virgin. Then the king planet and the woman reunited, appearing as one.

Finally, on the winter solstice of 2 BCE, Jupiter reached a stationary point, “in the constellation of Virgo (the Virgin) when Jupiter was directly over Bethlehem, about 68 degrees above the southern horizon as viewed from Jerusalem where the magi were.”

I don’t believe in astrology, that our fate is governed or revealed by celestial movements, but the magi probably did; that’s why they followed the ‘star.’ And I believe something even more rational and wonderful: that God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, synchronized the heavens with his unfolding plan of redemption and revelation. He spoke to a watching, wondering people, in the stars and planets sparkling in the night sky. He spoke their language, and bid them Come and see. I don’t know about you, but it fills me with awe.

We know, astronomically, what happened during those months. For those of us who believe, we also know what happened historically there in Bethlehem. It’s easy to imagine how jubilant the magi must have been at the discovery that lay at the end of their long journey and the years of sky watching that preceded it.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.
-Matthew 2:10

They rejoiced because what they anticipated from their interpretation of the planetary and stellar paths was the birth of a great King, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and they came to honor and worship Him. The Star – the king planet and the king star shining in the house of the virgin – and words of the prophets, had led them to Him.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
{Psalms 19:1-4a}

——————————————————————

*These numbers are Finegan’s section numbers, rather than page numbers.

[This article is essentially a summary of some of the relevant sections from Jack Finegan's Handbook of Biblical Chronology - Rev Ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998). I have done no independent research here. Finegan, a professor of New Testament History and Archeology,  was a master of the subject. The book is extremely complex, and challenging to follow, so I have long wanted to write a digest of this topic that was more accessible.]

Here is a chronology of the period incorporating some of Finegan’s conclusions. Any errors are mine.

EVENT                                          DATE       YEAR         FINEGAN #
Jupiter+Venus near Regulus  Aug. 12     3 BCE          550*
Jupiter+Regulus (1)                Sept. 14     3 BCE          550
The Enrollment             Before Feb. 5     2 BCE          519 – 526
Jesus’ Birth                             January     2 BCE          569
Jupiter+Regulus (2)                   Feb. 17     2 BCE          550
Jupiter+Regulus (3)                     May 8     2 BCE           550
Jupiter+Venus                          June 17      2 BCE           550
Magi leave                                Summer     2 BCE
Magi arrive in Jerusalem              Fall     2 BCE
Jupiter stationary in virgo     dec. 25     2 BCE          551, 547
Magi go to Bethlehem & see Jesus
Joseph, Mary & Jesus flee to Egypt
Slaughter of the Innocents                                       508-510
Total lunar eclipse                 Jan 9/10     1 BCE          514
Herod’s Death                        Jan-March    1 BCE          501-518

 

Because of Easter

Because of Easter morning
I know that Jesus can give me what he promised
I know that death is not the end, and the grave cannot hold me
I know that life here is only the beginning, a very short beginning
I know that my sufferings here are brief compared to an eternity of love and communion

Because of Easter morning
I know this life is a vapor and death a momentary passage
I know I will see my loved ones again who are waiting for the Great Reunion
I know I will see and hold my son again -
and I know it will seem as though a mere few moments parted us

Because of Easter morning
I know every vestige of fear and destruction and evil is swallowed up
I know nothing can separate me from the love of God that lives in Jesus
I know the Spirit that brought back Jesus will also bring me back
on that Great Day