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Essay Originally Published in Portand, Autumn, 2007.
Reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing™ 2008

The Best American Spiritual Writing™ 2008

Philip Zaleski, editor,
Introduction by Jimmy Carter
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008


The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008



Notes on ecstatic moments.

I’ve had a number of them, actually, all unexpected. There was, for example, the moment I came face to face with Van Gogh’s self-portrait in Paris, the one in which he is without a hat, in which his craziness seems, literally, to radiate off him like rays from the sun. All that mad beauty left me wide open, on the edge of something glorious and transcendent. And there’ve been other moments of magnitude. But the big one for me came in 1958, a few months after my twelfth birthday, less than a mile from my home, and in a place as foreign to my experience as Pluto.

I’d grown up a Southern Baptist, with its low-church Protestantism, its plain architecture and minimalist sanctuaries. I’d never seen anything like the beauty and vibrancy of the silken, embroidered cloth on St. Paul’s altar that day, nor the golden candelabra, nor the statuary, especially Mary, nor what impressed me then as the rather miserable-looking Jesus on the cross above the altar – a far cry from the tepid portraits of Jesus on the walls of our Sunday School rooms. And there was a faint fragrance in the air, something of the place itself, spicy, old, remnant-like, haunting, and mysterious.

My family and I were at St. Paul’s for a Nuptial Mass. I’d been angry when we’d arrived; it was, after all, the first cold Saturday of autumn, a day for playing football with my buddies, not sitting in church. But all the beauty had surprised me, and I was calmer now, even peaceful. Then the music swelled. People stood, some half-turning toward the back, straining their necks to see, like people waiting for a parade. Curious, I turned, and through the adults, saw a boy about my age holding what appeared to be a brass cross mounted atop a varnished broomstick, and in front of that was another boy, this one swinging a smoking pot. As they passed, a bit of the smoke wafted toward me, and it was the same scent.

It was like a scene from an old movie when someone remembers the past and the picture dissolves into wavy lines, but this was only in one spot, sort of oval-shaped, and just above and in front of the cross. Then, as if that spot marked a door between here and somewhere else, it seemed to open and close in a blink, like a camera’s shutter. I had the sensation of something hitting me in the belly, but not hard. With that, it – whatever it was – was over.

I was aware of a heaviness that had not been there, a numb heartache of the sort I’d felt when my dog died or when a dear friend moved away. As for the rest of the service, I have a dreamy memory of the priest’s murmurings in Latin, the bride and groom, more of the incense, and the presence of something I could not name.

I went to bed early that night. I wanted to fall asleep, then wake up with the usual dread of another three hours of Sunday School and church service; and I wanted that sad ache to go away, or at least to know the source of it. Closing my eyes, I drifted toward sleep. Then, as though having fallen through some cosmic hole, I had the sensation of tumbling backwards in slow motion, and into some other place where I was surrounded by stars. The physical sensation of it was like the best part of being dizzy, as when my friends and I would twirl round and round, finally falling to the grass and watching the world spin.

Then: Who am I?

The voice was soft, intimate. But where had it come from? Was it my voice? That presence I’d sensed? Was the question about me? About it? I was more curious than frightened. The tumbling continued, and the question repeated every ten or fifteen seconds until I fell asleep.

Our after-church meal on that or any Sunday was pot roast, mashed potatoes, a canned green vegetable, pull-apart rolls browned in the oven, a lettuce and tomato salad with French dressing, and a world-class dessert – pecan or apple pie, or chocolate cake with ice cream, or brownies. I’d not eaten breakfast, and was still not hungry, but ate to satisfy my mother. My buddies wanted me to come out, but I begged off, claiming too much homework, then closed myself in my room, lay down and shut my eyes. The tumbling started, then the question, then sleep.

Sunday night was always leftovers followed by Bonanza. As soon as the lights were out and my eyes closed, the tumbling and the question returned. Then, after a few minutes: Who am I asking the question? Who am I?

The next few months were a time for baffled wonder. Something was different about me, but what? Moreover, what was the point? I was a twelve-year-old boy awash in the cultural zeitgeist of southeast Texas in the late 1950s, where boys were supposed to play football, learn to shoot things, and grow up to be like their daddies, where low-church Protestantism reigned supreme and it was not unusual to hear absurdist whisperings such as Catholics don’t even believe in Jesus; they think the Pope is God. So, exactly what was I supposed to do with a peculiar experience I’d had in, of all places, a Roman Catholic Church, one that wouldn’t go away, and, depending on the day, was making me a little crazy? I wanted to talk to someone, but to whom? Almost certainly my non-religious father would’ve half-listened, rolled his eyes and said Go talk to your mother. Who’d have listened, then dragged me down the street to the pastor’s house; or called together church members for a full-throttle gang-save; or phoned my grandfather, who might well have boarded the next train with the intention of saving me from eternity in Hell.

I was pretty much on my own, with two boys inside my skin, one who wanted it all to go away, another who couldn’t wait to turn out the lights, who hadn’t a clue what was happening, but trusted it more than the other boy had ever trusted anything.

Besides, there did seem to be a certain logic in what was happening. Given that its genesis was in a church, it followed that I was having a “religious” experience, and that my attitude toward church would shift – certainly a result that would thrill my mother and grandparents. It shifted all right – to a track that would end in a sort of ontological train-wreck. Sunday School, worship services, and other church activities soon became like visits to an asylum in which nothing made sense. There were times when being there was so intolerable that I feared I might lose control and start screaming, though at what, or about what, I didn’t know.

The tumbling and the questions repeated each night for months, then several times a week for the next few years. The questions were never intrusive, but more like koans, satisfied to be rather than demanding answers – a relief, since I had none. Finally, it all stopped. Then, almost ten years after it had started, it happened again – or seemed to –this time in an Episcopal church during the Nuptial Mass for my college roommate. Whether it was a repeat of the same event, anamnesis, or simple déjà vu, the tumbling and the questions returned, as did the sadness, which, finally, I recognized as hunger and longing.

Though it was a single moment, a split second in my sixty years, the man I’ve become, all that I’ve done in my professional life – parish priest (Episcopal), speaker and trainer for an international foundation, management consultant, writer — can be traced to it. And yet it remains a mystery. I’ve tried saying it was “of God,” but the name arrives like a king and his court; there is simply too much baggage and too many extras for my small house. Other names present the same. I’ve come to prefer the mystery, the illogicalness in the fact that I understand it far better when I don’t try to understand it.

Understanding has its own timetable and comes when I’m not looking for it. While still a teenager, the word “milieu” came as a welcome guest because that was the sense of it for me that Saturday afternoon – an immersion, a surrounding too vast ever to say, “It’s here, but not there” or “under this roof, but not that one.” Later I would stumble across the Latin, Mysterium Tremendum, and know its meaning without asking, and the vast experience to which it pointed. Some years back, I came across the German mystic Meister Eckhart, who centuries ago wrote, “That which one says is God, he is not; that which one does not say, he is more truly that than that which one says he is.” Except for the “G” word and the gendering, it fit for me, sort of. I’ve loved the image inherent there, of the definition of the infinite existing only in the spaces between the words, whether written or spoken. There has been no form, no pillar of fire or burning bush. Moreover, there’s been nothing to believe in. In fact, I’ve come to think that trying to believe in what happened that day is the worst idea of all.

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Original Sinners - John R. Coats

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