Post 22: Of God and Gandalf

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“The devil’s right there, right there in the details”

It was a REAL FAST week here in Lake World-be-gone, my new home. I could swear my last post was just two days ago—so this’ll have to be a fast look back. Between a steady parade of dinner guests, a trip to America for continued dental treatment, and my continuing struggle to shake off the persistent effects of that nasty flu, I have been working on illustrations and infrastructure in preparation for the launch of my new illustrated online serial, TWICE, on the 28th of THIS MONTH! How the heck is time moving so fast?! Seems like someone’s gone to sleep with their foot on the gas pedal!

I have no idea what to do about it, but there’s clearly no time left to waste on further frivolous notes from paradise. Let’s get back to Cirque du High School, and tales of the Dark Wood, shall we?

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As I mentioned last week, there are some important ‘background filters’ I’ve bypassed until now for the sake of clarity: like the evolving impact of religion in my young life, the hermetically sealed envelope in which my parents were convinced I must be kept ‘safe,’ and the emergence of sexual experience and identity before and during my freshman year at Cirque du High School. These must be filled in before I go any further if the next chapters of my tale are to make anything like sense. Sadly for you voyeurs out there, I’m going to begin this week with the topic of religion. (sigh)

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Though it may seem to those ‘outside the fold’ that religious people all think and act in lock-step, that very understandable impression is largely illusory. If anything, I would claim that there are as many concepts of ‘God,’ ‘morality’ and ‘afterlife’ within any one religious tradition as the number of ‘believers’ that religion has ever produced. Whatever church administrators and campus evangelists may claim, I have yet to encounter any objective, incontrovertible ‘proof’ even of God’s existence, much less any incontestable body of ‘God-descriptors’ to adhere to. And if what we’re calling ‘God’ does exist, I suspect that ‘it’ has no interest in being ‘all nailed down’ the way religions inevitably try to do. It’s called ‘belief’ for a reason. We who acquire—or inherit—religious faith ‘believe’ God into clearer and clearer shape—both together over centuries, and individually over the course of a single lifetime. Get any two believers—much less any two million of them—to describe ‘God’ and/or ‘God’s agenda’ to you in any detail, and I feel pretty safe in guaranteeing that you will get two—or two million—distinctly different stories.

In the Roman Catholic (Catholic being Latin for ‘Universal’—which could be interpreted to mean homogeneous: the one and only—or to mean ‘embracing everything,’ and thus tremendously diverse) tradition in which I was raised, there is an exhaustively codified body of doctrine, dogma, canon law and sanctioned tradition two thousand years in the making to backstop the institution’s responses to almost any conceivable development. But, as someone who spent years involved in helping to plan and provide formal ‘religious education’ to children, college students, and adults in a variety of different churches, schools and camps, I can tell you without hesitation that the Church’s immeasurable library of codifications has little if anything to do with the actual faith of most Roman Catholics. This may be true of all religions, but Catholics, at least, have traditionally learned far more about God and their own religion from parents and grandparents who learned it from their parents and grandparents and so on back a thousand years, than from anything said or written by ‘Church doctors.’ Have you ever played that game called ‘telephone?’ Imagine playing one long game of it for 2000 years, and you may begin to understand how ‘uniform’ religious belief really is—even within a single parish church, much less an entire, ‘homogeneous,’ religious tradition. This post is meant to convey nothing more or less momentous than my own, uniquely odd variant of ‘belief’ among all those billions of others.

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All that said, there are still lots of useful ways to ‘categorize’ different general approaches to faith within a ‘single’ religion, and the one I’ll grab here focuses on the difference between ‘believers’ who are running away from hell, and those in pursuit of ‘God.’ You’ll find some of each in any local church, and they are not at all the same thing.

One is obsessed with ‘rules,’ and motivated by fear and, ironically, judgmental anger; the other is engaged with ‘vision and growth’ motivated by longing and delight. One measures ‘spiritual success’ by which sins and requirements are adequately avoided or satisfied; the other by how much progress toward visionary goals is achieved. One tends to practice religious ‘compliance’ in a state of resentful fatigue, cutting corners whenever and however seems safely permissible. The other pursues some seductive spiritual vision with energizing interest—even excitement. One strives to cross the finish line without having done anything wrong. The other tends to think less about the finish line altogether, and more about what’s possible right here and now, hoping only to have done as much right as possible by the race’s end.

Of course, these two categories are simplistic caricatures. Most ‘believers’ fall somewhere along the continuum between them, but in my experience, most also lean more heavily toward one or the other of these two poles. The reason I’ve devoted so much attention to them here is that the rest of what I say about the roles and impacts of religion in my life as a child and afterward seem likely to have, at best, much less meaning—or, at worst, very unintended and inaccurate meanings—to those who haven’t considered, or even become aware of, this pervasive dichotomy.

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If I was ever ‘afraid of going to hell,’ I cannot recall it now. From earliest memory, ‘God’ was a friend who meant me well, and the object of our friendship was to help a ‘good’ life become better and better until it ended—at some unimaginable future date—with ‘the best possible life’ in the best of all imaginable worlds. (Yes, I am aware that Voltaire is rolling in his grave just now.) To best understand both how religion impacted my development, and how those impacts could have gone to such extremes for so long without becoming visible—at all—much less suspicious to such an intelligent lad, you’ll need to understand that I was—from the start—improbably slanted toward ‘camp two:’ “in pursuit of God.” It never occurred to me to question my religious training—because, even as a child, I never felt annoyed or inconvenienced by it, much less afraid—of hell, or of God. ‘God’ was, unambiguously, my friend. And it takes a lot more time and motivation to question your friendships than your antagonists.

To begin with, as I mentioned briefly waaaay back in Post 9, by fourth or fifth grade, ‘God’ had already become a kind of alternative parent in my mind—one who cared about me more, liked me better, and believed my potential to be far greater and more interesting than my ‘real’ parents—or anyone else—seemed to. When my fourth grade teacher read The Hobbit to us, Gandalf did not so much come to resemble God in my mind as God began to resemble Gandalf. What were miracles, if not magic? Who was the devil, if not Sauron? Who was I, if not a Hobbit? Who was God, if not Gandalf—with a mission intended for me? What had always been a friendship with God now became an adventure—ongoing, long after The Hobbit and many other books like it were read. I was afraid of a lot of things as a child—but never of ‘Him’—or of those whom everyone I trusted had assured me spoke as ‘His’ messengers.

Nonetheless…

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Around the time I had entered junior high school, my mother had become involved in the Charismatic Movement at our neighborhood Catholic Church, and invited me to come to their meetings with her. More God? Why not? (I know. But I really was that kind of boy.) The movement’s name is derived from the same Greek word as the term ‘charismatic,’ and the movement’s appeal to Catholics was definitely driven by a widespread desire for more ‘charisma’ in what had become, for many Catholics by then, a pretty dry and dour weekly experience of worship—especially in this entertainment-thirsty American culture. The meetings—held on weekday evenings, outside the normal church building—were conducted in dramatic contrast to the monotonous, apologetic droning of memorized prayers in church on Sundays. Guitars, horns and cymbals were played; songs were boisterous, contemporary and upbeat. Every word, gesture and activity at these meetings was larger, less rational, and more emotional than anything in ‘church’ as we knew it had ever been. It was basically the Pentecostal Church come to Rome.

My mother—a cheerful, buoyant person by nature, if not always by circumstance—loved it! The meetings’ whole tone stood in such stark contrast to the relentless caul of inarticulate and unacknowledged gloom so pervasive at home. As I have mentioned elsewhere, she had been struggling since my birth, if not longer, with a kind of acutely painful captivity in the confines of her life. She had once told a family friend that she was “always stalking through the stink weed when she should have been tiptoeing through the tulips”—because, yes, really, my mother was a Mills girl, and she said things like that. I believe that at these Charismatic meetings she found not only a moment of uplifting cheer and buoyant optimism in the middle of her often trudging week at home, but also an answer to her big life dilemma: the concept of complete surrender—to God. I believe this concept changed the course of her life, and mine, and hope you’ll remember I mentioned it, because I’ll be coming back to its eventual impacts in later posts.

At the time, I found these meetings very strange, but compelling. The ‘Charismatic laity’ that ran them clearly wanted more than dry religious lip-service. They wanted you to let go, commit everything ‘joyfully’ to God—in unfamiliar and uncomfortable ways—like raising your hands in prayer and song—very loud prayer and song—often in tongues. It all felt very unnatural to me, but also like some new level of spiritual testing—and I had understood for many years by then that tests were standard issue for any serious training in discipline—athletic, academic or spiritual. So I was not as alarmed as I might have been by this one. This strange new approach to worship also felt like an insistent call for authenticity: ‘Don’t just mumble belief, prove it! Step beyond the known and comfortable! Are you serious about this journey? Then go! Now!’ That too seemed consistent with the stories of my heart. Authenticity mattered to me. Perhaps the time had come to prove mine by leaving the Shire for places farther away than I had ever been—or imagined going.

So I put my back into it the way only an adolescent can.

For me, the hardest part of this test was the utterly exotic business of praying in tongues. However earnestly I tried to find those angelic voices in myself, I felt nothing trying to get out of my throat. And I had, as I have mentioned, both a real commitment to authenticity, and a severe allergy to faking anything. But they had answers for that concern. ‘God,’ they said, ‘is not invasive. He will not violate the free will that He, himself gave us all. He will use what we give Him freely—but not until after we’ve given it.

‘Fake it ‘til you make it,’ right?

But both the free will rationale and the demand that I make an effort rather than just wait for a passive ride made sense to me. So I screwed up my courage and tried opening my mouth to make whatever noises presented themselves. They’d made it clear that nothing here was meant to be understood by my mind—or anyone else’s. Only by my heart.

And my heart was not empty.

So, I believed—hard—in those moments, that I felt something. That this utterly uncomfortable exercise was an act of surrender—to God. That by giving what was not comfortable to give, I was proving the depth of my willingness and devotion to Him, and validating His faith in me.

It’s so easy for adults to look at children and teens, seeing nothing but simple-minded, gullible, frivolous, dependent, self-indulgent, utterly clueless and incapable cartoons of the people they ‘will be’ when they ‘grow up.’ Especially other people’s kids. It’s so easy to forget—or never even guess at—the vast inner lives hidden in their ‘play,’ the depth of what they can feel—and feel responsible for, the strength and courage they are able, and strangely willing, to arm their uninformed convictions with. They are worlds unto themselves—and to each other—whether that shows while they careen around the mall or not. Most of them only learn to be shallower and better costumed later. Just…sayin’.

Only years later, when my innocence was sufficiently in tatters, would I look back on those Charismatic meetings and see so clearly what I’d really done—and to whom I’d really lied.

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What those meetings did for me at the time, however, was bring the secret stories of my heart out of their confinement to the privacy of my mind and my books and church services on Sunday mornings, into my whole daily life. The people leading these meetings weren’t priests. That meeting room was not, by any definition, a church building. We weren’t there on Sundays. And the people around me—for better and worse, in truth or in pretense—were constantly talking, loudly and joyfully, about the difference their faith and ours had made, or was about to make, out in the ‘real’ world of their jobs and homes and families, on the other six days of the week.

Whatever else happened there, my secret story really did leave the Shire at last. And as it traveled from mere imagination and belief into risky, uncomfortable action, and ‘fellowship’ out in the wider world, the resonance between Tolkien’s stories and mine just seemed louder and clearer.

Were ‘Hobbits’ not chosen for these quests because they were of such little consequence; so beneath the gaze of great and dangerous powers? The stories my religion had always told me seemed in complete agreement. So many parables about humility—never seating yourself at the head of a table, or blowing your own trumpet. Was it not the meek who would inherit the earth? What was meeker than a Hobbit? Did Jesus himself not elect to be born to poor parents of no account in a barnyard feeding trough, noticed and recognized by no one but animals and shepherds? And how many of Tolkien’s fellowship ran disastrously aground on reefs of their own anger—or pride—or greed? Did the stories of my religion not warn against all those very same things? Among all the mighty, only a few small Hobbits had managed to reach Mordor and save the world without falling into one or another of the very same pitfalls religion had always warned me against. If Tolkien’s stories were to become ‘real’ anywhere in my life—it was clearly here, in the spiritual quest unfolding before me; a quest that all these grown up, responsible, respectable, ‘normal’ people around me called ‘true’ and ‘real.’

I had no idea then that the Tolkien-inspired myths of my heart had been written by a Roman Catholic scholar, but even if I had, what would that have suggested to me except that Gandalf/God was, unsurprisingly, still speaking through the mouths of prophets scattered everywhere?

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That all of my religion’s stories were also being conveyed in ways and shapes designed at some level, I believe, to encourage self-suppression—if not self-erasure—could never have occurred to, much less been understood by, the boy who loved Gandalf/God like the father his own father simply wasn’t equipped to be. I interpreted my church’s stories in a very different way—maybe even one closer to their original intents—as calls to exchange better for worse, and rise to some grander, more far-sighted vision. But the seeds of self-doubt and shame were being planted all the same, and that earnest, well-intentioned boy swallowed them whole—relishing the taste with secret conviction that he too would make it all the way to Mordor someday and save some important part of, well, his world, at least, if only he managed to be Hobbit-like enough to get all the way there. Trying to be small among the large, invisible to the important, and no more conspicuous than a breeze through the foliage when doing good deeds felt not at all like self-erasure to me then. It felt like hardcore ninja training—for the long adventure of true heroism; the entirely acceptable cost of being something more than a fake ‘success.’

I said not a word more to anyone about this burgeoning sense of ‘fellowship and adventurous mission’ than I ever had, of course. I was not that kind of fool. Just to be clear, I did fully understand that the landscapes, the magic, the hobbits and elves and orcs and wizards of my heart’s guiding stories were metaphorical, not literal. But well before I set foot inside the gates of Cirque du High School, this evolving story of mine had come to matter everywhere—at any moment of the day—secretly, but all-the-way-down seriously to me.

My unexpected ‘successes’ during freshman year must be seen against this background to see them rightly at all. As I said last week, there was no plan of my own at work in all that—but this didn’t mean I thought there was no plan at all. My job was to surrender to the plan—whatever it was—and let ‘Gandalf’ steer the journey that only he understood correctly, across a map that only he had ever seen. The Charismatic movement had clarified that for me—and neither Tolkien’s books, nor any of the hundreds of others like them that I was nourishing my inner life with, had done anything to diminish or contradict that understanding.

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As I entered high school, my commitment to the intensely hybridized understanding of ‘humility’ described in this post had not yet become overtly self-punitive. But it would, of course—just as soon as I felt I had failed the tests badly enough. And that failure was coming. Faster than I ever imagined it might—in the silliest and most eye-rollingly routine of ways.

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And, on that ominous note, I must wish you all a lovely week, cyber friends! Urgent tasks await me here at Cirque du High School: clowns to be loaded into cannons, thimbles to be filled with water beneath breathless high-dive platforms, slapstick tragedies to be rehearsed. And time is fleeting as we speak.

See you next Sunday. :]

Mark Ferrari1 Comment