The question arose with all of the infuriated heat of an acetylene torch last night:
"What nitwit(s) ever came up with the idea that God was nice?"
And the simplicity of the enraged question was immediately matched by the simplicity of the unapologetic answer that followed close behind:
"What nitwit(s)? The money-changers."
The question and answer came and went like lightning in the night sky -- etched, bright and incontestable. In the breathing room that followed the exchange, naturally I could do the explanations and feel the sorrow at the sorrows of mankind. But by that time, I had been informed and scarred: There was no going back, no way to un-think a purple cow, un-taste a chocolate milkshake. God, by whatever name and in whatever tradition, was a selling point, though hardly an adequate representation of what was being sold.
The back story to this enraged, bright-light epiphany went something like this:
I was sitting on the couch watching "Law and Order" a little before 9 when my younger son appeared in the doorway as he has for the last few nights and asked if I would put ointment on his tattoo. He had gotten the tattoo shortly after his 18th birthday -- had wanted it, had sat patiently while I suggested a tattoo was often a matter of regret as the years passed, had stuck to his guns and gotten it anyway ... an interesting but meaningless design across his shoulders. Once he had gotten it, the two of us ambled around the idea that I too might get one. My crepe-y and flaccid skin suggests that the result would be less glorious than his own, but I considered it.
Anyway, last week he went back to have the tattoo touched up where it seemed to be fading a bit and the post-tattoo ritual was to put healing and moisturizing ointment on it -- triple antibiotic ointment. Ives can't reach the tattoo easily, so I have put it on for him.
After I applied the ointment, the two of us stood in the kitchen gabbing about this and that. I told him that I had received what I considered a pretty good war novel ("Once an Eagle") and suggested he might like to read it too since he has, in the past, liked war stuff.
"I'm kind of off war stuff," he said more or less. "Studying 'The History of the Holocaust,' we've seen a lot of movies. We watched one about Rwanda. It was horrible. It was as if ... " and he searched for the right words, "it was as if God had left that place."
And as quickly as the words left his mouth, he looked at me as if I might correct him or jump down his throat. "Don't get me wrong ... I believe in God ... but ...." And he trailed off in confusion.
Ives' grandmother, my wife's mother, is a go-to-church-every-day Catholic. She's not offensive or pushy about it, but it is what she does and what she does has a trickle-down effect. So Ives, who is a gentle soul, was probably the long-distance beneficiary of her actions. And I did not begrudge him the tale. Goodness and kindness are a good tale, a kindly and consoling hint. I wouldn't for a moment begrudge someone a loving tale. But this was my son, a person I loved viscerally ... and while I do not begrudge him his tales -- the tales anyone might tell before they settled down to what ever life-tale they found most compelling -- still, in last night's lightning moment, my visceral desire to protect my son rose up like fire. It was an utterly fruitless desire -- hoping to defend him from foolishnesses I had experienced -- but there it was in my mind and heart, bright and hot and furious.
And so I told him in words that probably didn't mean much, words he might have heard as the old man getting off on one of his toots ... I told him as best I could after the lightning strike:
It is OK to believe in God, by whatever name. Go ahead and believe in God. But don't be a pussy. Don't get smug and assured and rest there like some baby robin in a nest. If you believe in God then don't imagine that God is absent from the slaughter in Rwanda or the soul-searing atrocity of the Nazi concentration camps. To imagine that God is "absent" is to reduce your god to fairy dust and bullshit. To avert the eyes or close the heart to god's presence is the common way, the coward's way, the false way. If you believe in god, believe in god ... but don't stop, don't nest, don't rely on consolations or explanations. That's crap! And more, it's crap that leaves a man or woman with an uneasy heart and an unsettled life. Is it hard? Are the explanations inviting? Yes, yes and again yes. But averting the eyes and heart, relying on explanations ... well, it's like a one-night stand: You may have a lovely orgasm, but that leaves the rest of life orgasm-less. The orgasm of "nice" or "consoling" or "benevolent" or some similar intellectual or emotional pleasure is really not enough when it comes to whatever you credit as god. This is the money-changer's way.
The minute I had finished sounding off, I looked at my son and realized I had learned again what I had sometimes credited myself as having learned before: You can't tell people stuff like this, no matter how much you love them. It just doesn't work. Everyone has to figure it out for themselves. The part of me that desperately loved my son and wanted to protect him was left gasping and tongue-tied by the futility of it all. The longing was so enormous within me, the fire so hot and bright and ... tough titty!
What a good lesson. How I hated it. Like the despairing heart that uncovers endless rows of bodies in Rwanda or elsewhere, I too longed to avert my eyes, to be consoled, the make lemonade out of lemons. I too was the money-changer.
The Zen teacher Ta Hui (1088-1163) once said approximately, "I have always had a great vow that I would rather suffer the fires of hell for all eternity than to portray Zen as a human emotion." What a scary, searing observation and yet all he was really saying was, "If you're going to love God, then love God ... and never give up." Such an observation may leave the money-changers within and without wriggling on the hook, frantically running hither and thither seeking relief, but Ta Hui was not a man to turn his back on the suffering of humanity.
Bless his hide ... that old motherfucker!