Thursday, May 24, 2012

Before Light Itself

The engulfing sense of women at the Mission emerges from their absence.  Aside from ragged prostitutes,  visits from female gospel choirs, and a rare woman speaker, the Mission is a place for males.  Men on probation visit their wives and companions during the day, and talk of women, both coarse and reverent, swirls and darts though conversation, but at night, in the tomb-like dormitory after lights-out, the 120 men who lie on the bunks seem, in those rare moments when snores and groans cease, like figures of wax or wood arranged for something patiently watching.  Awake I sense a staring face both motherly and harsh, a presence that enfolds yet chills. 

"This is the Lord's house," we are constantly told.  "Can't you feel his blinding light of love shining down on you, brothers?"

"Amen!  Oh, dear God, Amen!"

"Praise the light!  Praise the Lord!" 

"Shine on, Baby Jesus, shine on!"

While a fair bunch of the men are dangerously bored and just want the fucking service over so they can shower and flop, I'm always struck by the weirdness of a room full of men jittering and screeching about a possibly fictional character, or one hidden behind too many stacked and marked-up transparencies to be seen (The nearly universal metaphor for the historical Christ hidden behind successive, stained glass windows of legend contains a built-in reverence that precludes the possibility of finding nothing there).  Yes, it's a brotherly love and passion, but it's somehow looney-tunes.

I am not a Christian.  The religious forms of the present leave me unmoved.  The closest I can come to a sense of the supernatural or divine is an elusive, intermittent sense--perhaps delusional--that the universe is trying to tell us something if we open our eyes wide enough and find ample silence.  Only then can the absurd, the grotesque, the sadly funny, the hilariously sad emerge in moments when the cosmos seems to stutter or skip or freeze up, then restart having changed itself and changed you.  I cannot pray; I can only watch and listen.

One congregation that frequents the Mission drags about on its various errands what they call a "life-sized" and "true to reality" cross.  The discount come-on language invites--nay, pleads--for the addition of phrases like "suitable for parties!" "easy to use!" and "rent for your next rally!" It's actually a couple of boards nailed together held upright by an X-mas-type stand and which looks like it might be used by an inbred hillbilly trapper/cannibal to display furs and skins.  In short, it's pretty goddamn funny.  I'm not the only one who laughs when the thing makes its warped and splintery appearance. 

It's this cartoony, 1980s-style video and cheap special effects element that too often pushes Christianity into the kitchy, slapstick realm.  The original series ended long ago, it seems, leaving only spin-offs and the animated show that embarrasses even die-hard fans.  And the commercials!  Last night the preacher man for the evening tried to get us chanting, "How do you spell relief? J! E! S! U! S!"  For me this televisual quality breaks through even--and especially--in religious ceremony at its most soaring and solemn.

But I'm going to be set straight on all that, according to most of the fiery sermons (Don't give me any crap about liberal, nuanced, sophisticated theology, and don't even suggest that fundamentalist mosh-pits like the Mission are the exception).  I once asked my Mission friend Joseph, a rotund and maniacally funny Mexican tummler with a voice like a Jewish comedian, if he believed in a literal hell. 

"Who among us knows?" he said, stroking his goatee.  "Certainly not me.  But God has something special in store for you when you shed the mortal coil, my agnostic friend."

"What's that?"

"You're going to Jersey."

(Actually, any preacher who dares utter a syllable about the Lake of Fire needs to get schooled by James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man contains a sermon on the Bad Place that can turn you pale as a cave fish for a month.)

Even Satan constantly gets a clownish makeover, like some fanboy dolt who doesn't understand that haunted houses only come once a year.   An air of adolescent hijinks and leering hangs over much of Christianity . . . but in the Mission, after the pastor or lame-ass worship band leaves and the men trudge upstairs to wait naked and reeking for the showers, then stack themselves in the metal bunks for an hour or so of talk, goatish laughter, and scheming before the lights snuff out and silence edges in, I think I know whose house this really is, who watches over these men-- myself included--who seem to have reached the low lands where the endgame starts.  Before time, before any word was spoken, before light itself, there was blackness, kala, first creation, whose feminine form is terrible Kali, Goddess of Death and Destruction.

Powerless and weakly flailing, sex drifting inexorably out of range, many of the men are obsessed with comic superheroes, and time before lights out is often filled with energetic conversations and dissections of their heroes' powers, Achilles heels, costumes, and utilities.  Spiderman and Superman dominate, of course, and the X-Men, with their neato trading card spread of mutant abilities and kiddie land angst ignite acetylene torch arguments over history, alliances, and betrayals.  And for those who've been able to afford it or find a bootleg copy (easy--see the guy in bunk #32, if he's there and you say exactly the right thing in the right way) The Avengers has been a gusher of a wetdream.  Debates about what would happen if you pitted one hero against another are required. 

Let's be clear about this: no band of brothers and sisters released from the Marvel or DC holding pens stands a ragged chance against Mother Kali, her consort Shiva, the cosmic dancer and destroyer (note that blue-skinned, goggle-eyed, red-tongued Kali is often depicted standing on the body of Shiva) and, just for good measure to trumpet laughter at the carnage, the Elephant god, Ganesha. Kali herself could do the job, especially with the puny males.   And if we need a little extra help, some interpretations of Hinduism claim 330 million gods total we can maybe hook up with. 

Now things are getting just a bit silly here, but in religion outlandish is the only destination.  It's all no sillier than the versions of Jesus that popped up in the 60s and 70s--Jesus the laughing clown, Jesus the peaceful hippie, Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the trickster, and the ever-popular Rotary Club Jesus.  Just as when Marvel pits Iron Man (actually Robert Downey Jr, America's favorite rehab story) against Thor, a god with a boomerang hammer, and nobody cries foul,  I claim exemption from blasphemy if I pit Mission Jesus against pop cult Kali and imagine a smack down. 

Let's not dwell on the result.   Back to lights out in the Mission and my 119 or so broken brothers lying in our hard metal racks.  It's easy to imagine that we are prone in the hold of a end-of-time junkyard starship traveling through the necropolis of the cosmos.     Once optimists hoped we might live in an oscillating universe, one that slowed its expansion, fell back in on itself in a crushing singularity, then exploded anew, Shiva beginning the dance again.   But the picture painted by modern physics is different.  Scientists like Lawrence Krauss cheerfully urge upon us a universe that sprang from a quantum nothingness (whatever that might be), and is headed with ever-increasing speed toward nothing again.  Everything between is punctuation.   I can little more than feel the truth of this.  Some modern cults have tried to tame dread Kali and worship her as a kindly Earth goddess who might be right at home on Planet Oprah.   But I know better.   We are headed for a berth in the nursery of the black one, supreme mistress, preparing ourselves as time, space, and words fail--before light itself flickers again--for her enfolding, terrible love.

No comments:

Post a Comment