fulfilled in light of all voided outcomes
On altar boy mornings I would draw the religion of my birth between my fingers with a brush of gold tassels. From a velvet bag I’d tip its silver head, collect pressed linen to dress its form. For its meal there would be a sigh of bread laid across a gold saucer; red wine poured from a glass teardrop.
I liked to arrive early to mass. Touching the symbols, following the dictates of their preparation written on a bent index card. These incidentals made me realize that the religion of my birth was perfect unto itself. The problem was the human hands that attended its forms.
The Iroquois posited that the world rests on the back of a giant turtle. Among the indigenous people of Siberia the world is thought to have been retrieved from the bottom of the sea by a red-throated water-bird. A wet slather of earth is wiped from the thin, upward-turned bill. The earth butters the palm of the Great Shaman.
If we accept the anthropological view that origin myths are more accurate as political fables, an origin myth for our globalized, on-demand world would find a design team of upper-gods working out the cosmological framework before jobbing out the creation itself to a legion of lesser-gods. Future faults in the world or any of its sentient creation would be blamed on undisclosed substitutions of inferior materials, disregard of best metaphysical practices, inadequate beta-testing before the shrink-wrap is tucked across the heavens.
On the day of my first Confession, I whispered what was considered venialities into a worn swatch of wicker. I didn’t believe what I was saying. The priest fiddling a loose rosary bead on the other side of the wicker didn’t believe what I was saying, either. He gave me four Our Fathers and three Hail Marys for being unable to name the sin we were all committing.
The Guide to the Sacrament of Reconciliation had advised that I review what I had done “with full knowledge—and full consent—against God’s and the Church’s commandments.”
The Incas believed that mankind was created from divine breath exhaled into a hand peppered with stones. Ancient Koreans thought we began with the sound of wet hair gathered between the teeth of a jade comb.
Every culture grunts man’s arrival as unwanted dependent. Salvation is determined by how we choose to monetize each breath’s assumed debt.
Religious Demographic Concerns:
- Whether to count faith carried beneath the tongue
- Whether to count faith that brushes its foot against salted rock
- Whether to count faith that turns dried sticks between its fingers
- Whether to count faith that parts long blonde hair against its scar
I didn’t understand the religion of my birth until I realized it couldn’t be understood. I would say words to the therapist, the therapist would say words back. Talking to her was a different form of church. It reminded me of the rules the nuns had us copy in our notebooks. What they were giving was dictation of a memory of a different book, its paragraphs glowing with the kiss of yellow marker.
Christ’s rise from the dead matters as afterthought. The central image of the faith is not the Son of God strolling from the tomb after three days, fist spiked to the heavens. The central image is immolation—every bruise, every laceration, traced with a latex finger.
Christ was killed for suggesting love as a more profitable business than reptilian retribution. His death calls each of us to individuate the franchise.
News from the War on Terror/of Terror/with Terror reveals a double-tap strategy: planes bomb doctors, bomb nurses, bomb patients; circle back for a second attack once first-responders arrive on scene.
the double-tap is believed to improve accuracy.
The theory is: the gun is not fully extended
on the first shot; it is only with the second
that the bullet runs a red thread through its target.
Double-tap was invented by British police chiefs in Shanghai in the 1930s. They wanted to skirt the non-expanding, less-penetrating rounds required by the Hague Conventions. Double-tap is a way of stopping time in battle. With practice, the time between shots grows shorter until it appears the shooter is pulling the trigger in a single, continuous shot. In Aleppo, double-tap has also stopped time for non-combatants. Doctors have reported greeting a colleague they thought was deceased, then wondering into their morning coffee if they hadn’t reported to work in the afterlife.
Flashback to seven years old: I remember lying in my narrow bed, asking my mother through the door why I didn’t believe in God. She told me to pray to God. It would “help me believe,” she said; it would also help me sleep.
During the early modern period, lack of religious faith was an insult applied to a range of people, including those who held opposing theological beliefs. Even the Nazis mistrusted anyone unaffiliated with an established religion. In a speech made in 1933, Hitler claimed to have stamped out the Gottlosenbewegung (“Godless Movement”). Hitler’s masses were comprised of gottgläubig (“believers in god”), a non-denominational Nazified Christianity that stiffened its arms and legs along creationist, deistic views.
Atheism was first used to describe a self-avowed belief in late 18th-century Europe. Today its detractors regard it as the metaphysical equivalent of homosexuality—a dangerous lifestyle choice bred by advanced degrees, granite countertops with a 50-storey view of the river. The violence with which it’s opposed suggests a hand that lingers in the shoe department to run its fingers along a pair of rhinestone heels.
I never thouht of myself as atheist. I didn’t even know the term back then. “Atheist” is a failed binary in grayscale. It is the empty portion of a glass that declares itself the whole. It ignores the shimmer that curls in the water, it ignores the dust particles that float a carnival in sunlight.
Believoisie: a term used by hard atheists to describe anyone who attends this carnival.
On the day of my Confirmation I was asked to consider the tastes that competed on my tongue. I did not understand the question until years later when I knew the taste of woman.
Five of the Ten Commandments can be read as a disallowance of sex. Is there any doubt that the religion of my birth does not permit the Diet of Joy?
Original Sin© is the brand name we were taught as explanation of our burden. Its true name is not unlike the chemical moniker for the thrice-daily potions we ingest. A name that stretches across the page as unpronounceable conjuring of syllablessyllables consonantsletterssymbols symbolssyllables numbersnumbersnumbers.
Twelve years of Catholic school prepares for the corporate life, the military life, the life where the truth is expected to wait outside. At eighteen, I left the building knowing it wouldn’t be waiting for me; that I’d have to give chase along a course measured in decades.
Teen initiates of the Okiek tribe in Kenya are haunted by the cemaasiit during their time in seclusion. Initiation is completed when the roar of the wild beast is revealed to be a faded antelope horn with cracks curling around the tip. Initiates must see the instrument, must hold the instrument, must raise the horn to their lips to produce the roar that rippled their skin in the evening wind.
Fear as faith on its day-off.
What is the value of belief that won’t wear its sequins outside the home?
The religion of my birth sews beads of air into the elbow of its tunic, its skies give fists of rain, its sails breathe last between snapped wood arms. Its story is told by St. Matthew. It claims to model divinity, to give demonstration of the here-now paradise of sleep as our bed tosses on waves. For me, the question is analog. As 21st-century insomniac, I envy the life of devices whose lullaby is a drop-down menu.
Aristotle did not include sense of pain when he enumerated the five senses. Like Plato, he saw pain and pleasure not as sensations but as “passions of the soul.”
The Marquis de Sade was the first to split pain’s atom into innumerable quantum particles infused with pleasure and wisdom and other mystical information that cannot be accessed by other means. It was how he ended his incarceration without disturbing the bars of his cell. It was also how he restored pantheism to a society that had erected churches and other hierarchical systems around the democracy of Christ’s immolation.
A cephalophore is a saint depicted carrying his or her own head. Denis, patron saint of Paris, preached a sermon of repentance the six miles from Montmartre to the final step that became his basilica. He was decapitated for refusing to give his tongue to a Roman loyalty oath. Artistic reproductions place a halo where the head used to be. Others have the saint carrying the halo along with the head.
Loss of other body parts is catalogued in Butler’s twelve-volume Lives of the Saints. Statistical analysis of the 1,462 saints whose death date fell between the years A.D. 450 and 1500 reveal a genderizing of self-injurious behaviors. Women could be martyred for their sex, but physical agency was limited to altered states of consciousness, sleep deprivation, extreme fasting. In 1975, when Carolee Schneemann read from a scroll she unwound from her vagina, she did more than reveal this hidden history, she reclaimed female flesh for sainthood.
The Coconut Religion is a now-defunct religion indigenous to southern Vietnam’s “Coconut Kingdom.” It was founded in 1963 by Vietnamese scholar Nguyễn Thành Nam, also known as the Coconut Monk, His Coconutship, Prophet of Concord, and Uncle Hai. The Coconut Monk wrapped himself in the saffron robes of Buddhism, while a large crucifix swung around his neck. His choices suggest D.I.Y. postmodernism, cultural mash-up as colonialist reclamation.
Jediism (or Jedism) is a nontheistic religious movement based on the depiction of Jedi knights in the Star Wars film and media franchise. Early websites cite the Jedi Code, consisting of 21 maxims, as the starting point for a “real Jedi” belief system. Jediism attracted public attention in 2001 when a number of people listed their religion as “Jedi” on national censuses.
The religion of my birth was the Roman-Era equivalent of the Coconut Religion and Jediism. Its early survival was due to a stealth localization strategy. It took people centuries to realize that their favorite neighborhood coffee shop was a global conglomerate run by a man on a floating throne thousands of miles away.
The Bible, page 35: “For they were exceedingly rich, and could not dwell together…”
The Qur’an, page 35: “Their Lord will give those who are mindful of God Great Gardens graced with flowing streams, where they will stay with pure spouses and God’s good pleasure…”
The Bible, page 70: “…let not the priests and the people pass the limits, nor come up to the Lord, lest he kill them.”
The Qur’an, page 70: “Control of the heavens and the Earth and all that is between them belong to Him: all journeys lead to him.”
The Bible, page 140: “Whomsoever of these I shall choose, his rod shall blossom.”
The Qur’an, page 140: “Will you forbid us to worship what our fathers worshipped?”
The Bible, page 280: “And I took the diadem that was on his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them hither to thee, my Lord.”
The Qur’an, page 280: “…He gives them respite for a stated time and, whenever their time comes, God has been watching his servants.”
I never knew sin could be another form of faith. I was taught faith was something to cup between the hands. A species of tropical bird whose wing turned upward at the whisper of frost.
Sin speaks as magic. It is the bird that returns to life after the temperature reaches the required level. Or in my case, it was the life that came after the last fist of dirt was dropped into my father’s grave.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son assumes that the son’s salvation could not have happened without the father’s celebration. The story of Oedipus is more realistic: salvation as fatherless enterprise.
Faith lost: Fool me, you kiss.
walk into the ocean,
pinching a nervous flame
last match on this side of the wave
/last match before we drown in air
The Greeks believed that air was the element from which all else originated. On this logic each time breath is gathered into the lungs the world is created anew.
In the Philippines, Catholics are non-lethally crucified for a limited time on Good Friday to imitate the sufferings of Christ. Pre-sterilized nails are driven through the hands and feet—with caution taken to avoid the bones, offer a footrest to which the feet are nailed. Rolando del Campo, a carpenter in Pampanga, vowed to be crucified every Good Friday for fifteen years if God would carry his wife through a difficult childbirth.
On the solemn day of Ashura, Shi’a Muslims strike themselves on the head with a curved sword until their clothing hangs with blood. Chains spiked with blades tear handfuls of flesh from the back and chest. Known as Tatbir, the self-immolation is meant to bring the death of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, into an eternal present. Ali was massacred along with family and companions at the Battle of Karbala, October 10, 680 CE. Muslims that practice Tatbir are believed to feel the warmth of Allah each time their blood becomes Ali’s between their fingers.
Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866) returns the vagina to modern religious cosmology. The vagina had been absent since Eve’s sin of possessing one and the myriad Old Testament women found guilty of using theirs with orgasmic intent. Mary, the mother of Christ, had hers erased through immaculate conception.
The religion of my birth cannot function with the vagina as independent agent. The heavenward linearity on which it depends is no match for the sight of labia. The eye becomes sainted encircling its folds, finding the heights it once sought with bent knee and downturned gaze.
Courbet gestures with splayed fingers pretending to conceal. He is the schoolboy wishing to be caught drawing a dirty picture on his desk. The Origin of the World‘s greatest success is as Capitalist mandala—prototype of the corporate logo that seeks to enthrall the consumer in a vaginal relationship with product.
Matthew Arnold writes, “And faith is neither the submission of the reason, nor is it the acceptance, simply and absolutely upon testimony, of what reason cannot reach. Faith is: the being able to cleave to a power of goodness appealing to our higher and real self, not to our lower and apparent self.”
writing equations on a Styrofoam cup
speckled fingers, cosine of God
St. Augustine is the model of everyone who raises their pen as prayer. Wittgenstein is his modern acolyte—the postulates of his Tractatus are arranged as benedictions declaimed between whiskers of incense.
A plain wooden cross my grandmother gave me sits on my bookcase. In youth I resisted the urge to imagine myself in Christ’s place. Later I considered what it meant that the cross had been waiting centuries for Christ’s arrival.
Did the religion of my birth demand living within such fixity—or was the image meant as a warning, a flag of transcendence made from torn pieces of self?
The spiritual life of our age has been quarantined by the language of disease. The Postmodern Condition. The Age of Anxiety. Simaculacra and Simulation. Risk Society. The Decline of the West. “The Wasteland.” The Jeremiad of modernity places a hand on its own body to locate interstitial swelling, a fluid gathering of unanswered questions in cities beneath the skin.
The spiritual life of our age is not the metaphysical edema many have self-diagnosed. The sky prayed to with steepled hands has been atomized, individuated with a personal list of helper-gods and goddesses. The same finger that reaches across Leonardo’s ceiling traces its desire across a lighted interface. What is summoned is more than product; it is the wish-fulfillment of innumerable selves, clicked into existence.
The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas understood our market-based pantheism: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.”
I didn’t find faith in the religion of my birth until I gave up faith in God.
Note: Several of this pieces were sampled from Wikipedia entries. The Mystic Mind: The Psychology of Medieval Mystics and Ascetics by Kroll, Bachrach was also an influence.