ANNALS of FAITH: How Great Is That Darkness

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Not so very long ago, somewhere, far down and at the center, was a chasm, yawning wide and deep. Or, maybe it was more like a cauldron, bubbling and boiling above some infernal blaze gods only know what. Fuck, I don’t know. It really defied any sort of discrete depiction in words, which I guess was at least partially the problem. I can tell you the places it was, though. That’s much easier. It pushed against the bottom of my heart. It tormented my diaphragm. It pulsated and writhed and twisted around against the outer walls of my lungs. It rumbled and roared and constricted, then erupted in shock waves that rippled outward to the ends of my fingers and toes and to the tips of my hair. It wasn’t always in the same place, but one of its favorite haunts was just inside my right breast, where it emitted an electric heat down my arm all the way to the ends of my fingernails. One dark night, as I lay in bed fearing yet another sleepless marathon to morning filled with a racing mind and encroaching terror, I attempted to communicate with it. I focused my mind’s eye on the little knot of flame and spoke directly to it. It’s okay that you’re here, I said. I won’t ignore or shout you down this time. I promise.

I’ve seen my anxiety. I’ve encountered it face to face in the world of my dreams, for the longest time the one place it could get my attention. It’s an inky blackness that moves in from the corners, a dank and dark mist that invades at the fraying seams. I could often see it coming in the distance, moving through the darkened doorway or down the long corridor or up from the base of the steep and crooked stairwell. I would see the lone dark and diffuse figure manifest within as every hair on my body arose in alarm. It would close me in, draining away all color and warmth. Others in the dream would turn to vague shadows, then suddenly become spectral figures belching feral wails and rushing past, this way and that, always just out of reach. At first, I would only see this solitary mysterious figure from afar, but the distance between us narrowed with time. In the early days, I would flee from it in dread but, in later iterations of the dream, I would charge at it in a fiery rage. GET OUT OF HERE. LEAVE ME ALONE.

Many nights would I awake to a pounding heart and a voice struggling to formulate in low moans and guttural utterances the stinging rebuke I so wished to issue forth in power. Some nights, it would get close enough for me to look into its eyes—bright eyes, so full of light for so dark a creature. They would stare at me blankly, unblinking, unspeaking. There was no malice to be detected within them, only a sort of emptiness, as if gazing into an abyss. As it turns out, an abyss is exactly what it was. I would move to strike in anger, and my arms would go limp. I would attempt to run from it, and my legs would turn to pillars of lead. I would attempt to speak, and my tongue would be shackled. There was nothing I could do but look into those eyes, at least until I lurched awake and flew forward in what seemed to be attempts to prevent my heart from outpacing my body.

That night, lying on my back in my bed, was perhaps the first time I ever came to terms with the fact that I was afraid. Hello darkness, my old friend. The ways in which the Christian faith poisoned my thinking are innumerable and I yet discover new ones, seemingly daily, but the most poignant was in my aversion to fear. Not just any fear, though; I’m talking about the fear that’s at the root of them all. I am afraid to die. You’ve been with me so long, trying so hard to get my attention. I see you now. You’re here, and that’s okay. I’m okay. Everything is going to be okay. Not that I have any reason to believe I’ll be dying anytime soon, but, really, what’s a few decades in the scope and scale of the universe. At my behest, the knot of fire convulsed and moved into my throat where, in deep breaths, I exhaled it in noxious clouds. The taste was like metal. It burned as it left my mouth but, with every contraction of my lungs, I felt my body become lighter. One by one, my muscles relaxed. After a short while, I slipped away into a sleep free of dreams for the first time in a very long time.

I’m reminded of an essay I read in college by G.K. Chesterton, “The Wind and the Trees,” in which he discusses at length the nature of revolution. It is from this essay that I wish to borrow a quote, with my own added emphasis:

You cannot see a wind; you can only see that there is a wind. So, also, you cannot see a revolution; you can only see that there is a revolution. And there never has been in the history of the world a real revolution, brutally active and decisive, which was not preceded by unrest and new dogma in the reign of invisible things. All revolutions began by being abstract. Most revolutions began by being quite pedantically abstract.

I stopped writing about three years ago. That’s when I’d finally said everything there was to say in the voice in which I’d spoken since I first started writing here. In hindsight, which is more or less 20/20, I now understand what this online journal meant when I first put fingers to keys just over six years ago. A revolution began within me and here became the mouthpiece of that revolution. In a time when I was still a closeted gay, conservatively-minded, fundamentalist(ish) Christian at Oral Roberts University, a dissonance, faint a first but increasingly difficult to ignore, arose from within. From those first seeds of dissent that took root around the middle of my nineteenth year to my final casting off of those old dictates sometime in my twenty-fifth, my writings here have become a catalogue of the evolution and revolution of my worldview and sense of who I am as a human being. And, ultimately, three summers ago I felt that everything had been said that needed be. I’m not one for mindless chatter. That old voice was buried, quietly and without ceremony, and I decided to wait patiently and see what, if anything, would arise in its stead. This, I feel, is that voice. The voice of one who is afraid, who is comfortable in that admission, and who nonetheless continues on in his search for truth and purpose.

Of all the things I’ve written, I think this has been perhaps the most difficult. I began writing this essay well over a year ago. Like I said, my old voice no longer fit me, and so the seeds of a new one had to be planted. To speak in a new voice requires a new vocabulary. New wine must be stored in new wine-skins lest they burst, as was once written. Sometimes I miss the old wine though, if I’m being honest. It was bland and tasteless but it was also familiar, comfortable, and steady. In that wine was absolution, and how good it was to be drunk on it. False though it was, I miss the warm comfort of certitude. If there’s a seminar on how to cope with losing your religion, I suggest you take it—and it probably wouldn’t hurt to sign me up as well. The all-encompassing totalitarian Christianity which I have shrugged off never really goes away. No one can unsee what’s been seen. And, what’s more, I don’t know what can possibly prepare a person once so certain of his place and purpose in God’s Order for the realization that there’s no one piloting the vessel through the storm except us.

For all the ambivalence I feel toward religion, I understand why humanity created it. We needed it, desperately. We spend our whole lives hovering over the edge of the abyss, knowing deep down whether we admit it or not that there’s nothing we can do to escape its draw in the end. We, like all life, are in the thrall of death, and yet we wish to live and live and live and there are moments when the fear this produces within is almost too much to bear. The cessation of its own existence runs counter to every instinct present in the human mind. Humankind’s earliest ancestors looked out into the long night and, seized with an unspeakable terror, huddled close in the dark and created stories they hoped would make it a little more bearable. These stories were imperfect, and sometimes they were nasty and brutal, but they more or less worked. When reduced to its basic mechanics, religion—any religion—is an attempt to impose a uniform theory and narrative on the Cosmos. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and so on and so forth. You know the drill. As an apostate, I still know how the story goes even if I no longer find the story credible. Hopefully you can see how a vocabulary of unwavering confidence in Thy Kingdom Come no longer flows cleanly off my tongue. The problem is that religion is a ready-made source of meaning and, in its absence, meaning is something that must be created. That’s a daunting task, as I’ve since discovered.

Before anyone gets too worried, let me make very clear that I’m okay. Or, at least, I feel I’m as okay as a dying man can be. When my anxiety was at its peak, I reached out to friends. I made strategic changes to my lifestyle. I sought and received professional therapy. I looked deep within myself and allowed things to emerge that had been kept under lock and key for far too long. I’ve learned a lot about anxiety and fear these past couple of years, but the most important thing I’ve learned is that fear can’t hurt me. In a sense, not even death can hurt me. Given that 13 billion years passed without a hitch before I came into being, I can’t imagine that a second round of non-existence will be all that painful. In essence, I suppose I’ve learned that fear is nothing to be afraid of. It’s simply a normal, healthy emotion which must be processed like any other. Once I came into that realization, I was able to explore the reasons I was afraid. I was able to invite it in, to contend with it from a standpoint of validity, and to allow my body to release the tension that had built up from all those years of suppression.

At long last, I feel confident in saying, It is finished. Well, as finished as a revolution can be. I wish I could fully explain how sublime it feels for me say those words and it no longer feel premature. A little over five years ago, I set fire to my life. All of it. Every relationship, every dream I’d ever dreamt, every claim of truth I’d ever uttered, all of it felt the slick splash of kerosene and heard the crackle and pop of a striking match. Some of it, like more than a few of my friendships, burned bright and hot and quickly disintegrated away to grey ash. Other things burned slowly, more often than not because I would periodically attempt to douse the flames in fits of indecisiveness at the necessity of destroying them. Fire is a purifying agent, burning away the chaff and trash and worthless detritus to reveal those things that are golden, of which there were more than I expected. These few things remain, and with far greater clarity than they once had. And, I now feel that, at long last, I have found my voice. ¡Viva la revolución!

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