(First published in “Havik” anthology 2018)
I sit at my desk with the lights off. As I rock back and forth in what will soon be an antique leather swivel chair, I thumb the outsides of my beloved Bible. How many times had I done this before? It was a habit I picked up as a boy, and fifty years later, my subconscious tick was a clear tell something was troubling me. But as I sit alone, there’s no one to take advantage of my weakened frame of mind. With the lights off, visitors may assume I’m not home. I do not have a phone or computer in my study, and I’m trying desperately to outlive the personality-draining cell phones. I live for these moments of quiet reflection.
Looking down at the worn cover of the holy book, I am reminded of my first day of church. How fresh the feeling of “being saved” seemed in my youthful perspective. As young as I was, I knew with a great certainty I was going to be a man of God, and cover my flock with the protection of holiness. Now those early certainties were quickly fading.
“Is it treatable?” I had asked Dr. Wheeler, with a modicum of hope. I hadn’t been feeling quite right for some time. It became gruesomely painful to stand for more than a few minutes. My white kerchief was often a deathly crimson by dinner time. The blood in my lungs made physical exertion impossible. Until this point, I had relied solely on the power of prayer. But prayer had proven ineffective.
After running a few tests, the good doctor had revealed the worst. I was in the late stages of lung cancer, and it had metastasized to many of my other organs. Operating was deemed impossible. Chemotherapy was offered with little enthusiasm. You want to know the hell of it? I’ve never smoked a day in my life. My diagnosis was given to me four days ago. I was supposed to start the treatment three days ago.
I haven’t told anyone. Not a single bird from my flock. Not even my soulmate of forty-two years, Scarlet. I question if I’ll ever tell them, or simply let them discover my maladies on their own. So far, everyone had remained perfectly polite and looked the other way while I hacked into my kerchief. They remained consciously oblivious when my robes would glisten from sweat after a lengthy sermon.
“Bah! Who cares anyhow?” I whisper in a raspy voice as I throw my Bible on the hardwood floor.
What if there is no God and everything I’ve lived for has been for nothing?
“Is it possible?” I ask no one in particular. I touch my lips, as if hoping to stop any more of my soul escaping. My fingers fall numb as I let another breath go. I cannot feel the warm moisture with my hands! This only angers me as I turn my wrath toward the heavens. I shake my fist at the ceiling. Quickly, I am overwhelmed with exhaustion. I steady my breathing before resuming my meditation.
What if all this consciousness is made possible by pure chance and random acts of chaos?
That would mean I have spent all my time serving a deity that couldn’t possibly exist. A part of me suspects God is judging me at this very moment, but these questions permeate my faith. However, if my new considerations are correct, I needn’t worry about my soul being damned to an everlasting coldness in the black pits of Hell.
Not without struggle, I stand and walk to the window overlooking a vastness of forest. The seclusion was comforting. My grandfather had commissioned this house to be built in his prime. It was once a majestic beacon, discovered only after a considerable walk down a narrow drive. Now, it creaks and cracks from a lack of maintenance. Much like myself.
I have to hold myself steady from the corner of my sturdy oak desk. I almost miss the desk entirely and stutter step to avoid falling to the floor. I reach down and pick up my discarded Bible. Holding the book in my left hand, I gesture the familiar cross over my body with my right. I close my eyes for just a moment to regain my stream of consciousness. When I open my eyes, I fall in love with nature for the infinite time. A beautiful red dusk. The sun seemed to burn the top of the pines in the uneven horizon. As its blazing glow agonizingly torches its way to rest, I close my eyes again. I want to remember the most perfect sunset I’ve ever witnessed. I creep back to my chair and sit with a heavy sigh.
There are so many version of God. So many directives. Some directly conflict with one another, others seem entirely open to subjective interpretation.
I am reminded of a poem written by my favorite undiscovered author. I unlock a secret drawer from my desk, and pull out a small stack of weathered and withered pages. Midway through, I find it. I read it again, as if for the first time.
“In the beginning; was God and the stars. God loved the stars ’cause they were good to eat. Around one small sun, He happened to meet a creature called man on a planet called Earth.
Not since my birth
Have I seen such a thing
As this blue planet Earth”
God did not understand, so he watched and waited, waited and watched. Man was a busy little creature, and it seemed to God, Earth’s novel feature. Man invented love, and it made God weep. Man invented hate and it made God rage.
“Damn good thing
Earth is a cage
You fleshy little things
On a rampage”
God did not understand, so he waited and he watched. Watched and waited. Man invented science and it made God wonder. Man invented war and it made God smile.
“Silly little things
So viciously vile
In your very own bile”
God did not understand. He waited and watched, watched and waited. God saw the beginning of one of man’s great wars. He saw a flash of light, then another and another and another and another. Suddenly, God understood. The Earth had become a star! And with a God-like giggle, He ate it.” — C.J. Runn
I consider this man’s creative construction of God. It seemed ridiculous, but now, I suppose Mr. Runn’s interpretation of God could be just as correct or incorrect as anyone else’s.
What a waste. This life given in service for another created from the imagination of scared children. Why do I consider this now? So many years given in blind faith. I recall the comfort and security washing over me when I was baptized. There couldn’t be any other alternative, this had felt so right. Now, that blanket of security was thread bare, and it no longer kept me warm at night.
I had relied so heavily on the power of prayer while my body replicated cells it wasn’t supposed to, and chaos reigned among the soft tissue of my brain. My faith had led me to a point of no return, I knew. Chemo was another false comfort. It was too late now. It doesn’t seem fair. With a grunt, I wipe the left side of my desktop clear of clutter and wince when it all crashes to the floor. If Scarlet was home, she’d surely come running to the door with a deep sense of concern. I waited. Scarlet did not come running. I was alone. That seemed only natural.
The more I think about it, the more clarity I have. Just like the ancient Greek myths about multiple Gods responsible for every aspect of our puny existence, the idea of a single omnipotent being simultaneously controlling our destiny while gifting us with free will appeared childish. What’s considerably more likely — as soon as we taught ourselves to communicate with one another, we considered our existence. The lack of knowledge is often frightening. Without answers, a parent created the idea we were not responsible for our actions, and tucked her child into a bed of soft dirt and leaves. With a kiss on the head, the exchange was complete. But that child’s imagination is a powerful thing, and soon more and more details were constructed about our benevolent/malevolent creator.
Children, as we know, can be unruly little creatures. The idea of an unseen judge helped keep the children in line with society’s standards.
“Yes Abel, there is a mighty God. He is always watching you, waiting for you to do wrong. He has ten simple rules you should abide by.” This is a golden opportunity to construct a society where everyone abides by the same guidelines. “Thou shall not…”
“If you follow these rules, he will reward you handsomely in Heaven.”
Perhaps that’s how it all started. With each passing generation, the interpretation of those rules bent, and sometimes broke.
It stands to reason, if I so willingly succumbed to comfort, so many who lived before me did the same. It’s the interpretation that led to so many crimes, so many wars, so much blood spilt in the name of…who? Such hypocrites!
I suppose that makes me a hypocrite as well. It may be true I haven’t participated in bloodletting in any of the global wars without any particular end. But haven’t I lived with the same belief as those who would bloody their swords in the name of righteousness?
All this contemplation leads to a singular endgame. There couldn’t possibly exist a God who is judging me for my lack of faith. If I’m wrong, I could just pass the blame back to the Father. After all, he controls our destiny, right? But if I’m right…If I’m right, would it hurt to finish my days as a pastor? Yes, it would hurt. It becomes a matter purely of dignity and honor. If I die ignorantly believing someone will take my soul and reward me with an eternity of peace, I will have completely wasted my life. Since I am a result of random chaos of stardust and fusion, I only have this one life. A life nearly at its end. No, from here on out, I will live my life as a free agent. Free dammit!
“Umph” I mutter as I reposition myself in my chair. I feel exhausted. All this skeptical thinking has taken its toll. I feel my head become heavy. I bob my head once, twice, and I fall into a comfortable deep sleep. I can sleep easy. It may have taken me sixty two years, but I finally learned. Tomorrow, I am going to do everything I’ve ever wanted, physical ability pending. I know I will have sweet and pleasant dreams tonight.
At a quarter to midnight, the old pastor stops breathing. Everything needed for life comes to a halt. He died without the knowledge of what happens after death. In his case, nothing. His soul is snuffed from existence, never having told his wife where he was going. That’s okay though, he isn’t going anywhere. Humankind is my experiment. I am simply recording the results. Fewer and fewer believe in me. It doesn’t matter what version of me they believe — as long as they believe — they can move on to the next stage of my experiment: what is their independent vision of Heaven? What might be Heaven for some, would undoubtedly be an eternal Hell for others. It’s rather entertaining to have my subjects play a game where the rules are only discovered once the game ends. Humankind can be an intriguing specimen to be sure. But alas, I grow bored with the lot of em. And I am hungry.