I sat upon the fire-escape steps of our apartment in Columbus, Ohio and looked up into a grey, cloudless sky. I saw emptiness. I closed my eyes and saw grey there too. And I wondered: What if there was nothing?
I’d yet to learn the subjunctive, but I was only four.
I felt lonely and a little scared. I opened my eyes and tilted back my head so I wouldn’t see the garages out back or the hinge-lidded sunken trash receptacles between the garages where rats sometimes darted. Just that endless grey sky. What if there was nothing?
Then I realized: “But I’m here.”
It did not occur to me to couple nothingness and death, because I knew nothing of dying. I suppose my mom and dad treated me as the parents of Siddhārtha Gautama treated the future Buddha, protecting him from hard existential facts, so that he was nearly thirty before he witnessed a death. Whereas when I was five my father showed me a photo he’d taken in Okinawa of the burned and twisted corpse of a Japanese soldier, half buried in the earth. But that revelation was still a whole year away.
A few days later we all went to a meeting at the church, newly built and smelling of concrete, and Mr. Franklin, the custodian, a tall (to me) black man who offered me some of his “broth” (beef bullion cubes dropped in a cup of water), took charge of me as he often did. He took me to the steeple door, which he unlocked with a key from the ring of many keys he wore upon his belt, and we climbed the winding steps up to the top of the bell tower. The sun was setting over the Scioto River.
“You know, young man, you can almost see heaven from here,” he said.
“Which way’s west?”
“Over the river there.”
That, I knew, was the direction you followed to travel into the past, where cowboys lived and there were deserts, such as Jesus lived in. It was where my great-grandmother had seen Lincoln’s funeral train pass by. She told me so. The future was in the east. New York.
I just assumed Mr. Franklin was God.
That’s all I remember of being four, except for two things: I was spanked by my father for setting fire to the wastebasket in the kitchen, and I was spanked by my mother when I decided not to get on the yellow bus from nursery school and walked home instead. These spankings, it seems to me now, were entirely justified.
We weren’t Catholic, but my older brother was sent to Catholic school, because our parents judged the public schools unworthy.
All in all, I considered Jesus a really wonderful teacher, and I was really curious to learn how he managed to cure people and how on earth he brought Lazarus back from the dead. The truth is I found it really hard to believe – an improbable feat even for a man who was a son of God. And speaking of Buddha I began to think he was really cool too, and the beat poets seemed to dig him, and Zen was really, really neat, if you thought about it.
And I was filled with despair. Now under clear blue skies and the warm California sun the nothingness really had a grip on me, so I went into a Catholic Church, which reminded me of a week I’d spent in Italy (feeling awe for the first time), so I bought some books – always the answer! – and my eyes fell upon a word I swear to you I had never come across, not in reading or listening, and the word was Incarnation.
Jump ahead: that word broke through a wall separating me from God. It was a charge set at the base of the battlements, and when it detonated a breach was there, and I rushed through like Harry at Harfleur:
He sette sege, forsothe to say,
To Harflu towne with ryal aray;
That toune he wan and made afray
That Fraunce shal rewe tyl domesday. (The Agincourt Carol, c. 1420)
Might makes right.
In my case it was mighty God, not some earthly royal whom worms eat, who broke through to my heart “tyl domesday.” That Jesus is God makes the majesty of the Father and the glory of the Spirit overwhelming. More real than anything. The only really real truth of consequence.
I’ve asked myself many times to account for why I never saw this while a Protestant, and I dislike the answers that suggest themselves. But perhaps I ought to accept that it was my failing: maybe there was reference made to the Incarnation but my mind was off wandering.
And, surely, I ought to be ashamed for wincing every time somebody proclaims, “Our God is a great God!” and I think: As opposed to some other god? And in the few Protestant services I’ve attended in the last forty years, I’m probably wrong to think of them as more discussion than worship, although how the Eucharist and Mary have been scrubbed from their Sunday meetings makes no sense at all to me.
I was back home in Ohio not long ago, and all my former mainline Protestant buddies were all, “Christ is Lord.”
You’re darn right He is.