Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Visions and Callings, Part 1

In David Guterson's 2003 novel Our Lady of the Forest, the third-person narrator says that Ann Holmes, a homeless, poorly educated, sickly, abused 16-year-old mushroom picker, has visions of the Virgin Mary. 

The narrator never questions that, nor do the thousands of pilgrims, relic seekers, Enquirer readers, icon fetishists and general nut jobs who trash the majestic Washington state forest in which Ann experiences her visions. More reasonable characters are doubtful, of course, since she frequently medicates herself with too many allergy pills and, weeks before her first vision, more than a few hallucinogenic 'shrooms.

Of course, they would've doubted her whether she was on drugs or not. I would've.

Once the poor girl's visions become a media circus, the Catholic church has to validate them. I'll leave it at that for now, and talk first about how this story resurrected so many questions I had as a very young kid brought up as a Southern Baptist way back in the 1950s. 

(Now that I am old and wise, of course, I know the answers to the these questions, and many, many more. Just ask me.)

By the time I was 3 or 4, I already knew I wanted to grow up to be a preacher, mainly because they had a kind of rock-star status in my little town and they provided most of its entertainment. Also, I'd already heard plenty about hell, and I figured being a preacher would give me a free pass to the other place.

So one day I'm in the kitchen with my grandmother (a much loved Sunday-school teacher) while she was making biscuits -- tasty beyond description -- and I announce my plans:

"I'm going to be a preacher when I grow up."

Grandmother's hands freeze in mid-knead and she looks up at me, stunned. I have crossed a line. I'm surprised. I was expecting praise and encouragement.

"For land's sake," she says. "You can't just decide to be a preacher or go to college to be a preacher. You have to be called."

"Called how?"

"Called by God, for crying out loud. God decides who wants to be His preachers, and He calls them."

"He actually talks to them?"

She looks back down at her dough that is surrounded by a wall of flour periodically sending small silent landslides down onto the glob that will become biscuits. "Yes," she says, "in a way, yes, he speaks to them."

For a while after that conversation, I would go into a room by myself and just be quiet and still and listen. I already knew the story of young Samuel and how he was called by God at a time when there were few visions, so even though I was unaware of any visions in Pinetta during that age, Sam's story gave me hope. 

Those vigils became boring in a hurry and I gave them up, but I couldn't stop trying to picture God talking to the various preachers we had at Pinetta Baptist. Before he called them they were just nobodies like me, and like Ann Holmes. 

And who did they tell first after God spoke to them? Even as an old man, if I see a local news anchor at the bank or an eviscerated bobcat on the side of the road after God chatted with me, I would have to tell someone.

So how excited would I be if I were, say, 23, just a typical emotionally untested, somewhat aimless, uncertain, idealistic, ignorant, credulous, impressionable guy, indoctrinated -- if not brainwashed -- in a particular way of imagining the Almighty, and suddenly God speaks to me, even if he only says "Hi"? What am I to do with that?

Who would believe me? Who would think I was crazy as a bat? Who would validate it? And how?

Would the little brown church in the vale by the wildwood run background checks? Would they test me on my knowledge of the bible's composition, evolution, organization, original audience, how it progressed from orality to literacy, and when it was labeled the Word of God, and why it was closed to all encounters with God occurring after the first century A.D.?

(Full disclosure: That's not exactly how I worded my questions when I was 4.)

How would anyone prove he talked to God? As a grownup, I heard someone say "We only see God in his footprints. We only recognize him upon reflection, after the fact (or 'fact')." Of course, those footprints, being metaphors, are invisible, which makes for lousy evidence in most courts of law and barroom arguments.

According to scripture and its many film versions, divine visitations and conversations were more frequent and easier to validate in biblical times (even though it's doubtful folks back then knew they were living in biblical times).

In those days, you could hardly turn around without bumping into some guy scribbling notes for what would eventually become the Jewish Tanahk, which would later, after some rearrangement of the forty-something books and perhaps some revisions, be called the Old Testament, by Christians anyway. 

So if someone in those olden days heard God speaking to him, whether out of a whirlwind or a burning bramble, for example, he simply recounted it to a bible reporter and, no questions asked, it became almost instantly a part of the Grand Narrative.

(Back at the news tent: "I've got a hot one here!" "Who is it now?" "Elijah!" "Again?" "Yes, but much quieter this time.")

What troubled me most, as a kid, was the ease with which we accepted the frequent conversations between the Almighty and human beings during, say, the fifth century B.C.E., as opposed to the current era in which we tend to dismiss them as lies or hallucinations. 

Even though I believed it was possible, I could not make myself picture someone in pants or a dress conversing with God.

There seemed to be two distinct worlds: one populated by people wearing bible clothes who talked to God and performed and/or observed miracles and could live, like Methuselah, to be 969 (meaning he was alive about the same time King John was signing the Magna Carta); and the world I lived in where people wore more practical attire (except for dresses) and rode school buses and cars and had jobs and died young, but not before enduring countless long-winded sermons about the other world -- and yet another world after that one!

I took this incongruity, my perceived gulf between the sacred and the profane, to mean that with every passing day we grew not "nearer my Lord to thee," but more estranged from him, traveling farther and farther from his voice.  

And as we drifted away over time, wouldn't we become like Yeats's falcon who cannot hear the falconer, and begin to doubt he ever spoke in the first place?

So when modern-day Ann Holmes, aka, Our Lady of the Forest, starts seeing and taking order's from God's mother, it serves as blood in the water to which inquisitors -- doubters by definition -- are immediately drawn. And I found these priests' need to validate the stubborn child's non-validatable, inexpressible visions in a haranguing, bullying process utterly objectionable and completely reasonable.

(Hmm. Ordained males with power interrogate a fragile, uneducated, vulnerable teen-aged girl. Where would Guterson find such a story arc?)

The priests' syllogism: A. God only speaks through the Pope who inherited the keys to the Kingdom from St. Peter. B. Ann isn't even baptized (but she wants to be). C. Therefore, that's neither God nor his mother she's been chatting with.

But Ann knows her visions are real.

No doubt about it, all these conflicts and questions will all be resolved in a future post. Or will they?


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