the book

I have always been fascinated by organized religion, especially Christianity. Although I stopped going to church when I turned eighteen, I don't call myself a former Catholic because I'm not sure if there is such a thing. The Jesuits have a saying that goes something like "Give us your child until he is seven, and he will be trained for life." I didn't have a Jesuit education, but my life has certainly been influenced by my early training. Almost every day, I wonder if there's a God.
     Failed Catholic that I am, I still love Gregorian chants, illuminated bibles, stained glass windows, and cathedrals. My favorite buildings on the planet, in fact, are Cologne Cathedral and Notre Dame Cathedral. On a church retreat to Paris in 1980, I spent several hours in one of the towers of Notre Dame, staring down at the plaza and imagining that I was a medieval Parisian. It was cold, gray, and windy, my favorite weather. I ran my hands over the stone and tried to picture the artisans who had carved those fantastic gargoyles and flying buttresses eight hundred years ago. History has always been alive for me; right before I came down, I caught a glimpse of what looked like a huge marketplace below, jammed with people in cloaks, hoods, and veils.
     When I lived in Japan, I visited Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples on the weekends. They were usually too crowded for me to get into the right frame of mind to appreciate them, but I occasionally experienced flashes of... something, like the time I was examining a small brass statue of Buddha sitting with his hands in his lap and one leg extended down as if he were perched on the edge of a table. I was looking at his face, trying to figure out why he was in that odd position, when I suddenly understood nirvana. The statue's expression was so serene that I momentarily grasped the beauty of extinguishing the self and existing in a state of bliss for eternity.
     I was always terrified by the promise of eternal life. What would I do with it? How would I keep myself occupied? Would I get bored? "Eternal" means forever, and "forever" means billions and trillions and quadrillions of years, and then billions and trillions and quadrillions of years on top of those, and then more and more and more years, never ending. I once had a discussion about it with my brother Pat. He said that in heaven, we'll do things like walk across the bottom of the ocean to Hawaii, not caring if it takes years and not worried about drowning or getting crushed by the pressure or being eaten by monster sharks because hey--we'll be immortal. We'll charter special jet airliners that will deliberately crash just to break up the monotony, and even that's going to get boring after a while.
Buddha      On the other hand, I couldn't handle the possibility that our souls might not survive after our bodies died. Nonexistence was even scarier to me than existing forever. What would happen at that moment when I was snuffed out? What would it feel like? It was a no-win situation. Every time I thought about it, I would panic and want to get drunk. But this Buddha somehow calmed me. Looking at his closed eyes and half-smile and the squiggly pattern on the leaf-shaped screen behind him, I fully comprehended the meaning of "beatific." In some way that has to do with rooms(?), I was reassured that it was possible to exist for eternity without getting bored or depressed. Time as a concept would no longer apply. "Self" would no longer apply.
     After I moved back to the States, I started reading about evangelical Christianity. I was intrigued by its principle that the only thing you had to do to avoid going to hell was believe that Jesus Christ was your savior, as illustrated in a comic-book style pamphlet I found in a San Francisco laundromat. It told the story of a good soldier and a bad soldier. The good guy was a tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed altruist who performed incredible feats of heroism, abstained from all vices, and helped small indigenous people farm their crops and build sturdier huts. The bad guy was a hard-drinking, promiscuous, dishonest, violent, thieving, hunched-over, frowning, leering coward. One day, both soldiers were killed in battle. Their spirits left their bodies and rose to a vast plain in the sky, where they were asked by a disembodied voice if they accepted Jesus. The good guy said he didn't know, but the bad guy fell to his knees and shouted, "Yes! I do! I accept Jesus!" Two giant gates appeared and swung open, admitting the bad guy into heaven; the good guy fell through a trapdoor into a lake of fire. The last panel showed the now much more handsome bad guy being welcomed by a crowd in halos and white robes.
     This really surprised me because Catholicism lays out exactly what sort of life you should lead on earth, and believing in Jesus is no guarantee that you won't go to hell. Catholics have to be careful not to commit mortal sins, the ones that lead to damnation. Saint Paul lists some mortal sins in Galatians, Chapter 5--fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, and carousing. Disobeying the pope used be one too. In Catholicism, if you die without repenting your sins, you go to hell; if you die repentant but in a state of sin, you go to purgatory until you are cleansed of your unholiness, and then you go to heaven; if you die as a baby before you are baptized, you go to limbo forever, I think; and if you die loving God and loving your fellow humans after living a just, moral life in the manner of Jesus, you go to heaven. On Judgment Day, all souls will be reunited with their bodies, which will be incorruptible.
     I always wondered: What age will our incorruptible bodies be when we're reunited with them? Somebody once told me that we'll all be thirty-three, the age Jesus was at his death. But if a child dies at five, will he or she be given a thirty-three-year-old body even though they didn't even get as far as puberty here on earth? Wouldn't that be traumatic enough to drive them crazy? And what if you don't want your body back? What if you're homely or have disproportionately wide hips? I've always been self-conscious about my short legs and long torso. Am I going to have short legs and a long torso for all eternity?
     My neighbor taught me another difference between Catholicism and evangelical Christianity when I asked him if he could do something about his incessantly barking dog. At first, he wouldn't agree that anyone could be bothered by the sound. "It makes me feel happy," he said. The discussion got more and more passionate until he blurted, "Look, you're not even saved, okay? I am." Since I had no response, I ignored it, but I later realized what he was telling me: He had a license to do whatever he wanted. He was going to heaven and I wasn't, therefore I didn't matter.
     I recently read up on the beliefs of the Oglala Sioux, who regard the universe as essentially unknowable. I've also done some superficial study of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Scientology, and Wicca. Religion is an obsession with me, I guess. According to the book The "God" Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God, by Matthew Alper, as well as research led by Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran at the University of California at San Diego, we might actually be "hard-wired for God"--biologically programmed to believe or want to believe in a higher power. The God part is probably in the temporal lobes, which are located at the lower sides of the brain. It evolved to keep us from surrendering to nihilism and despair because if we were a nihilistic, despairing species, we wouldn't bother trying to survive.
     Neuroscientist Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada, takes the hard-wiring theory a step further by manipulating the God part. Participants in his study wear a motorcycle helmet fitted with electromagnetic solenoids that reportedly induce phenomena such as visitations, out of body experiences, and images of gods and demons. Persinger says that there can be a crossover of information between the brain's left and right hemispheres when people are subjected to electromagnetic stimulus, high levels of stress, prolonged sleeplessness, fasting, or drugs. This creates visual and spatial distortions that the literal-minded left hemisphere identifies as something or someone outside of us, and then the temporal lobes pipe up with their congenital religiosity and tell us that we are being contacted by God.
     This is astonishing because it seems to explain the most bizarre experience I've had in the God realm. I've been reluctant to talk about it for obvious reasons, but since it might only have been my brain playing tricks on me, I'll go ahead and describe what happened.
     My sixteenth year was truly horrible. The usual adolescent angst, the particulars of my life, and the world in general made me want to cancel my stay. For Catholics, though, that's the mother of all mortal sins, a one-way ticket to damnation. It was a Hobson's choice: the hell I was in, or the hell that awaited me if I committed "the ultimate act of selfishness," as my catechism teachers had called it. That year, I started expressing my resentments in long rants to God that could technically be considered prayers--bitter, agonized prayers. My situation took a drastic turn for the worse when my combative siblings and I stayed at my poor Alzheimered grandmother's house for the summer. The fighting and the heat and my grandmother's truculent irrationality and my fear of the future were just too much. I snapped. From my fold-up cot in the living room, I launched the most hated-filled, enraged, 3:00 A.M. anti-God diatribe ever.
     "You expect me to be grateful for this?" I shouted silently. "I'm supposed to praise and celebrate you? And if I don't suck up to you, I'm going to hell? Well forget it! I don't even know if you exist! If you want anything from me, then show me you exist! Come on! I dare you!"
     Nothing happened, except that I worked myself into a flailing, frothing hysteria.
     "What does it mean?" I screamed. "What's it all about? I demand that you show yourself! Do it! Right now! I'm not going to take no for an answer! Do you hear me? I demand a sign! I demand a sign right now, or you can piss off! Show me! Show me NOW!"
     At the word "NOW," I shot up off my cot, passed through the ceiling of my grandmother's house, and zoomed up into the sky. The night was cool and quiet, with patches of stars showing through the clouds. I seemed to be accelerating violently, but I hardly felt it because I didn't have a body; I was light and diffuse, like a gas. My emotions were lighter too, the anger fizzing off into a kind of mild surprise. As I entered a dark tunnel and headed toward a dot of light in the distance, a sensation of complete peace swept through me, from my vaporous toes to the top of my vaporous head. I felt a presence beside me, inside me, all around me, something that was both male and female, yet neither. It radiated love, compassion, and understanding that went far beyond a human's capacity. It was a being of metahuman perfection, the ideal balance of intelligence and emotion. And it was good. It was so good that I felt shabby.
     "Don't worry," the presence said. "Everything will be all right." Its voice was soft, musical, and inconceivably powerful. I wanted to laugh and cry with a kind of flattered relief because this being had absolute knowledge; it knew my worst thoughts and deeds but didn't turn away in disgust. It stayed with me, guiding me toward the approaching light that somehow didn't hurt my eyes even though it was brighter than the sun. At the end of the tunnel, I saw a vista that encompassed all of creation, universes within universes, everything that had ever been and would ever be. For a nanosecond, it made sense. There was a click as the pieces fell into place, a moment in which I understood the meaning of life. I thought, "So that's it! I get it!" and then I was back on my cot in my grandmother's living room. I fell asleep, convinced that somehow, someday, everything would be all right.
     The really interesting thing about this vision or temporal lobe spasm or breakdown is that as soon as I had that insight, I forgot it. I still remember the sensation of understanding the meaning of life; I remember that it's all part of a plan, but I don't remember what the plan is. The only thing I can say about it is that it was familiar. I already knew it and was just being reminded.
     In April of 1994, I had another experience that I've never discussed publicly. This one left a tangible mark, though. It's also whimsical, and I love whimsy.
     When I painted military figurines, I used acrylics that come in glass bottles with indentations on the bottoms. If you turn the bottles over and stand them on their lids, the indentations make great palettes. They hold the right amount of paint for an hour-long sitting. One night, I was working on a British soldier and thinking about David Koresh, the late leader of the Branch Davidians. He had claimed to be Christ returned to earth, which made me wonder if the historical Jesus was just a Koresh-style lunatic. The idea was upsetting because even though I'm not a Christian, I've fallen for self-aggrandizing lies plenty of times. There's nothing worse than putting your trust in someone who doesn't deserve it.
     I finished my figurine and wiped the dark brown paint off the bottom of the bottle with an old T-shirt, trying to shake off my mood. When I put the T-shirt on my desk, something caught my eye. This is what I saw:

     I took a closer look:

     It's like a Rorschach test. You can make up your own mind about what--if anything--you see. What I like about this smear of paint is that there's nothing menacing about it. Whatever it resembles to me, it seems benign. Plus, it had great timing.
     I cut the T-shirt up and framed it for my mother. She likes it too. She pointed out another completely accidental image, a weird little rabbit-creature cowering in the lower left corner. I also found an asteroid or meteor when I took the photos for this Web site. If I stared long enough, I would probably see all sorts of things.
     I'll end this with one of my favorite jokes: A guy goes to a fortune teller. The fortune teller peers into her crystal ball and says, "I've got good news and bad news. The good news is you're going to heaven. The bad news is you're going today."

back to top

home | the book | shopping | revenge | sex | war | rock | murder
journalism | god | nick | road | prediction
things I felt like writing | links | contact