Monday, 3 April 2017
The burning question
“I’m not religious, so I don’t believe in an omniscient narrator.”
This was the Tweet that started it all. For Peter it was the distillation of many months of thought and many years of doubt; it was very difficult to find something worth believing in; especially when Christianity was such a no-brainer. It was puerile and banal when he was a teenager (when he flirted with Catholic guilt…it was either that or become a Goth) and now it was crass and offensive. All Christianity offered was an easy alternative to those people who couldn’t figure out the answers themselves.
To be fair, it was actually very difficult to discover one’s own path when faced with the supermarket full of faiths and religions; it was: a conflicting morass of tricksters, illusionists and frauds trying to sell you the ticket to the afterlife of their choosing (but only if you followed their twelve step prescribed plan). All the secrets of the universe were yours for the taking so as long as you could afford them and apparently there were always expansion packs and expensive add-ons that added years to your life; granted you the keys to illumination and gave you a larger penis provided you could afford them!
Peter had sent many years traversing these blind alleys of faith healing and mediums himself. There was a lot of experience and knowledge that he had gleamed from these encounters but not in the way he had expected. He’d learnt the ways NOT to treat people and realised that none of the so called, shaman’s, wise men, high priestesses or mediums knew more than him; they were just great salesmen, that’s all.
What struck him though was the gullibility of the people around; how much they wanted to believe in something other than themselves often at their own cost (regardless of time, energy and money). It also became apparent that people didn’t want to do any of the hard work themselves. They wanted to be spoon fed the answers continuously in small, bite-sized digestible morsels, like baby food. Religion made it easy; the indoctrination started at such an early age when the mind was malleable and the images and brainwashing could stay a lifetime.
Peter, a biblical name itself, loathed Christianity with a passion, but despite being so staunchly against it still found himself immersed in the archetypal imagery associated with it; it was all around. That wasn’t to say that there weren’t ‘good Christians’, but it wasn’t the religion that made them; they would have been genuine people regardless of the trappings. Christianity provided a crutch for people.
It was through reading about Joseph Campbell that he realised that story was so important; finding one’s own story away from the quagmire of the shifting identity that society tried to impose. ‘Be true to yourself’ seemed to be the creed that many Eastern philosophies espoused, or so it seemed to Peter, and that the key to leading an enlightened life was find out what worked for you and you alone. The answers were out there for you to find, but you had to make the effort –like panning for gold.
Peter understood that the true message of alchemy had nothing to do with turning crap into gold but refining one’s self from the base material that other people gave you into the true spirit. Guilt had nothing to do with it! He knew that we all hold the spark of divinity but the aim of the game was in realising it.
“Go from misconceptualising to mythconceptualising.” Read his second tweet the following day and by this time his circle of followers had doubled to almost seventy! Word had spread fast.
What prompted his move from passive realisation to actualisation was the most trivial of confrontations in his local MacDonalds. As usual, inefficiency ruled and, despite the improved assembly line approach to burger building, there were longer queues and no real demarcation as to where one queue started.
Peter had joined one such raggedy queue and they were all covering two tills; both as ineffectual as the other; yet there were no grumblings and most people seemed content to exist in this limbo. However, there was one lady who took exception and barged across to get to the front of the queue much to the chagrin of the others.
“Don’t they feed you in Ethiopia?” was her killer retort when Peter asked her politely to get to the end of the queue. She then launched into a torrent of abuse which got her ejected from the store in the end. Peter couldn’t help but notice the small crucifix hanging from her neck and wondered whether that had anything to do with her arrogance; probably not as she seemed to be the type of crass and ignorant harridan that seemed to be in vogue. What was worse was that there seemed to be more and more of that particular kind of unenlightened, selfish person around. And as religion offered no real alternatives when it came to finding a real path through the morass of life, Peter realised that it was down to him to offer at least his view of things; people could then make up their own mind. He was not going to let that woman and her type have the last say.
He wanted to start small he wasn’t going to start a religion like L. Ron Hubbard so it dawned on him that the MeetUp groups would offer him the best opportunities. This was not going to be “The Peter Cawl show”, it would be an opportunity to discuss alternatives and new ways of living. He wasn’t going to run it per se; a subject would be picked each week to discuss and it would be a mutual learning experience. There was no way that he would accept anyone who had a strong faith; he wasn’t interested in being converted or converting anyone himself. (this would actually be a test for himself as well for he had strong views so it would be important for him not to dominate and argue his points across). An open mind would be the main criteria and egos were to be left at the door. It was his group and he would be more than happy to stop anyone from joining who tried to break those rules.
He’d been a member of the local MeetUp groups for about a year and had floated his ideas for his new venture with people he perceived had a like mind, and was pleasantly surprised by the interest it was stirring. The first meeting was on Monday in a local pub; he didn’t want many people there: too large a group would be counter-productive. He didn’t have all the answers and actually said so on his MeetUp advert. Too many people would have made the conversation unwieldy, not to mention difficult to host in a pub.
The eleven spaces filled up instantly and twenty people actually turned up. The pub landlord was overjoyed because it was a quiet night and actually gave out a few nibbles. The topic that night was “what does it mean to be Spiritual?”; debate was lively and enlightened. There was a nice mix of people, young and old, male and female with a mix of ethnic backgrounds as well; all came with open minds and hearts.
All agreed that the journey was key and no faith or religion had the answers; it was up to the individual to decide what worked for them. All left with much reading and research; and plenty of soul searching to do and all really wanted to come back which made Peter feel he’d made the right decision.
All? Actually no; at the end of that first night there was one man sitting alone at the far corner of the table with a dour expression; thin lipped, tight gazed. He eyed Peter with contempt and said nothing, just got up and walked out of the pub. Peter wondered whether he’d picked the wrong meet-up group by mistake, and when he checked the list of attendees at home he was sure of it. It was doubtful that the guy would return.
The feedback from the rest of the group was resoundingly positive; people were pleased that there was no hard sell, they had found a place to explore their own beliefs and ideas without being ridiculed. Yes, there was laughter, but none of it was personal.
Peter had left it open for people to pick what they wanted to talk about for the next meeting. Unsurprisingly, religion was touted by many but Peter thought it best to let the group bed in before they moved on to such a contentious issue; passions could run high and it would be better for people to know each other before letting off such steam.
He suggested UFO’s instead which had many people readily agreeing. This was a subject that he had looked into over the years and knew that there were many angles to cover from the Jungian perspective to the modern equivalent of Fairies. Again, the evening flowed and everyone joined in with their own interpretations; some had their own first-hand experience of lights in the sky and others were die-hard X-Files fans.
It was the sharp intake of breath that startled Peter as he walked home that night.
“Why do you insist on doing this?” The voice was hard, fragile; the body it belonged to was as well –thin and tall, short cropped hair. But the eyes still had a fevered look, unblinking. This was the look of a fanatic and Peter knew that he had to tread very carefully now.
“I’m not insisting on anything; people come to the group of their own free will –it’s a choice.”
“You’re leading these people astray; they’re weak. You should not be doing this.”
“I’m sorry you don’t agree with what I’m doing, but you don’t have to come to the group. That is your choice. I’m not hurting anyone.”
“That remains to be seen.” The man replied and walked past him into the darkness.
Two weeks passed by and Peter had almost forgotten the strange man and his piercing eyes. Until…
“You think you’re so clever don’t you?” It was the fourth week and Peter had hit his stride; people were really beginning to open up now and explore their own path; talk about their own experiences, whether it was about the Tarot or the I-Ching, or fairies and angels.
The voice took him by surprise; it was late and the group discussion had stretched out to three hours and the pub was close to closing. The landlord was a convert himself now and actually joined in with the debates. The man was sitting at the other end of the bar, and by the amount of empty glasses, he’d been sitting there since the beginning.
“You should have joined us.” Peter replied.
“Even though you don’t want any religious zealots to join you?” It was obvious that he’d seen the postings on MeetUp and read between the lines. “Answer my question –you think you’re clever, don’t you?”
“No… not at all. What makes you think that?”
“The answers are all there; right in front of you, yet you ignore it all. You blaspheme with every thought, action and speech. Why?”
“Quite the opposite… We don’t have the answers and between us we’re helping each other find the clues to what out paths might be.” Peter knew that he had to be careful. He was pumped up with the intellectual equivalent of adrenaline but oh, so tired. He wanted this person to go and leave him alone, but equally he knew that this was a powderkeg; all it would take was one spark.
“But the answers are right there in front of you, yet all you do is ridicule; why?”
“For you there are answers, which is great… but that doesn’t work for us. It’s not the same. Look; what’s your name?”
“Isaiah.” Figures, thought Paul.
“Look Isaiah, come to the group if you want. Put your side of the story if it makes you feel better. Explain to us why you feel.. what it is that you feel and we will listen. It has to be better than sitting on the side-lines like you do.
“Why, so you can all have your fun and laugh? It’s always easier to mock what you don’t understand.”
“That’s it –we don’t understand. And if you do, then you owe it to us to explain.” Isaiah continued staring through him. “Well, it’s your choice. I’ve given you a genuine offer; come and state your piece and we’ll listen; otherwise I’m going to have to ask you to stop stalking us.”
“Well… stalking me then. It’s very disconcerting and I could do without it. Why do you do it?”
“You know why.” It was obvious that Isaiah was in no mood to listen. It was either retreat or confrontation, so Peter chose the latter. He walked home without event yet he was constantly aware he was being followed; every time he turned around, however, there was nobody there –except God, he thought and chuckled.
His group had swelled to forty people now and the pub landlord had graciously allowed them to use the upstairs function room for the evening. Each evening went by without a hitch right up until closing time and then there would be Isaiah waiting at the bar; eyes piercing as everyone walked out. This was an accident waiting to happen but there would be no winners if Peter confronted him, so he decided to move the venue to a new location.
Everyone agreed and even chipped in so they could afford to rent out a village hall for a couple of hours a week. There were more than enough people to cover the costs and allow for tea and biscuits as well. Yet at the end of the first evening at the new venue, there stood Isaiah waiting outside, soaked to the skin from the pouring rain; such an incongruous sight. For the first time, Peter was afraid of him, afraid of what would happen to him if anyone realised what he was doing. Peter walked up to him: “I will meet with you.” Isaiah spoke quietly, just so Peter could hear and then just walked away back into the storm.
Next week the hall was packed to capacity; all wanted to understand; all were there to learn how the other person felt. Peter felt both proud and a little nervous; things were starting to rollercoaster out of his control. He had no idea whether Isaiah would turn up; or what kind of mood he might be in; he didn’t want a riot or a lynching on his hands.
Suddenly the doors opened to Isaiah. At first he just stood there, like a sheriff in a lawless town and Peter thought he was holding a cheap bottle of gin or vodka wrapped in newspaper –not the greatest of starts. As he strode closer it became obvious what he was carrying, but it was too late to do anything about it.
The match was struck, the soaked rag lit and with a horrifying scream Isaiah threw the bottle; smashing it at Peters feet, soaking him with his flaming hatred. Isaiah stood there, staring at the figure now engulfed in fire, eyes wide with disbelief. The whole congregation drew breath as one at the sight that now met their eyes.
Isaiah fell to his knees and began rocking back and forth, the same words echoing the thoughts of those around him.
“Why won’t he burn? Why won’t he burn? Why won’t he burn?”
Peter looked around him, saw the fear and awe in everyone’s eyes, then looked to his hands and wept.