The Meeting

Ben had come for "signs and wonders," as the billing had proclaimed. He had come to see another kind of church, another kind of worship, another spiritual diversion.

He had heard about the laughter too, and about the healings and people being set free from stuff. He needed to be set free from a lot of stuff. His troubles had become legion, his sins had gone over his head.

He felt stapled, spindled, and badly creased by life, and his soul felt betrayed by too many false promises, too many false hopes. He had run long enough, chased enough phantoms, oblivioned himself with enough parties, enough drink.

He had no taste for the old life now. He knew it was all slipping away and that he couldn't remain a young Hemingway much longer. It had all been a lie, an imagination that youth could be preserved, that the fishing and the hunting and the sporting and the glamour would remain-that health would stay and time's juggernaught be put off.

One of his friends had already checked his shotgun permanently emptying the last round into his mouth to escape the ignominy and the agony of lung cancer deliberately courted by chain-smoking Camel regulars.

Others had fled to holding-patterns of their own pinned to such name tags as drunken journalist, poet in residence, social reformer. All had sold out to the establishment. And "the movement," the flowers, "the open road"? They had all been lies too; the false paradises of Mexico and San Francisco, now meccas for the darlings of despair.

So what had he to lose? Maybe he could say goodbye to wandering among the dead fish at the stagnant river's mouths; his musings among the wrecked troop carriers still holding the mangled and putrid corpses of blasted hopes.

And now, with the naked, burned-out forest of old age just over the divide, and with the government gone berserk and run by whore-mongers, groupies, thieves, and with every imaginable depravity out there flaunting itself in the garments of respectability, Ben saw it no disgrace to check this meeting out.

He was, after all, still a seeker. He had followed so many roads already into so many cul de sacs. He had been "new age" before it even had a name. He had quested after cosmic consciousness, bliss consciousness, nirvana, and countless other help yourself heavens promoted by mantra salesmen and gormandizing gurus.

And he had met other disciples lost and groping along various divine paths, sinning merrily along their karmic way to the next Bagwan, drinking their divine ripple and sniffing from sensors fumed with sacred weeds. It was all lies.

Only old Odyssei still doggedly idolizing their own opinions wrought mostly from the dregs of Philosophy 101 would chide him now for coming to a church.

"Are you mad?" they would say; "seek God in a church? You've lost it all. Why not come to your senses and meet with us at Psychic Friends tonight? And have you heard? There's a new holy man in town from Bombay. Everyone who's anyone is going. Do your ears still itch?"

"No," had moaned Ben, "I'm tired."

So there before him was the door of the big church. The people going looked friendly, at least--not the lemon-suckers his childhood often knew. And so many bright eyes. Inside he heard laughter and music--spirited stuff. He went in, and as was his wont, chose a chair near the door, well-suited for escape.

The place was jammed. Most of the faces he saw there were unfamiliar but not all. There was Tom Sands, the old rounder he had known among the bars. Tom was notorious for fights, but there was Tom, face lit, hands up and singing his heart out. Was he drunk?

Then the headliner came out, a barrel-chested South African with a devilishly infectious rolling bass laugh. And as he preached his gospel, islands of tittering, giggling and belly laughter erupted all over the place.

His name was Rodney Warren, and he said that God had sent him to Arnerica to save the "pagans" wandering and bewildered in the wilderness here.

"That's me," thought Ben, " Pagan First-Class Ben Wright."

Warren asked the people to stand up and raise their hands to receive the outflow of the Holy Spirit which would be followed by signs and wonders, bringing into play spiritual gifts. "Would they be given gifts?" wondered Ben. He stood up and raised his hands.

Then Warren began to pass along in front of lines of people standing along the aisles on the far side of the sanctuary And as he did, people began to fall down as he passed them; some even before they got touched. Most just lay stoned on the floor, but others writhed and still others rolled with laughter. Some wept.

At that moment Ben noticed some people to his right getting up to leave. "This is not of God," snorted one, a sixty-something lady with blue hair and most severe eyes. "I've never been so offended in my life," she said. "It's an outrage!"

Then Ben saw Sands get touched. But he didn't fall; he just froze up like some guy caught in a time warp. He had one finger in the air as if to make a point, but he just grinned out vacantly, grinning stupidly the way he used to, drunk in the bars before they had to kick him out. Apparently, Sands was still hitting the bottle, but he hadn't looked that drunk before. Strange.

Then Warren, moving along the far side of the sanctuary waved his hand at a whole tier full of people, and they all fell back as if mowed down by gunfire. Ben could suddenly sense what felt like waves pushing in to him from Warren's direction. Ben had to lean toward him to keep from being swept away by the powerful currents surging through him.

He felt like he was trout fishing, wading in big water and on the verge of being swept down stream. Then he went down. The current surged over him and through him. Leeches, crustaceans, lizards and toads crawled out of him, and were swept down the stream. He lay on the bottom among the rocks, drowning but not drowned, dying but not dead. In fact, he had never felt more alive, more loved. "Forgive me, Lord," he moaned. "Take over; I've been wrong."

No words could explain what he felt. He felt like a computer disk being reformatted, or as if micro-surgeries were being performed on him from the inside. All over his body, especially around his lungs and heart, long ravaged by his two-pack-a-day smoking habit. He could feel the work of restoration going on. Then he felt as if he were being gripped in a massive velvety hand, but gently and with love. "He restoreth my soul," he thought.

Then Peace such as he had never known, even in the deepest space-outs of transcendental meditation, began to flow over him, through him, out of him. He could suddenly feel a river of his own flowing.

It bubbled up from his very belly. He felt joy indescribable. Suddenly he was laughing. Waves of laughter rolled up from the heart of his being. "This is joy," he thought.

Then he came to. But there was no blackout; he remembered everything, and there was no hangover--only a lingering sense of peace and joy. When he looked around he saw that most of the crowd had gone. And so, very stunned, but very happy he found his way down the stairs and out the door.

Now for the first time he felt indeed like Ulysses, like Sir Lancelot, like Joshua himself. The old world, the wilderness he had known was all behind him, and before him, spread out and limbed with light, lay the land of promise. It was all for real; it was all for him; and he couldn't wait to tell others.

He set off down the sidewalk, singing to himself the hymn he had heard under the water: "Amazing grace, how sweet the song that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see."

Gene Pinkney (1995)



Copyright 2006 Gene Pinkney
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