Table of Contents


John Wesley. I was so lucky to grow up in the Methodist Church. Since it was the early 1950s in the rural/small town south I was obviously going to grow up in some church, and Leela finagled it so I got Methodism. Brilliant. John Wesley may have been some kind of firebrand in his time, but the First Methodist Church in Marianna Florida was like nothing so much as oatmeal: bland and harmless. I don't know how my parents' families ended up Methodists in particular, but they both had protestant roots. The Cassadys by whatever spelling hail from County Fermanagh (Ballycassidy) in the protestant north. The one word we all knew about my mom's past was Huguenot: the Vermillions of French Bottoms came fleeing oppression and genocide in France. I got mildly traumatized by the miserable fantasy of hell, but I can hardly complain. It probably came from a preacher at a tent revival. I got dragged to a few of those. But I don't think I ever heard a fire and brimstone from the pulpit of that church, praise the lord.

Child abuse. Making me go to a dreary tent revival was the closest my parents ever got. I have no cause to complain. Vacation bible school, on the other hand, was a hoot. I looked forward to it. All I can remember is craft projects and some singing. Singing was always the best part of church. I was a dedicated alto until my voice broke and I could sing bass, sorta. My favorite craft project was stained glass windows. Poster board with cutouts for jewel tone cellophane. I was channeling El Greco: windows tall and skinny enough to grace a gothic cathedral. I never saw any of that art for another twenty years.

Nickel cokes. I didn't make any progress with love by going to the First Methodist Church, unless you count growing up. At that age I made all my spiritual progress out in nature. As for church, well, I enjoyed junior choir, and there was a nickel coke machine in the fellowship hall with its low ceiling and shiny worn linoleum floor. I once saw it opened up getting refilled. Its innards were dominated by a hexagonal grid, a beehive of coke that you turned with a lever to make the next coke available. Nickel cokes in the old style small bottles all scratched up on the outside from decades of use, thousands of refills, tasted way better than any other kind of coke. Almost as good as Double Cola, or even Pepsi.

Methodist gothic. The First Methodist Church was a place of wonder and mystery. I found a secret passage that led from the Sunday school building to behind the pulpit. I got into the passage through a door in the back of a closet. I think it was a way for the choir to sneak around behind the preacher without going through the congregation. The passage was dusty and neglected. Walking through it made me think that people must've been shorter back then. I found another secret passage: steep stairs, covered with dust, leading down to the dirt floor under the sanctuary. There were fire-blackened wooden pillars down there still holding up the church. I wondered, did they get burned in the Battle of Marianna? It was a nasty battle; nobody liked it except the slaves who got liberated. Nah, the Episcopal church was the one that got burned in that battle. The burned pillars remain a mystery. I got to do more urban spelunking in my schoolhouse in Asheville.

Declaration of independence. When I was 14, we moved to Nairobi and started attending a Methodist church there. In our family church on Sunday morning had always been a done deal: you went to church unless you were sick. I summoned my courage and made my announcement: I'm not going to church anymore, and I'm not wearing underwear. Then I waited for the explosion. They said OK, sure. I think they figured that was the kind of teenage rebellion they could live with. If only my other declaration of independence had been so easy to come by. In both cases, the only thing holding me back was my thinking.

The Angel. My first declaration of independence freed me up to start considering spiritual matters more seriously just as my second freed me up to begin serious work on making progress. Soon after that I found myself gobstruck and humbled in the face of Rilke's First Duino Elegy, contemplating the Angel: Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying. But I wasn't terrified, I was moved, thrilled, enlarged. My second declaration of independence put me on the path to getting enlarged in the Shakespearian sense.

Plunder. Since then I've given religions a wide berth, but I've cheerfully plundered their ancient wisdom. I steal wisdom wherever I find it. When I majored in comparative mythology, the Anchor Bible was one of my key resources.