The Dark Crystal of St. Micheal
Take a minute to study Salvador Dali’s “Christ of Saint John of the Cross”. Even those deficient in the Jeopardy category of art history should experience a visceral reaction to this image. And the philistines will have to admit that even their three year old nieces certainly could not have drawn that. I became fascinated with this painting as a young boy attending my elementary alma mater, Sacred Heart School. The angle of Christ’s body invokes a sense of vertigo as the viewer attempts to make sense of Dali’s subversive use of perspective: we are looking through God’s eyes. As if to counter this blasphemous effect, someone decided to ensure the viewer’s submissive position relative to Jesus by hanging this painting on a sloping ceiling above a staircase—on the other hand, maybe they were trying to up the ante on Dali’s surreal gambit. In any case, I remember pausing on the steps many times during leisurely walks to the bathroom, enjoying my sense of disorientation amplified by this aesthetic placement.
My ambiguous, yet emotive response to this painting is representative of my uncertain religious stance. I do believe in a creative, hidden force beyond the purely physical aspects of the universe—something past the facts and raw data. In any case, I’ve gone from a reluctantly confirmed Catholic to a fundamental atheist, and now find myself in the indeterminate limbo of agnosticism. In an attempt to build up a small patch of stable ground or a makeshift raft, I’ve contemplated the memory of Dali’s painting in the gallery of my mind (a cognitive installation of experiences). It’s possible that I’m only adding another layer, or another drop of water to a limitless ocean, but this is an attempt to gain insights into my own philosophical views.
Although I attended a Catholic school for nine years, I often referred to myself as a part-time Christian due to our sporadic visits (typically once a month) to the church. Even though I dreaded going, the pageantry of a Roman Catholic mass always kept me enthralled me during the first five minutes. I loved watching the priest walk down the centre aisle followed by altar boys bearing an ornate crucifix, candles, and a swinging thurible. For a few years, my older brother performed his services, ringing the bell at the right times; I only envied his position for brief moments. During the monotonous and indifferent sermon I studied the statues of Mary and Christ embedded into the church walls, or the suspended ceiling lights which reminded me of beehives. Towards the end of mass, the priest removed the body of Christ and the wine from the tabernacle. The words of the ceremony certainly had no effect on me; it was only the movement and visual presence that carved traces in my synapses.
There are words I do remember, though they were not spoken by God or one of his representatives. One refined memory, from my time spent in this building, acts as an immediate reference point—a focal point in my mind’s eye. A friend of mine asked me what the Body of Christ tastes like. At the time, this seemingly innocent question was never considered for its theological or moral implications. I answered his question by taking my offering and pretending to eat it in front of the priest. Then I secretly broke my wafer in half so my friend could sample the sacrament. My teacher, after witnessing this transgression, stood up from her seat and yelled, “Sacrilege!” She then removed me from the congregation and took me to the back room (where the priest dressed) and told me that my soul was in grave danger. We waited for mass to finish and the priest eventually confirmed the horrible truth: I would indeed be going to hell. This is now a crucial scene from my biopic—it’s quite possibly been dramatized for effect. I’ve relived and glorified this memory too many times to separate fabrication from fact.
Indulge me in a brief departure: for years, I wondered about the taste of that tiny wafer, and why I couldn’t find that distinct flavour anywhere else. Believing in transubstantiation is much easier when the host doesn’t remind you of a Ritz cracker or anything else you can buy at a convenience store. Then, my wife brought home a box of Scottish oat biscuits and I found myself becoming strangely disappointed as this mystery dissolved with each dry bite.
I wonder what my parent’s reaction to this spiritual indiscretion would have been…did they even know this happened? Here’s one likely scenario: my father laughing and making a politically incorrect joke about a priest while my mother assures me that God would forgive me. My father is an atheist that believes in a vague kind of “energy” while my mother is a practical spiritualist, in that she believes in some pretty unconventional and new-age stuff, but only when verified through her own experiences. I occasionally join her for a service at our local United Church. While this is a modest building compared with its Catholic counterpart, a life-sized crucifix hanging above the choir more than makes up for this. The attention of the congregation is inevitably drawn forward and upwards into roughly hewn edges of the cross. Given my family environment, my belief in God could certainly be more resolute.
Although this might be a distortion of the facts, my grandfathers seemed to be the only people in my childhood that openly professed a deep belief in religion, despite not attending church regularly. My paternal grandfather had a wooden carving of Saint Francis of Assisi complete with tiny birds that could be inserted into his palms, or into the folds of a flowing robe. This inaction figure was always placed next to a jar of hard, raspberry candies. I drew parallels between these pegged-birds and the accessories that came with my GI Joe military vehicles, and thus needed to be reminded that St. Francis was not a toy. My other grandfather told me that he read the Bible three times (especially the Gospel according to John) while working as a conductor on the Canadian National Railway. He was actually a more likely candidate to be a follower of St. Francis as he often delivered impromptu sermons on the sacredness of all animals (he named houseflies). This of course, from an avid hunter and fisherman who slaughtered hundreds of living creatures, great and small, each year.
In spite of all this, no one in my family ever stressed that the Catholic (let alone Christian) take on things was absolute; it was never emphasized as the one story that explained the universe—just one tale among many. It all seems so vague. We weren’t fully committed to the idea of being Christian, or any other cultural practice for that matter. And to this day, I know this is the foundation of my ideological relativism. I place the same faith in Christianity as I do into the Epic of Gilgamesh or my favourite episodes of the Twilight Zone. This isn’t meant as disrespect to the devout, or a snide comment typical of the hostile atheist or casual humanist. I am a lover of fiction, pure story, and that’s as close to the truth as I think we’ll ever get. Take Reality Hunger—never have I disagreed so heartedly with the spirit of a book while loving every page.
My mother kept virtually everything I wrote during my time at Sacred Heart School (fiction and non-fiction), the most fascinating being a religious studies journal from Grade 3, in which I frequently question the practice of prayer and the belief in God. In Grade 7, I tried to enter a theological debate with our teacher (the same woman that condemned me to hell) on Cane’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. I have still not heard a satisfactory answer as to how the first human to leave paradise went on to find an entire race of other people. My unwillingness to accept this plot hole was not well received. This was, of course, not the only incongruity my young mind would confront.
As early as Grade 4, we were introduced to evolution and the alarming fact that Fred Flintstone wasn’t based on a real caveman because dinosaurs and humans beings didn’t co-exist. The same teacher who delivered this painful truth also crushed the spirits of a few naive students who still believed in Santa Claus when he gave us orders to be letter writing elves. Perhaps these revelations were only unofficial rites that we endured along with the true Catholic obligations such as visiting our priest for confession. I remember walking through a spiralling corridor of velvet and violet office dividers that lead towards the waiting priest, an East Indian man. Often, I invented lies to keep up with pretences—my sins were too prosaic. At our confirmation ceremony, one student asked a teacher (I’m sure you can guess which one) if we still had to go through with the ceremony if we didn’t believe in “any of this”. We were all assured that we did in fact believe and, perhaps more importantly, our audience was waiting.
Musing on the existence of God and other spiritual inquiries subsided until my last year of high school (spent at a secular institution), when I embraced Buddhism during a World Religions course. My fascination with this pursuit was entangled with an intense pot habit (I named our band’s album “Sesshins” after the Zen Buddhist meditations sessions). As an exploration of the core concepts of all religions, we were asked to invent our own creation myth. Mine featured a planet full of a thousand gods that is shattered into a thousand pieces; each god inhabits a fragment and searches for the others in vain. You could almost hear “Dark Side of the Moon” while reading it.
The year before I moved out of my parent’s house, I visited a head shop in Winnipeg and discovered the first volume of Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger trilogy: Final Secrets of the Illuminati. In fact, the philosophical and personal essays of the second title in the series, Down to Earth, inspired this missive. My obsession with this author grew from experiencing synchronicities while reading a book about synchronicities—namely his experience with psychedelic drugs and my own. The author is an Irish-Catholic who studied as an engineer before gravitating towards English. I myself spent a year in training to be a mechanical engineer before a stranger at a bus stop predicting I’d become an English major. Wilson grew up under a rigid “reality tunnel” until discovering the fluidness of truth. I guess my fascination with these books (I read the Cosmic Trigger trilogy three times in my early twenties) had the lasting effect of making me wary of any belief system—for years I used one of Wilson’s epigrams as my email sign-off: “Belief is the death of intelligence”. Wilson often discusses the mind-altering experiences of watching King Kong and the Wizard of Oz as a young boy—these films shattered his reality tunnel and exposed the potentiality of other worlds.
My brother and I were obsessed with one film more than others in our childhood: Jim Henson’s masterpiece, The Dark Crystal. Released in 1982, the year after I was born, now more than 30 years ago and I desperately pray for there not to be a remake as it will somehow taint my memories. The final scene, where the dark forces of the Skeksis merge with the Mystics in a blinding, white light to create a master race of beings (the Ur-Seks), painted my version of the afterlife. I remember being a young boy in Montreal; my brother and I explored my great-grandmother’s apartment complex by visiting every floor. When the elevator reached the basement floor, I gasped at the captivating vision of a boiler room. All the pipes and floors were painted in a fresh coat of white. I returned to my matron’s suite and told everyone I’d just seen heaven. The reoccurring image of a glowing white tree in my dreams, springing forth from the carpet of our childhood bedroom, might represent a subconscious and nascent desire to bring forth the fantasy in my world.
I recently discovered, in a recent graphic novel adaptation of The Dark Crystal, that the Ur-Seks are in fact a race of exiled extraterrestrials, come to visit Earth to reign over the lesser species. This is a tale that would please Wilson’s fascination with stories of gods posing as deities—particularly the Syrians performing experiments on human beings. The depiction of the Ur-Seks is reminiscent of the artwork from the 2006 Tool album 10,000 Days,designed by Alex Grey. This album, and the lyrics of Maynard James Keenan, has taken on spiritual significance in my life. The titular track (which in reality is two tracks: Wings for Marie, Part One and 10,000 Days, Wings Part Two) tells the compelling story of the singer’s struggle with his mother’s devout religious beliefs and his own scepticism.
During my undergraduate years, as an English major, I swung towards pure materialism and atheism while reading the early works of Richard Dawkins before coming to embrace a more balanced or pantheistic / agnostic approach to life. I wrote about the clash between evolution and intelligent design, parapsychology, and transhumanism for the student newspaper. Years of, mostly, aimless academic pursuits strengthened my sceptical resolve—particularly the recurring motif of challenging texts and venerating fiction. Strangely, this resulted in a philosophical outlook that accepts all frameworks as equally valid because they originated from a living mind. But if I believe in everything does that mean I ultimately, and paradoxically, believe in nothing?
When I became a father, I predictably entertained thoughts of family legacy, tradition, and culture. To me these are more intellectual exercises rather than lived experience. Raised by an atheist and a spiritualist, neither with a distinct codified belief system, I find myself without a mooring in this existential sea. Now I am married to an agnostic. We will be raising our two sons to believe in nothing…and everything. Are we programming our children to only see a fraction of the universe—the same patch of sky we know all too well?
To counter this indistinct outlook, I envision myself as an intellectual shape shifter, an amateur shaman. I can never belong to one denomination or buy into a single philosophical belief for longer than a few weeks. While I may not agree completely with Wilson’s statement that belief is the death of intelligence, I side with his devout agnosticism. And I guess that’s the crux of the issue. I’ve come to a point where I’ve accepted my identity as a drifter among the varying intellectual and belief systems. I escaped the original reality tunnel, but consistently find myself in the terminal station waiting to board yet another cognitive vehicle. Is this restlessness a symptom of my desire to avoid becoming a product of my genes and direct environment (despite my proclivity for hockey, guitar, even writing this article?) I do recognize that my experiences, including my veneration of “St. John of the Cross”, truly are unique. There isn’t a stable photograph or text to cross-reference my ideas. Somehow I have found an authentic moment…but then what? Write about it using the language, rituals, and codes that have been programmed into my brain since birth?
I recently returned to Sacred Heart School (it’s latest incarnation, a building I can see from my living room window, as the old building was torn down) to give a presentation on a summer reading club to adolescent students. Now the Dali print hangs in the school library; it is now placed next to a thermostat at a completely rational angle. Like tasting the Scottish oat biscuits, part of the mystery is resolved. Part of me hoped the building was destroyed with the original building. At some point, I had a realization: true revelation and enlightenment can only come from a fractured and idiosyncratic personal experience—one separated from ideas. Or, in other words, no one can tell you what the universe looks like. There are no conclusions I guess, or easily gathered morals to help me analyze memories or categorize my theological views. If anything, I’ve begun to see a connection between the surreal or avant-garde and religion. The churches of my youth were art galleries of sculpture, paintings, and performance artists. Our fictions are twisted and garbled reflections of a reality stranger that we can ever imagine.