Varieties of Religious Experience

Craig is awakened by the presence of men standing near his bed. He cracks his eyes and blinks to clear the sleep and blur. Finally, he recognizes Thomas S. Monson and Boyd K. Packer standing shoulder to shoulder at his bedside. At the foot of his bed stands his father.

“Um, hello,” Craig stammers.

“We are here under the direction of President Ezra Taft Benson,” says Elder Packer.

“Uh, ok,” says Craig.

“We have been directed to bring you with us to Salt Lake City. You need to get up and get dressed,” says Elder Packer.

The young man props himself up on his elbows. “Why?”

Elder Packer has dark hair and penetrating dark eyes. He does not smile, exudes no warmth.

“You will be sustained in the next General Conference as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.”

Now Craig sits up and looks at his father who simply nods and smiles gently.

“That’s impossible. I don’t have the Melchizedek Priesthood. I’m not even a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood.”

Elder Packer sighs heavily and says, “We have obtained the will of the Lord.”

Craig looks at his father. “Do I have to leave my family?”

Elder Packer says flatly, “Yes.”

Craig looks at his father again, but his father just shrugs and smiles.

“I’m only twelve,” says Craig. “The Church is full of other men. Older men.”

Elder Monson looks at him with a kindly smile. “Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies. Don’t you think you ought to get dressed now?”

Craig looks at his father, then at Elder Packer, then at Elder Monson. What about his all star baseball team? What about eighth grade football in the fall? What about theatre arts and the play he is in? What about his brother and sister?

“Son, let the dead bury the dead,” Elder Packer says.

Craig looks at him. What does that even mean? You can’t even have funerals for your grandparents?

***

The normal Los Angeles haze is gone, and the sky is a brilliant blue, unblemished by clouds, lit up by a white sun in the east. A light wind has blown the smog out of the valley, and lawns are still glistening from overnight watering. Catherine stands on the sidewalk and gazes at a kumquat tree whose branches stretch toward her but extend no further than the edge of the grass.

Catherine is hungry, cannot remember the last time she ate. So now she stares at the kumquat tree. The closest kumquats come up short of the sidewalk by about six inches. She touches the branch, runs her fingers over the fruit, but does not take them. This is a test, Oh Lord. Make me strong to resist.

Her stomach rumbles and she looks at her own bony fingers on the fruit.

It is not a test, Daughter, a voice says. I have provided you of my plenty, for the Earth is full and all are in my hands.

Oh, she knows this voice. This voice has led her to places of rapture where she has felt her soul leave her body, has spoken in tongues, has prophesied, but then has thrown herself to the floor, gnashing her teeth, smashing herself against hard objects, gashing her skin.

Get thee behind me, Satan.

She should move on. She should flee temptation as Joseph from Potiphar’s wife. She tries to command her legs to move, but she stays in place gently stroking the fruits. How long did Eve regard the serpent’s temptation?

My child, all flesh is in my hands, and the Earth is full. Eat that you may live.

She pinches a fruit, gets ready to tug, then resists, and as she does, a voice behind her says, “Good morning! Is this your house?”

Catherine turns and snaps her hand to her side. Before her, standing in a halo of the morning sun are two young women.

“Forgive me, Oh Lord,” she says. “Smite me not by thine angels. I was weak but did not partake.”

“What’s that?” says the blonde girl on the left. “Are these your kumquats? I love these.” The girl steps over quickly, plucks a handful, and crams them all in her mouth. She giggles as juice dribbles out of her mouth, and she uses her index finger to catch the drops. “So embarrassing,” she says after swallowing. She extends her hand. “I’m Sister Sloane. This is Sister Perry.”

“It’s not my house or tree,” the woman says softly as she shakes hands, and then she looks at the ground, trying to hide the flush and heat that sweep over her body and cheeks.

“No?” says Sister Sloane. She grabs another handful. “They’re delicious. Have some,” and she puts a bundle in the woman’s hand.

Catherine feels the sister’s touch, her stomach rumbles, and she puts them all in her mouth, the sweet skins blending with the tart juice that bursts on her tongue.

She stares at Sister Sloane’s bright blue eyes and corn-silk hair as she eats, unable to change her gaze while feeling shame at the sensations stirring within her.

“We are ministers of Jesus Christ,” says Sister Perry.

Catherine now looks at Sister Perry, her shoulder-length hair lit by the sun and almost glowing.

“What church?” says Catherine.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” says Sister Perry. “Do you believe in God?”

“I love God,” says Catherine, “but I can’t talk to you.”

“Oh?” says Sister Sloane.

“My therapist won’t let me,” she says. “I just got out of a religious detox.”

“A religious detox?” says Sister Perry.

“Yes, I have been to everything trying to be where God wants me. Holy roller, Pentecostal, Baptist. I’ve spoken in tongues, levitated, handled snakes. I kind of lost it, though. Lost track of reality. Last time I was in church I was throwing myself on the ground and foaming at the mouth.”

“We don’t teach or do weird things,” says Sister Sloane. “The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, and peace.”

“I’m sorry,” says Catherine. “I love God. I would love to talk to you. But I need time. I just can’t.”

Sister Sloane smiles broadly at her. She has straight, white teeth, and her whole face shines. “We understand. We hope you feel better. Enjoy the kumquats!”

With that, the sisters step around her and walk up the street. Catherine watches them, looks at their trim figures in their slim dresses, then grabs a handful of kumquats, puts them in her mouth. Forgive my many weaknesses, Oh Lord.

***

Sam is at the podium clutching it with both hands. His head is tilted forward, and his bushy brown bangs mostly obscure his eyes. He takes a deep breath before speaking.

“I’m not like regular kids. I don’t like stuff normal kids like. I don’t feel the Spirit like you all do.”

Alma Gutierrez sits with her arms folded four rows from the back. Her nine-year-old son is drawing a picture on the Sunday program with a pen she has loaned him. Alma’s dark hair is tied in a bun and she is watching Sam intently.

Sam takes another deep breath and tilts his head further forward. “I see ghosts. Not like little Caspers but like scary ghosts. Bad ghosts.”

Alma looks around the chapel. Most people have lowered their eyes, and some have lowered their heads and rested them on the pews in front of them. The rustle of children has ceased, and the air is tense.

“Once, I was riding in the backseat of our minivan and I saw a man on a motorcycle. He was dressed in all black leather, and he took his head off and put it under his arm and waved at me and his face laughed at me.”

Alma feels tears well up, as she looks around the room and sees people shifting uncomfortably.

“There’s this one ghost that comes around me a lot. He doesn’t have a normal body. He’s like a black shadow and is maybe seven or eight feet tall. He has red eyes … I think they might be blood. I wish he would go away.”

Alma glances at her son and sees that he has stopped drawing and is staring at Sam.

“Anyway, I don’t know why this stuff happens to me. I think it makes me special. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

Alma is the only person who whispers “amen.” She watches Sam walk off the rostrum and head back to the audience. No one else moves. Hardly anyone else looks up.

Memories of Juarez flood Alma’s mind. She tries never to go there, never to relive and revisit the violence and the family members who are now gone. When several minutes of silence have passed, Alma can bear it no longer. She stands, works her way through the pew and into the aisle, then goes to the podium.

“For those who don’t know me, I am Alma Gutierrez. I grew up in Juarez and immigrated ten years ago. My son’s father is dead as are my brothers. But God is good. He has given me a good life. Jesus’ sacrifice for me gives me life every day.”

She pauses and looks around the chapel. Heads are starting to rise again, and she sees people’s eyes. “A lot of you did not like what Sam had to say. It made you very uncomfortable. Well, I want you to know something. I especially want Sam to know something. Sam, I know that what you said is true. I know it because I have seen those things too. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

The chapel is silent again as Alma steps off the rostrum. Sam is seated at the edge of the second pew near the aisle. Alma walks straight to him and beckons him to her. He rises slowly, she enfolds him in her arms, and Sam weeps.

***

Reggie sits on a bench in Central Park, a mostly eaten sandwich beside his thigh on a fast food wrapper. A do-gooder had bought it for him when he really just wanted cash, but he wasn’t going to not eat it, either. He tore a small piece of bread from the sub roll and tossed it to the fat squirrel sitting at his feet. Chip sat on a bench across from him and chuckled.

“No reason to feed that squirrel. He eats better than you,” Chip said.

Reggie shrugged. “He’s better at getting what he needs than I am.”

Across the way, from a large rock rose the noise again that had been in their ears for at least two hours now on this late spring day. Reggie looked back at the man, rolled his eyes, and sighed. A woman with earbuds in was jogging past, and a man with a brown trimmed beard and messed up hair was bellowing, “And you, ma’am! Yes, that’s right! Earbuds in! Well did Isaiah say to close their ears and shut their eyes. But what will you say in that day when He comes again? What will your excuse be when the earth is rolled together as a scroll, when the day shall burn as an oven, when all the proud and all that do wickedly shall be as stubble? Yes, keep running. Close your ears to the truth! Your earbuds will burn with you!”

“You don’t like the brother preaching the word?” Chip said.

Reggie turned back. “Man, I had enough. I be listenin to this guy for hours today. Ain’t no one wanna talk to him except to heckle him. Don’t see how barkin at everyone gonna bring no one to Jesus.”

Chip smiled at Reggie. “The worst part is ain’t no one know the truth about Jesus. Here, watch this.”

Chip stood up and called at the man, “Hey, preacher man! What Jesus gonna look like when He come again?”

The man on the rock paused and looked at Chip. “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together!”

“Maaaaan,” Chip said, “ain’t no one aksed you who would see Him. I aksed you what He would look like.”

The preacher nodded and called back, “He will come in His glory, the same as how He left. And the hosts of Heaven will be with Him. He will be clothed in scarlet robes in memory of His sacrifice! And if you have not confessed your sins and accepted Him as your Savior, the day will burn as an oven for you!”

Chip shook his head, got up, and came over to Reggie to sit next to him on his bench. “I done tole you ain’t no one know nothin about Jesus. Preacher man over there as big a fool as all the others.”

Reggie tossed another piece of sub roll to his squirrel. “Man, what you be knowin about Jesus?”

“I got a picture of him,” said Chip.

Reggie rolled his eyes. “I can walk into any church around here and see a picture of him.”

Chip scratched the stubble of his face and shook his head. “Those is paintings. I said, I got a picture of Him. An actual photo. Cuz the truth is Jesus already back.”

Reggie looked at Chip. “Fool, ain’t no wonder you got no place to go. Preacher man is right. If there actually is a Jesus, the Book say He will come in His glory.”

Chip patted Reggie’s knee. “It ain’t so. I got a picture. See, what most all the world thinks is Jesus is beautiful, and He will come in peace. Ain’t so. All y’all forget that they crucified Jesus. He got scars all over His body. He lay in a tomb for three days. He started rotting. And He ain’t in no kinda good mood about Earth neither cuz ain’t hardly no one who even believe in Him and ain’t nobody that even knows who He is or what He look like.”

Reggie took a bite of the Italian sandwich and brushed a bunch of crumbs toward the squirrel. “They say that people like us can’t be helped because we crazy. I ain’t crazy. You? You crazy, Chip. Imma stay away from you.”

“I’ll show you the picture,” said Chip.

“You’ll show me the picture of Jesus?” said Reggie.

“It’s a Polaroid. I keeps it with me at all times.”

“You got a Polaroid of Jesus?”

“I do.”

“Right here, right now?”

“Uh huh.”

Reggie shook his head. “All right. Let’s see Chip’s Polaroid of Jesus.”

Chip reached into a pocket of his filthy green Army jacket. “Before I show you, I gotta tell you. If you don’t believe in Jesus, this won’t help you. If you do believe in Jesus, well, it ain’t gonna be what you think cuz Jesus ugly to look at.”

Behind them, Reggie heard the preacher, “If you do not care for your elders and for your children, the whole earth will be wasted at His coming!”

“You gonna show me or not?”

Chip held the Polaroid in his hand lightly by the right, white bottom corner. He passed it gently to Reggie. Reggie turned it over, studied it, and took a deep breath.

“Daaaamn, Chip! What the hell am I lookin at?”

“That’s Jesus,” said Chip.

The photo was taken in the living room of some nondescript house. The room was full of people holding bottles and cans of beer. Women wore crop tops and midriffs. Men were in muscle shirts and sporting tattoos. Standing in the middle of them was a figure. It had the body of a man, a huge man with muscled thighs and ripped calves. The figure wore a white sheet or towel around his waist, and his chest was bare. Where his neck should be were three necks extending at least two feet in different directions, and on each neck was a grotesque head. One head had nothing but a mouth with fangs and sharp teeth, and blood spilled from the mouth. One head had a single eye in the center of its forehead and nothing but a smooth face. The final head bore a cross burned into the flesh of its blank face and nothing else.

Reggie’s mouth was dry, and his heart beat faster. “Why you think this is Jesus?”

“He tole me,” said Chip.

“How He tell you?”

“I be hangin at that party, see. And this voice start talkin to me, and I said, ‘Voice, I ain’t listenin to you. I been takin my medicine. You ain’t real.’ And the voice said, ‘I am the Lord thy God, even the Lord Jesus.’ And I said, ‘Ain’t no Lord Jesus. And I ain’t took no drugs and I be takin my medicine.’ And He say, ‘Take a picture of the party, and I will open your eyes and you will see. And what you see, what the others cannot see, that is I, the Lord thy God. And you will bear witness of me in all the nations and speak the truth to them. And unto the elect shalt thou show my image.'”

Reggie shivered and handed the Polaroid back. “I can’t look at this no more, Chip. I hope I can get that outta my mind.”

Chip tucked the photo back into his jacket, then patted Reggie’s back. “You can’t never forget now, Reggie. The Lord God has called you and made you elect. You know the truth.”

Reggie tossed one more chunk of roll to the squirrel, put the last of the sandwich in his mouth, grabbed the wrapper, and stood.

“Where you goin?” said Chip.

“I don’t know,” said Reggie. “But don’t follow me. Not sure I ever want to see you again.”

***

Angelina Benson sits in her office, her feet propped on the pressed wood desk in front of her. Her scheduled ministerial duties for the day are over; her robe hangs on a hook on the door, and she takes deep breaths and enjoys the quiet. Her last appointment was with a young couple who had married at age twenty-two, gotten pregnant just after their first year, and now struggle with everything—finances, childcare, each other’s families. They cannot see how to stay together; they cannot see how to separate. Angelina has spent many Sunday afternoons with them working through scriptures and marriage enhancement books. She sees no evidence that her service is helping them.

But this is the nature of ministering, correct? We go forward in the name of Jesus and offer His salvation and His healing, but people must choose to accept it. We are responsible for offering—we are not responsible for what they choose.

Angelina rubs her temples and thinks of the beer and Advil she will take when she gets home. She is just about to pull her feet down from the desk when the office phone rings. Really? Late afternoon on a Sunday? She thinks of ignoring it and heading out, but what if it is the one who has left the ninety-and-nine?

“This is Reverend Benson,” she says into the hard plastic phone.

“Reverend Benson?” a timid female voice says.

“Yes, this is she.” She puts her head in her free hand. I literally just said that.

“You don’t know me. I don’t make it to church very much. Probably haven’t gone since you became the reverend. Not because there’s anything wrong with you. It’s my problem.”

Angelina breathes deeply and tries to go back to her place of empathy, to get past the feeling of her exhaustion. “No judgment here.” She tries to picture the caller in her mind. Youngish. Maybe mid-thirties? Maybe small? Physically ill a lot? “What can I help you with?”

“I need some prayers or something.”

“Okay? Do you want to tell me what about?”

“Well, there’s a man in my bed.”

Angelina closes her eyes and nods her head. “And I guess you are not married to him?”

“Oh it’s nothing like that. It’s not a man with a body.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like a spirit or a devil or something.”

Angelina sits up straighter now. “There’s a spirit in your bed? Have you seen it?”

“Yes, I’ve seen him. He won’t leave me alone. He lies next to me and whispers things. But it’s in another language. It’s something I can’t understand. He won’t let me sleep.”

Voices. Images. Delusions. “Have you spoken to a doctor about this?”

“I’m not crazy,” says the woman.

“I didn’t say you were. It’s just that what you’re describing—“

“Is like schizophrenia? Multiple personality disorder? Yes, I know. I don’t have those.”

Now Angelina is again very tired, and she wants to be at her home with her wife and her cat and a cup of hot espresso. “It sounds like you have talked to a doctor, then.”

“Reverend, if you won’t believe me, who will?”

The comment cuts Angelina, and she nods unconsciously. “I’m sorry. Go ahead.”

“It’s a real spirit or demon. He speaks a language I’ve never heard. He gets in my bed whenever I am here. He gives me no rest. He fills my soul with fear and darkness.”

“I understand,” says Angelina.

“Can you cast him out?”

“Is he still there?”

“Yes, he is. I think he is upset that we are talking. His voice is hissing and getting louder.”

Angelina stands up, phone still in hand. “Okay, then. Repeat after me. In the name of Jesus Christ.”

“In the name of Jesus Christ.”

“Foul spirit.”

“Foul spirit.”

“I command you to depart.”

“I command you to depart.”

Click.

Angelina waits for several long moments. “Hello?” Dead air. “Are you still there?” More dead air. Then buzzing, then a dial tone. It is an old phone. There is no caller ID. Angelina sets the phone down at last. She pulls out a roster of people in the congregation and scans through it, trying to see if any names stand out as the likely caller. But nothing occurs to her. She offers a silent prayer that the woman is okay and will call back. She waits five minutes, ten minutes, but nothing.

Then, she prays again that the Lord will bless the caller, rises from her desk, and heads for the door.

***

Joseph Sandborn has been awake for seventy-two straight hours. He lives in a mountain cabin in the West about a twenty-minute ride from the nearest town. He attended school in that town until fifth grade, but his mother has home-schooled him since. He has never known his father, and when he has asked, his mother has always said, “He fell under the influence of Satan and was destroyed.” Joseph does not know whether his father is dead or has just been cut out of their lives.

He is fourteen and is an expert bird, squirrel, and raccoon hunter. He also fills a deer tag yearly, and it’s his hunting that provides the family’s only meat throughout the year. They have a large vegetable garden—sometimes his mother calls it the farm—and they provide most of their own food. His mother goes into town now and again for seeds, gardening supplies, new clothes for the both of them, and various other sundries.

Joseph knows there are TVs and cellphones, but they have neither. He has never known differently, and his mother has taught him never to covet. He is named after the great Bible prophet who saved Israel and Egypt from the famine. Like Joseph of Egypt, he has great visions and interprets dreams.

The first vision he remembers occurred when he was five. They were living in town at the time, and his mother awoke him from a fitful slumber because he had been yelling in the middle of a dream. When she shook him awake, she looked at him with earnest blue eyes, her dark hair softly shining in his nightlight. She pleaded with him to tell her what was wrong.

“I saw an angel of the devil riding on the water that feeds this town, Mama,” he told her at the time.

“Like to kill the whole town?” she asked.

“Not our bodies, Mama. Our minds and our spirits. He touched the waters with a staff, and they became Wormwood, and everyone still drank from them. And they became jealous of each other and they would steal from each other and take pictures of each other when no one was looking and they would trick each other at the store and steal each other’s money and pets and jewels and family members.”

His mother had hugged him and whispered, “Bless you, boy. You have the gift of your namesake and have none of the evil of your father in you.”

When he was eight, he came to his mother’s room in the middle of the night to report another dream. “I saw a man in a pit, Mama.”

“What kind of pit?”

“Dug into the ground. Very deep. Impossible to get out. And people were gathered around laughing at the man.”

“What did he look like?”

“Short dark hair. Cut like he was in the Army or Marines. Very strong.”

“Your father,” his mother whispered. “Brought down to the sides of a pit. Like Lucifer himself.”

But none of those experiences were like this. The light illuminating his mind began three days before, and he was unable to sleep as the visions flooded in. Finally, he got up at 3 am and began to write. When his mother brought his lessons to him, he told her that God was speaking to him and not to disturb him. She knelt in front of him, studied his eyes, then said, “God has prepared you for a great work. You are the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness.”

“That was John the Baptist, Mama.”

“It is a role, my son. It was filled by John the Baptist during Jesus’ first coming. It will be filled again.”

Now, for seventy-two hours, Joseph has alternated between being in visionary trance-like states and writing down his visions. Night and day have meant nothing to him. Thunder has begun to roll across the distant mountains, and he knows that a storm is coming. But it is not just a storm—it is the storm. He looks over various of his scribblings.

The day long prophesied is at hand. Behold, my anger is kindled against the children of men. They do study war, and wickedness reigneth in their hearts. Therefore, thus saith the Lord God Omnipotent, I will stretch forth my hand over the nations and smite those that fear not me. Yea, by the weak things of the world will I thrash the nations. Yea, even by thee, my son, shall I thrash the nations.

Therefore shalt thou take up thy pen and write the words which I shall give thee. And the words that I shall give thee are these:

Repent, o ye wicked and perverse generation. Return unto me, for I have sent forth a great and desolating sickness to smite mankind. A sickness of the body hath gone forth and hath claimed millions. And a sickness of the mind also now goeth forth that my children cannot comprehend truth, that they cannot see that which is plainly manifest, that they perceive not the hearts of their fellow man but are continually stirred up to anger one against another. And because of their foolishness and these plagues, I will smite the nations and spare not until a people remaineth who are prepared to receive me.

And thus thou shalt preach. Thou shalt go among the nations and lift up thy voice and fear not the revilings of the people. Thou shalt not carry purse nor scrip nor food nor raiment for I will provide for thee.

Pages and pages of similar writings sat before him. It is dark outside, but lightning is flashing and illuminating the mountainside and his room. At last, all is clear. He can see the trail down the mountain, and he knows what he must now do. He rises and walks out of his room. He wears only a pair of cargo pants and a shirt. He moves purposefully toward the cabin door, his writings in his hands.

“Where are you going?” his mother asks. She sits on a worn couch, the Bible open in her lap.

“Down the mountain, Mama. To warn the people.”

Their eyes meet, and all she can do is nod. He steps into the night, as the first large raindrops begin to splat on their tin roof. He has walked this property and into these woods many times on late nights and early mornings to hunt. He knows each rock and root on the trail, walks barefoot without thinking as the rain’s pace quickens. Lightning flashes show him the trees and rocks off trail, but all he can see is the vision of the people he must warn.

The thunderclaps grow closer, and it feels as though the entire mountain is alive and afire with lightning.

He comes to a clearing and strides to the middle of it, then pauses. Neither purse nor scrip nor food nor raiment.

He must manifest his faith. He rips off his shirt and tosses it far away into the grass. He pulls off his cargo pants and throws them away too. Finally, he pulls off his underwear and pitches them a third direction. His writings are at his feet being soaked by the rain. He stands in the meadow without a stitch of clothing, and now he knows that the heavens are open and speaking to him in the form of rain, wind, lightning, thunder, and a still, small voice. He can comprehend all of humanity, every living particle, every atom of the earth and the cosmos. It is enormous and tiny and infinite.

Joseph extends his naked arms toward the heavens, and he begins to yell because of the greatness of the mission he has been called to and in praise of the glory of God and His infinite creations. The hairs on his arms and legs stand on end.

The lightning strikes him in his right hand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: