This is the terrible, but true, story of how I pissed off a priest. Only read on if you are unafraid of lightning bolts and eternal pits of belching sulfur…
The story takes us back 17 years to a dark little industrial town in Norway where the economy was primarily kept alive by a weapons factory. Most people who have lived in such places know that paradigms are unshakable, dogma is solid, and minds are tightly closed.
As far as spirituality went, you belonged in one of two boxes:
Core belief according to small town creed: There is a white God-man up there, with a beard, probably a staff of some sort.
God-man blesses some people and damns others. He gave people free will but you’ll burn in hell forever if you practice it.
Once he sent a giant flood and a little man called Noah built a boat and put 16 million animals on it and then his children interbred until the world was repopulated.
A few years later God-man magically impregnated a woman, and the kid called Jesus did loads of magic stuff before he got murdered by the people who worshipped his God-man dad.
Core belief according to small town creed: That God-man shit is a load of bollocks. None of that happened. There is no God.
Sometimes, on very rare occasions, we’d hear there was a Muslim in town. On those days Christians and Atheists united to cower in fright. We knew that there existed Buddhists and Hindus, but they were faaaaaar away, both geographically and in terms of what us small-town, spiritually starved, little folk could get our heads around.
I was Christian by default, because, although I couldn’t with integrity sign-up to the God-man fable, I knew that I believed in that thing up there. I just didn’t know what it was. Even as a child I felt a calling, a vortex of becoming, connecting me to something amazing. It wasn’t that dickhead God-man, with his beard and staff and ludicrous old rulebook.
And it wasn’t the impossibly small universe the atheists offered me either. “I swear to believe only what I see,” they chanted, dogmatically, placing their right hand upon the corporately funded scientific journal and rejecting anything that didn’t fit in their little box.
I decided, age 14, to educate myself on the matter the only way I knew how: To study under a spiritual master.
Our little town didn’t have one. I don’t even think there are any in the whole of Norway. So I settled for the local priest, who was married to my teacher. The only way to achieve this, of course, was by taking the mandatory classes you need to yawn your way through in order to perform the arbitrary ceremony that confirms your subjection to God-man and his rulebook and his dome-topped building.
My best friend Kirsti bore witness to the injustice and in fact she reminded me about it when I saw her again this February, hence this story. The priest gave us an assignment.
(Note: What an incredible opportunity to encourage the young to explore their spirituality, to really learn how to think, how to explore an understanding of the universe and the mysteries it cradles…)
This was the assignment given to a group of 14 year old future truth-seekers: With these crayons, draw a picture of God as you understand him.
(14 year olds. Not 3 year olds)
But still! Finally a chance for me to explore the curiosity I had around this strange calling, this wonderful yet frightening knowledge.
“The priest said ‘as you understand Him’, right?” I asked Kirsti.
“Definitely, he definitely said that, I heard it,” confirmed my co-conspirator.
So I cracked my knuckles and got crayoning.
With a quick blot of yellow there and a few stripes of pink here, the image I put together was a sort of yin-yang thing, a golden mean spiral with bright colors on one side and faded colors on the other. Feeling satisfied-ish, I leaned over and checked what the others had drawn: God-man with a staff, God-man with a beard, God-man shooting lightning into the eye sockets of a sinner, God-man praying… (Wait, what? To himself??)
Kirsti had drawn a picture of a horse with a wide-brimmed hat, standing in a pond.
“I got bored,” she shrugged.
The skies darkened at once, lightning flashed and the rain drops beat at the windows in foreboding. A deep and terrible wave of horror folded itself upon us as the priest’s shadow darkened our crayoning.
“What’s this?” roared God-man’s disciple with a look on his face like we’d drawn a picture of the maggot-infested corpse of a dog.
“…” squeaked Kirsti, a tiny pre-teen at the mercy of this MAN OF GOD.
“Not that equine beast,” he bellowed, sending sprays of furious saliva across our ashen faces. “THIS!” He slammed his fist on my picture with a dreadful and condemning thud.
My stomach dropped to the floor like a frozen ball of lead.
“Well, I sort of understand God as a vortex of becoming,” I tried. The flames of Hell flickered in his eyeballs as he perused the blackness of my soul. “Like an evolving and thinking power that expresses itself through life, I think?”
“Why…you…what…” he sputtered, the ferocity of his disgust as palpable as a boggy stench. He pinched the bridge of his nose and blinked back tears. “Everyone knows He created us in His image! His image is therefore obviously the same as ours! Man-like, of course! Like Jesus! What is wrong with you?”
He sat down and dropped his head in his hands, trying to catch his breath. “And why…” he whispered, hoarsely, “…is it faded on one side?” He lifted my piece of paper limply by the corner like he’d just found it behind the toilet.
“That just represents our lack of clarity, that we can’t ever know God just like we can’t ever know ourselves, and maybe God doesn’t know Himself either, and maybe that’s why life exists—so He can learn.”
I should have just shot him in the spleen. It would have caused him less pain.
“LEARN????????” The walls shook and the other students fled from me and Kirsti, cowering by the statue of a golden calf with their hands clasped tightly as they begged God-man to recognize them as separate from us. Good vs. Evil.
I’m glad I didn’t draw God-man, because I learned that day that I definitely don’t fit in the Christian box they gave me any more than I fit in the little Atheist box. It was the first time I really accepted that there must be other ways of thinking about that thing up there, that thought itself was the first step in what would be a life-long and passionate journey.
Kirsti and I used to get in a whole load of trouble anyway, but the priest never spoke to me after that infantile crayon assignment. Never once.
I still don’t fit in any of their boxes. Because here is the wonderful secret I learned:
There is no box.