I like to hit the supermarkets at night, about half an hour before closing. Peaceful, almost empty, fast. And uneventful… normally.
Rounded the corner by the various breads, baguettes, and pitas, aiming to take a quick peek at the prêt-a-manger case for L’s beloved rice pudding. An elderly couple were nearby, mulling the merits of some sandwich or other. I really only took note of them because they were speaking English — not the norm in this particular Quebec village. The guy was a vigilant sort, however, and immediately noticed my gaze and asked if I speak English.
“Yes, my native tongue.”
“Ah — well then where are you from?” He tacked on a belated sir to the question after realizing there was perhaps a faint appearance of effrontery, given the context.
“U.S. Been here about 15 years though. Can read the French very well; have some issues with the conversing.”
“Where in the U.S.?”
“New Jersey, mostly.” He towered over the woman. I began to detect a kind of uneasiness about her, as though she were gauging my interest in loitering, and had perhaps seen her companion’s tendency to chat up strangers at the slightest pretext before.
“Oh. Joiz-ee.” The well-worn trope, not a good sign. By now it was clear they did not wish me to translate some food label.
“And you guys?” Thinking to wrap it up…
“We’re from Ontario. Been together nearly two decades.” That was a conversational outlier, I sensed, but then the whole complexion shifted. “We’re born-again Christians. Pastors! (he added this pointedly) For me it’s been 42 years, and for her about ten years now.”
I missed his next three or four sentences within my own swirl of analysis and computation, though the gist was blatant enough, and his pace picked up. Something about his congregational affiliates and mentors, their bonafides and credentials. The poor woman looked distinctly uncomfortable at this turn — I doubt she coveted the mantle of preacher. But you know — stand by your man. And at the same time I was considering my options here: satanic heated argumentation, feigned naivete, philosophically dense critical discourse…
I was feeling amicable this night. Truth to tell, I like conversations with strangers, especially sensitive strangers. Now, maybe once per decade or so, this sort of quasi-religious sales encounter comes my way. And I have long-standing deep interests in spiritual inquiry, which sadly is usually only remotely adjacent to evangelical Christian guerilla pastoring. And I knew from experience it takes great mutual openness to really talk about these things, and again, in-your-face proselytizers are rarely open about anything. Everything with them is only technique, fishing for an undefended psychic entrypoint. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt for now. At least let’s give enough space to determine whether or not he has any interest whatsoever in what I might think or offer.
“Yes, we’re saved. No matter how bad things get.” He finished up and they both scanned for response, the woman somewhat more humanly, the man with an algorithmic estimating hurried expertise. I nodded in comprehension, projecting neither exuberance nor disdain, forcing the man to pause a bit longer. After a second or two it was the lady who jumped in, emoting a little, thank goodness. She had picked up on the slightest eye movement of sympathy on my part at the ‘how bad things get’ bit.
“Things are very scary right now; something very big is about to happen.” A subtle inviting query in her tone. She messed up a bit with the ‘is’ though… highlighting her presumed inside info status. Maybe ‘seems’ would have been better. In any case I felt enough connection with her to keep going here. And I glimpsed how it was fear of the social chaos which was propelling her along her journey towards manufactured certitude.
“Oh yes. Definitely. I have known it, felt it, since the 1980s at least.” Pausing here to let emotions warm the space and take the edge off the tossed gauntlet. “I mean, I began to know that probably within my lifetime a collapse would have to come, that would, you know, catch many many millions of people by surprise.” She loved this. He sensed possible victory. “Just, you know, because of the rampant out-of-control materialism.” For me a sort of clarification, for them perhaps an irritant or confusion.
“We are prepared for the rapture.” He stepped in, unable to hold back his arsenal now. The woman had preferred to circle around a bit more. “We were just talking about it the other night — my group. There isn’t much time left.” He went on another minute or so, elaborating, basically speaking to himself, while all she could do was wait and regard me to see if any hope remained.
I cut in at the briefest pause, while retaining a note of kindness in my voice. “No! I mean, I have heard all about that, I know what is thought about the rapture, but I think it is wrong. There is no imminent rapture — I do not believe in it. I think people are… mistaken… here.” At the last micro-second some grace intruded enough for me to substitute for my original word: deluded.
“Well then you don’t believe the Bible.”
I had no time to check what she was thinking at this juncture. “Look — the Bible is a complicated document rife with opportunities to interpret things in many different and contradicting ways. I think the people who have concluded it means that — I assume you are speaking of John’s Apocalypse — are incorrect. For one thing, the time scale… it says nothing explicit about this century or last century, or this decade.” I did not even touch upon all the allegory or the possibility that the Bible was not the sacrosanct unerring word of God and indisputable truth.
“What is your sexual persuasion?” He pivoted spasmodically to a different line.
I took this bait, only savoring for the faintest instant how hilarious this question was. I went into this rhetorical thing I sometimes do: travelling inwards through my biography to expand the poetic confines of a too transactional or prosaic situation. “Since the age of 4 I have been completely enamoured of and delighted by women. I remember seeing a little girl, in the neighborhood, for the first time. Long dark hair, smiling deep eyes. And I was totally smitten and awestruck. And I knew this was going to be a thing — for the rest of my life.” She dug it; he crouched impatiently.
She grabbed this chance to babble approvingly, tangent to the battlefield. “I was watching your eyes. That is a good story.” I think she meant she saw the truth in it. I was sacramentally heterosexual. Think about this — I mused meanwhile. Could this guy possibly think that there is a connection between homosexuality and not taking the Bible literally?!
He was itching to circle back to the rapture, unwilling to concede that he failed to broadcast his certainty to another not-quite-hopeless soul. Albeit one he had just met and diagnosed. “The rapture is real my friend. Now let me tell you a quick story.” He glanced down into my grocery basket, fumbling about a bit looking for something. His wife instantly assisted, revealing this was not the first time she watched him apply this particular gambit. “Barcodes.” He said it with some triumph, showing me my packet of swiss cheese. “I had this friend once, an engineer. Talented guy. He was from Lithuania.” Pretty cool, I thought. I wouldn’t mind having an acquaintance from Lithuania. Wasn’t that where Arvo Part was from? Maybe Latvia. God — his music is amazing. “Well he told me about how the little bars at each end really signify the alpha and the omega, 666.”
The woman seemed suddenly more comfortable, inexplicably. As though our talk was now on more solid ground. “You mean like the old Hebraic number symbols? Where they doubled up alphabet symbols to signify certain numerals.”
“No, well they were Greek actually.” I doubted this but my memory could have been off. Seemed not to matter.
At this point the lady engaged in some off-topic chatting, maybe about the region, the autumn colors, something brief. He was carrying on about the Evangelicals. The Evangelicals. How they uniquely possessed the correct angle towards Jesus. I remarked half-heartedly how I thought most evangelicals had an improper conception of what Christianity means and that they failed to grasp the distinction between Jesus and Christ. Didn’t go over too well. More pointedly: it elicited zero curiosity on their part. I caught my wandering after a moment and oriented back. “OK, so, what about the thing you wanted to tell me. About the rapture.”
“That was it!” He seemed taken aback by my incomprehension. “666. The barcodes. The mark of the Beast. They are going to put things, little computer chips, under your skin.”
Now I felt a twinge of something new for this person. Something between pity and compassion. I was stunned by the imprecision of his thinking. How can anyone navigate in this world, as it manifests these days, in this social reality, without clear and ordered thought habits? I received an image of someone deeply concerned and confused about how life had unfolded, both personally and for the world at large, who desperately had cobbled together a saving grace narrative which would explain and redeem everything — provided nobody had the gumption to penetrate it with curiosity. A safe cocoon complete with imaginary healing which could sprout forth the power even to permit one to pollinate this healing unto others, long as one’s courage persisted. Finally — a sense of life mission. Exhale.
“I just don’t buy that, not convinced by it. I think the rapture stuff is imaginary. People have overblown it, by a long shot.” It was all I could stammer out, all I could muster. I knew I hadn’t the late night strength or wish to pursue matters logically, and besides it wouldn’t work.
“Listen to Fox News” he offered. As though this would certify it. After a second: “Are you for Trump? What do you think about Donald Trump?” I could not believe he could descend so far this abruptly.
I could still formulate words soberly at this point, but was losing patience and faith in the potentials of the dialogue. “I have known of Trump from his early days. I lived across the Hudson River from him. Back in the days when he was basically just another New York City conman. And not a convincing one. Knew about his sex and marriage scandals, his boisterous constant boasting and lying — he called it salesy exaggerating. Knew about his racist tendencies and slumlord lawsuits, and was bemused and horrified when he attacked Obama’s birth documents because he knew that a large proportion of uninformed and deeply biased U.S. voters could not stomach that a black person got elected.”
He attempted to bypass all this. “What about his presidency?” I made some kind of derisive disgusted face. “Name one bad thing that he did as president”, he challenged. And incredibly, he seemed confident in this! I hesitated a second at the sheer bombast this question held, and how it could have anything to do with how our conversation began. Amazingly, he pounced on this delay with glee and forthright conviction: “You see? It is not possible. You can’t think of anything.”
So I collected myself once more. “He initiated a coup to attempt to steal the presidency, the election, for a second term.”
His response to this floored me. He had this flash of recognition and acknowledgment upon his visage, as though empathizing with how horrible things almost were. And he seemed to believe that he could win me over in this shared emotion with a final revelation. “That was Biden. That was all — Biden.”
As though he had labored to uncover some mysteriously obfuscated truth, which we in finality had walked through together. You see, on his planet, if someone evinced the slightest degree of positivity towards the concept of Christ or Christianity, which admittedly I do, then eventually they could be turned and come to the natural conclusion that he had concerning American politics.
It was over. I turned away quickly, explaining politely, that I could see he had a firm view about things and that no amount of discussion could get him towards a more open stance. Nothing more to speak about here.
“Listen to Fox, listen to Fox.” A partially pleaded parting gift to me.
At the checkout counter they were holding forth again, just ahead of me in line, having paid for their stuff. A bunch of employees were standing about laughing over whatever had transpired. They caught my eye, and so I waved farewell. “God Bless you”, the woman. “Jesus still loves you, my friend”, the guy.
It was his word choice still that was telling.
Back home that night a writer I used to like, Ernst Katz, was itching at me in connection with this supermarket episode. I found his volume and searched for a particular passage. It concerned meditation. But not the eastern-influenced meditation that most are aware of, rather the western meditation which he saw as connected to Christianity and closer to the true idea of prayer as it was conceived of by the ancients. You can form an idea of it by considering the passage in a couple of the gospels where Christ beckons to a selected few of his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane and charges them to stay awake and pray with Him. This was a call for deep meditation. But they could not do it. In particular, the passage I found had to do with one’s motivations for meditation:
A person can strive toward developing his own spiritual potential by means of meditation for three basic reasons. First, for self-aggrandizement or personal satisfaction, to earn more money or gain more power over people. If this kind of motivation holds, then the practice of meditation will ultimately damage or destroy a person. Second, for the sake of withdrawal into the purity and bliss of one’s own nirvana condition away from the outer sensory world, which is felt as dissatisfying. Meditation carried out through this motivation will retard rather than enhance the person’s inner development. Finally, the only right motivation for meditation is that one is willing to accept a burden — which can be a crushing one — because one has perceived that one can become in this way a more effective servant of humanity, and an effective helper for mankind and the spiritual world. Only love and compassion will yield proper results as a motivating factor. Otherwise one will fail to withstand the trials which come as part of this path of self-development. It would be better that they had never begun it.
[ Image : Detail from a poster for the 2014 Amazon Prime sci-fi film, “Rapture”, which from the looks of things, barely achieves the grade of B-flick. ] (link)
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