Chasing the Demons

Excerpted from

How Do We Know When It's God?: A Spiritual Memoir


What am I doing in a church basement on a Friday night, eating a New England boiled dinner with a bunch of suburbanite Bible students? Man, has my life changed in the last four years! That's how long it's been since I went to that seemingly innocent "candlelight service with carols" on Christmas Eve of 1980 and it led to a new way of life, including new friends, habits, routines, and outlook, all tied in with my physical rebirth to new health, and a fresh, unexpected beginning as I've entered my fifties. Four years before this I wondered if I'd even make it to my fifties.

What happened to the cocky, carousing, hotshot novelist-turned-television writer who guzzled his daily half-gallon of wine and only entered churches for weddings and funerals? I don't miss him, but still, as I stare at the nude-looking whiteness of the boiled potato on my plate as prelude to a weekend Bible study workshop in the suburbs, I wonder if maybe I'm pushing my spiritual life too hard. Maybe it's the grim atmosphere of the dank, dimly lit church basement suffused with the sad odor of boiled cabbage that makes me wonder if I shouldn't have gone to a movie instead. But it's too late now-they're bringing on the bread pudding.

I'm here at the suggestion of my minister, who thinks I'll pick up some good ideas for our adult religious education committee at King's Chapel, which I co-chair to help plan retreats and programs. He says that the roving theologian who's in town to teach this workshop has a "new approach" to Bible study, but I fear it's going to be as soggy as the meal I've been picking at. Much to my surprise, though, the man I've imagined as a dry-as-dust scholar bent over tomes of Biblical exegesis like a character out of Dickens turns out to be a "good old boy" from Texas named Walter Wink. Wearing a light-tan leather jacket and a Texas-size smile, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, Walter brings the dim basement and its overstuffed inhabitants to bright, energetic life.

Walter has us acting out Bible stories and relating their characters and situations to our own lives, rather than simply dissecting the text. I really get into it, especially the stories of healing-like Jesus giving blind Bartimaeus his sight, and stopping the flow of blood of the woman who touches the hem of his garment. I go home thinking how I too want to be healed; and that maybe through faith it's possible.

But wait, haven't I already been healed? I'm healthier than I've been since high school, I don't wake up with hangovers any more (though I still drink some carefully rationed glasses of wine), and my writing is going well. Besides all that I have a new girlfriend who is beautiful in spirit as well as in looks, and plenty of warm, loving friends in my neighborhood, my church, and my writing life. What more am I looking for? Isn't love and God supposed to fill the hole inside? What more do I want?

What's missing?

I think back to my year on the Nieman Fellowship in journalism at Harvard, when I met, laughed with, and drank Heaven Hill bourbon with Robert Coles as we spoke of literature, psychoanalysis, and dreams (both the waking and sleeping kind). Crunching through the snow in Harvard Square or having sandwiches in a booth at the Wursthaus (a dark-wood Cambridge version of a German beer joint) or going in spring for ice cream cones with chocolate flakes called "jimmies" here, Coles sometimes in the midst of these good discussions might suddenly break out singing-with ironic gusto-the popular song that sums up in a single word our most human urge:

"More-da da da da dee dah, More..."

And my fellow Nieman fellow Wayne Kelley from Atlanta and I (and anyone else who was there) would burst out laughing, as if our deepest desire had been suddenly brought into the open, and we would join in singing, hitting it as hard as we could on "More..."

Of course I still would like "more" of all the good feelings and experiences (and a guarantee they continue!), but this time it doesn't describe the dissatisfaction, discomfort-fear, even-that's making me search for an answer I ain't seem to find. It's not that anything's missing, but rather that some old hang-ups keep hanging on. I still get rattled when I have to make business decisions, and act on impulse (more like compulsion, it feels like), then realize when it's too late what I've done to sabotage myself. I buy an expensive condo on a whim that I realize is all wrong for me as soon as the deal is done. I make a deal for writing a television show-thinking I can handle it because it doesn't require moving to L.A. again-then back out of my commitment at the last minute, creating chaos for a dear professional and personal friend who trusted me. After these freak-outs I go into horrible paroxysms of anguish and regret. I can't break out of these patterns, break free. It feels sometimes like I'm tied up, bound by ropes, or even chains-rusty now from being around me so long (since childhood, it feels like), but still strong. Yes! Chains is the right analogy.

There's a man like that in the Bible. And Jesus heals him.

I remember Walter Wink's method of "putting yourself in the story" and acting it out, trying to live it. Maybe I can "live" this story and be healed! I read this particular story over and over until I almost know it by heart. One afternoon I go to my bedroom with the Bible and close the door. I sit on the edge of my bed and pray, and then I stand up and try to act out die story, putting myself in it.

I'm the tormented man with an unclean spirit whom Jesus meets in the country of the Gadarenes, as told in the book of Mark, chapter 5, verses 1 to 20. As I read the story I feel not only an identification but a sense of relief, and hope that perhaps I too can be purged, set free, liberated. I read the story over and over, looking for clues, wanting to experience what the man experienced when Jesus rid him of the unclean spirit that was screwing him up. I read it like Sherlock Holmes, wanting to solve the mystery of the miracle, or like a literary critic who tries to understand every nuance of the text and get to the heart of the author's deepest meaning. I read it like a prayer, in hopes of being healed.

Tags: Religion and Spirituality

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