Thursday, June 4, 2015


      Ryan turns suddenly. He takes a step forward to rest his hand lightly on the center table and leans out toward his audience.

      “I want you to imagine something for me. I want you to imagine that you’re God before the creation. That’s right. God before the creation. Now half of you are probably thinking, as Montgomery Thorpe, one of my old commanders, might have said, “The lad’s gone balmy. One too many blast injuries, no doubt.” Ryan uses his index finger to make a little circle near his right ear. “As for the rest of you? Well, you guys are probably saying, `Imagine God! Paul Ryan’s nothing but a Satan-inspired anti-Christ who should be burned at the stake before he brings on the end days.”

     The line produces a short laugh from Ryan’s appreciative audience. They haven’t come to criticize.

     “But the really hard part isn’t imagining God, but imagining at all.” Ryan taps his forehead. “You have to get this out of the way. I’m talking about the front part of your brain, the part that wants to file everything and anything in a proper slot where it can be conveniently forgotten. This is a neutering process – make no mistake. Just like horses and dogs are castrated to make them safe, the so-called intellect strips truth of its power, thereby rendering it meaningless.

      “So pardon my persistence, but I’m asking you again. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and imagine yourself to be God before His creation. Imagine yourself alone, surrounded by an infinity as dark as it is empty. No time, no place, no here and now, no past, no future. Nothing there, not even you. And yet… and yet you feel yourself, you know that you must exist. But how? As what?

      “OK, take a step back. Now, I want you to imagine something easier. Imagine that you’re a miner trapped in a cavern deep underground. The tunnels around you have collapsed and you’re the sole survivor. In this case, the mine owners have done the right thing and there’s enough cached food and water to last a hundred miners for six months, enough to last you for the next fifty years. But there are no flashlights or lanterns or candles. The darkness is absolute.

      “In the beginning, of course, hope reigns supreme and you assume control of your new world. You take the measure of your supplies. You explore what’s left of the tunnels, despite numerous collisions with low hanging rocks. Most of all, you listen for the scrape of shovels or the whine of a drill, for your rescuers, for salvation.

      “That eventually stops, all of it. At some point every single one of you will admit that nobody’s coming, that you’ve been given up for dead, that you’re permanently trapped in darkness, that you’ll never hear another human voice or see another human face. Never.”

      Carter begins to tune out at this point. He likes the part of his brain that files things away until they’re needed again. That’s how you survive on the battlefield. That’s how you survive when you’ve carried the battlefield into your day-to-day life, when you’ve embraced it, warts and all.

      But the men and women around him are enthralled. Most have their eyes closed, while a few rock in their chairs. So, what’s next? Amens? Hallelujahs? The peculiar thing, from Carter’s perspective, is that he’s been down in that cavern, that collapsed mine. As a foster child on an Indiana farm, he’d been about as alone as a boy can be.

      “The years pass,” Ryan says, “although you have no way to count them. Night and day have no meaning. Winter? Summer? Give me a break. Where you are, the temperature never varies by as much as a single degree. And your state of mind? Well, its first name is loneliness. Followed by despair, followed by madness.”

      Ryan straightens. “But your suffering – and you do suffer - is nothing alongside God’s. You can bang your head against a rock and feel the pain. You can scream into the void and hear your voice echoing back. You eat every day. You urinate and defecate. You have a body that makes demands. And when your food eventually runs out, or your body’s had enough, or you just stop eating and drinking… you’ll escape.

      “Not God. No body for God and no escape. God’s on His own in an empty universe, contemplating an infinite amount of time. He yearns to know Himself. He yearns for something instead of nothing and the only raw material at His command is Himself. He must tear Himself apart, split into trillions upon trillions of infinitesimally small pieces. He must become His own sacred universe.”

       The tearing apart image gets to Carter and his thoughts drift back to his years in the United States military, from raw recruit to Delta Force warrior. The Special Forces warriors he counted as his comrades were super patriots, Carter included. He’d believed himself part of a great moral tradition, heady stuff for a kid who’d never been part of anything.

      That had ended when he left the Army to work for a private contractor in Iraq. To be sure, he’d carried his love of country to Coldstream Military Options, had even convinced himself that he hadn’t changed uniforms solely for the money. No, he was simply doing what he’d done before, escorting convoys, ambushing villains, executing the nation’s enemies.

      An officer named Montgomery Thorpe too him aside when his comrades in arms eventually grew tired of his pitiful rationalizations. Coldstream, he told Carter, intended to extract as many dollars as humanly possible from the nation of Iraq and they didn’t give a flying fuck who they had to kill.

      “Face it, Carter. You’ve graduated.”

      “From what to what?”

      “From a cog on a wheel to a warrior.”

      Paul Ryan interrupts Carter’s train of thought when he slaps his hands on the table, causing the ex-military in his audience to jump to full attention. Some among them bear the scars of war on their faces. A woman seated off to his left has lost an arm. Crutches stand beside several chairs.

      Not Carter, though. Carter journeyed from Afghanistan to Iraq to the bloody coast of West Africa without incurring a serious wound. A matter, in his opinion, of pure luck.

      “I wonder how many of you have felt a longing….” Ryan pauses to draw a breath. His gaze climbs to the ceiling and he folds his hands at his waist. “How many of you feel that there’s something you’ve missed? Not something big, not necessarily. But just this one little…. Well, you don’t know what to call it. An idea, a fact, a detail, an element, a deed, an event. But something, a small item that would change your lives if you could only bring it to mind.”

      Ryan doesn’t wait for a show of hands. He folds his arms across his chest and begins to pace the length of the aligned tables. “God creates the universe out of Himself. Now there’s something instead of nothing. A benefit, to be sure, but one that comes with a cost, especially to beings with the capacity to yearn. Where once we were one, now we are many. Through no fault of our own, we’ve been exiled, set adrift on an incomprehensible sea. And what we long for, when all the other wants and needs are stripped away, is simple reunion. We yearn for it as a baby yearns for its mother’s arms, for the smell and the taste of the breast, for the comforting lullaby. We yearn to be healed, to be finally made whole.”

      Carter finds Ryan’s tone as sincere as it is soothing. Apparently, the man believes what he says. But Carter’s not buying Ryan’s reverent persona. Carter fought alongside Ryan. In Iraq where they killed for a paycheck. In Liberia, where they mowed down the boy soldiers for a sack of blood diamonds. Even then, Ryan was as much a talker as Carter a listener.

      “There’s no one way,” Ryan explains, “and there might not be any way, back to God. So, beware. Maybe the whole seeking thing is a dumb-ass scavenger hunt with no prize at the end. Maybe the world’s restless pilgrims are mad treasure hunters following a map to nowhere. And there are treasure maps aplenty out there, everything from Tantric yoga to Opus Dei, from Salafist Islam to the spirit world of the Yorubas to the Ethical Culture Society. Oh, yeah. You want a map, you won’t have far to look. But which one do you choose? Careful now. Make a mistake and you’ll be wandering through the wilderness for the rest of your life.”

      Ryan’s audience has become restless and he knows it. A shifting of chairs, a cough, a whispered comment, the indicators are obvious. He slows to a stop, standing once again behind the center table with his fingertips just brushing the surface. The expression on his round face becomes grave for a moment and he appears, to Carter, exhausted. But then he brightens, flashing a brilliant smile.

      “Mama always told me I talk too much. Anyone for coffee and doughnuts?”

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