I once swam in liquid darkness. I could touch it, taste it and smell it. It was far more sinister than the mere absence of light. It was an amoral creature with a deep, bloodcurdling growl. All my assumptions about God were challenged and, in a climactic moment, I peered into Deity's eyes. My world expanded in a stroke and the growl was silenced.
The darkness enveloped me in the fall of 1987, when I was a 31-year-old soon-to-be married seminary student convinced of my own idiocy: My fiancé and I had scheduled our wedding for Dec. 19 in the Rochester area of New York, which meant we were asking for a historic white-out. I was so focused on marriage that I barely noticed the ugly gash digging into the flesh of the left side of my tongue. And why worry? I was Mr. Squeaky Clean: never smoked, toked, snorted or chewed. What goes around comes around: I'm safe.
But it hurt -- and it was rock-hard, and I was losing weight.
I finally visited the doctor, who gave me some cream and insisted I return. The cream didn't work, so there I was, a week later, sitting in his office while he called a specialist to set up an emergency appointment. The odds were I had cancer -- and the tumor was big.
Walking Through The Fog
I remember avoiding the eyes of my fellow students and confining myself to my room, which became my hermit's cell, my cocoon, my retreat from all the uneasy gazes as the word inevitably spread. I remember my fiancé sobbing and my mother gasping over the phone. I remember my irrational but real guilt for causing so much grief. I offered Andrea the option of bailing out of the marriage ("Do you really want to be a widow?"). She told me to shut-up. Bless her.
The specialist confirmed it. I did, indeed, have cancer. There were options, of course: surgery would remove a little less than half my tongue. I would speak with a severe speech impediment and find a different way of eating and ...
Uh, God ...
What about the burning bush experience that led me to shelve my journalism career? And my clean living? Am I the male version of Ali McGraw's character in Love Story, which was a stupid movie to begin with? My entire life winds up as an unsold script for a bad remake of a sappy tear jerker? Is this how you get your kicks?
It was there, in my cocoon of a room, that I pictured myself standing on a wind-swept field beneath a blackened sky, peering over a cliff with no bottom. Suddenly, a massive, monster god -- a divine fiend -- cackled, picked me up like an insect, and threw me into the darkness.
I didn't doubt God's existence. I doubted God's sanity and morality. Christianity holds that goodness lay beneath the fallen world -- a goodness possessed in God himself. Evil is rampant and terrible, but God, who spans creation's length and breadth, is holy and loving. That means that love beats at reality's heart and will eventually reign victorious. But maybe not. Maybe God is a celestial sociopath akin to the malicious child ripping insect wings: the cosmic center beats with unapologetic malevolence. The mask has slipped. We see God's true face -- and it's an omnipresent Stalin.
Give me atheism's angst over this.
In The Audience
But the mental imagery changed and became almost as vivid as a vision: I now stood on another field beneath a blackened sky, only this time I was in that braying crowd at the crucifixion. I could almost smell the grass. The focal point, of course, was Christ, who hung between the two thieves. Everyone hurled curses. The guards stood with ready pikes, prepared for a riot and willing to do their worst for the emperor and Pax Romana.
Suddenly, Christ lifted his head and peered directly into my eyes. I felt his empathy. I felt indescribable love. I felt strange but wonderful peace.
I said it aloud: "Oh my God, you know."
I was peering into the Incarnation's beauty: Jesus is fully God and fully human. He didn't merely act like a human; he wasn't a human-like wraith. He was God living a genuinely human life, which means God himself begged for mercy on a dark night; God himself experienced alienation from God ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). God himself hollered my anguished prayer; God himself felt my forsakenness. I do not only pray to a divine God, I pray to a human God.
Christ never spoke to me in that semi-vision -- just as the Father did not speak to him on that day -- so I never knew why I, Mr. Squeaky Clean, fell prey to cancer. But I was no longer asking "why" because the divine fiend was gone.
I opted for twice-a-day radiation therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital in which my tongue and mouth were gradually burned. Andrea and I moved our wedding to Nov. 28 and held a private ceremony so I could be with her while in out-patient treatment. The doctors warned me I would feel nothing at first, but the pain would grow. They were right. I could not eat my own wedding cake on Dec. 19, when we held our public ceremony, and my throat and mouth were eventually so seared that even water hurt.
The tumor, thank God, was cindered along with most of my salivary glands (I now only have one third of my former spit). I lost my thick beard, so my photographs display "pre-cancer" and "post-cancer" looks. But I speak normally, which allows me to describe my own Good Friday, the day on which I walked into Jesus's Good Friday, when God gazed into all our eyes and said, in silence, declared, "I am one with you."