I was a monk. It sounds quaint, that in this day and age, I joined a monastery, put on a robe, and pledged myself to serving the Lord Gilead, paying for the forgiveness of my sins and the purification of my spirit.
I never fit in, I really didn’t. I remember what they said to me in college: “You know, we always thought you were a serial killer. Uptight, religious, weird about women, secretive, never stay up at night with us, probably out killing prostitutes when we’re drinking and making ourselves sick.”
I loved those guys, and being a member of Delta Tau Kappa was so much fun for me. But they were right. There’s something sick and twisted deep within me, and as hard as I tried as a monk, I was never going to get rid of the stain on my soul.
My father sat me down, after I had started in my path as a novice. He told me he understood, that he’d been really involved in religion when he was younger, but there was no sense in throwing my life away, especially when I was so young. I told him, “you brought me up to respect the church, to believe without thinking. Now you want me to tell me that it was all a lie, that I’m crazy for believing you?” He couldn’t answer that. He asked me, “is thinking for yourself, making your own decisions, is it really so terrible? Haven’t we given you the tools to experience the world, and make choices?”
“I have something beautiful here, and I’m not doing for anyone except for me, and Gilead. I’m going to end this war I have in my mind and in my heart, and I’m going to find peace.”
I met Gilead walking. There’s a woods near the monastery; it’s based in a pine tree farm, and there’s some lovely paths lined with pine needles. Absolute silence all the time. A shadow came behind me, still soundless, and I heard a voice that terrified me. “Lex, I know you.” My nose started to bleed. “You were there in the womb, and I was there. For an instant, I saw his face, and my vision went black. “Lord, what can I do,” I screamed as I fell to the ground. I saw light again and he said “If you want to be clean, take this burning fire and eat it.”
I reached out, and there were flames all around me. I gathered up a handful and put them on my face, my hand burning. “Yes, Lex, burn it all out. You’re going to be clean, and you’re going to do my will.” I lost consciousness.
I awoke in a hospital. My arms were bandaged, my face was bandaged, and there was a tube down my throat. I could see my hands, black beneath the bandages. Cloth restraints tied my hands to the bed. A rhythmic “Beep” chimed at regular intervals. Whirrs on a slower interval occasioned my breathing.
I began to twist and turn; the machines began to beep faster and faster, and I bit down on my tube, crushing it. I reached forward and snapped my restraints, dislodging the tube from my throat as nurses and doctors rushed into my room. “Stay!” I commanded, and they could not enter.
Then everything became quiet. I saw the nurses and doctors crowded at the door, I could feel the energy of the room pulse. I stood and felt the restraints fall away. My back throbbed at my shoulder blades, and sharp pains led to me doubling over. I screamed, and I felt myself hot, with burning scorching fumes, I tasted tar and smoke and I looked back; wings. Beautiful feathered wings, a deep red, and I could see my skin, now onyx black. There was a mirror at the sink in front of me, and I looked at myself, wholly changed.
My eyes were clear white against my night black face; my mouth steamed, and the wings rose up before me like a tremendous eagle. “My Lord, what have you done to me?” I went to the window and broke it open, my fists splintering the windowsill, the glass breaking, and I jumped and flew.
I soared above the city, people shouting as I passed by. “What would you do for me, Lex?” I heard His voice in my ear, as if he flew next to me.
“Anything my Lord, anything?”
“Will you be my avenger, will you smite those who have hurt my children?”
I slowed down, my wings adjusting my speed as easily as if I were walking. “You want me to kill people?”
The city began to pulse with light before my eyes. I heard screams, maniacal laughter, the sobs of pain and grunts of ecstasy all around me. He said, “there are those I have made and there are those who I haven’t. Some are born to be saved, some are born to be damned.”
Overwhelmed by what I was hearing, I descended to the flat roof of a nearby building. “Lord, I’ve always lived my faith for love of people. I’ve wanted to help them. I worked for the church, I’ve taught others, I’ve worked for charity, believing that You called us to help the broken and the lost, and that this was living in your example.”
The shadow came over me, the deep, dark voice, with the faint hiss came through me. “I planted a garden, Lex, and created animals and plants, and I put man at the center of it, and created a woman so that he would not be alone. There is a rot in the garden, the stench of decay. The dead and dying, the disease that ravages my garden must be cut out and burned; I planted the garden, and you must be my gardener.”
“People die and I can’t stop it. People suffer because of what’s been done to them, for their decisions and for what they love, because they’re so broken and shot through with rot that they can’t heal, they can’t get any better.”
“You can’t stop it, Lord? You can do anything!”
“You already know the truth, Lex, you’ve known it all your life, though you’ve resisted the idea. There are grades of people. There are those capable of self determination, of self efficacy, there are those who will help themselves. To these people, you may give a great fortune to, and they will make more of it. And there are also people who will squander it, who will bury their gifts and trade them for pittances. To these people, you hug them close and forgive them, you celebrate their return when they come back, but you don’t give them another fortune, because they’ve squandered the one that they have. And when they’re actively harming the good, the faithful, the ones who do my will, you reach out and crush them.”
I took a breath, and looked at my hands, black as coal. The shadow continued.”You remember the story in the Galeed of the farmer who spreads his seeds on the ground, and some fall on good land and grow, some fall on rocky land are scorched by the sun, and some fall among ravens and get eaten. You remember the story of the weeds that grow among the grain, and how you can’t pull the weeds out without pulling out the grain, so the farmer lets the grain grow and then sorts it at the end, burning the weeds and grinding the grain into flour.”
I replied. “Lord, I understand this. I’ve pushed it away for years, and this is what led me to retreat to the monastery. I wanted to believe in the goodness and potential of the human being, even as I’ve spent years watching people with an inborn weakness of character, watching people with an inability to preserve their own lives and promote their own happiness, watching those unable to avoid their own suffering. And I’ve watched people, hurting themselves, destroying and scarring themselves, constitutionally unable to stop, unable to put down the knife and go toward life.”
“I’ve wept bitter tears, with great racking sobs, watching my family torn apart by addiction and early death from preventable causes, my brother with a needle in his arm. I remember the sweet boy I knew as a child, who ran away at twenty, and how we found him, ten years later, homeless in a city apart from us. We learned that he had spent a year with an open fracture of his forearm, on such regular doses of the drugs, using dirty needles, that the open wound was infected, and his heart got infected, and the infection spread to his lungs and his brain, and we found him, and the doctors told us that he was still injecting the drug in the bathroom of the hospital. They amputated his arm, and kept a line in his neck to treat his infection. The last time we saw him, he turned his face away from us, and wouldn’t talk. The nurses told us that his friends were visiting, and they suspected they were still giving him the drug to put through the line that was supposed to be for his antibiotics, and probably still spreading infection throughout his body. We saw his once handsome figure and muscular body, crippled and decaying before us, giving itself over to infection, and could imagine his spirit having given up long ago.”
“Do you understand, Lex, do you see what’s happening? Do you know what you have to do?”
“Lord, it hurts so much. These are the people I love, the ones who have made me who I am. I see my mother, the hardness and resentment of everything she’s experienced from my brother, from how my father treated her, the anger she has, her inability to express it and articulate what it is that she wants in the world in this life. This is the death of her dreams, and I’ve pushed the memories to the back of my mind, but still I weep bitterly whenever I’m reminded of a him dying, so slowly, so quietly, knowing that the true disease is in his spirit.”
“I saw my grandfather, found in his own urine, demented, abandoned by his family and friends, unable or unwilling to move his legs, begging for his lawyer, his kidneys increasingly shut down; when your mind is gone and your body is failing, and no one cares enough about you to give you a safe and quiet place to die, where do you go? Who do you turn to, now that even the voice you would use to advocate for yourself is subsumed by madness and rot?
“My own anger leads me to lash out at them, become like my father, the tyrant, screaming at us with the self righteous fury of the teacher scorned, the angry man who would hurt children, who demands respect and obedience and the working of each of his charges to their potential, and would punish like an eighteenth century schoolmaster. This is the Lex I keep behind my wall of friendliness and generous good will.”
“I’ve tried to reject this pain, to retreat into religion and allegories, with increasingly elaborate explanations to deny what I see with my eyes and the rot that crushes my hope and my heart. I throw myself into diversion after diversion, seeking to keep my attention occupied and distract myself from the patently obvious conclusions which lie before me. I want to believe in a philosophy of enlightened self determination; what I see are people driven by fear and laziness more than they are driven by love and ambition.”
“I’ve been taught by pastors and religious teachers this perspective of a world all light, and a world all darkness, and and they read in the gospels instructions to forgive, to care for the least, to protect those in need like a shepherd protect sheep. I’ve learned that people need to be taught, that they need opportunities to hear the message of salvation. And as free people, they may reject this message. The seed planted in them may not grow.”
“But I’ve recognized another message in the Galeed, not preached by mainstream Gileadans, one far more in keeping with the stern, punitive Pilgrimism of the past, where there are the saved, and there are the damned, and the saved can’t be damned, and the damned can’t be saved. There are two brothers, and Gilead loves one and hates the other. It’s an economic message, of spending resources in areas which will grant success, which will generate further returns. It’s the original message of the Galeed, with the wronged Gilead calling for the destruction and oppression of the people he’s created people because of what they’ve done, the Gilead who would destroy what he has made when he sees what’s been done to it.”
“I’ve spent my life attempting to help others and being slapped down in the process.”
I heard his voice again. “Time is winding down, Lex. The time of trial has ended, and the saved have revealed themselves, as have the damned. I want you to lead my army, and punish the wicked. They’re all going to burn, and I’m giving you the weapons to set them ablaze.”