Bedside Demons

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  There is a 'god' who has never caught my interest - a 'god' I grew up hearing about all the time. He used to buzz around me like an irritating fly and I would try to swat him. I'm at it here again, folded newspaper in hand, hoping I can wallop him out of the air really good this time... Splat!

 This annoying god is presented as a being whose primary interest is in whether you 'believe' in him or not. 'You must believe, believe, believe!' his representative preachers have shouted. 

 I can see this god even now in his various manifestations standing apart, a frown on his face, ever watching, on the look-out for a wrong move - ready to disapprove and to scold - the thought of which still causes me to cringe and shudder. 

 When I was twelve years old, this god appeared to me in an especially irritating way as the director of a Friday night gathering at the Baptist church called the Junior Adventure Hour. The goal every Friday was to save as many neighbourhood children as was possible. I've been asking the Lord ever since to save me from plaguing memories of the Junior Adventure Hour

 Here's why, in part. There was a contest every week to see who could bring in the most vistors to be saved. Most weeks I won! So I would be called up to the front of the great crowd to choose as my reward a prize from the assortment of booty on the wall. My friends used to shout out: "Al, choose the model airplane!" Sometimes I would give in to the pressure, choose the plane, take it home, and then be unable to put it together. I remember in frustration smashing one of these models to bits!

 Why? Because I have never been able to build or construct anything. Regardless, I  would be back at it again, the schoolyard evangelist, scouring the playground for recruits for the next adventure hour. My parents would then pick up carload after carload of the young seekers, hauling them off to the big event.

 By the end of the year the tally was in and it was clear that I had brought in more children to be saved than anyone else - by far. Which entitled me to the grand prize, a brand new RCA victor record player - a huge deal at the time! 

 As I stood on the stage in my glory, or should I say, properly, 'in the glory of the Lord,' about to receive, to the envy of all, this magnificent prize, the Director said to me: "Was it your practice to stand by the door and nab visitors as they came in?"  

 Do you know that the shock of that still reverberates to this day? It's one of those memories where you say to yourself, or to any pour soul who has ever had to hear about it, that it was no big deal. But, funnily, it was a big deal! My integrity had been assaulted.  An earnest, twelve year old warrior for the Lord, my reward on stage in front of all was to be stung by a wasp, to use an even stronger image than that of the irritating fly to express how I feel about the kind of god that was buzzing around at that church.

 It has always struck me that such an understanding of god - the fly or the wasp, the intruding, irritating presence - the god who 'comes at you!' - is such a deficient portrayal of the Ultimate, even a denigration. I am unable to drum up any enthusiasm for such a god. In response, my heart isn't strangely warmed, as Wesley's was, but made tense and afraid

 You know, it's partly because this irksome, tiresome image of god is much too shallow and earnest, as in the picture above of the young twit with his Bible in hand. He seems a little too anxious to sell me something. He says he wants me to 'just believe.' He then assures me that by so doing 'everything will be okay.' 

 Which you know is a lie if you've lived for a while and have even a particle of awareness. For the fact is that you will not be okay by simply believing. You're more likely to be instead, as a so-called 'simple believer,' someone dull, boring and unaware.

 There is, I am saying, a certain style of believing that appears to involve a kind of shut-down of your powers, in particular of that part of you that is curious, inquisitive and full of wonder. One's imaginative powers can be supplanted by 'belief' - chained and locked up somewhere, hidden from view - deactivated by a form of religion that buries deep longings instead of inspiring and baptizing them. 

 In place of the open, questing spirit there is a goony, self-satisfied look on the face. It's the look of the unquestioning believer whose testimony is that he's had no struggles or doubts since the day he was 'saved.' 

 It can, I repeat, so often be the case that a form of belief is used as a substitute for awareness. It may be a way of fending off reality, of separating oneself from the stream of life, that is, from its complexities, ambiguities and magnitude. 

 That kind of religion feels like some kind of magic potion to me, likely to be snake-oil. Its god leaves me cold, as do its representatives.   

 The mouthpieces of this unworthy and unqualified god are, to put it mildly, a little hard to take. Characteristically, they will pause part way through a conversation to ask if they can pray for you, or, secondly, interject with words such as: 'Are you ready now to give your life to the Lord?' or, thirdly, if it happens that you like to question a lot, you'll be advised to put a lid on it and to believe instead.  

 For myself I'd prefer to be left alone, however lost I may feel, than to pray with, or to be prayed for, by any one of these 'preying mantises.' For I will not be treated as an object of someone's conversion program. I have more dignity than to fall prey to an impersonal, mechanical transaction - to a sales-job. As a person of great dignity once said to me: "I always trusted, Al, that when you came to see me that it was because you wanted to be with me and not because you wanted to convert me."   

 Now, this approach of coming at others from above in the form of a vexing, intruding, irritating fly or wasp, is not the exclusive domain of religious fundamentalists. This is because I can feel similarly preyed on and pounced upon by a secular do-gooder who, like his religious counter-part, has up his sleeve, or in his pocket, a life changing program of some kind that he'd like to recommend.

 His earnest advice is that if you subscribe to his program for success that it will enable you to 'get your name out there.' He'll help you sell yourself, which a friend of mine, who knows about these things, confirms is the thing you're to do these days if you want to get ahead. The much touted message is that you've got to market yourself, sell yourself. Some of us would prefer a blessed anonymity than to be billboard fodder. 

 My chief protest against the pouncing and pronouncing religious nut and his secular brother is that there is no 'active listening' in either of their approaches. Their effect isn't to create vast and spacious zones of free inquiry that could enable possible spontaneous discoveries that bring understanding, joy and laughter. 

 So my approach instead - what I am trying to put into practice - is an approach that has to do with a kind of search for the genie in someone's bottle. I am looking for a real or true self, a genius, existing beyond the surface in every person I meet. I believe there is a real power, potential or energy that lurks beneath the exterior in every person I meet. 

 Victor Frankl has made reference to this inner dimension as 'the unconscious god,' within everyone. This is a reference to a kind of holy capacity, desire, or ability,  that all possess innately, a power which, upon being awakened, enables anyone to perceive meaning in even the most difficult of circumstances. 

 Frankl described this power as "an innate property of the mind." He called it 'the will to meaning,' which might also be described as a particular kind of perception.'  Man's distinctive ability, he says, is to perceive or "to find meaning not merely in what is but in what can be." It is an ability that Max Scheler has called "the capacity for free contemplation of the possible." (Viktor E. Frankl, The Unconscious God, p.114)

 Frankl has also referenced this inner dimension as a 'repressed religiosity' that can and does break through the surface consciousness in all kinds of surprising ways!

 So when I assert that I am on the look-out for the genie in your bottle, I am looking to encourage your capacity to believe with integrity, that is, to believe with all of your soul, mind and strength. 

 Thus I am all for a level or quality of believing that arises "where the spiritual self steeps itself in its unconscious depths." When that occurs, says Frankl, there will occur "the phenomena of conscience, love and art."

 The key element is to become steeped in one's unconscious depths through the awakening of one's entire being, which may well require, as psychologist, James Hillman, has expressed it, the visits of bedside demons who wake you in the night. 

 Especially as you get older, says Hillman, their visits become more frequent with their "cautions, insights, and promptings. They sit there at the side of your bed, a "crowd of spirits that we call worry, self-castigation, anxiety, remorse, death terror, and erotic longing." They serve also to "recount your blunders and worries." (James Hillman, The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life. p. 97 of 250)  

 I've been thinking lately that the bedside demons are forms of God's grace, there to help in the forging of character. When appropriately welcomed instead of denied and repressed we can become clarified, deepened, even deified in response! 

 The bedside demons are thus to be welcomed in the spirit of the Prayer Book which reads: "O Master, Lord, God Almighty, the Father of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, we give Thee thanks for every condition, and for all things and in all things." 

 So instead of drugging ourselves with sleeping pills, the call in the night is to allow "a cataclysmic eruption in my deep soul." We can choose to experience our awakenings in the night as opportunities for God's grace to act like a  sword "cutting out the weeds and cancers that have been clogging our inner life." (Frithjof Schuon, The Fullness of God, p.183)

 Thus instead of feeling disturbed we can turn our awakenings in the night into opportunities to keep a vigil - to be watchful and attentive as to what can be learned. Hillman expresses it so positively in this way: "Not only are you awakened in the night, but to the night." 

 The point is to be open to a God who is greater than any small and deficient images we may have been exposed to, a God who saturates my entire being with His transforming love.

 Walking Through Clouds by Bernward Koch