Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Wisdom from an unconventional teacher, beneath a sacred mountain.

The cavern lies well behind me. Guided only by the light of my own eyes and aura, I step onward. The path is level, but I sense a growing weight above me. I must be moving under the mountain itself. With care but without fear, I proceed.

As the tunnel curves to the right, a flickering light casts onto its left wall. Soon enough, the channel opens into a small cave, a table at its center. On it burns a candle. A plump woman sits behind the table, her shoulders shaking.

Is she distraught? But a few seconds’ closer listening reveals soft chuckles, synchronized with her shoulders’ rhythm. A gentle laugh, but one that fills her body.

This woman is as oddly dressed as anyone I’ve ever met. From the waist down, she wears what can only be the lower half of a chicken suit. It looks somewhat worse for wear, as if she might have salvaged it from the bins outside a mid-market poultry theme park. This aside, her wardrobe is that of a colorful but inoffensive generic protestant pastor. Her purple button-front shirt has a white cleric’s collar. Spectacles thick as bottle bottoms rest low on her nose.

“That’s why Adam donned the fig leaf!” she chortles.

Looking down, I become all-too-aware of my nakedness. “I apologize,” I say. “I lost my clothes in the maelstrom.”

“Don’t give it a second thought. But do put those on.” She points to a neat pile beside the table. “Else neither of us will be able to concentrate.” She looks at her feet, shakes her head, and giggles. She seems to be enjoying herself.

Dressed and blushes fading, I ask her name.

“Call me Padre.”

“Might Madre not be more proper?”

“No, come on. Padre. Like pastor or Father or vicar. It’s a religious thing.”

“But, you being a woman, isn’t it odd to use a word meaning ‘father’ to address you?”

“Listen, sonny. Don’t get so wrapped up in language. Over a long life, I’ve found it’s best not to take words — whether spoken or thought — too seriously.”

But we must take words seriously. How else can we make sense of things? Words connect our minds to the world. They represent the world, and their truth consists in their accuracy.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she says. Then, “You are full of shit and about as dry as a popcorn fart! Lighten up!” With this, she doubles over in laughter, presumably at me. “See, you understand exactly what I’m saying, even though the meaning is quite different from any literal interpretation of the words.

“Words don’t represent anything! They just are themselves. Follow the definitions far enough, and they circle back to where you started. Words can’t reach outside the realm of words. Reality is an entirely different thing!” This sentence rises almost to a cackle. “A thing that contains, surrounds, and swamps every last one of those words.”

Gladdened by the Padre’s jovial spirit, I smile but disagree. “Then how can we go ahead? Do we bother speaking, if we know the words refer to nothing?”

“You lack,” she puts on a faux-serious face, “a proper appreciation of irony. We can admit our words are not the truth and yet still use them. That’s the way to deal with any number of paradoxes about existence, freedom, and purpose. We accept that the paradox is inescapable, that our tiny minds with their clever symbols cannot grasp, categorize, and measure everything. Then we move on as best we can, based on what feels right! We act as if the words in our thoughts and from our mouths are the truth, staying open to evidence or persuasion that they’re not. Then we adjust as necessary.

“The alternative — more prevalent but less healthy — is to cling ferociously, with manufactured certainty, to something we hope is or wish were true. That first approach is thriving with irony, honesty, and faith. The second is surviving with fear, pretense, and belief.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, neither your feathered attire nor your disavowal of belief casts you as a credible padre or religious person.”

“Wow! You are uptight, aren’t you? If I were Homo Egonomicus, I’d make a fortune off of you. If I stuck a lump of coal up your ass, in three minutes it would be a diamond!”

“Padre, you speak lightly of the dead. Egon is no more.”

“He is no longer separate from you. Those are the words I would choose! Hah!

“Anyway, there’s nothing irreligious about faith as I describe it. Instilling facility with irony, comfort with uncertainty, is among its primary purposes, along with illuminating the unity of each person’s soul with God. I would go so far as to say that much more important than the transmutation of bread to body is that of anxiety to divine laughter! Now, are you with me? Do I hear a Hallelujah?”

“Padre, you’ve certainly brightened my day.” I laugh. “But what brings a woman of the cloth…and, um…feather… here to a cave beneath the mountain?”

“Why, Traveler, I’m here to help you face the question you’ve left unanswered from the Stranger’s first note. Do you remember it?”

“Yes, but I’ve not been able to get any purchase on it. He asked why I travel to Mountain City. I’m unsure why. That’s just where I must go.”

“How would you characterize — using your precious words (snorf) — the distinction between a journey and a pilgrimage?”

“I guess a pilgrimage has a religious, spiritual purpose. Other journeys don’t. How about that?”

“Spot on. Now we come to understand that you are not the Traveler, you are, in truth (snorf) the Pilgrim. You’re on a holy quest.”

“I see. Ummm, what is the object of my quest, because it’s not at all clear to me?”

“Now…that would be telling…. Okay, since you ask nicely, I’ll confess (snorf) that what you seek is no different from what everyone seeks — that which is missing. But haven’t you already learned something about the human sense of incompleteness?”

“Ali’s guidance, alongside my waking and dreaming experience, leads me to wonder whether anything is missing, or whether each lack, though felt, is unreal.”

“Indeed! Now, here is my final hint, before I lift you on your way: if the problem is not the absence of a thing, might it be the presence of one?”

“So, the quest isn’t to attain an object but to shed something?”

“In a word: Maybe! Now, here, let me give you a leg up. Watch that candle! I don’t think those trousers are flame retardant.”

As the Padre helps me onto the table, I look up to see a hole in the cavern’s ceiling, a pinprick of light at its center. A ladder dangles from the hole, just beyond reach.

The Padre offers commentary as I find my balance on the rickety construction. “Jacob dreamed about a ladder connecting heaven and earth, up and down which moved the angels, carrying out God’s work. Angels don’t fit into my universal inventory, unless they’re a double-count of humans, I guess. Hmm…still, the dream has merit.”

“What merit is that?”

“Don’t just stand there. Jump, for God’s sake!”

“Jump where?”

“To grab the ladder. Or are you chicken?”

Not because she doubts my bravery, but because I feel like it, I ready myself to leap for the bottom rung of the suspended ladder. With concern, I note the table’s wobble beneath me. I’m by no means certain it will survive my exertions to leave its surface.

“Be brave. Exercise some laddership (snort).”

How quickly can I escape chiding and pun range? I spring for the bar above, losing force with the table’s collapse. I wrap sufficient length of enough fingers around the rung to hang on. Now what?

I hoist myself up with a spasm and manage to secure a firmer grip. Then I run out of ideas.

The Padre rocks with laughter, slapping her knee. “Oh, I never tire of this bit! You’re great value every time, Pilgrim! A monkey would climb right up. Who was it that equated evolution with progress?”

Meanwhile, I hover on a sharp psychological point where embarrassment, rage, and amusement meet. The Padre has kicked away the table pieces and moved under me, looking up. Are those tears rolling down her face? Through laughter creases? She alternates between guffaw and gasp.

My grip strength — mental and physical — is fading. Shall I let go and crash down atop her? I resist and spin myself backward, wheeling a leg up and between my hands, wrapping my calf over the bar. From there, I haul myself up in a swinging motion to claim a perch on the lowest rung.

“Well done!” cheers my tormentor. “Bravo! You did it. You always do. I’m…um…sure someone will be able to mend the seam in your trouser seat once you reach the town. Nice boxers, if I may say.

“Anyway, Jacob’s dream had merit in that it didn’t envision a strictly upward movement on the ladder, with clichéd souls ascending to heaven. The downward movement is much more important, but it’s not the angels who descend. By the way, do you plan to sit on that rung forever, or are you going to climb? Don’t worry; our voices can carry up and down the chute right to the top.”

Oh, great. “Then, in your edited version of Jacob’s dream, who does descend the ladder? Also, if descent is so important, why am I climbing?” I stand on the bottom rung. Ten feet above my head, the ladder disappears into a vertical shaft.

“Why, it’s God who descends, of course. You’re going up because that’s the way things are right now.”

“Do say more.” I begin a steady climb and soon exit the cavern into the shaft above.

“For your entertainment and edification, I shall,” she promises.

“Genesis describes how God created earth and humanity. The gospels tell the story of God’s coming to earth. Jesus was — paradoxically — both God and God’s son.

“Picture it. In heaven, God Is, but She is eternal, changeless. There is nothing (no thing) to perceive or feel in heaven, which is to say in that immutable aspect of Her being. It is a still and peaceful realm.

“The earth/nature/manifestation — pick your word (snort) — is what God creates when She enters a point in that eternal infinitude in such a way as to experience it. I picture that divine entrance as God’s descent from heaven, one and the same with Her creation of Earth.

“It is in that same descent that God creates humanity, or more specifically, creates the world of whatever sentient creature She senses, feels, and thinks through. You see, God — as God — does not experience anything but Her own bliss. As God, She is in heaven, in pristine peace. So, there is no such thing as a God’s-eye view of our world. She encounters life as the beings populating it: as you, me, Ali, the hare and fish you hunted…

“God did not create the Earth once and for all in an instant. She creates earth and life in every moment, by experiencing it. Each moment is nothing but Her descent from heaven, through an exact point in it, to the manifest world.

“In the gospels, God was present not just as Jesus on the cross, but as Pilate who put him there, Judas who betrayed him, the Marys keeping vigil beneath him, and everyone who partook in it from any perspective. She is also present as anyone who believes the story, rejects it or is ignorant of it. All perspectives are made of Her.

“This descent happens every moment. In fact, it’s precisely what each moment is. So Jacob’s Ladder has another, simpler name — hey, did you just fart?”

“No! Please! That was my shoe squeaking on one of the rungs. By what new name should I call Jacob’s Ladder, then?”

“Its better name is ‘Now.’ Each instant, a dimensionless point in heaven, in its animation by God’s descent, unites heaven with earth and God with Her creatures.”

As I climb and listen to the Padre’s intriguing interpretations of scripture, the speck of light above becomes a disk, growing with each rung of advance.

“I can tell by the halo around you that you’re near the top, Pilgrim. I bid you farewell with a final corollary: every experience that has been or will be had is had by none other than God. Dwell on that, Pilgrim. Good luck! Oh, and tie your shoe.”

This is an excerpt from Phil Grimm’s Progress — A modern myth for anxious times.

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