“…The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most-
the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost-
They caught the last train for the coast…”
- Don McLean - American Pie
“…The father, son, and holy ghost
They all turned away love when they needed it most…”
- Todd Rundgren - The Last Ride
I am participating in an Email forum with childhood friends and acquaintances I haven’t seen or contacted with for over fifty years. The subjects of religion, spirituality, mysticism and the paranormal have come up. I have prepared the following to share with the forum and thought it would make an interesting blog presentation. The incident described below occurred well before I knew them “way back when” and they are hearing about it for the first time. Mike, this one’s for you! - R.W.]
SUNDAY SCHOOL AND CHURCH -
My parents “made” me go to Sunday School and church when I was a kid in New York City during the late 1940s and early ‘50s. I would rather have been roaming the streets of Queens and Brooklyn.
HELL ON EARTH -
In Winter I was forced to wear woolen garments to attend church or Sunday School. The most itchy of all trousers were sent to us from Germany---where my parents were born. Those German pants had coarse fibers that could be felt through any long underwear. It felt as if I were atoning for the sins of World War II.
The wool pants came to us in musty-smelling boxes from friends and relatives with children who had outgrown the leg sheaths---in gratitude, no doubt, for the post-World War II “CARE“ packages my family had sent them. At times I was forced to wear both itchy wool trousers and itchy, long, woolen underwear---"hair pants." My parents never seemed to grasp the concept that I was (and still am) allergic to coarse wool.
Pain and suffering were big topics in Sunday School and church. Someone was always threatening us kids with undergoing some sort of pain---spelling out the graphic details of perpetual hard times in Hell. I sat there trying to keep as little as possible of the fabric of those itchy wool pants from contacting my skin. Suitable attire for Hell---where you try to make as little contact as possible. Don’t make a wave!
I was also uncomfortable with church architecture. I knew right away that the structures and the altars contained within those cold, stone buildings were supposed
to compensate for something that could not be seen. Even the modest, little New York City "chapels" were heavy with stone and darkly purpled drapery---somberly decorated with suffering saints and nailed-up messiahs.
The gloomy innards of these mausoleums were hardly relieved by stained glass windows with their blood reds, insufferable blues and nauseous yellows. I have no recollection of my father ever being in a church---except for the baptism of my little brother---and that was a private ceremony. My mother attended church only on occasional Easter Sundays. I, however, was forced to attend weekly---for my “own good.”
I cannot recall either of my parents ever uttering the words “God” or “Jesus Christ.” Next to the fact that they allowed me to wander New York City streets from a very early age, I consider this one of their greatest blessings.
When it came to what the other adults were telling me about religion I got the general idea---but little of what was spoken, preached or discussed excited my interest or made much sense. Then, as now, I found religion more fascinating for the fact that some people made so much of a to-do over it---rather than the actual content itself, which I found generally unbelievable.
Nevertheless, I was just a kid and at times I tried to believe in what the ministers and Sunday school teachers were so fervently trying to pour into us empty little vessels. The concept of God did, at some point, enter my mind. But I never did believe in the Jesus thing---to my way of thinking he couldn‘t even save himself!
Whatever I managed to believe, however temporarily, came about because I was told to believe it with such great force of conviction and gravity of importance. And of course there were the threats. Everlasting and unrelenting torture in Hell with a capitol "H." Like having to listen to a monotonous, never-ending sermon while being forced to wear coarse wool socks, long wool underwear, wool pants, a wool shirt and an “itchy sweater!” A total body “hairshirt” of mortification and penance forever and ever---of the itchiest wool that could be found. That was Hell to me.
THE HOLY TRINITY -
One religious subject did intrigue me for a time. It was the concept of “The Trinity”---"The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." For weeks when I was nine years old I began hearing about it in Sunday School on a regular basis. It was all by design as I was to learn---we were going to have a guest speaker on the subject.
I was truly interested in this topic to the extent that I actually thought about it a lot outside of Sunday School. I found The Holy Ghost fascinating because it involved a non-corporeal entity I had previously not considered in any depth---and one certainly not heretofore given such weight of importance by the adult figures in my life. Still, it was more of an intellectual conundrum than a spiritual seeking on my part---I just wanted to understand what they were talking about.
I understood the "Father" part---that was God. I got the "Son"---that was Jesus. [Of course, later on I heard that “Jesus is God”---which I still don’t understand. I mean, why would God pass himself off as his own son and then “sacrifice” himself?] Anyway, however hard I tried to think about it I just could not grasp the concept of the Holy Ghost…or Holy Spirit. Now that was something to think about!
Usually, Sunday School was something to endure, get over with and then forget. But the Holy Ghost thing was a challenging intellectual puzzle for me. What were these adults talking about, I wondered? [It sure didn’t discourage my curiosity that my Sunday School teacher during this time was a pretty, young lady.] Why are they carrying on about a "ghost"---something that can't even be seen? Or, for that matter, something not normally thought to exist.
Only the "Bowery bums" (what the homeless were called when I was a kid)---the drunks that wandered the streets, alleys and sidewalks of my New York City youth---saw things that weren't there. I watched the bums aimlessly roaming, talking to empty air, and was told not to look at them. I found them fascinating but most people totally ignored them. Walked past them as if they were not there. [Naturally, I wound up hanging around with them under bridges by the railroad yards.]
I wondered how "normal" people---who seemed so hung up on outward appearances and hard, cold reality---could get so worked up over a "ghost?" That was as much a mystery to me as the concept of the Holy Ghost itself. I began to identify with this Holy Ghost---sometimes I too felt as if I were invisible, not there, not known, but talked about as if real.
THE “VISITATION” -
It was a big Lutheran church right on the corner of the next block from where we lived in Queens. The church is still there (and so is the old two-story “flat“ on 60th Place where we lived in the lower apartment). Normally, we kids were divided into a number of smaller Sunday school classes of maybe twenty or so each. One day, after weeks of these Holy Ghost discussions in Sunday School, about a hundred or more children---all the classes combined---were herded into the basement of the Lutheran Church of Ridgewood, Queens, New York for the big Holy Ghost finale. It was a sunny Sunday morning. It was in the Fall, fairly cool, and leaves were parachuting down from elm and maple trees and landing on cement sidewalks.
In the basement room of the big church it was a bit hot and stuffy. Sunlight came in from street-level windows above. As always, I looked out the windows and wanted to be outside.
The guest speaker continued in the same theme of our earlier, individual Sunday School classes---"the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." He was a handsome man I had never seen before. He was intent and sweating. As he droned on I tried to listen but became aware of what the shafts of sunlight were doing as they came through the windows from the sidewalk level above. I was sitting off to one side as I always did and my eyes wandered about the room. I looked at the other kids. I looked at the ceiling and behind the speaker. There was some sort of diagram involved in the presentation---a triangle with God at the top…three…a “trinity.”
Then, like a mist materializing within the sunlit haze of dust that floated on the indoors air, an entity appeared above the congregation. I thought right away it was the "Holy Ghost" that everyone had been talking about---or the "Holy Spirit" as I sensed it preferred. It seemed to have been made visible by the dust that floated in slanting beams of sunlight. It had created its own opening into the physical reality of that church basement. Actually, the entity did not so much “hover” as it was “just there.”
I looked about. I looked into every face visible to me in that room---one at a time and with great deliberation---to see if they were seeing what I was seeing. There were over a hundred seated kids and about five adults standing around, strategically placed in the large room. I looked into every face within my line of sight. There was no indication anyone else was seeing anything out of the ordinary. I studied the face of the speaker who also seemed unaware---he simply carried on. Still, he must have been a hell of a preacher, although when I pointed out to the entity that the speaker also seemed unaware of its’ visual presence, the spirit agreed with my observation.
Just to be sure of its’ identity, I spoke to the entity [I presume this “conversation” all took place silently, in my mind, although it seemed quite audible to me.]:
"Are you what he is talking about?" I asked, nodding toward the speaker.
"Yes," it answered.
"Does he ‘see’ you?" I asked (I was only nine years old, remember.)
"No," replied the entity.
The "Holy Spirit"---the topic, theme and total focus of a long, fervent and well-organized Sunday School narrative---was present (at least to me) above the congregation gathered in that church basement and no one else seemed to notice. That inherent irony was self-evident and did not escape my nine-year-old mind.
Other than the event itself, the odd thing was the very matter-of-fact nature of the entire experience. The simplicity of the dialogue. The stark picture of the audience of children. The intense and persevering speaker. The adults standing over the congregation---none of whom seemed to notice me squirming around in my chair or the spirit-like entity which was in the air seemingly right in front of everyone! This went on for some time although I did not count the minutes. I was enthralled.
Not one person even looked at me that I could see. It is conceivable that other children were “seeing” something. Maybe they all were. I couldn’t say. But not one person in that room made eye contact with me---and I looked most of them full in the face trying to figure out if they were seeing what I was seeing. I mean, you don’t see something like that every day!
Then it was simply over. The talk ended, the door was opened and I found myself joined with the other children filing up the stone basement stairs and out into the day. For once I was sorry that Sunday School was over! I was somewhat disappointed the vision had ended---I was still curious about what had just happened and wanted to stay with it. I vividly recall mounting the stone staircase with some sense of regret. But by the time I got outdoors I was captivated by the beautiful, fallen red maple leaves on the sidewalk at my feet. It was a fine Autumn day and I was not feeling any more the worse or better than any other day. I don’t even recall being perplexed. And, for the record, I was not wearing wool---I very much doubt this would have happened if I had been distracted by itchy trousers!
ANOTHER MYSTERY TO PONDER -
Then something even more amazing happened. Or rather, didn’t happen. The most astonishing thing about this experience was that it never even entered my mind to tell anyone. I had no second thoughts about the vision at the time. I had no thoughts about it at all. There was no soul-searching about whether or not to mention this to anyone---I simply did not do so.
I just accepted what I had seen and promptly filed it away---although I never forgot. It never occurred to me for a moment to tell anyone at all of my experience at the time. Indeed, I had no concept of my experience as a vision until many years later. It was only during the 1960s, in the age of psychedelic drugs, that I even thought to tell anyone. I never told my parents---although it would not have fazed them…there is a strange tradition of mysticism among the Germanic tribes.
A former fiancé, from a Christian family, seemed hurt and disappointed I had never mentioned the incident to her when we were together (I was an “atheist“ back then---much to the consternation of her father). As if she would have thought differently of me---it was “God,“ after all, who had “told” her to break up with me.
“You saw the Holy Spirit,” she said. “You talked with it and you never said anything to me about it?”
So, to me, the most interesting question about this experience is why I never even thought to say anything about it until years later.
I could simply have been freaked out by the incident! I don‘t think so---the experience was just something I couldn‘t relate to anything I had ever known then. And of course I don’t have a clue if the real, honest, no-jive, Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost actually appeared to me or if it even exists! I just saw what I saw and heard what I heard!
I do not recall a great deal of what exactly had been told to us kids in church or Sunday School about the “Holy Trinity” and “Holy Ghost” prior to the incident---other than the contention that there was such a thing and that the Holy Ghost was some sort of a go-between. What I also find odd, thinking about it today, is that the Sunday School teachers of the Lutheran Church of Ridgewood, Queens---who had so excited my curiosity and built up my expectations on the subject in a long run-up to the big lecture---never followed up afterwards. No one asked what we kids had thought of our big-time guest speaker. No one asked us after the lecture if we had any further thoughts about the Holy Ghost. Who knows, if someone had asked I might have said something! I chalk it up to the tyranny of the itinerary---it was going to be followed! What I recall most about this church was that they had everything well-regulated and administratively under control.
NOT SUITABLE FOR ADULT VIEWING -
Why I said nothing was and still remains for me, the most stimulating question about the incident. It is endless fun to speculate!
Certainly I said nothing because I realized that my “vision” was completely beyond the understanding of anyone I had ever met in my young life. Most likely I figured they would think I was crazy---like the "Bowery bums" with their mad ramblings as they lolled drunkenly on sidewalks or lay, passed out, in doorways where they had spent the night rolled up in their long wool overcoats.
Perhaps my good sense told me that the adults would make nothing but trouble for me if I told them of my “vision.” Perhaps I escaped being guided into the ministry. Perhaps I was getting back at the adults who took away some of my precious outdoors time and, indirectly, caused me to be clad, by my parents, in itchy, hand-me-down, “nice,” wool pants every damned Sunday of those cold, New York City Winters.
Perhaps I read in the tabloid New York Daily News about how the Catholic Church had dispatched priests to “investigate” reports of peasant girls and boys in Guatemala or Yugoslavia who claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary and received “revelations.” In any case, it was clear to me, even as a child, that the Holy Spirit was not really part of the reality of immediate awareness of the hierarchy or the membership of any church I knew of. [I had not yet, apparently, heard of Pentecostals---certainly not the Native American Church!] I instinctively knew that spiritual experiences were poorly tolerated by the major religions---even viewed with suspicion. That a regular church was the last place where one could expect to have a true spiritual experience and get away clean with it. That a child having a spiritual vision constitutes a threat to the authority of the clergy. But then, I am not sure my experience was religious, spiritual or purely hallucinatory (my fallback explanation). There were certainly no great revelations---just a visitor and an ordinary conversation. The experience itself was, however, a sort of revelation.
The thought comes to mind: What if I had been a simple peasant-child or shepherd-boy in some remote village in a place even more superstitious than urban America? What if I had “told“ the adults?
I was a smart-mouth, dumb-ass kid---but I was not simple. I could envision all kinds of reactions from those unpredictable adults---from getting smacked in the mouth to being trotted out and paraded around by worldly priests in furtherance of some church agenda. I could see being myself being repressed---told to keep quiet. Or publicly exploited to rejuvenate some religion that had lost its soul. I could see the content of my vision edited and embellished. In retrospect, it is no wonder my street instincts told me to keep my mouth shut!
Which brings me to the next logical question: What personal meaning did this incident have for me?
PERSONAL MEANINGS -
The Holy Ghost incident---although I did not make the connection at the time---may have marked the moment I left the Christian religion in spirit as well as in mind. Although my parents forced me to continue going to Sunday School and regular church services (and even though I quickly outgrew those horrible itchy-pants), I never took any of it so seriously again. When I was fourteen my parents permitted me to stop going to church entirely. But that event, at age fourteen, was only the final act in a rejection of faith (not the loss---I never had it) that may have taken place five years earlier in a Lutheran church basement.
LATTER-DAY MEANINGS -
When I related the Holy Ghost incident to an Evangelical neighbor here in Alaska, she arched her eyebrows, took on an inquisitional tone, and demanded to know “What” it was that I had seen (as if I knew!). I doubt she had ever heard of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” but I knew exactly what she was talking about. I almost laughed out loud! That the notion of the Devil appearing in the basement of a Lutheran Church to a nine-year-old child was a real possibility to her seemed incredible to me.
This was one of the most profound memories from my childhood in New York City. I can still clearly see the “entity” in my mind to this day. For the record, no drugs or medications were involved. I’ve had very occasional out-of-body type and differentiated-reality experiences ever since I was a toddler---but, prior to the church basement incident, nothing so graphic or interactive…or involving a “spirit.” I do believe, however, that---from a very early age---I have always recognized my breaks from reality as products of my own mind. I always managed to view them separately from the practical, material reality I was expected to navigate. In other words, even as a child, I knew the difference between physical reality and imagination.
Some say I am “searching for something.” That I am on a quest for spirituality, to find religion, to find the meaning of life, the truth, belief itself, faith…etc.
These are all seemingly lofty, sometimes lovely, sometimes worthy and rather enticing aspirations. However meaningful these concepts may be, however, I find them all---individually and in their totality---to be rather limiting and constricting of whatever personal search my mind is engaged in. These concepts, from my personal point of view, are ultimately nebulous and not meaningful to me on a practical level. I mean, I wouldn’t want to miss out on a special and unique insight just because I am distracted by the expectation of some sort of "meaning." I don‘t want to overlook something new and different because of already believing something else conferred to me by others. I don’t do other peoples “visions”---I view even my own hallucinations with skepticism. I have always been a matter-of-fact personality. I don’t even know if I am on a journey of discovery…or re-discovery!
OKAY, SO WHAT WAS IT?
So, was this a visitation, a vision, hallucination, figment of my imagination, delusion, phantasm, specter, mirage, fantasy…? Whatever it was...no one noticed! You, dear reader, may call it what you will---I will not be offended. Because I just don’t know!
One insight that could have been revealed to me here is the possible nature of other so-called “visionary” experiences which, when taken too seriously, have been used as part of the basis for religious beliefs and movements.
Of course I am aware that this “basement incident” would have been a profound experience for most anyone. I know people who actually believe in the religious context and long for such an experience. Whatever its nature, this was an awesome experience. Though I am flippant and irreverent, it remains to this day a humbling experience for me---and a source of stimulation, inspiration and speculation both intellectually and spiritually. Why it occurred to me is a mystery with many faces. But I reject all pat or easy answers---especially those of an ideological nature.
I have had similar states of mind since---in other churches on the Navajolands of Northern Arizona. But with crucial differences. For one thing, the spiritual guides and the people in those congregations could see what was happening with me and mentioned they had seen me undergo an experience and asked me to tell them what had transpired. I will relate these experiences in upcoming blogs.
- Rudy Wittshirk
Jack R. Newall:
Sure, the Judeo-Christian legacy is "important"---but hardly "the most important event in universal history." If one believes the Universe to be under ten-thousand years old rather than the scientifically-determined age of 14 or so billion years, I suppose the rise of Christianity might assume more importance. Without the physical evolution of the Universe and the rise of conscious beings there would be no religions of any persuasion. Furthermore, there is a great deal of violence and hypocrisy attendant to this Judeo-Christian movement.
The question posed by the blog remains---is any of the "vision" stuff real? Or is it all hallucinatory? "Faith" is just another way of saying there is no evidence, no facts and no proof. - R.W.