The Last Sermon of the Rev. Paul Altara

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(Includes an Illustrated Journey through the Bishop’s Brain)

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From the elevated position of his elegantly carved wooden pulpit, Paul Altara (or the Reverend Paul Altara, as he was then known) looked down at the assembled crowd in the church. It had indeed been his pulpit, a sacred space from which, week after week for nearly seven years, he had been able to deliver adventurous, contemplative explorations — though always within the religious limitations from which he was now being liberated. During those years, many had been challenged, some had been puzzled and a number had walked away. Various threatened dignitaries and authorities had tried to undermine him through malicious gossip and takedowns. He had even drawn the intense attention, as a dissident, of the government’s euphemistically-named Religious Liaison Unit (RLU) — a department which, through legislation, punitive enforcement and incarceration in special prisons known euphemistically as “Reattunement Camps” (where state-of-the-art technology would be used to alter permanently one’s thinking), ensured that religion and all religious meetings were supportive of the state, non-dissenting and did not pursue their own objectives too radically. In return, they also enabled legislation outlawing any criticism of a religion or belief as “hate-speech”. This was therefore a department to which all churches unequivocally submitted without question and even took pride in doing so. To Paul, though, it was a sign of the times for the church to kowtow to such an office, especially with the fulsome sycophancy it did so.

He had not yet declared his whole hand to the congregation about the extent to which he had painstakingly reinvented his faith by going right back to the drawing-board of everything he had been taught or had ever believed. Today, that restraint would be removed. It had already been widely rumoured throughout the town and even beyond that he would be giving a heavily dissenting sermon — the last he would give, not only in the Church of St. Giles but in his entire life. Therefore, it was a full house on that auspicious Sunday morning. The Bishop was there — a signal that he “meant business” — as were many members of the local synod. There were even two representatives (male and female) from the RLU, who were humorously obvious, looking more like spooks than civil servants.

‘Perfect,’ thought Paul, as a little indulgent ripple of martyrdom coursed through his veins, which he immediately allowed to dissolve with an inward grin and invisible shake of the head, as it was merely — in some words he would later write in his notebook — “a worthless vestige of my tattered ego”.

“Tattered ego” was the right phrase. By this day, his ego was just a shadow of its former self. During the previous couple of years, he had been forced to delve into his soul to discover what he was really made of. It was one long roller-coaster of revelations and epiphanies from which there was no turning back.

As he stared intently at the assembly, he noticed how some faces were angry and dark; others were cold and calculating, pens and paper out, ready to take notes of the heretic’s words; some were tearful and incredulous — as if they could not accept their experience, like a mother whose child has just died in her arms, or an earthquake victim gazing on the ruins of his former home. Then there was the usual assortment of suits who looked like shop-window manikins, sales executives and assistant-managers attending their annual company conference. The Bishop’s face caught his interest, as it always did. He felt repulsively intrigued by the opaque milky squidginess of the prelate’s facial skin texture. That opacity seemed to him to have increased over the years, as if reflecting the incremental ability of the Bishop to pontificate arcanely in order to avoid having to be truthful and transparent. He was not a representative of “the Lord” but was a politician preserving his hide and his handsome salary.

His mind wandered back to a meeting with the Bishop a couple of weeks earlier. Paul had been summoned to the “mansion” — an edifice that Paul always called “his highness’s palace”, much to the displeasure of the Bishop who presented himself as a trendy left-wing ‘man of the people’. The undischarged tension in these meetings was so great that on the previous occasion a book had flown explosively some metres off a shelf in the library as they spoke. The Bishop looked shocked, whereas Paul merely smiled to himself while recalling how a similar occurrence had taken place in a vigorous discussion about precognition and parapsychology between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in April 1909. Paul had actually written a paper about the phenomenon, entitled “Catalytic Exteriorisation as a Manifestation of Spirit”, in a regional church magazine, with much ridicule from the local hierarchy, for whom any kind of revolutionary metaphysics was anathema. So it was no problem for Paul to identify what lay behind the exploding book on the shelf.

“I’ve had complaints about you again, Paul”, said the Bishop, after sighing and shaking his head. Paul sat there impassively, waiting for the follow-up to come. “Apparently, you upset more than a few members of your own parish committee when you claimed that Jesus was not born on the 25th of December.”

“Well, was he?” said Paul, leaning forward earnestly.

“Of course not!” said the Bishop. “You and I both know that’s impossible”. But what we know and what we show we know are two different things”.

“Not in my book”, said Paul immediately. “I know that you and your friends have no problem in pretending you believe in God in front of the people then laughing about the naivety of those people as soon as their backs are turned”.

“Paul, being a Christian and therefore a follower of Christ is about being diplomatic. That is the way of the caring person.”

“No, it isn’t. Not at all. Caring ceases to be caring when it is at the expense of truth and light. Truth and light only cause problems in those who resist them. I was simply sharing in a gentle way, in a casual sense, in a meeting, that there is no way that Christ could have been born on the 25th December, pointing out the clues in the bible which show that. Many were very interested but a few — the most influential in the church, who are more concerned about form and tradition than about genuine spirituality — started to kick up a rumpus for nothing. They’re disinterested in lively and stimulating discussion. They’re so immature that they’re incapable of having a disagreement without going into meltdown. When people with no spirit start running churches then they are no longer churches. That goes for the top too, by the way”.

Now Paul was moving into overdrive. His face was lit up with enthusiasm. “Most of you Bishops are socialist atheists mesmerised solely by the outward elements of life and doing everything you can to suppress any genuine metaphysics and the true nature of Christ, who you style as some kind of Marxist revol…

At which the Bishop interrupted angrily, shouting: “That’s right, Paul! The church is imperfect! So what’s new?”

Paul: “This is not about imperfection. It’s about the complete dereliction of duty as a child of God and a guardian of the light.”

At the mention of those words, something traumatic happened to the Bishop’s mind. It even had a sound, like a branch snapping loudly after being trodden on by a giant in the forest. His face went a pale shade of purple and the veins stood out on his neck like some alien who had plummeted to earth. Paul thought of those old cartoons where steam came out of the ears of the animated characters when they became angry. In fact, the Bishop’s very large and hairified ears looked extremely inviting for a journey. So in that precious moment, Paul’s spirit projection delved into the ear of the Bishop, past his concha, along the acoustic meatus then transmuting through the tympanic membrane with etheric ease. Winding through his malleus, incus and the bottleneck of the stapes, he wound his way through the maze of canals and cochlea to the beginning of the two vestibulocochlear nerves. Dividing himself between the two, he ended up in the Bishop’s brain — whereupon his first impression was that its consistency was the same kind of amorphous squidginess of which his face was made. Paul easily hitched an electric ride along a multitude of synapses from one neuron to another, mapping out the brain of the Bishop. Considering that the number of synapses in a single human brain outnumber the stars in the Milky Way, one could be forgiven for thinking that it would have been a long-drawn-out process. But electrical impulses are more or less instantaneous; so Paul was able to gauge the principal characteristics of the Bishop’s brain more or less instantaneously.

Upon arrival in that brain, Paul noticed that his feet stuck in a viscous substance resembling an opaque colourless treacle. It was impossible to travel through his brain without being heavily immobilised in the stuff. Somehow, there was also a mist in the air so there was no clarity to his eyesight, making it impossible to see the way forward without ambiguity. Then the visions started. First a fat smiling Bishoply face hovered over him like a friendly balloon at a fairground. Then it suddenly morphed into the most evil face he had ever seen, reminiscent of a medieval gargoyle. Then back to the Bishoply face. Then to the gargoyle. And so it went on. Incessantly changing. He had no idea which was the real face. As he tried to make his way through the goo, he became aware of a sound which was like a vast choir of angels. He found it so beautiful and alluring that he began to trace it to its source. As he waded stickily through one synapsis after another, he eventually arrived at the heart of the sound. It was a vast, hideous space in total darkness with the most terrible stench he had ever smelled. As his eyes adjusted to the non-light, he realised he could make out a figure in the corner. To his astonishment, he saw the devil playing a synthesizer. The fallen angel slowly turned towards Paul and stopped playing. Now there was only the sound of his feet slurping in the goo. The angelic choir was gone. Paul was intrigued and approached the chief of demons more closely until he was as far away from him as your nose is from this book. He noticed that the fiend’s face kept changing like the Bishop’s from having an attractively beautiful countenance to a desperately demonic one.

“What on earth are you doing here?” said Paul, bewildered.

Beelzebub slowly stretched a smile across his face and began to laugh like some villain in a children’s pantomime. Then he spoke with a voice so loud and discordant that Paul fell to his knees with shock and covered his ears with his hands.

“This is my home, you fool! I belong here!”

A snarling silence ensued for an appropriate amount of time (probably for only a few seconds).

“And now you are my prisoner”.

“Never!” yelled Paul at the top of his voice and he then incanted what seemed to him like some atavistic mantra to protect himself:

“You have taken over his brain
but you will never have mine,
for I am of the Light
and with that Light I shine”.

At this, Paul launched himself out of the sticky goo and down the first synapsis he could find. To his amazement, he discovered that there was no need to wade through the tacky substance which lined the floor, for he could fly! And so he did, retracing his way through the brain and ear structure of the Bishop, arms ahead of him like Superman on his way to an assignment. It reminded him of when, as a little boy, he had watched the return to the earth’s surface through a vent of volcanic magma of those who had journeyed to the centre of the earth in the film of Jules Verne’s novel.

“Are you listening to me at all?” shouted the Bishop, whose face was still exhibiting that shade of purple even after his sixty-second rant about authority in the church.

Paul jumped as though startled by the question and adjusted to his surroundings. The enormity of what he had seen began to take hold of him. He realised that he’d been given an epiphany. “No. I’m not”, he said. “And I will never listen to you again. I know who you really are. I thought you are just a scheming old man playing at politics but it’s so much more than that. You’re an imposter — a wart on the face of the church — a cowardly bearer of darkness disguised as a being of light. And to think I used to respect you, look up to you. How stupid I’ve been. Of course, it all makes sense now. The whole thing is a masquerade and naïve people are the dupes who keep people like you in your phoney roles”.

The Bishop’s face now turned from its pale shade of purple to a translucent pallid squidgy mass of malevolent frozenness. “Get out of this room, Paul. Get out of my house. Get out now! I don’t ever want you in my sight again. I am going to bring proceedings against you which will make you regret that you ever crossed my path. If you do see me again, you will know that I mean business”.

Paul simply smiled and lightly shook his head. “You won’t have to do that. I’ll be giving my last sermon at St. Giles in two weeks and then I’ll kick your poisoned cloud of dust back in your face, you evil man”.

Bang!

Paul jumped out of his recollective daydream and realised that there was a whole congregation in front of him, waiting for him to speak. He studied their faces. One face in particular caught his attention in a front row over to one side of the nave. It was that of a woman which seemed to have some magnetic qualities. If he had been in a café or in the street, he would not have been able to take his eyes off her. There almost seemed to be something glowing about her. She even seemed to be smiling at him in a Mona-Lisa-esque manner. Was she? Maybe she was just remembering something amusing. Maybe she was looking at someone else. It wouldn’t be the first time that he’d been mistaken about that. There was a girl on a bus a few years ago who he was convinced was staring at him and mysteriously smiling too. He’d summoned up enough courage to approach her by asking innocuously if she had the time. Then she jumped out of her skin, as if she’d been in a deep daydream, which she had. He’d felt such a fool and vowed he would never make the same mistake again. Which he hadn’t. Neither had he ever approached a woman again, preferring the hallowed hall of celibacy where the pursuance of spirit would be his wife and Christ would be his Muse. Then, as if remembering the purpose of his moment, he had to quickly pull himself together and continue with the inner preparation for his words.

He felt as if he was standing on the edge of a vast ocean, with each head as a bobbing wave undulating with an alien current. He knew that the words about to emerge from his mouth would cause a tidal wave in this backwater of a town (though at that time he had no idea of the far-reaching actions which he would put in motion and which would contrive to swallow him up and attempt to spit him out). If only its rippling surface could take him to an infinity of gorgeous dreams. If only he could plunge into that sea and swim beyond its watery edge to a world where creatures loved adventure and romance and each other — where conflict was a long-forgotten anachronism, where a kiss was just a kiss rather than the betrayal of others; where love was truly love rather than sentimental words in a song or the smug cosiness of a social apparatus.

He began to think about the way he had lately been characterised as a troublemaker in the church arena. ‘Churches are tombstones serving as monuments to a life of blinkered repression’, he reflected. ‘Despite the deceptive air of benevolence and ritual solemnity, with very few exceptions one could write ‘Ichabod’ [ed: Hebrew for “no honour” or “the glory has departed”] over every church doorway. And yet they categorise me as a heretic?’  The years of struggle and reflection channelled themselves into a stream of insight, as his heart cried out inwardly: “I am a believer! A true believer. I believe in life. I believe in infinite love and communion. I believe in the power of truth. I believe in honour, in spirit, in justice, in virtue, in the peace which passes all understanding. I believe in the Light, in the glorious energy of everything! They just believe what they are told to believe, or what they want others to believe, or what it’s convenient to believe, or what their “faith” imposes on them to believe, or what the RLU asserts as being within the bounds of believability. I am only a dissenter to falsehood and hypocrisy. What have I to be afraid or ashamed of?” A surge of confidence coursed through his body, thrusting any hesitation into oblivion. He straightened himself up like a man on a railway track about to be hit by an oncoming train, resigned to the moment, revelling in it even.

The undulation before him stopped and a silence descended on the church like a fog draping itself over a hillside or a stream of lava enfolding a small town. He felt like an aeroplane about to take off in those split seconds of lucid expectation before the increasing thrust of the engines threw one to the back of the seat and into a world of new possibilities. He was ferociously excited at the prospect of giving his soul free-rein within the walls of that prison of ideas. He straightened his notes, opened his mouth and began to speak slowly and deliberately, his eyes staring with a piercing gaze at an indefinable spot above the heads before him.

“How we limit the human mind, drawing only on our bland, predictable experiences”, he began, with a slight tremor in his voice. “How easily we make things so much less than they really are.”

Pause… (You could have heard a pin drop).

“Religion has been a driving force across this planet from the beginning of time. How wearying this must have been for this earth of ours — this living being which we mistake for a spinning sphere of rock in space. The words of the poet come into my mind: ‘O sweet spontaneous earth, how often have the doting fingers of prurient philosophers pinched and poked thee’. Not just the philosophers but the scientists, politicians and all the religious people with their dogmas, superstitions, and twisted self-aggrandising hermeneutics.”

Some bottoms shifted awkwardly in some pews.

“Have you ever wondered why religion has been so rampant during the development of humanity on earth? If we think about this dispassionately, objectively and honestly, we will see that there are a number of reasons; and if we understand those reasons, we will understand ourselves and why the world has taken the paths that it has. In brief, I want to share five of those reasons with you today. They are a frustration with fate, the fear of death, subconscious guilt, the need for love and the craving for control. If people could learn to face these things with a resigned honesty as the quarry faces the night, this world would be a very different place. Instead we have chosen to fight and struggle — not only against these things but also with each other because of those things.

“Fate…  Death…  Guilt…  the Need to be Loved…  the Desire for Control…

Another pause… (more bottoms shifted awkwardly in some other pews).

“Fate. That dark mistress of flowery fruitful nights whose roots grow sharply downwards as upwardly she shoots her featherless arrows. Fate. The bringer of unspeakable shocks and surprises, against which we try to hedge ourselves about with safety and control with our insurance policies, routines and failsafe devices. Yet, we need to accept our ignorance and our helplessness before we can ever hope to gain any knowledge or control in our lives. The adventure of the unexpected is so much more reasonable and exciting than living in a safe, predictable bubble, where everything must be revealed and known beforehand or we take no steps at all.”

He thought fervently about every one of his words. The import, the sound, the way that they would carry across the building. The way that they would be received through the ears and in the brains of the hearers. He felt the weight of responsibility in his communication. Words, he thought, are like melting stars which stain the sky and honey the cosmos with bloodsome learning.

“Fate. That mystery of mysteries in which nothing is known except the inevitable reality of our own death looming closer each day… minute… moment”.

He emphasised that last word and paused again.

“This vexes our egos. Why should our futures be hidden from us? What right has life to rob us of foreknowledge? These are the questions in the back of our minds. Cheated out of the certainty of our future, we feel outdone by destiny. It is a slap in the face to our pride, through which we think we have the inalienable right to continuous good fortune. So we invent a future for ourselves — one in which we are the victors just through a single one-time belief. And that is where religion comes in. It provides us with a God who is like the genie in the bottle. We can summon him up at any time to do our bidding, to make us rich, to give us everything and anything we want. Good grief, this God will even relieve us of the anxiety of not finding a parking space, if only we pray to him for it, as I heard one of you say recently. But if anything goes wrong, it’s all the doing of the Devil. This is what happens when your stab at spirituality becomes a mere superstition.

“Who is this Lord to whom you pray and to whom you attribute anything good which happens to you (but never anything seemingly ‘bad’? Just who is this punisher and dispenser of revenge and discipline to whom we attribute the name God? How did we manage to reduce the whole concept of a Creator Spiritus from a vast incomprehensible essence of light and energy into an authoritarian idol to whom we can appeal with prayers and appease with good works? If anything can be called blasphemous, it is our disfigured idea of a God who punishes and abandons the ignorant to eternal hellfire — a concept which empowers those who would be priests with the ability to control and enslave most of the world’s population through the so-called Abrahamic religions. The Lord, Jesus Christ, would turn in his grave, if he was in it.”

Paul said that last phrase with a wink, much to the consternation of the Bishop, who writhed in his seat like a snake with cystitis.

“Islam, Judaism, Christianity and any other form of religious insanity are wax noses that we can twist to point in any direction we wish. This is why you can bomb your way through it (fundamentalism) or waffle your way through it (moderatism). Religions are inadequate formulae compiled by spiritually undeveloped people with a controlling energy so as to erect fences round the human soul. With their manmade rules, edicts, myths, vaguenesses and superstitions, they fill the dreaded black hole of fate with mellow-yellow-jello. No more drowning in ambiguity. No more enigma. No more sorrow-morrows. All is explained and revealed — mapped out — the route to every angle of the future assured. So they think. Just follow the crowd and the book (or pretend to {as most do}). We hide our secret terrors behind the skirts of our religions and those who do not wear those skirts we call kuffar, goyim and unbelievers. We smugly think we know it all from a book and from tradition but we know nothing — less than nothing; for from nothing is where we should start but with religion we detract even from that. We’ve got it all mapped out. It is no coincidence that the very word, “religion”, can be traced back to the Latin word, ligare, to bind. Religion is bondage and enslavement to the rules of those less adventurous than ourselves; and this is the context of the religious response to fate. We deck it in familiar colours so that we will not drown in what we deem to be an unfair sea of uncertainty. Yet, only when we let go of the cast-iron control-freak stranglehold which we exercise on reality through religion, can we begin to appreciate the pristine beauty of the coordinated randomness at the heart of the Universe.

“So much for Fate — the first of five main reasons for the existence of religious superstition.”

Just then, he noticed below that the woman with the glowing face was holding up a white sheet of paper with some words written on it. He had to squint to make it out. The message said: “LEAVE RIGHT NOW! MEET ME IN THE VESTRY”. His first instinct was to continue but, somehow, he had an overwhelming inner knowledge that her words must be followed. It was her eyes which affected him the most. They had a depth to them, like pools which could be dived into with great profit. He was not pleased to have to abandon the sermon which he had carefully prepared over many days but something about this woman and her message to him convinced him that he was in deep trouble and that he needed to act right there and then. (Readers who are curious about the full content of that sermon need not feel cheated as they can read the complete transcript in an appendix at the end of the book).

Paul noticed that the man and woman from the RLU were looking at the woman with the message. There was a strange frisson in the air. Others were looking round with curiosity. He was now feeling both a little flustered and excited at the same time. He had the invasive feeling of an impending adventure. How was he to make his escape in the middle of giving a sermon to a packed church? He gathered his notes together and announced in a matter-of-fact tone: “Please just wait a moment. I have to deal with something”. Upon which he turned on his heels and went through the little door which led from the pulpit to the winding staircase down to the vestry.

In the congregation, the woman with the message left her seat and made her way down a side-aisle and went through a door at the front of the nave. The couple from the RLU looked at each other then leapt from their seats to follow her. The woman went through another door which she locked from the inside. Reaching the vestry, she saw Paul standing there looking confused. “What’s going on?” he said. “What’s this all about?”

“There’s no time to explain. They have come for you. But it’s not your time yet. There is other work for you to do. Follow me and I will show you where to go.”

“But who are you?”

“All you need to know now is that I am Livinia, I have come for you before them and I will lead you out of this place. Now follow me”.

Paul noticed that her voice was not heard so much in his ears as in his soul. She seemed to have authority. He fell in line behind her as she led him down to an old underground passage through an ancient crypt. He had been in the crypt before but was astonished when she moved with both hands an angel’s wings on a railing and a gap appeared in the wall. They squeezed through it and she manipulated a lever to close it behind them.

Back in the nave, there was a great deal of commotion. The Bishop looked as if his jowls were about to burst.  He was bowing and scraping before the two RLU people who were demanding to be taken to the vestry. But they were too late. Paul Altara and Livinia were already leaving the building, where a car was waiting to take them to a safehouse.

“Where are we going”, said Paul.

“To a place of safety, till we get you sorted out”.

Paul smiled with excitement. “What irony! I’ve rejected safety all my life and here I am going into it on the run with people I don’t know”.

“You’ve always been safe, Paul. You just didn’t know it yet”.

He looked into Livinia’s eyes as she said that and immediately knew she was right. Who these people were was not important to him. He sat back in the car seat and surrendered to the experience with all his heart.

© 2017, Alan Morrison

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