10/23/2014 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Carl S ~
It was on Halloween night 60 years ago that I was evicted from the Trappist monastery. It was just before Compline, the last church service of the day. Everyone filed into the church. I was held back and taken to a room where the clothes were laid out for a change back into being a member of society again. When this was done, two mail carriers, who were there for a retreat, drove me with them, dropping me off at my parent's house. (The Catholic Church didn't have to pay for my bus ticket home.)
On the way, we stopped at an all-night diner, where the jukebox was playing Bill Haley's “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” with the lyrics including “your soul.” This felt strange. Here was a case of listening to the word “soul” in quite a new context from where I just came from. One of the men ordered a hamburger for me. (I was so wasted as a result of monastic brain-washing that I couldn't even make simple decisions for myself anymore.) You might wonder what it's like to eat meat after being a vegan for years. It wasn't a pleasant experience. They did all the talking during the trip. I was still pretty much the non-talking monk I was trained to be. I remained so for several weeks. That night, I slept on the floor, my senses still numbed. You could have stabbed me, and I would barely have felt it. I was as devastated as a rejected lover. What began as a “love affair with Jesus” ended as a crushing and disillusioned yet ultimately very liberating divorce.
The monastery and I couldn't have made a better divorce. Things might have ended differently. While I was a member, I saw another monk being, by all appearances, psychologically treated outside, and he was practically absent any personality. What happened to him? Was it a result of practicing the same way of life as I was committed to? In retrospect, it looks that way.
Years later, I started to think about something else related to this. Shortly after I became a member, on one night (also after Compline), the corpse of a young monk on a bier was carried past all of us, and was buried behind the church. Why would a body be buried at night, if not as a result of a suicide? Wasn't this pursuit to conform to “the will of God,” self-destructive, rather than “spiritual” - whatever that word meant in that fabricated environment?
My experiences in being brought up Catholic led me to understand that life is too important to be wasted on religion.I saw Fr. Louis, a.k.a. the celebrated author Thomas Merton, but didn't have the opportunity to talk to him. (I was a brother, and the priests were a privileged class. We didn't have contact with them). Fr. Louis died while on his own retreat, probably in India. He came out from showering and stepped on a bare electric wire. A “holy man of God” met the same fate as a convicted killer in the electric chair!
Wow! Sixty years later. I've been an atheist for many decades now, though not until recent years an avowed one. All religions are anathema to my conscience and ridiculous to reason. My experiences in being brought up Catholic led me to understand that life is too important to be wasted on religion.
Religious doctrines are bizarre and cry out for ridicule. The danger in religion is that it is a practice of taking ridiculous assertions seriously and unthinkingly, while ignoring realities which are very serious. Hence, I give in to temptations to ridicule them as often as the opportunities arise. Example: “Amelia, how can you be so sure you know who the true father of Jesus is?” Answer: “Why, I stood outside Mary’s bedroom window, and she kept crying out, ‘Oh god! Oh god! Oh god, oh, ... oh!!!’”
Now, about that “religious ecstasy” issue: You must access the book “Phantoms in the Brain,” by Ramachandran, M.D., and read chapter 9, “God and the Limbic System.” Halfway through the chapter, I realized...Eureka! There is the evidence for “spiritual “experiences - they are in temporal lobe seizures and the “temporal lobe personality.” Occam's razor. Astonishingly, Dr. Ramachandran is incapable of seeing the obvious in these examples. He interprets the results backwards, as coming from a non-material source! There's nothing like supernatural explanations for spiritual experiences as a circular, going nowhere substitute for evidence. Notice that the invisible and the nonexistent are very much alike here. (As one writer said, “God is not dead - he lives in your head.”)
After all these years of hearing people speaking out about and reading of their personal religious experiences - who tell us how wonderful it is to “communicate with something greater than ourselves,” and “understanding what it all means,” - you see that it's all about feelings. And these result from the human brain’s misfirings, often bringing with them mind-altering emotional responses.
In light of this understanding, shouldn't we be asking Christian believers a question? Your religion is founded on St. Paul's one-time emotional “road to Damascus” moment. This was, based on established facts, most likely the result of a temporal lobe seizure with a vision and a voice. Is this an unshakable reason to worship his experience and interpretation of this vision? Really?
I'm sending a “Thank You” card to the monastery, in appreciation for their dumping me out into the real world. I would like to tell them that they're communally delusional, but that would be a waste of time, wouldn't it? Not my problem.
Happy, happy anniversary to me.