Mystic or Maniac?
Photo Illustration: Jonathan Barkat
Every day atrocities are committed in the name of faith. It's possible to distinguish between the fires of fanaticism and the abiding glow of our better angels.“A certain tendency to insanity has always attended the opening of the religious sense in men, as if they had been 'blasted with excess of light.'”—Ralph Waldo Emerson
My neighbor has covered a pile of firewood with a sheet of milky plastic that catches the breeze like a pale silk parachute.
Please notice I said “like.” I know it isn't a parachute. I also know it isn't silk, though I'm not absolutely sure it's plastic. I haven't looked at it up close. I don't want to spoil the illusion. Because every single morning when the sun hits it, I'm startled by the beauty of the thing, by the way it seems to radiate a shimmering, shifting light. At night it's even better. The woodpile is situated beneath a house lamp that comes on when the sun goes down. When that happens, the billowing plastic becomes an opalescent pearl. And every single night, I think: "Angel!"
I could almost worship this firewood covering, if I were looking for that kind of miracle. But in the second it takes me to go through the mind's first drafts—"parachute? silk? pearl? angel?"—a different section of my brain takes over and says, "Plastic: not a thing to waste your time on."
So much work goes on in the brain to keep us located in the world of familiar objects rather than the world of angels.
I'm conscious of the brain's hard work because I'm a writer, and—in writing as in life—those initial drafts, those momentary mistakes, are the source of mystery and wonder; they force you to stop sleepwalking and pay attention. And I'm conscious that I think "angel," "parachute," and "silk" instead of something more...unfamiliar, because even my delusions, however fleeting, are reality bound.
When I was a child, I had a neighbor who saw “real” angels. Never saved by the intercession of the simile (it's only like an angel), she saw heavenly creatures everywhere. But also demons, and horrifying visions of hell. And she heard God speak, and believed, at times, that she was the bride of Christ. She was a kind and beautiful woman, and her delusions, unlike, say, those of the Yorkshire Ripper (who heard the voice of God telling him to kill women), were a danger only to herself.
Still, later on, when I read about Joan of Arc and the mystic Julian of Norwich, I wondered what separated them from my neighbor. Why did such-and-such historical figure walk around with people listening raptly, when my kind and gentle neighbor was given a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and driven to the hospital?