Fiction by Lev Raphael
A writer finds his story struggling to make sense of a spiritual experience.
Josh Rosenberg had never been alone in a European church. There were always crowds when he was abroad that often included embarrassing and loud Ugly Americans.
But armed with heavy, colorful Dorling Kindersley guidebooks, fluent French and passable German and Italian, Josh had never felt like one of them on any of his travels to Europe. Everyone from cab drivers to waiters, hotel clerks, tour guides, and even strangers he asked directions from had always complimented his language skills. Many refused to believe he could be from the U.S.
"But Americans don't speak other languages!" was the insistent judgment, sometimes offered with a shrug, sometimes with a frown.
Early on, Josh had figured out that speaking a foreign language wasn't just about learning grammar and vocabulary; it was about intonation, listening intently, and being unafraid to make mistakes. With a bit of feeling yourself on stage: it was a performance.
Now, before this past summer, he'd only been away for a week at a time, and the brevity of those trips wasn't satisfying.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, though, his parents had rewarded him for getting straight 4.0s in French, History, and English with a two-month trip to Europe. He didn't stay in youth hostels; his hotels were all three-star at the very least.
"I want you to be comfortable" was his father's wish, and that was a man who relished his after-dinner glass of 18-year-old Glengoyne, his Porsche SUV, and a closetful of hand-made shoes. And why not? His father's own parents had lost everything in the Holocaust—family, home, country—had come to America as paupers, and he himself was an American success story, an award-winning journalist-turned-editor. He looked the part, too: tall and Scandinavian, slim with dense gray-streaked black hair, and a long, thoughtful face with intense sky-blue eyes.
So Josh traveled those two gift months without being rushed, enjoying a museum or church with important art in the morning, then a long lunch, and finally a bus or boat tour—unless he rented a bike instead and rode through an embracing park to experience the city in a less touristy way.
Josh wanted to be a writer and wanted to see as much as he could without feeling overwhelmed, so he took notes at the end of every day for a possible travel memoir he imagined writing. But whether he was in Belgium, Italy, Germany, France, or England, every famous must-see church he visited was almost always as crammed as a train station, with tourists talking loudly about what they were seeing or hoped to see—crowding around celebrated art like Michelangelo's Mary and Child in Bruges and taking selfies to prove that they'd been there.
Before, any church he'd spent time in was filled with either mourners for somebody's funeral mass or celebrants for a wedding. He was there to support a friend or friends and felt present but very much out of place. What happened during a Mass was an alien language, and sometimes, he felt as removed as an explorer noting the unique ways of a people long hidden from a Western microscope.
Words like "the body and blood of Christ" stumped him—what could that possibly mean? Yet in spite of growing up Jewish, he sometimes admitted to himself that he felt intrigued by this mystery.
Fifteen years later, he was still unpublished and working on his PhD in case he couldn’t find a teaching job to support himself while he attempted to make a career of writing.
On the way back from a session with his therapist, he'd made some wrong turns and found himself passing St. Jerome's Cathedral, a twin-towered Gothic Revival cousin of the many churches he'd seen on his latest trip abroad.
This latest therapy session was another dead-end—another fifty minutes lost. All he ever did was talk about how he could never finish anything he tried to write. Though he wasn't remotely ADHD, he could never get himself focused and organized enough, despite taking writing workshops and going to writers' conferences. Whenever he had a deadline, he missed it, asked for more time, and then drifted away. Was he deluding himself about becoming a writer? Nothing he worked on seemed important. . .
He pulled into a parking space near the cathedral, as compelled to stop as if he'd seen the flashing red and blue lights of a police car behind him. Looking over at the church, it was as if every rusticated sandstone block of the facade held some kind of message, a secret or rune.
He crossed the street that was unrelieved by traffic or pedestrians mid-afternoon, climbed the wide and shallow steps, pulled open the surprisingly heavy door, and found himself suddenly inside, immediately struck by how old this place looked. The quiet space smelled of sandalwood, and even though the interior of the church at first glance lacked any sense of being venerable, historic, his skin was tingling as if he'd just taken a brisk hot shower. What was that about?
Wandering down an aisle on the left, touching the oaken pews that seemed to pull him further and further from the doors and closer to the altar, he might have been on a slow-moving airport walkway.
It was so quiet, so calm and inviting. How, why?
Josh wasn't religious, but he was nominally Jewish, or at least Jewish enough to have had a bar mitzvah. At the time, he had griped about it because reading Hebrew was unaccountably as difficult for him as algebra or balancing chemical equations. And like most of his friends, that was his exit visa from Judaism. He didn't miss it, had never experienced any kind of need that wasn't being met. He felt completely unaffiliated, disconnected from Judaism, and thankfully, his secular parents never nagged him.
"You'll come back when you're ready," his mother had predicted, pushing her auburn curls back off her neck with both hands the way she did when she believed what she was saying was indisputable. A brisk, bright-eyed, woman, his mother was given to wearing black to show off her colorful statement jewelry. She was on various committees at "their" synagogue, acting out of a sense of connection to her people but with no trace of belief or spiritual longing. "God?" she sometimes said. "You don't need God to go to shul. You just need to belong somewhere. Hey, maybe you could write about that!"
"Oh, mom . . ."
Now, here in this hushed and empty space, the enormous crucifix hanging from the high ceiling over the huge, elaborate altar, the paintings whose subjects he could only guess, the bright red carpet leading up to the altar, the dazzling light pouring down from chandeliers—all made him feel he was on a stage waiting to perform . . . something. Back behind him was some sort of shrine with dozens of candles burning in a tiered black metal stand. It wasn't possible, but he could almost sense their heat, even standing so many feet away.
Halfway down the aisle, he heard a voice: "Follow me."
He whirled around. "Who's there?" he called out, trying to make out if there was someone else present, perhaps in hiding. But the voice had been close, so very close, almost in his ear, yet he was obviously completely alone in the cathedral. Unless someone was tricking him with a hidden speaker—but why would anyone do that?
Facing front, he felt as if he'd been slapped: his face was now flushed and stinging. Along the wall to the left of the stage and altar, and not many feet away, was a deep, arched niche with a statue of Jesus, and Josh approached the larger-than-life figure, inexplicably pulled toward it. The lighting around the statue made it glow, and the marble eyes that should have seemed lifeless and cold instead filled him with warmth.
In a blinding instant, he knew it was the statue—the statue had spoken to him.
That was as solid a fact as the quickened beating of his heart. He felt this strange truth coursing through his body.
"Whoa . . ." he muttered, stumbling from the aisle into the nearest row of pews, suddenly feeling sweaty and afraid. And then, as if guided by an unseen hand, slowly he crossed himself.
What was happening to him?
Though he'd seen this gesture performed countless times both in person and in film, he'd never ever imagined doing anything like it, anywhere, and yet as his arm dropped to his side, all the tension in his body drained out of him and he felt as tired as if he'd been hiking for miles. But strangely still inside, and satisfied.
He sat there, waiting for something—perhaps another message, if that's what it was—but nothing came for many long minutes. Perhaps he had been hallucinating.
You can't sit here forever, he told himself, yet still he was unable to leave, his gaze held fast by the statue of Jesus, whose arms seemed open for an embrace.
"Can I help you, young man? Are you feeling all right?"
Surprised, Josh turned and saw that there was an actual person standing there, a smiling, soft-spoken, bearded Friar Tuck of a priest, looking to be in his fifties.
"Thank you, but I'm fine. Really."
"The name's Joe Thorndyke, and I'm one of the priests here. People call me Joe or Father Joe, whichever they're most comfortable with." He held out a beefy hand, and when Josh rose to take that hand, suddenly he gasped and wobbled.
Father Joe held on tight. "Hey, are you sure you're okay, do I need to call the EMTs?"
"Please don't. I need to talk, just talk."
Father Joe ushered him out around the pews to a side office filled with icons and framed religious posters, one of which was of a golden sunset with a line of text: "Be still and know that I am God." Josh squinted and made out a smaller line of text that read Psalm 46:10.
Father Joe pointed to two brown leather club chairs opposite what looked like a rosewood desk and asked if he would like coffee or water.
Josh shook his head, sat down, flushed with what he was about to say, but he couldn't hold back when the priest sat opposite him and cocked his head to listen. The moment was so much like a therapy session that Josh started to breathe more normally. I can do this, he thought.
"My name's Josh, and something happened to me out there."
"Well, I should tell you that I'm Jewish, but haven't been to a synagogue in a very long time."
The priest shrugged and waited.
"And I'm not stoned or drunk or anything like that."
Father Joe smiled. "I didn't think you were, son."
"Okay. . . ." Josh took a deep breath and told him as clearly and calmly what he had just heard and felt and done, waiting to be kicked out of the office like a lunatic. But the priest simply nodded at each turn of the story. When he didn't say anything, Josh asked, "What do you think it means?"
"What do you think it means?"
"Jeez— Oh, sorry—"
Father Joe waved that away.
Josh hesitated, and then words came from him that sounded both heavy and light: "I'm not sure. Do you think it was like some kind of visitation, or, I don’t know, a door opening to another life? Another way to see?" He tried to remember if he'd ever read of any experience exactly like his before, but he drew a big, fat blank.
"Well, Josh, nothing like that's happened to me, and I have to tell you, I'm a little envious. But some of our parishioners have had experiences of spiritual connection that are, well, unusual."
"Connection? You mean this was, uh, like, what?" He struggled for words and then heard himself asking "The Holy Spirit?"
"It's not for me to say." Father Joe smiled.
Moved to tears by the compassion in those words—and that smile—Josh wondered aloud, "I don't know what I can believe. I mean, I've never thought of being anything but one hundred percent Jewish."
Father Joe sighed. "Faith is a journey. That might sound corny, but it's true. If you're on a new path, for whatever reason, it'll be uniquely yours."
Imagining how his parents, his relatives, and all his Jewish friends might react if they knew what he was discussing now, Josh shook his head and then apologized. "I was just worrying—"
"—what people might say?"
"Maybe it's a bit early for you to worry about them. Why not come to Mass some Sunday and see how you feel, see if it fits? Every religion is a language, and they mean the most when they match our inner experience."
"Well. . ."
"Don't expect to have a repeat of what happened today." He grinned. "You know, the first time I had acupuncture, I felt as if I was riding on golden waves of light that rolled ever so slowly under and through my body. It was amazing. And the next time? Nothing. Nothing like that at all. I was so disappointed. I asked the acupuncturist what the difference was, and she said, 'Last week you were really blocked, and the energy was being released.'"
"Have I been blocked?" Asking the question made him feel both dizzy and clear at the same time—it was truly bizarre.
"Do you know the Bible story of Jacob and the ladder to heaven?"
"Sure. That's the one where he dreams about angels going up and down and the next morning builds some kind of shrine and says that God was in that place and he didn't know it. I love that story."
"Maybe you're Jacob, and you've found your place."
I can give myself to this, Josh thought, and he wondered if he had somehow found something to write about, wherever that might lead.
Or had something found him?
Lev Raphael's essays and fiction have most recently been published or accepted by Earth and Altar, Faith Hope & Fiction, Agape Review, Braided Way and a dozen other journals.