MY WIFE AND I were living in Sri Lanka when I suddenly found myself baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. I don’t regret it one bit, mind you. But it was surprising at the time.
In retrospect, there were signs. My father was sent to Jesuit boarding school as a youth, and though he later left the church, he admits that I was raised, in essence, by a Catholic. My mother is Polish. Her Catholicism is genetic. My wife is Jewish and therefore deeply Catholic.
The years leading up to the baptismal event in Sri Lanka were years of spiritual crisis and searching for me. I don’t have the skills to describe those years properly. I do remember being on my knees now and again. I asked for help in believing whatever it was I was supposed to believe. I found out that doing things, acting, is more fundamental than belief. The belief comes, in fits and starts. I still cannot grasp it or hold onto it for long. But it is there.
The person who was sent to help me (if you want to look at it that way) was an eighty-seven-year-old Sri Lankan woman who’d been a nun for more than seventy years when I first met her. She never once said anything spiritual to me. She dispensed no tonic. She did tell me to watch out for very small people because they are crafty. Her name is Sister Lidwina. She frequently admonished God for letting her live so long. She called her cane, “my husband.” She told me of her homicidal intentions toward the nun living in the cell next to hers. She said to me one day, “Morgan, we are going to baptize you next Saturday.” I said, “Yes, Sister.” When I was raised up after the holy waters were dribbled upon my head, I saw her standing there, gazing at me. It was good.
When you arrive at someone’s house, in a new country, in a new world, there is always a tattered Leon Uris novel on the wooden nightstand. It is an unwritten law of the universe. Deep in jetlag and insomnia, I read, “When the combined Greek and British defenses crumbled in 1941, Mike Morrison’s personal war with the Nazis began.” Why does the childish drawing on the cover of the old paperback always catch the moonlight about an hour before dawn? It happens that way. Leon Uris is always there when you sit bolt upright at the witching hour with thoughts in your head. “Where am I? What am I doing here? Oh Lord, what am I doing, what am I to do?”
I’ve never heard thunder that rumbles so gently. The storm doesn’t really want to drift across the southern half of Sri Lanka, but there is nothing else to do in the Indian Ocean tonight. The rain falls for five minutes, then stops, then starts again until the gray light comes. Morning. The crows take over—angry, insistent. They are yelling at the one rivulet of water that keeps changing its course down the mottled glass of the window. Outside, pools of water on the veranda and the confident green of nameless tropical fruit trees grow up from the floor below, peeking up where the circular stairway comes forth into the light. Growing. Everything growing. It cannot not grow. The warm and the wet are constant and so everything grows and grows. On the growing things are crawling things and on the crawling things are another layer of things that grow.
Outside, a man is singing something in Sinhala, which sounds like Hindi if you rounded out the edges and taught the language to a tropical bird. A vendor’s cart is playing “Für Elise” as it wanders through the neighborhood an hour too early. The day begins. It is a day in mid-September in the two thousand and eleventh year of Our Lord, down near the equator, on a chunk of land that fell off of India before time began and has been trying to swim back ever since.
They are burning piles of eucalyptus leaves. The alleyway is all smell, all smoke. Can something be that bitter and that sweet? The piles are small crackles of flame along the half-paved road. Around the bend, more burnt offerings. We heard what was happening last night. A celebration: something Buddhist, surely. Crackers being set off in abundance. Now the charred paper rustles about in the morning breeze. A skinny old man in bare feet begins the task of sweeping up. His broom is three pieces of straw held together with a string. It will take him one thousand years.
The bells are chiming down the road, Saint Anthony’s Church, Kollupitiya. My chest swells for a moment. The bells are chiming, suddenly, for me. The twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time. When I walk in, they are singing the first hymn.
They have dug up the left side of the church to do repairs. The shingles of the roof have gaps through which come shards of the morning sun. Then I am spattered with something wet. Is it raining again? No. The priest is walking down the aisle shaking holy water at all the worshippers. A spot of wetness spreads on the left side of my shirt. And then she is singing to me from the side of the altar.
Oh, the love of my Lord is the essence
Of all that I love here on earth.
All the beauty I see, he has given to me,
And his giving is gentle as silence.
When she sings “his giving is gentle as silence” her voice breaks and the pronunciation is more Sinhalese than English. It is too much. Now my face is wet from my own tears and I am holding my head in my hands. Sweat and tears and holy water. I cannot sing because I have no throat. The sound of the morning trishaws is revving up in the street outside. The bleating of millions of tiny horns that will honk the streets into awareness in cyclical crescendos that rise and fall all day, all night. So much noise that it might as well be silence, it becomes silence, the noisy silence of all that I love here on earth.
We kept looking for bats. The bats in Sri Lanka are said to be huge. They call them flying foxes, after all. You don’t call something a flying fox because it is sparrow-sized. The damn things were going to be big. Do you remember the jungle scenes in Bridge over the River Kwai? William Holden is trekking through the forest, making his way to the fated bridge. He is spotted by Japanese soldiers on a scouting mission. Holden and his companions must hunt the soldiers down and kill them. The scene is cold, disturbing, brilliant. The whole movie is like that. Watch it again. It is a surprising movie, bleak and unforgiving. The look on Alec Guinness’s face when he finally realizes what he’s done.
As Holden is chasing the Japanese soldiers the forest is thrown into an uproar. Flocks of birds take off from the giant trees. Except that these are not birds. They are bats. Huge bats flying in squadrons. The sky alive with leathery wings. Those scenes from the movie were shot in Sri Lanka. This is the land of huge bats.
Still, we’ve seen no bats. There is a lone papaya tree at the end of our street. In the evenings it looks nice against the light of the moon. A romantic scene. My wife and I stood there for a few long minutes, watching the tree just being a tree. Then one of the dying leaves started to stir and move around. The leaf was crawling from one branch to another. It was hairy and had tiny fingers grasping, grasping as it shimmied from one spot to another. The flying fox. He was watching us, wings folded up and hanging upside down from the papaya tree. Are these beasts not blind? I don’t know. But he was watching us.
The only thing she ever promised me was from the ancient texts, the writings from the oldest days, the scriptures, the sayings, the promise that there is hardship and much suffering. That is the only promise. And there is something about a covenant. There’s a reason for the suffering. There is meaning in the hardship. That is the covenant. Hardship gives meaning. They go together. Blessed are those who mourn. Talk of happiness is something else, something flimsy.
I watch Sister Lidwina shambling out of the convent. She looks up at the sky with disgust. She isn’t angry. She is disgusted. Her look says it: Another day—you’ve got to be kidding. It is a long life of worship and work, every day. She looks around at the dirt and the flowers and the dogs and the giant trees and scowls.
Saint Anthony’s church is a mess. A man is hoisting sheets of roofing material up through the center of the church over the spot where the altar should be. Half the tiles have been pulled off the roof. Everything has to be replaced. The church may fall apart completely if this work is not done. Father Mano wants to get it done in time for Advent. A pile of dust and mortar and pieces of brick and concrete rests on the floor all around the absent altar. The hammers bang. The scrapers scrape. Men are climbing around the church, up into the rafters with buckets. Now it is raining. The clouds burst open with no warning. Wasn’t it sunny just a few moments ago? You cannot watch the sky all the time, so you never know when the torrent is coming. Rivers of water are streaming into the church. The sky darkens. The thunder cracks, really cracks, and then crackles and as an after-effect, crackling because of what the crack did. Water pools up on the floor everywhere. The church immediately smells like mud. Streams of water in tiny waves run down the walls.
Sister comes out from the convent in her rubber slippers with that cane of hers, stabbing at the dirty earth along the path. Something is wrong with Sister Lidwina. An angry old nun hobbling toward the church. She is clutching at her back and side. She is clutching at her hip and then her thighs. The crows caw and jump around on the plants. Her joints, her painful joints. She looks like she is about to spit on the ground, but she does not.
There is a man, a beggar, who sits in the dust outside the church every morning and every evening. He looks like Jesus. He has dark brown skin. He has long dirty hair. There is something wrong with his arms and legs. His fingers are curled up. I shook his hand one time and was forced to grab what was more or less a balled-up fist. He cannot bend his knees properly, or his elbows. He asked me to deliver a letter to the American embassy once. The CIA did something to him. There are radio waves connected to his brain. Other government agencies track his movements.
I don’t deliver the letter to the embassy. I tell him that I did. Every once in a while he asks me about it. “Any word from the embassy?” he asks. I look away from him, to the left or to the right. Look down at the dirt. I listen to the birds twittering in all the cages outside of Father Mano’s office. The cages are hanging from tropical trees but the birds cannot go in the trees. “No,” I say, “no word yet.”
He tells me he has family in Switzerland. He has a daughter somewhere, Australia maybe. Mostly we just sit in the dirt, staying in the shadows of the church to avoid the tropical sun. We watch people come and go across the street, buying glass bottles of milk that come from cows who live in the mountains, up in the hill country. There is a train that goes to the hill country. The English built the train tracks long ago. You can stand in the open doors of the train watching for the cows standing on the sides of green mountains in the meadows between the tea plantations and the sections of still relatively unmolested tropical forest. That’s where the milk comes from. They put it in glass bottles with red lettering and you bring the bottles back to the shop when they are empty.
One day, I came to the church and he told me that someone had stolen his bag. Another day, he died. I came to the church and one of the caretakers ran up to me. I knew that something was wrong. “The man you talk to,” he said, “they took him yesterday and then he died.”
I still have the letter he wrote to the American embassy. I haven’t read it because I am scared to read it. The letter is in a long, thin, light-brown envelope sealed at one end. It is his final statement.
The book of catechism is called Catholic Family Catechism and the subtitle is Catholic Doctrine for the People of God. It was put together by Most Reverend Dr. Oswald Gomis and published in 2010 by the Catholic Publications Bureau, Archbishop’s House, Gnanartha Pradipaya Mawatha, Colombo 8, Sri Lanka. There is a block of text on the title page that reads:
The visit of St. Thomas—Apostle of Jesus Christ, to Sri Lanka was believed by the Christians and others, mostly on oral tradition and legendary evidence. Latest research has discovered it recorded in Greek, by the writer Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopulos who has compiled the history of Christianity in Asia, from the beginnings until 610 A.D. in 18 volumes. He states that St. Thomas preached in the island of Taprobane (Sri Lanka) to the Brahamins.
The book is organized into a series of questions and answers. Question 155 reads:
How are those, who through no fault of theirs, have been unable to receive Baptism saved?
These are saved by the Baptism of blood or by the Baptism of desire.
If a person who had the desire of receiving Baptism could not do so by water, due to no fault of his, he has the Baptism of desire. That is the love of God and the desire to receive the Sacrament.
If someone sacrifices his life for the sake of the Christian Faith he receives the Baptism of blood. Persons in both these categories are saved and win eternal reward.
Sister Lidwina always has me read several pages from the book out loud and then she stops me. Sometimes she tells me a story. Sometimes she asks me a question. Once, she stopped me from reading and asked, “Do you think faith is hard or easy?” There was a long pause. Her eyes were twinkling like a naughty little girl. I took a sip of hot, sweet tea. Obviously the answer was “hard” but something was making me want to say “easy.” Sister Lidwina was smiling at me, alert, amused.
Later, I looked in the book of catechism. There is nothing about the hardness or easiness of faith. The closest is Question 82, which asks, “What is Faith?” The answer is, “Faith is the gift of God by which we believe whatever God has revealed.” The explanation of the question concludes with the thought, “If we believe in persons who could err, how could we not believe in God who cannot err?”
I don’t believe in a God who cannot err because I don’t even know what that means. I believe in a God who can err all he damn well pleases, and probably does. Or not. How could I know? I do believe in whatever God has revealed, though, just like the catechism says. I believe in that God.
What he revealed is all this.
Sister Lidwina often rubs her arm. A sticker, as she calls it, went into her once, right in the middle of her forearm. She was a little girl, playing in the streets of Batticaloa, a town on the east coast of Sri Lanka. The wound became infected. The infection became dangerous.
Her arm started to curl up, as she puts it. She always curls her arm up when she says this. She has told me this story many times. She was living with her grandfather at the time, in Batticaloa. Her father died. Her grandfather took the family in. When her grandfather saw her infected arm he tied a rock to a string and tied the string to her wrist. This forced Sister Lidwina to straighten out her arm every day. According to her, this is what saved her arm as a working limb.
The wound still hurts after more than seventy years. She will rub at it suddenly when we are sitting at our small table, drinking tea and reading catechism while a dog barks at a lizard in the dusty garden outside. I realized that it doesn’t hurt physically. It hurts in some other way. She likes to touch the scar because the scar makes her remember. The memory of the pain, activated by touching the scar, brings her back there.
Sister Lidwina’s day-to-day memory is not so great anymore. She forgets what she is doing. She forgets what she has just said to you. She asks questions over and over again, without realizing that she has just heard the answer. As the memories of the recent past fade away, the memories of those days back in Batticaloa get stronger and stronger. The pain of her scar is becoming real again because those days are becoming real again. She likes to touch the scar to make it more real.
Sister Lidwina gets frantic sometimes when it is getting close to the time to go to Mass, especially if it is a day of obligation. She will repeat that over and over again, “It is a day of obligation.” She is eager to take communion and then she calms down. I asked her once if she likes to take communion. I wanted her to tell me something about it. She looked at me as one looks at a crazed dog, like I’d asked her whether she prefers to eat or starve to death.
It is a physical thing, after all. The touching of bread to tongue is a physical act. Can this act be understood without doing it? Persons touching bread with their hands and with their mouths. It can be traced all the way back, this touching and chewing and swallowing. It goes all the way back to the friends sitting around with a stranger at Emmaus. Or to the gathering of friends at a Passover that would be their final gathering. It is symbolic. But it is also physical. You could trace each touch in a physical linkage that, literally, puts human flesh in contact with human flesh in a chain of that flesh that goes all the way back. This is a form of presence, real presence. Not metaphorical. The linking of flesh makes the first flesh real, actually present. It is the real eating of flesh then, the real taking in of the presence of that first flesh and the communion of all flesh, linked together always. That which was, is. The temporal linkages draw all time together into one. “I am who am.”
Sometimes when we are reading catechism Sister Lidwina sits there absently rubbing her forearm, running her fingers back and forth along the contours of her scar. I know that she is not actually with me in those minutes. I know she’s gone somewhere I can’t be.
Across the street from Saint Anthony’s Church is a smallish concrete apartment complex, two or three stories high. I think the workers were building the building and then decided to start living in it before they finished. “It’s good enough,” they said and started cooking curry and hanging their wet sarongs on clotheslines strung between floors of the building.
One apartment on the ground floor doubles as a mortuary, I found out. I was walking to Saint Anthony’s and I saw a table out front, with men sitting around playing cards. In the middle of the table was a large object covered in a sheet. And then I saw the feet. They were sticking out from the bottom of the sheet. It was evening time and the lights from kerosene lamps made an orange glow, flickering sometimes on the faces of the men and the yellow-green skin of the papayas piled up at the foot of the table. The men were taking swigs of coconut liquor from small glass bottles. They must stay up for three days and nights with the body, my Sri Lankan friend explained to me.
I sat down at a roadside shop across the street from the body. The men at the shop were making hoppers in little round metal dishes. They heat the dishes on an open flame and then pour a thin layer of batter into the dish. They swirl the batter quickly. It cooks in seconds. I sit at a wobbly table near five geckoes crawling on the dirty blue wall. We watch the man swirl the batter. The final result, the hopper, is like a crepe in the shape of a bowl. You break off pieces of the hopper and use it to eat your curry. You smoosh it all together with the fingers of your right hand. You make little balls of food and you push those balls of food into your mouth with your thumb. You can drink a hot sweet tea or you can have a ginger beer.
It’s always hot in Colombo, pretty much. The air is thick, because it is so humid. Then it rains and gets hotter. Until the monsoon comes. But nobody agrees when the monsoon will come, or if the monsoon, when it does come, is really the monsoon. The men across the street built a makeshift tent over the table and the body. White cloth attached to four poles. It started raining. I ate my hopper and drank tea. A stream of rainwater was pooling up on the table near the dead man’s feet. One man moved his cards to a dryer spot. Then it stopped raining. The street was suspended in the glowing orange light of the lamps and the evaporating mist of the rainwater on the hot pavement and the smell of hoppers crisping up on the open flame. Tonight that man’s in paradise, I thought.
She asked me, “You’ve read the Hound of Heaven?” I didn’t know what she was talking about. Later I learned it is a poem. We were sitting in the little room again, drinking tea. A young Tamil girl was sweeping dust around in the garden outside.
This could be the Garden at Gethsemane. It is dusty and hot, like that other Garden would have been. Two other children enter the garden carrying a rubber ball. The girl puts down her scraggly broom and the children play ball in the yard, tossing the purple rubber sphere back and forth across the dirt without speaking.
What if Christ had not suffered terribly? What if Christ had run away from the Garden at Gethsemane? Thirty years more of life, wandering around the desert and the cities of the Holy Land trying to stay out of trouble. But it doesn’t work that way. He can’t save his own ass, running back up into the mountains. In the Garden, he thinks about it. In the Garden his story becomes true.
A few days later I found a copy of “The Hound of Heaven.” A man named Francis Thompson wrote the poem one day toward the end of the nineteenth century. Turns out, Francis was a lot like me. Funny. That old nun knows me pretty well. I read the poem a few times lying on the floor beneath a slowly creaking ceiling fan in the heat of the day. The mosquitos couldn’t quite get to my legs because of the wind of the fan. They were suspended in airy striving, desperate to suck. That poem. She knew.
A few days later we were back in her little room. That poem was something special to me, I tried to tell her. She waved it off. That’s what people are like, she grunted. When I left I held her hands for a little while and she held mine too.
We took a train to Batticaloa. That train takes a long time. The train cars are from 1932, or thereabouts. The train bounces and shakes and screams with metal against metal. All night long, screaming through the jungle and then stopping at forlorn stations where kerosene lamps light the faces of old men who’ve given themselves to the railroad. There is no time, exactly. There’s the moon high in the sky and the moonlight coming down on giant jungle leaves. Then it is morning and the train stops and you are in Batticaloa.
This is my last time here, she said. She wanted to see her old house, the one she’d run away from to become a nun. The place where the sticker got her in the arm. All the old places. We rode a trishaw along dirt roads at the side of the lagoon. She was looking for people who’d been dead forever. Suddenly, she stopped the trishaw. Men stood around a small fishing boat pulled up on the shore. Sister Lidwina yelled at them for a few minutes, scolding them in Tamil. They smiled at her and gathered around. They are going to take us into the lagoon, she told me.
I helped the men lift her up over the side of the boat. She floundered about in the air as one man grabbed her legs. Her body was heavy, and solid, and real. The rest of us piled into the boat. Then we were out on the open water. I looked back at Sister Lidwina. Strings of her gray-white hair were blowing out to the side of her habit. She’d put on a pair of giant sunglasses. The sun was bright inside a blue sky. She was pointing things out to me but I couldn’t hear anything above the noise of the outboard motor. Finally she just sat there in the wind, with her sunglasses, taking in her final views of this place. Saying goodbye, I suppose.
I’ll never see her again. Except that somehow, I will.
Sometimes I think about those Sri Lankan babies baptized with me that day in Colombo. I am linked to them forever. I have no idea who they are, no way to find them ever again. They didn’t know what was happening to them. And yet, something happened to them. Or did it happen to them? Did anything really happen to them?
I knew what was happening to me. Or did I? Did anything really happen to me? Does anything ever happen to any of us, ever?
The world is the world. Water is water. Wafers are wafers. An island exists in the Indian Ocean just as land pokes up from the ocean’s surface in different places all around the seven seas. If something shines out from just around the corner of reality it always hides again just before we get the chance to look. Water remains water. Wafers remain wafers. I’m left with the mystery of myself that does not unravel, not here, not there, not anywhere.
Oh, the love of my Lord is the essence
Of all that I love here on earth.
All the beauty I see, he has given to me,
And his giving is gentle as silence.