MY SON AT TWELVE believes in the Greek gods. Zeus, Athena. Jin favors Poseidon and Ares but likes them all. He can tell intricate stories, like the one about Baucis and Philemon, an old couple who took in Mercury and Jupiter disguised as travelers. A thousand villagers had turned the gods away, and a thousand were punished. The old couple gave the gods all the hospitality their poverty could offer, even wiping their aged table with mint. Of course, Baucis and Philemon had a great reward: priesthoods in life, preserved together for eternity.
Jin and I have decided that he’s a classical polytheist. It distinguishes him from our coastal Northwest hippie town’s many New Age pagans, who believe in a loose polytheism—whales as spirits, firs as spirits, even aliens as spirits—and who he does not want to be associated with at all. In spite of his Olympian obsessions, we all go to church, and always have. I suppose he sits there and thinks his own thoughts.
We currently go to a Korean Baptist church, though my husband and I remain Catholic, because our son is Korean—adopted—and loves the church community, and so do we. We were shyly invited by Jongsu, the mother of one of Jin’s taekwondo friends. My family speaks very little Korean, though we’re trying to learn. The adults at this tiny church speak little English, while the kids have grown into that language and lost the old one. It’s a two-tone Babel. The children have their service in English, led by a man in his twenties with a guitar. Pastor Kim also speaks to them briefly, in bits of English mixed with bits of Korean. The first week we went he told them to insert the Holy Spirit into themselves like a game cartridge, so it would become part of their operating system—Nintendo-inmida, do Nintendo, we heard. The kids then go into another room where they sneak candy from some occult source and play foosball.
Our service begins: women beautifully made up, in suits, with Chanel handbags and hair upswept or held back in jeweled barrettes, men in jackets.
Kituinmida, says Pastor Kim: let us pray. We’ve got that phrase down. Most of what he says settles in our ears as a chant, repetitive at the end of the sentence and rising in pitch, as Koreans place verbs at the last position and these generally end on vowels. Some words emerge because we know our Bible well enough—Absalom, the preacher said this Sunday, and while we were meant to understand we needed to behave like David, not Absalom, Absalom’s was the only name I could make out. So for an hour and a half, under the track lighting, sitting in a folding chair, I thought about Absalom the wicked, who tried to take over, even betraying his father David. Who would not have welcomed gods into his home unless forced by their Olympian radiance to know them.
We hear some things in church because of borrowings from English—crossinmida, to do the cross, to be crucified. Yes-su Christo. Mostly we sit, praying and standing and bowing our heads when others do, in the hallucinatory murmur, cadence of end vowel and rising pitch, Lord and Father, Chonim and Abaji.
The Korean church members feel for us. Services run long—an hour and a half at least—and the preacher still stops at the end and gamely and haltingly tries to explain in English what he has been preaching about. We are not to be Absaloms, he tells us, though I’ve done nothing but try to remember all I can about Absalom or think a dreamy nothing, studying the curves and angles of hangul, the Korean alphabet, strung along the wall.
I want to tell him there’s no need for this explanation: let everyone scoop up their children from the foosball. He has succeeded in what he wanted to do. Once Pastor Kim began gesticulating toward a TV screen set up in front of the room and I recognized Susan Boyle, improbable breakout star of Britain’s Got Talent. I know the drill: get the congregation interested by bringing in topical things, pop culture. I have never liked hearing a priest begin with a story of the latest attention-grabbing television, or something funny his little nephew said at Thanksgiving. God may sometimes be willing to come down to our size, but we do not need to prune.
What did the gods say to Baucis and Philemon? They sat in the couple’s cottage for a long time, Jupiter and Mercury, the caduceus disguised as a walking stick. With torn clothes, filthy feet, playing the role of vagrants. The gods seemed to do these things to amuse themselves. They watched as Baucis made a fire from twigs, Philemon cut a piece of fatty pork and simmered it with vegetables and potherbs. They ate olives, Ovid says, and dried figs. Did the gods mention how hot the weather had been lately, how Sparta had outrun Athens, they heard on the road, in an improbable last plunge? Baucis and Philemon, who grew their food and raised a little livestock, probably mentioned how the year had been for their crops. Ovid details the food meticulously but skips over the conversation. It’s okay: the gods came for good cheer and small talk. And the couple’s piety—no doubt the two asked the gods to join them in consecrating their simple meal to those who they in fact were about to feed.
The word was in the beginning, John writes, opening salvo, necessary scrim. For the women so beautifully dressed. Korean passages on the walls we know enough of to identify the book of the Bible or the gospel author and chapter. The apostles would sleep, in the garden, in Korean.
Members of the congregation—sometimes men, but usually women—stand up from time to time, praying and crying. Some women come in before the service to pray, and they sit in metal chairs, swaying backward and forward, and keen, in a deep monotone pulled from someplace below the vocal chords and even the heart. They remind me of images of Mary, the sway picked up from a motion left in the ether, the keen a broad ontological distress.
“It seems weird at first,” Katie Peach, daughter of Jongsu, confided to Jin about the keening, “but you get used to it.”
My husband mentioned to me that people treat him as crazy for going to a church where he doesn’t know the language. I get that reasoning; I thought it might be crazy too. The first time we went to our church—which I can’t even name for you properly, because the name is written on the sign outside and in the bulletins in hangul—I expected to listen to ten minutes of language-blur, burning with self-consciousness, and flee.
But to be where we are feels more like prayer than prayer, and makes language seem an adding on your fingers, something to be used in order to be put out of the way. Saint John of the Cross wrote of God that ultimately, “even the act of prayer and communion, which was once carried on by reflections and other methods, is now wholly an act of loving.” It’s not new to think of mystical knowing and language as separate. It’s a strange premise to take to church, with its sermon and print bulletins and writing on the wall. If we understood that the woman rising in her pleated skirt prayed for her job, it would still give little beyond the prayer of recognizing prayer: the face she hides behind her rounded oxblood nails, and her shaking shoulders. Too much knowledge reduces her cry to its smallest circumference, to all that is not-me.
At the end of our service we turn to one another and say, I something you, I forgive you, I love you, in Korean. I’ve never understood the first part, and I used to hear the formula as ending not with I love you—saranghayo—but with I am a person, I am only human—saramhayo, pretty garbled Korean it turns out, as it would mean I person you, though I confidently told my version to my husband.
Then we eat. The women have not only dressed impeccably, they have lugged in cookers full of steamed rice, spicy chicken, bulgogi, cold seaweed soup. We file into a kitchen set up with long, chipped tables, and they will not let Bruce and me fix our own plates, piling everything in bowls for us as if we’re infants. They don’t even believe my hot tongue. Tashee, tashee, I beg for more gochu jang, more pepper paste. You see, like Ovid, I can tell you everything about the food.
Sometimes my son, the happy pagan, seems to feel the need to hear my name.
That’s my name. Don’t wear it out.
If I look at him I won’t see a desire to tease me or bug me or much more than a half-blank look, a need to throw this verbal ball out and have me catch it. It’s vital, I know, that I answer. I can say absolutely anything. He’s lobbing a presence caught in that antique and comfortable sound.
Ovid included a strange touch at the end of the story of Baucis and Philemon. The gods revealed themselves slowly, causing the wine to refill itself in the bowl. When the couple realized whose presence they stood in, they threw themselves to the floor, begging apology. They had one other source of meat: a goose they had raised, improbably, to guard their hovel. They begged permission to kill the watch-goose and provide better, then took off in chase of the bird. But Ovid tells us that “quick-winged, it wore the couple out,” not surprising, since he’d noted that Baucis’s old breath was barely able to raise fire from her twigs. What the gods did while the old couple taxed themselves with pursuing a goose he does not say. One hopes they did not find the whole thing too funny. When the goose ran to take shelter with the gods, Jupiter and Mercury called a halt to the madness and gave the couple their reward.
How did the Romans, I wonder, read Ovid’s story? Offer the best hospitality to whoever comes along, no matter how impoverished. Chase your geese. They too had a metaphoric understanding. Baucis and Philemon’s story tells how to be a guest, taking what is offered kindly, not eying the fat fowl. When we mentioned how hard we have been trying to learn Korean, Jongsu insisted on teaching us, meeting us in the church dining room on Saturdays, using a children’s book. The shoe, we read. The kitten. Nothing theological. She’s patient with us as we do our strokes wrong, right to left or down to up rather than the opposite. It is very hard to believe she and the others want to do these things for us, as I can see it’s hard for them to believe we want to be here, in the shaped silence. We are none of us gods.
Jin says the reason he believes in the pantheon is that he doesn’t believe God can be everywhere. One god’s not enough; he dreams of many. I get that, I tell him. It’s hard to imagine. And if you can’t imagine it—I don’t say this—what stories you choose will trouble you anyway. That goose. Either the gods did not have the wherewithal to stop it, or it proved the vehicle by which they amused themselves at the expense of old-timers who’d laid beds for their exhaustion. Perhaps pain baffled the gods. Or joy in their creations’ earnest absurdity formed a love of sorts.
I thought of Baucis and Philemon on Sunday, with women handing us plates of rice, spiced celery, bowls of soup with meat. The food drifted in all through the service: sweet-soy chili sauces, sesame oil. I can imagine the odor of spearmint rising from the table, pork cooking with rosemary and oregano. Baucis and Philemon even heated water and drew the gods a very human bath for their soiled bodies, water that, as Greeks, they might have scented with bay or juniper. I smell mint now, and do all spring and summer, and honeysuckle, roses, lily, herbs, through the night from my bed. We keep the window open when the garden comes on, sweet pour, a wordless thing, a gift of summer and of life, and of the labor of hands.
This essay won a 2012 Pushcart Prize.