Sunday, December 8, 2013

Pi's ponderings on Jesus

This is one of my most choice excerpts from Yann Martel’s novel, The Life of Pi. Twelve-year-old Piscine, or “Pi” for short, was raised Hindu by his mother, but also trained to have a skeptical mind by his atheist father. This sequence takes place while he and his family are on vacation in the northern part of India. His older brother dares him to enter a small Catholic cathedral…which no one in their family had ever done before.

I dared to enter the church.  My stomach was in knots.  I was terrified I would meet a Christian who would shout at me, “What are you doing here? How dare you enter this sacred place, you defiler!  Get out, right now!”

There was no one.  And little to be understood. I advanced and observed the inner sanctum.  There was a painting. Was this the murti? Something about a human sacrifice. An angry god who had to be appeased with blood.  Dazed women staring up in the air and fat babies with tiny wings flying about. A charismatic bird.  Which one was the god?  To the side of the sanctum was a painted wooden sculpture.  The victim again, bruised and bleeding in bold colors.  I stared at his knees.  They were badly scraped. The pink skin was peeled back and looked like the petals of a flower, revealing kneecaps that were fire-engine red.  It was hard to connect this torture with the peaceful priest I had seen from a distance in the rectory the day before.

Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily. My experience with Father Martin was not like that. He was very kind.  He served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch; he treated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story.  Or rather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story.

And what a story. The first thing that drew me in was disbelief.  What? Humanity sins but its God’s Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, “Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas.  Yesterday another one killed a black buck.  Last week to of them ate the camel.  The week before it was painted storks and grey herons.  And who’s to say for sure who snacked on the golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done.  I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.”

“Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do.  Give me a moment to wash up.”

“Hallelujah, my son.”

“Hallelujah, Father.”

What a downright weird story.  What a peculiar psychology.

I asked for another story, one that I might find more satisfying.  Surely this religion had more than one story in its bag—religions abound with stories.  But Father Martin made me understand that the stories that came before it—and there were many—were simply prologue to the Christians.  Their religion had one Story, and to it they came back again and again, over and over. It was story enough for them.

I was quiet that evening at the hotel.

That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand.  The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers, and usurpers.  What is the Ramayana but the account of one long, bad day for Rama? Adversity, yes.  Reversals in fortune, yes. Treachery, yes. But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to being stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets, and, to top it off, crucified at the hands of mere humans, to boot. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying. Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monsters did, as did mortals, by the thousands and millions—that’s what they were there for. Matter, too, fell away.  But divinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong…

Why would God wish this upon himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what was beautiful, spoil what is perfect?

Love.  That was Father Marin’s answer.

And what about this Son’s deportment?  Why did he give himself up? Hindu gods never did that. No spindly cross would’ve kept them down.  When push came to shove, they transcended any human frame with strength no man could have and weapons no man could handle.

That is God as God should be.  With shine and power and might. Such as can rescue and save and put down evil.

This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him—what kind of god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. There are miracles, yes mostly of a medical nature, a few to satisfy hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water is briefly walked upon…any Hindu god can do a hundred times better.

This Son is a god who spent most of his time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god—and in a hot place, at that—with a stride like any human stride; and when he splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps, and laments.  What kind of god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?

Love, said Father Martin.

And this Son appears only once, long ago, far away? Among some obscure tribe in a backwater strip of West Asia on in the confines of a long-vanished empire? Is done away with before He has a single grey hair on His head? Leaves not a single descendant, only scattered, partial testimony, His complete works doodles in the dirt? …What can justify such divine stinginess?

Love, repeated Father Martin.

I’ll stick to my Krishna, thank you very much.  I find his divinity utterly compelling.  You can keep your sweaty, chatty Son to yourself.  That was how I met that troublesome rabbi of long ago: with disbelief and annoyance.

I had tea with Father Martin three days in a row.  Each time, as teacup rattled against saucer, as spoon tinkled against edge of cup, I asked questions.

The answer was always the same.

He bothered me, this Son.  Every day I burned with greater indignation against Him, found more flaws to Him…but I couldn’t get Him out of my head.  Still can’t.  I spent three solid days thinking about Him.  The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him.  And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.

On our last day, a few hours before we were to leave Munnar, I hurried up the hill to the cathedral on more time…. short of breath I said, “Father, I would like to be a Christian, please.”

He smiled. “You already are, Piscine—in your heart.  Whoever meets Christ in good faith is a Christian. Here in Munnar you met Christ.”

He patted me on the head.  It was more of a thump, actually. I thought I would explode with joy.

“When you come back, we’ll have tea again, my son.”

“Yes, Father.”

It was a good smile he gave me. The smile of Christ.

I entered the sanctuary, without fear this time, for it was now my house too. I offered prayers to Christ, who is alive. 

(from Life of Pi by Yann Martel, 2001, Random House)

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