“Well, you can certainly say this for Jesus,” I tell Lady, “he absolutely stirs around. No grass grows under his feet, I can assure you. Because two weeks ago, he was curing the man miraculously of dropsy—which I had always thought was epilepsy, but which turns out to be merely edema. Well, ‘merely’ unless you’re like the drug addict I passed on the way to the drug store. At least, I presume he’s a drug addict, otherwise how did his leg swell up to such gargantuan proportions?”
“Oh, that’s Robert,” said Lady, “though come to think of it, I think Robert’s lost both of his legs. But then, maybe not. He’s in a wheel chair, anyway.”
Lady tends to knows these things, and if not, Elizabeth from the gift shop does. She’s the one who told me that the old man who instantly sniffed me out for a sucker had gotten in trouble with the law. What had he done? Run drugs, either knowingly or unwittingly. Anyway, he’s not around, which is nice, since he posed a moral problem: was I sinning by begrudging him for asking me—after he had put in his order for bread, orange juice, and ham—for an extra five dollars so that he could buy a hamburger at Burger King? Full confession: I sometimes eat hamburgers too.
“Anyway, it does seem that Jesus would find plenty to do, here in Old San Juan. I mean, we’re living an almost Biblical existence here. The poor are everywhere, diving into dumpsters, begging money, displaying their running sores. And then of course we have the Philistines—re, the tourists, who are completely oblivious to it all. And the locals, most of whom—like me—have settled on two or three people to whom we give money; I keep hoping that somehow there are enough of us, and that we’ve all chosen different people….”
“Well, I always give money to the lady dressed as a medieval nun, complete with the rope tied around her waist.”
“Oh, so that’s how she buys the bottle of El Canario Cooking wine,” I told her.
“Oh, dear—didn’t know that.”
“Well, I give a dollar to the guy raising money for his sister in Barranquitas, since it’s for a liver transplant, and who more than I should be sympathetic to that cause? Oh, and to Gale, since she’s from the Bronx, and she’s always making these little collages out of seashells and corals and anything else she can find. So it’s a salute to tribal unity and entrepreneurism both….”
“Right—but why all this interest in the poor and needy?”
“I think the cantatas are getting to me, and that—if true—is totally bad news. Because today’s reading is particularly glum. Yup, Jesus sails through again, this time curing the man with palsy; he also, by the way, reads the thoughts of the skeptical scribes, and upbraids them for their lack of belief. And once again, the multitudes go off amazed—wait, it’s good enough for the actual quote:”
But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men.
“Mathew 9:8, King James Version. Oh, and once again we know nothing about the man with palsy—it’s one more four-verse miracle, which leads me to believe that Jesus has invented the equivalent of a drive-through miracle station. Good American efficiency—wait, better than that, German efficiency!”
“You know,” said Lady speculatively, “the absolute dearth of information on these miracle recipients—and shouldn’t there be a better word for that? Maybe a miraclee, as opposed to the miracleer, if not miraclist. Anyway, the point is that if we knew anything about the miraclee, then the assumption would be that he or she—and his or her individual circumstances—had somehow earned the miracle. That the widow of Nain was pious and poor, or that the man with palsy had given alms to the poor, before the palsy struck. But having them utterly faceless, as it were, means that the miracle was granted wholly independent of circumstances…..”
Damn, she’s good!
“I strongly suspect sheer laziness, though your theology may be correct. Anyway, however grim the official readings for the 19th week after Trinity may be, the texts Bach chose are just awful. What do you do with a text that reads—roughly—‘Oh, destroy this Sodom of sinful inhabitants, but spare the soul and make it pure, so that it can be a Holy Zion for You!’”
“Ouch—is that for real?”
“Very much for real, and that’s just a snippet. In fact, most of BWV 48—one of the cantatas for the week—runs on exactly that rail through twenty minutes or so of self-flagellation. If ever a piece of music were a hair shirt, this is it.”
“I begin to fear,” said Lady, “that all of this religion-making is unbalancing you mentally. Have you checked in on what deleterious effects plagued the creators of the most recent religions?”
“Hmm—excellent point. Are you suggesting I get a psychological workup before plunging any further into this.”
“Nah, but it would be an idea, perhaps, just to find out what happened to those who trod down the same path…”
“OK—it’s not starting so well. I mean, I knew that the Mormons were wackoo, but I hadn’t realized how much. I mean, I thought old Joe Smith had died peacefully in his bed, but it turns out that a couple of his followers had had Smith thrown into jail on charges of perjury and polygamy. And they should have known, since Smith had proposed to both of their wives!”
“Hmm—we may have to rethink this project…”
“Right, now moving on to Mary Baker Eddy, of Christian Science fame. And here the news is substantially better: Eddy died of bacterial pneumonia in a very well-heeled suburb of Boston—if indeed suburbs can be well-heeled. Anyway, there’s nothing particularly lurid about her life, except that she may have been a drug addict, she was definitely a spiritualist, and she believed in something called reverse animal magnetism—the power of negative thoughts to harm others, which she felt her former students were using against her. So she had her current students stand outside her door, guarding her as she slept. See?”
“Well, yes, an improvement. Though there’s not much of anywhere you can go, compared with jail and murder. Who’s up next?”
“Well, it’s our old friend Charles Taze Russell, who founded what would become the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And he certainly wasn’t without critics, who accused him of publishing all those tracts, just to make money. Then there was his wife, who stated that Russell had called himself a floating amorous jellyfish, happy to engage with all he encountered. Oh, and then there was the thing about the miracle wheat, which one accuser said Russell was selling at 60 dollars a bushel. By the way, I went onto quotewheat.com—wonderful what we have nowadays—and bush is going for just over five bucks a bushel today.”
“Well, those miracles don’t come cheap,” said Lady.
“And then we come to L. Ron Hubbard….”
“What? The scientology guy?”
“Absolutely, and if you can find a crazier dude, I’ll bow my head to you. Full disclosure—I couldn’t even read the full Wikipedia article on him. But did I need to? He started as a pulp fiction writer, and then verged into religion, and at one point he took to the seas, on his private yachts with his holiest of holies. And they were all so nutso that…well, here’s Wikipedia on the subject.
Britain, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Venezuela all closed their ports to his fleet.
“Anyway, he certainly didn’t do badly for himself, though he ended his life in a motorhome, although admittedly on his private ranch in California. Oh, and he had a reported 600 million bucks at the time of his death….”
“Hmmm—there is some serious money here. But really, Marc, is it worth it? Do you really want to found a church that attracts wackos like Tom Cruise?”
“Doubt if Cruise would get into the sacred works of Johann Sebastian Bach. But you may have a point.”
“Beethoven,” said Lady. “The perfect antidote to the at times excessive cerebrality—another much-needed word—of Bach. Beethoven is just what you need.”
And so I turned to a work that had saturated and informed a part of my past, as I struggled to get my mother’s last days and death not out of my life, but rather in its proper place. For she would have been the first to want it: the dead must be left behind, which is perfectly as they wish it, and the living? We all have to move on.
Heiliger Dankgesang, here I come!