I lost the unthinking faith of my childhood when I got old enough to start thinking critically; not in the sudden, momentous way one loses a wallet or one's virginity, but in the gradual, trickling fashion one loses the memories of a long-dead grandparent, which fade each day they're left unthought of until nothing remains but a vague sense of past warmth, so distant and dim it might have happened to a character in a book you once read. That's how it was with me and Jesus.
If there is a God, he/she/they/it must surely curse puberty as its greatest enemy. How many of us, after a decade or so of trusting now-I-lay-mes, abandon the cold comfort of prayer for the more tangible nighttime consolations (and much more immediate gratification) of masturbation? How many of us, in the earth-shattering self-absorption of our changing bodies and developing minds, put away thoughts of the divine along with all our other childish things? How many of us, with the new-found cynicism of the morbid young teenager, declare religion a false hope for children and the feeble-minded, and commit to a far more sophisticated preoccupation with existentialism, Bauhaus, and still more masturbation?
I'm extrapolating, of course. If puberty was for everyone the Christ-killer it was for me, this world would have no priests, no street-corner God-botherers, no thoughtful theologians; and I no longer subscribe to the adolescent arrogance that once convinced me all priests and God-botherers and theologians were stunted creatures arrested in a childhood state of denial. Truth be told, these days I envy the God-botherers their faith. I admire the strength of will it takes to believe in anything other than the abyss. When I hear them speak of experiencing God's love, of “just knowing” something is out there, of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I no longer snort in derision; instead, I find myself wishing I knew how to convince myself that any of this was true. I wonder if a large segment of humanity really does have access to a plane of existence that is closed to me. And then I wonder if I had my shot at finding it, and I blew it.
It happened at about 3:07am on Wednesday, July 11th, 2007, a few hundred feet shy of the rim of Mt Kilimanjaro. I was climbing with a group of friends from university. This was the final day of our ascent, and we had risen shortly after midnight to tackle the steep scree slope that was to take us to Gillman's Point by sunrise, and from there along the crater rim to the highest point in Africa. I never made it as far as the rim.
At 16,000 feet, the air was thin and bitterly cold. Every breath seemed to empty me of more oxygen than it took in, and each step up the treacherous slope was punishing to my lungs and body. “Do Your Ears Hang Low” was looping incessantly and infuriatingly in my head. On top of all that, altitude sickness had been targeting me with a vengeance since Horombo.
For the third time within half an hour, I stumbled to my knees behind a rock to vomit up what little was left in my stomach. Even through the thermal layers, I could feel the sharp icy scree digging into my legs as a fresh paroxysm convulsed me forward onto my gloved hands. For a moment I rested there on my hands and knees, sucking the last little chunks of vomit from between my teeth and spitting them into the shameful little patch of dark brown bile. Gasping in lungfuls of thin, piercing air, I wiped the involuntary tears from my eyes onto my shoulder, and that was when Jesus appeared to me.
He was barefoot in jeans and a Penn State T-shirt, and even in my miserable state I knew that was impossible, but I barely had a second to register that thought before he kicked me in the face.
More in surprise than pain, I reeled backward. Jesus stepped calmly forward and kicked me again, this time in the stomach. Through all my layers, it barely hurt, but I was so weakened by altitude and exhaustion that the force of the kick sent me sprawling.
His face inscrutable, Jesus leaned over and grabbed me by the throat. My gloved hands scrabbled uselessly at his bare one, as with steely grip he hauled me up and slammed me against the big rock. Everything swam as I fought for even the too-thin air surrounding me, and then Jesus' fist smashed into my nose.
My whole head rang with shrapnel from the explosion of pain. The stupid song was still repeating, amped up to a screaming volume in my ears, as Jesus punched me in the face, again and again; weirdly, exactly in time with “Do Your Ears Hang Low”.
When I felt pummeled to the limit of my endurance, sure that one more punch would tear through my skull like tissue paper, Jesus suddenly let go. Dazed, plummeting toward unconsciousness, I slid back to the ground. From my pulverized face, I looked up at the figure – who did not seem to have exerted himself at all – with one thought filling my mind: What the fuck?
Jesus smiled mildly, delivered one final kick to my crotch, and sauntered away down the mountainside.
A moment later, the guide found me, curled up and bleeding, too tired and hurt even to weep. He and my friend Terry between them got me back down to Kibo Hut, and nobody ever mentioned the bruises that discolored my face for weeks afterward. At times I wondered if anyone else could even see them.