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September 18, 2023

What Do I Know 10

By Bernie Pilarski

The Tenth in series of "Unresearched Essays," short, one topic essays, written using only information from memory, that perhaps provide an opportunity to shed a little light on who I am.

It's been four years since I began this project of "unresearched essays" after having been intrigued by the premise of the book Proxies: Essays Near Knowing by Brian Blanchfield. I am averaging one essay about every six months. Admittedly they are short, and you would think that I would be able to churn them out every six days, not months, but I don't process that quickly. I mull over things slowly. I like to believe that I am measured and not dull, although I realize that may be a relative judgment based on what (or who) it is to which I am being compared. I spent some time recently and read over the first nine essays. The process is working, after a fashion, in that each essay reveals a bit about me, although I admit that I've not "bared all" or provided any startling revelations about my sordid past. Part of the reason is, of course, that I don't have a sordid past. What moral turpitude that existed in my past is about the same as my success -- inconsiderable by all but the most personal of measures.

In the history of the world, I am not one of the personae. When I read the Gospels, for example, I certainly do not see myself as the Messiah, nor am I like any of the core group of apostles. The Gospels name a few of Jesus' family and friends and knowing someone famous affords its own measure of fame, even now. I worked with a guy who knew Carlos Santana when they were both young in San Francisco, back before Santana went on to fame. That was cool. I worked with another guy who had the uncanny ability to ingratiate himself with the right sources that allowed him to show up in the damnedest places -- he somehow managed backstage passes one of the times the Rolling Stones were in the Bay Area. He talked about how really engaging Mick Jagger was, and I might not have believed him, but he had the selfies to back it up. These are not, however, the kind of experiences I have ever had (or in the case of Jagger ever wanted). I simply don't know anybody famous.

I don't even see myself in the anonymous crowds that are so often mentioned in the Gospels. I don't like crowds. I am extremely uncomfortable with them. I've been in crowds that suddenly erupted into vulgar displays of violence, and that explains a bit of my aversion, but even in crowds gathered for "religious" purposes, I feel out of place. I went to a Catholic charismatic conference once. There were probably ten thousand people gathered in a local sports arena, including our diocesan bishop who was seated on the stage. At one point during a presentation, it seemed that every single person there raised their hands and began "speaking in tongues," everyone it seemed, except for me and the bishop. He sat back comfortably in his chair, legs crossed and arms firmly resting on the armrests. It is distinctly possible the Holy Spirit purposely excluded the bishop and me from this manifestation, and I'm sure there must have been others who were as bemused as I was, but they weren't seated around me. I don't like family gatherings either, and even though I don't want to pin all my problems on them, I'm sure that the constant bickering and tension in my family left its mark on me.

I would guarantee that if I had been around back in the day and one of my neighbors had said "Hey, you goin' down to the lake to listen to the Prophet?" I would have politely declined and said I had something else to do, but that's not because I wouldn't want to hear what the prophet had to say. I am rather fond of prophets, at least in the sense of those who are inspired teachers, those people who have managed to glimpse the fundamental truth, or even a small piece of it, and then are able to explain it to others. Buddha was a prophet, as was Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. Buddha saw suffering and saw that it was the result of sin -- although he would not have used the same words, I think that he would have been comfortable with the concept and imagery of the calamitous effect of eating the forbidden fruit of Eden. Gandhi saw the need for justice in the world, for the fair and equitable treatment of the poor. Dr. King could see a vision of the United States, that while it remains unfulfilled, calls all people to love -- not a hands joined swaying about the campfire to the tune of "Kumbaya" kind of love that might salve the soul of the privileged, but a gritty, courageous love that sees the value of every person and the need to acknowledge, confront and change whatever denigrates it.

None of these men were saints, at least not in the sense that the word "saint" is commonly interpreted as someone who is of great holiness and virtue. It is not necessary to be a "saint" to see the truth -- the thief on the cross next to Jesus who recognized Christ's innocence had probably not lived a holy or virtuous life. Indeed, it is not unusual for truth to be recognized in the reality of the lies we live. A man I know in my church community spent years addicted to alcohol and drugs, and it took a toll on his finances and his health and his family. One day, in the bathroom while he was shaving, he said he saw himself for what he was and saw what he had done to himself. He prayed to God to save him and began the process of cleaning himself up. By the time I knew him, he was one of the quiet faithful in the community, always at Mass on Sunday, always a contented smile on his face. He was not one of the "movers and shakers" of the community, didn't frequent any of the social activities of the parish, and after Mass, although always courteous and polite, did not mingle and chat with people coming out of the church, and yet he was the person in the parish who was called upon to deal with the pastor's benders. Someone had to go collect the drunken priest (who was by all accounts a mean drunk) and be able to put up with the verbal and physical abuse that accompanied the process of getting him home, cleaned up and put to bed.

I would argue that Buddha, Gandhi, King, and my friend at the parish were enabled to do what they did as a result of an encounter with and acknowledgement of the truth, and at the same time I would fully understand if you, like Pilate in the Scriptures, would roll your eyes at me and sigh, "What is truth?"

Truth is the way things were meant to be, the way they were intended to be. In turn, truth explains why I am, and what I was intended to be. That could sound like it is simply up to me to create my own truth, that it is up to me to take the circumstances of my life and fashion them as I see fit, and if it were possible for me to claim that I created the universe, I could accept that truth was mine to create also. I am, however, certain beyond any doubt, that I did not create the universe. Interestingly, I am more certain that I did not create the universe than I am of who or what did. I believe that creation is an act of God, and that God is a being of an infinitely different nature than mine, but I have to allow that my understanding of an infinitely different being is subject to the limitations of my own nature and is passed on to me through the experience of similarly limited beings and passed through many cultural filters and shaped by personal experience. Yet between my certainty that I am not the creator and my belief that there is a God there is an awareness that the universe is indeed ordered: the planets circle their suns, water freezes at thirty-two degrees, I live and I will die the way it was meant to be.

That is why I need the prophets -- they are able to make sense of and draw connections to the experience of life. It is like when I notice there is something wrong with my car. It's sluggish and it sounds wrong. I can see this much for myself, but I don't know why it is the way it is. I take it to my mechanic, the old guy with the grey beard who seems like he lives in the garage. His clothes are dirty and stained, his hands hardened and rough. I tell him what I am experiencing. He squints a bit, walks over to the car and opens the hood. He pokes around a bit, listens to sound of the engine, pulls a rag out of his back pocket and as he is wiping his hands says, "You got a bad cramulator. Happens a lot with this model." When I pick up the car the next day, it is running like it was new. I have been enlightened. I now know that a cremulator exists, and I know what it is like when it doesn't work. And going forward, I will be much more aware of the workings of the cremulator even if I still do not know how it does what it does.

The prophets lead us to truth in a similar way. When Gandhi says "there are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread," he clearly illustrates that Man* is inextricably part of creation (we cannot escape the laws of nature), and that God uses Man to act in creation (the act of feeding the hungry is an expression of God's mercy). Man caring for Man was the way things were intended to be. Jesus is able to describe the purpose and value of a person's life with the masterfully concise two great commandments: love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

I think that when I began this project I expected to come to some verdict about what I knew. Perhaps what I knew would indicate that I had been productive and that I was accomplished in something or other. Maybe in reviewing what I knew I would have to admit that I had wasted my time and squandered my talents (which, if I had been a betting man, is where I would have put my money). All the things I know, however, are like pottery shards scattered in my mind -- artifacts of a different time and place. They may be interesting, but they are not a reliable measure of the person I was or the person I am.

One definition of religion is the act of choosing a source of truth and conforming one's life to it. I know that I have chosen my source of truth and listened to the prophets that help me glimpse that truth. How well have I done? Not for me to say. I do however earnestly join in when during the Mass, my community prays to God saying, "look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will."


* I use the term Man in the sense that I have always understood it to mean: humans, or mankind. When I was a child, I understood that there were male and female Man, and I would be more adamant about that being proper, except that I also always thought that there male and female cows and that there were male and female bulls, cows and bulls being different species. Anyway, no offense ladies -- God created Man, male and female he created them.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-02-21
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
02:28:54 PM
More good barstool topics! I can't say I disagree with anything you've put down, only that you are engaging and thinking and articulating what is out there beyond your reach while I have grown tired of the pace and the patter and have dropped out of the race to have A Guinness and watch the remaining dogs chase the fox around as I once did, the catch being I have grown old and tired and know in my worn heart that the answer to all these things is there is no answer. I do, however, tip my cap to those still in the race, and there is a part of me that has some hope that the day will arrive when I see fit to get on my mark again. What you have asked here is the unanswerable and everlasting question, and I am not fool enough to think that you don't know that the visions you see and the sermons you hear are different from everyone else, and that we all bend our ear to catch a hidden lyric or see a sight no one else knows is there, and if the answer ever manifested itself to a tee we would be frightened to a state near death. Ah, but fun to think about.
Well done and good food for thought, amigo!
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