Arguing With God at Coffs Harbour
By Roon Lewald
A few years ago, I had one of those near-death experiences you keep reading about. In Australia of all places, with Eva. Eva, my blunt-speaking, pig-headed, lovely-ugly partner of many years whose strength, warm-heartedness and abundant physicality put me on the road to recovery when I stumbled out of the emotional ground-zero of my divorce into her arms. We were very close at times and poles apart at others. Her relatively limited education and lack of intellectual curiosity locked her out of interests which loomed large in my mind. Besides limiting our conversational range, this exposed me to frequently voiced, unfounded suspicions that I was looking down on her.
My English-influenced notions of politely considerate behaviour – which ordinary German folk tend to dismiss as dishonest beating-about-the-bush – were sometimes offended by Eva’s blunt and often downright rude manner. We did converge in some respects down the years and I am grateful to Eva for having taught me to call a spade a spade whenever necessary. But the push-pull effects that disturbed and later ended our long relationship left frequent blank spots that marked the intervals between our painful driftings-apart and rueful reconciliations. At the time I refer to here, we were particularly close after one such reconciliation and Eva was once more my Mausi-mouse, my Schatzilein-treasure.
In Auckland, right at the start of an ambitious Australasian touring programme Eva was jointly undertaking with our mutual friend Hans-Georg, he let her down badly. They had hardly unpacked in their first hotel when Hans-Georg phoned Germany from his room and came out to tell her he was flying home immediately to deal with what turned out to be a very pusillanimous family conflict. I hadn’t gone along because I felt I couldn’t afford such a lengthy jaunt, even though Down Under has always attracted me greatly. My poor Evi-maus, I thought: her English is so rudimentary and, although she can be so self-reliant, she does have this record of emotional instability. She had planned the expensive trip as a kind of self-improvement project to wrench herself out of a depressive gridlock. Knowing how much it meant to her, I had visions of her depressive tendencies resurging if she slunk home in defeat after deciding she couldn’t drive thousands of miles through the wilds of New Zealand and Australia alone. She seemed miserable and full of self-doubts on the phone, so I gave my arm a sharp twist and pillaged my slender savings to join her for part of the Australian leg.
Once Qantas had flown me over the rainbow to “Oz”, as tourists are told the locals call Australia, I responded to that magic land like a Tin Can Man clanking happily along the Yellow Brick Road with Judy Garland. Remember how, in “The Wizard of Oz” movie, Judy flies over the rainbow to join her strange companions in search of “the wonderful, wonderful Wizard of Oz?” The character I always related to most closely was the Tin Can Man, a battered individual whose broken body had so often been repaired with bits of tin that even his heart consisted of scrap metal. Judy helped him to recover the flesh-and-blood heart he was looking for – something Eva might be able to do for me in our land of Oz, I fancied. With the cheery Strine accents of the friendly natives transporting me back to the kindred atmosphere of my childhood in seaside Durban, South Africa, there certainly seemed to be magic in the antipodean air. Even our noisy squabbles about routes to follow and things to see and do blew over quickly and seemed enjoyable in retrospect.
After admiring Sydney’s incomparable shorefront panorama, we headed north by Greyhound bus along the East Coast backpacker trail towards Cairns. You can leave or pick up those fast, comfortable Greyhound connections whenever you like and spend a day or two at any of the good, low-priced motels along the route to cherry-pick the tourist offerings. Not far from Brisbane, Eva plucked up all her courage to do the wildest thing she could imagine, short of bungee jumping: she boarded a little Cessna with Brian, the instructor-boss of a small skydiving outfit. Brian had to peel her white-knuckled fingers from the frame of the gaping doorway, but she let him clip her suit to his and the two of them free-fell and glided thrillingly to the beach far below. Brian added a humorous sparkle to her ecstatic experience by ribbing her with a straight face: “Good on yer, Eva – yer the best German skydiver we’ve hed all dye!” As far as we knew, there weren’t any others of her sort that day, but we accepted the back-handed compliment at face value even so.
At Coffs Harbour, I found myself on a fine-grained white beach that reminded me of the beloved haunts of my student years along the Cape coast. In Europe, I had spent too many North Sea vacations huddled behind a canvas shelter to escape the chilly bite of a constant sea breeze and watch the miniature wavelets swishing meekly towards an overcrowded beach. So the sight of the great Pacific surf booming in towards that sunny Australian coast was so nostalgically reminiscent of South African shores that I light-headedly rushed into the water without bothering to look for “safe bathing zone” notices.
There are menacing undertows and places where the bottom suddenly falls away at Coffs. I was wading through shoulder-high water when I suddenly found myself paddling furiously and helplessly above one such mantrap as a strong backwash drew me further and further out to sea. My physical condition was what you might expect from an overweight, elderly gent with smoker’s lungs. I became increasingly exhausted by the need to breast or dive under each new breaker. The shore was already far away – too far away to call for help, even if there had been anybody around to hear. My mind suddenly froze as it dawned on me that I was almost certainly about to die.
And instantly, there it was again – that strange feeling that the sky was not as empty as it looked. I had already felt something like this many years ago in Holland, when I was so distraught about the state of my life that my emotional need projected the half-seen, half-sensed presence of a great supernatural Being into a grey Dutch sky behind a towering bank of clouds. The experience upset my normally sceptical attitude towards religious matters so thoroughly that I was catapulted into what has since proved to be a long search for faith in whatever agency may or may not be ultimately responsible for this often rather dreadful world we live in. Now, an unseen Ear high above me seemed to be dispassionately waiting to hear whatever I might be wanting to say (or scream) for myself. In fact, I felt absolutely no panic at that moment. My dominant emotion was a peeved, insulted feeling that I hadn’t deserved this, that it was hardly very nice of the Ear’s Owner to contemplate ending my days in such a foolish way at this particular moment in my life.
“Great Spirit or Whoever,” I communed with the Ear,
“if You’re really there – look, You’re really coming on strong. Of course I’ll go quietly if you truly insist, but I want You to know I’m disappointed by Your rather nasty sense of humour. Bad taste, poor timing, is all I can say. I’m to die here of all places, now of all times? In Oz, just when I’m starting to enjoy myself at last after all these gloomy years of muddling through? You’re petty enough to want to spoil my first real holiday in years just because I’ve been a bit careless, is that it?
“So go ahead, be my guest – but have You considered what You’re doing to Eva? You’re going to make my Mausi worry until she gets up from her beach towel to hunt for me, look for the Lifeguards (if they have any here), cope with the Aussie cops in her bad English, hang around in a cheap hotel until they find my body, fill in reams of forms for Australian bureaucrats, the German consulate, my medical benefit fund and what-all, and then fly home in a fog of misery with the coffin stashed in the belly of the Qantas jumbo?! You’re prepared to put her through all that just to spite me? Listen, why don’t you come back to me some other time when I’m a bit more ready? I promise You, I won’t make a fuss!”
Only a few seconds later, the big toe of my right foot made contact with the sandy bottom and I managed with my last dregs of strength to half-paddle, half-hop against the backwash towards the beach. A solitary sun-bather on the sand spotted my stumbling, arm-flailing figure in the shallows and dashed in to half-carry me shorewards. After recovering somewhat, I told Eva how my complaints had apparently caused the Ear to give me a break. Perhaps its Owner was faintly amused by my patter; perhaps He saw my point about Eva; perhaps I scraped through His Test by unflinchingly accepting the basic principle – though not the intended application – of His rule that when He calls you, you gotta go. When I told Eva about my quibbling conversation with the Ear, I tried to make it sound funny. But what had truly been a kind of near-death experience remained close to the surface of my mind as we took the next northbound Greyhound.
There was so much to see and do. We took in the unique biotope of Fraser Island and got an overall impression of Australian fauna at a private zoo just off the highway. While I trailed off to gawk at the big crocs, Eva fell so deeply in love with a tame, casually lounging wallaby that she couldn’t stop petting the flea-bitten beast, incessantly crooning: “Mausi, you sweetie-pie, there-there my Mausi, ach j-a-a-a, my little Mausilein…!” He took it with the bored, macho self-assurance of a Crocodile Dundee.
Doing all the things tourists do, we gained an inkling of Aboriginal traditions and failed to get the hang of boomerangs and didgeridoos at a tribal cultural centre, took a long cable-car ride over rain-forest treetops and discovered fabulous Vietnamese takeaways in a city mall steeped in the multi-ethnic atmosphere of sweltering, tropical Cairns. Our trip climaxed where East Coast tourist trips usually do: on the Great Barrier Reef. We headed out from Cairns in a racy, low-slung motor yacht to a point where they lowered a platform at the rear and let us slip easily into the shallow, turquoise water above an unspoilt reef. We snorkeled for hours among those psychedelic creatures most foreigners think they know from BBC-TV documentaries, but which are still such a revelation when you get up that close to them in real life.
Afterwards, the long, lean snout of our reef cruiser reared up as its two powerful M.A.N. diesels made its blunt destroyer stern hunker down to let the screws cream us landwards at a swift, steady lick. I lay on the foredeck, sipping well-chilled Hunter Valley Chardonnay from a misted glass and casting a benign, elderly eye over the stunning young things relaxing near me in their itsy-bitsy tangas and bikinis. Eva was recovering from her snorkelling exertions in the saloon, so I had no compunctions about leering – uh, looking at these coincidentally contiguous female charms. Honi soit qui mal y pense, “evil be to her who evil thinks”, I mentally addressed Eva.
Ein Leben ist das – what a life, I thought as the sunset fires dimmed in the vast sky and turned the flat-calm Pacific into a horizonless, homerically wine-dark sea. None of us weary Argonauts said a word and I was no longer conscious of the sonorous thrumming of the engines. Sea and sky merged into a dimension not of this earth, through which we glided swiftly, silently, purposefully. I thought:
This moment is perfect.
You can take me now, God.
When I got back to Sydney at the end of our East Coast trip (Eva had gone on to Melbourne to tour south-eastern Australia alone), I sat drinking proper Aussie tea (none of this shitty European teabag stuff in a glass, for crying out loud, mate!) on a café terrace overshadowed by the mammoth indigenous trees of gracious Hyde Park. From there, my roving eye took in the post-modern glass wall of Sydney’s amazing skyline at the edge of the park and finally paused to study the Gothic Revival architecture of St. Mary’s Cathedral. Now, I have the mediaeval Gothic marvel of Cologne Cathedral’s lofty, lacy spires on my doorstep back home in the Rhineland, so I’m not usually very interested in the inferior imitations that went up all over the British Empire in its palmy days. I felt instinctively drawn to St. Mary’s, however. It seemed very well proportioned, attractively situated in its tree-shaded, park-like gardens and imposing enough to warrant a look-over.
Though my ancestral roots are Protestant – Dutch Calvinist from my mother’s and Lutheran-Evangelical from my father’s side – I have a great aesthetic and emotional regard for the Catholic perception that bare walls and plain windows may promote the no-nonsense dealings with God that Protestants prefer, but that many folk are human enough to want to feel comforted and sheltered by the more elaborate, colourful trappings of Catholicism in the House of God.
I discovered that St. Mary’s is eminently qualified to fill that bill. It was built in the 19th century with the scraped-together pennies of poor Irish micks whom the accursed British shipped away from their famine-ridden, island poorhouse to swell the thinly spread white population of an upside-down continent at the opposite end of the globe. Australia’s raw new society was run by British-descended colonials who were happy to exploit the Irish as a sub-proletariat of ignorant, lowly labourers. The skilled Victorian architect of St. Mary’s gave these dirt-poor, homesick people a religious home-from-home. With its heavy ceiling baulks in the nave, Celtic-looking stonework, Stations of the Cross, plaster saints and glowing stained-glass windows, St. Mary’s became a fortress of ethnically specific, Irish-Catholic religiosity in a world of supercilious Anglo-Saxons – heathenish Protestants begorrah, every one of them.
I stood silently in that church for a while and registered the strong vibrations that emanate from the many thousands of heartfelt Irish prayers its solid walls have stored down the years. The fact that I was baptised (though not confirmed) by the Lutherans makes no difference to my willingness – and consequent ability – to tune into whatever wavelengths the Eternal chooses to broadcast on. I think I have learned enough during my search for faith to ignore the superficial inconsistencies and divergences of the various denominations when I dive below the surface of this or that church to look for that same bedrock of Christian faith they all stand pat on in their own particular way.
The ancestors who people my highly multi-cultural family tree happen to include two separate lines of German Lutheran churchmen. One of them goes back in unbroken succession to a Reformation-era pastor who was already preaching when Luther’s breach with Rome was capped by the horrors of the Thirty-Year War. I think I heard him angrily thumping Dr. Marthinus Luther’s newly translated bible when I stood before an Irish saint in St. Mary’s and lit a candle to the universal God I was getting ready to believe in after what happened at Coffs Harbour.
It goes without saying that my hesitant spiritual progress can hardly be mentioned in the same breath with the tremendous historic stature and immense courage of Luther’s unblinking stand against the combined might of both Church and State at the imperial assembly at Worms. And yet, I mentally told my restive ancestors, I too – like Luther – have new spiritual needs and new insights born of an age as much beset by radical new departures as were his own revolutionary times. My age has all but forgotten the intra-Christian wars of the Reformation era, I reflected. Instead, faith in my time is being assailed by increasingly perilous chains of explosive violence triggered by religiously disguised cultural conflict – as if the human condition were not already menaced enough by all the other crises looming over our increasingly small, over-populated world. By the same token, however, mine is an ecumenical age in which the growing need for a convergence of the faithful has already produced results as startling as a Polish pope’s energetic promotion of dialogue between his previously stand-offish Church and the more or less widely divergent creeds of Judaism, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy and even the more open-minded elements of Islam. Thus, I told my Lutheran ancestors, I must be strong enough in my convictions to say like Luther: “Here I stand in my world, my age. So help me God, I can do no other.”
A compulsion to discuss my Coffs Harbour experience with a minister of St. Mary’s led me to the Cathedral Office, where I was received by a young Irish-descended priest. Readers must appreciate that I, who previously considered myself a highly rational person, was now reaching out to unfamiliar instincts I had seldom accessed before. In this mental mode, the priest’s name sounded very auspicious to me: Father Kevin Lovegrove. What passed between us is best conveyed by a letter I wrote him after returning to Bonn.
Dear Fr. Kevin,
I wish to thank you once more for the opportunity you gave me to unburden myself of the spiritual pressure created by the remarkable near-death experience I described to you in our discussion on 26 April. My respect and affection for the Catholic Church has been increased by the tolerant, friendly hearing you gave a seeker whose own trail, after all, merely skirts the bright lights of established Christianity. As an organist yourself, you’ll understand that the common ground we found in the matter of worshipping through music made you personally very sympathetic to me. Just as a Bach organ fugue fully explores the themes on which it is based to achieve the metaphysical synthesis he seeks, the quest-for-faith metaphor which guides me is that the modern, all too rationally guided seeker first builds a foundation of empirically observed indications as to the possible existence and nature of the Ultimate.
If he persists, the addition of further indications will turn it into an ever-rising pyramid which narrows at the top as it grows, and from whose penultimate layer one day – the day he dies, perhaps – he may be able to close the remaining gap with a final, short, easy leap of faith. Were my unfinished labours at my own pyramid the reason why life was returned to me at Coffs Harbour – to complete my work? My experience in the waves was not my first, but certainly my most dramatic encounter with the sensed nearness of a personally relevant, ultimate Entity. My discussion with you helped to put it in perspective, and I now feel that another level has been added to my pyramid. This is the knowledge that I must unconditionally love and accept my life and this world while in it and of it. I must set a personal example of love that may in some small way positively influence the lives of those whom I encounter. I will then be ready to leave this world peacefully and even thankfully when my time comes.
Learning to thank God
Update: October 8th, 2008
In an earlier blog under the title “Arguing with God at Coffs Harbour”, I described how the experience of nearly drowning in the sea along the Australian east coast led me to discuss its powerful impact on my dormant religious instincts with a Roman Catholic priest at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. I ended that true short-story with the text of a letter I subsequently wrote to an auspiciously named Irish-Australian priest, thanking him for listening so sympathetically to the thoughts of a baptised (but never confirmed) Lutheran about the search for faith that has kept my subconscious (and often my conscious) mind busy for many years now. I wrote Father Kevin Lovegrove S.J. that I was then still searching for more indications of God’s existence in order to close the wide gap between my critical rationality and unquestioning belief — to the point where it might seem very easy for me to take a final, upward “leap of faith” into His arms. I concluded with an interim resolve to which I had freshly committed myself: to remain of this world, but to experience it as consciously as if I had already taken that leap and was already treating all fellow-humans with a true believer’s loving consideration, filled with awe of all Creation and gratitude for the gift of life with all its positive and negative potentialities.
Some months ago, the gradual yeasting of that resolve led me to approach a pastor of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church of Germany in which I was baptised, asking him to discuss with me whether I was finally ready to be confirmed in that faith. Pastor Burkhard Mueller is a tirelessly dedicated shepherd who was deservedly promoted to the general superintendancy of all Evangelical churches in the Bonn region before his retirement a few years ago. He is also an exceedingly fine musician who continues to lead the Trinitatis (Trinity) Church choir in the suburb of Endenich. As a choir member, I was privileged to help perform some of the greatest works of the Christian church music repertoire. Burkhard listened patiently to my talk of wanting to cement my growing awareness of God in my life with a fresh approach to my confirmation (as a doubt-ridden adolescent, I had broken off my youthful confirmation classes in South Africa many years ago). He then advised me to approach the pastor of the more conveniently situated Johanniskirche (St. John’s church) in my neighbourhood for confirmation, but offered to brief the incumbent pastor of his own Trinitatis church) to receive me as a confirmee instead if that didn’t work out.
It n fact, it didn’t immediately work out at St. John’s and I instinctively shelved the entire enterprise to think it over again. Yesterday, however, I sensed a new crystillisation in my religious processes and was moved to write a letter to Burkhard, explaining why I had faded out on him and what new insights I had gained since I approached him for guidance. Because it is not so easy for rational folk like me to find and harder still to love God in this often rather awful world we live in, I append the text of that letter in the hope that some readers may find it helpful.
Dear Burkhard (I wrote),
Since I approached you months ago for guidance about my possible confirmation, I believe I meanwhile owe you (or me) at least a few words about the current status of that project. I was unfortunately unable to secure an appointment with Pastor S… at St. John’s, partly because of my own travel commitments at the time and partly because the poor lady is so kept so busy by her multi-congregational duties that she is difficult to reach. I haven’t forgotten your gratefully received alternative offer of confirmation at your Trinity Church. But I often rely on the promptings of instinct in such important matters and came to the conclusion that I should not force the issue of confirmation at that stage. By more or less putting the project on ice, I was able to let the normality of everyday life temper the urge to join a religious congregation which I felt so strongly at the time of our meeting – a necessary precaution in view of my past tendencies to alternate between cycles of euphoria and depression, I find. However, I noticed only yesterday how consistently I had nevertheless continued to labour more or less semi-consciously on my progress towards faith. This is the background to what happened:
My personal circumstances have been steadily improving for quite a while now. I feel well in control of my cyclical emotional syndrome. My income from freelance translations has steadily increased during the past year and my once rather poor financial situation is consequently much improved. I have enjoyed a stable, extremely rewarding relationship with a somewhat younger woman in Berlin for more than three years, leading to frequernt visits to and fro and a series of enjoyable joint holiday tours. My greatly increased joie de vivre has triggered new creativity and a renewal of valuable relationships with old friends. I can once more intensively appreciate the music which left me cold or simply irritated me in earlier depressive phases. Yesterday, I was therefore able to draw a highly positive psychic balance in my monthly check-up session with my psychiatric advisor at the local state clinic’s outpatients section. I found myself expressing in words what I had felt for many months: immense grattude towards the forces of destiny for the rich gifts I am privileged to receive in this 66th year of my life.
On the phone with my partner Sabine last night (we ring each other for long chats at least once a day), I told her more or less the same thing, although I spoke of “God” rather than “forces of destiny”. “So now you’re suddenly dragging God in – what is this?” she asked. To which I gave a carefully formulated reply which went something like this: “Well, I don’t always let it hang out, ‘Biene’, but I do believe that our destinies are guided by an Entity that promotes and measures us by our ethical behaviour, even if it is ‘merely’ a virtual central component of our operating software which is indelibly programmed into our genetic hard-disk memories.”
Of all trained theologians, you – from whom I borrowed that computer image you once used in an unforgotten TV sermon – will probably regard all this as a layman’s maunderings. But I was taught by my own words that I am not only continuing to work on the building site of my soul, but have even made some interim progress. If I was still primarily engaged in the search for God when we met, I have now acquired the implicit certainty of the presence (within me or wherever) of a controlling, ethically challenging and morally assessing Agency. Not only that: I also feel the urge to serve and thank it for enriching my life with such bountiful gifts. I have also learned to pray a little, if you can thus describe the dialogue with Infinity I was once again able to carry on this evening while intensively listening to Bach cantatas through my earphones (which I personally still find the straitest road towards meditatively approaching God).
Sharing my solitude with God via a long-dead composer is of course a loner’s trick beyond which I should probably progress to congregational worship if I want to regard myself as a socially integrated believer. But integrated into which congregation, I ask? Of all the estimable great religions, Christianty in its essence is the one which covers the greatest portion of my religious and ethical insstincts. I am emotionally, traditionally, culturally, esthetically drawn most strongly to the modern German Evangelical-Lutheran brand of Protestantism with its sanity, social outreach and record of courageous resistance to the satanic years of genocidal tyranny. In this ecumenical age, however, I often encounter similarly convincing individual interpretations and incorporations of Christianity in other denominations. And they all require you to swallow the same toads of dogma, such as the cumbersome concept of triune Divinity, the resurrection of our hell-or heaven-bound flesh on that needlessly vengeful Day of Judgment – also in the Evangelical-Lutheran confession, which I would presumably have to recite in full conviction of its literal truth on my confirmation day.
How indeed can a post-modern, reasonably educated person of my stamp be a confessing member of a Christian congregation? Do such Christians simply overlook certain parts of their central confession of faith by ignoring them as unimportant, regarding them as freely interpretable images or affectionately tolerating them as traditional marks of congregational togetherness? If I knew more about the ways in which practicing but by no means unworldly Christians like you skirt such obstacles, I might find it easier to follow my pretty clear understanding of the essential Christian message within an (Evangelical) congregation. Perhaps I should after all contact that Trinitatis pastor you recommended. But I am content to let my instincts eventually prod me in the right direction, since I not regard this as an urgent matter at present and am increasingly comforted by the grateful awareness of being sheltered by a beneficent Power or powers.
At any rate, I do not want to burden you with new wishes this time. I merely wanted to show you that your disciussion with me was not entirely for naught, and to thank you once again for your patient, friendly helpfulness at that time. My best wishes will accompany you wherever you go.
(signed: Roon Lewald)