The other day I was hanging out on Mars' Hill. No, wait -- maybe it was Walmart -- I mean, Washington Mall and the lady next to me piped up, "You mean Washington Square Mall? Have they got their Christmas decorations up yet?"
And I said, "Actually, I was thinking that big stretch of pavement between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument."
"I suppose either one would do," she says, this woman in the crowd, who might -- now that I get a good look at her -- be my alter ego, the one who always takes the topic off-topic, her.
Anyway, right then this guy starts talking. He was built like a wrestler, short with a stubborn jaw. He says, "Hey guys!" or maybe it was "Ye men of Athens!" And the woman and I look at each other, because we know all about gender-inclusive language and we raise our eyebrows and shrug but we have a feeling he might be talking to us.
He says, looking at us like we got that one right, "I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious."
"Get outa here!" roared the loudmouth who lives in every crowd. "Who's superstitious?"
I'm not saying the bully was a boy or girl, because gender aside, you know exactly the type I'm talking about. And maybe this loudmouth didn't say it exactly like that. Maybe they were the Id, and we all know what the Id says. Anyway, they were spitting and pounding and making a case and it sounded something like "Superstition? We finished that in the 40s, or the middle ages, or only scraps of it hang out now in third world countries, or the inner cities, or hick towns, or at the other end of the political spectrum. Not here in Athens. Not us. Now we know things. We don't put trust in fairy tales. We know how to fly to the moon. We know what God has planned for everyone . . . "
"Well, some of us do," said one self-satisfied customer.
"Some of us know better," said another.
"Than to go dragging God-talk into everything," finished the first.
These two were practically indistinguishable and must have been some kind of identical twins. The same cross-eyed irritation, the same dog-dirt-on-the-shoe lipcurl. They kept looking at each other, but only out of the side of their eyes with a skewed glance.
Loudmouth just kept talking over both of them, even louder, "We're not superstitious. We know what's what. We know just what will happen next with all our projections and our computer models. We know just what needs to be done to fix the economy and our kids and those crazies on the next continent over. We know --"
"Well, we may not know ourselves," interrupted another, all earnest Adam's apple, "But we know people who know. And we can quote them chapter and verse, I mean, we can give all their statistics. And what they say we know that's so. Because they know. That's why we call them experts, I mean, celebrities . . . or preachers, I mean, scientists or . . . you know. And I think you can agree, we know so much nowadays that what we don't know -- "
"It's not worth knowing," finished the loudmouth in the crowd.
"Yeah, I noticed that," said the short guy, a little shortly, "As I passed by and beheld your devotions." At the tone of his voice, I think we all glanced up from our various devices. Over which we had been so bent. Letting the cursor blink, the fine fabrics slip from our fingers back to the counter of the stall in the bazaar, the coins clink back. Somewhere off in the crowd there was a ping of another message coming through but we all tried to ignore it. "I found an altar," said the guy in a clear voice, "With this inscription:
TO THE UNKNOWN GOD
Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship."
And before any of us could ruffle ourselves up to a full umbrage, he went on, "Him declare I unto you."
And at this point I felt a huge yearning, Who is this Unknown God? Because that's the One I'm most interested in.
And I must have said it out loud because the lady next to me said, "I know exactly what you mean. I get a little tired how people -- not to be blasphemous but it really is a blasphemy how sometimes they, or maybe I mean we and if I've done it, I'm sorry -- make God into a Jesus-puppet on our own hand. You know, how anybody makes God say only what they say."
And another from the crowd, a woman with a tired face, said, "That's not God. Not the platitudes and political slogans that people pound into clubs to pound down their neighbors. Not the preachers pounding their pulpits. Not the activists acting almighty." And the two twin-faced sneerers scuffed the ground and looked ashamed.
Then a child spoke up, "God is who we know by reaching. In the dark probably. In our hearts."
"Which are dark enough," said the old, old woman holding the child's hand.
I looked around the crowd, which may have just been my divided self, or maybe it was my country, or my town, and I wondered . . .
. . . how it can be that we are all one blood. All coming from the Unknown, all made in Truth. Which seems so far away.
But the short guy with a wrestler's stubborn stance shook his head, "Not far from any one of us."
He looked at us all, full in the face and in all our fifty-two eyes at once (that being the number of weeks in the year and of the weak, wild things that we are) and he said, "Everything is given. And the reason why? That they should seek the Lord, if by chance they might feel after him and find him, though he be not far from every one of us . . .
Right here, I think I may have whispered it aloud. Closer than the next breath.
" . . . for in him we live and move and have our being."
And this is what happens when I start learning words by heart. They start to take on independent life within me.
Or maybe I in them.
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