In this scene, Pedro is alone, heading out for his third tour of duty on an account that his company has been serving through the summer of 2001. It involves driving Chinese tourists from the Bay Area on grueling week-long excursions to various national parks in the Western states. (I once racked up over 220 paid hours in two weeks doing these trips.) Here Pedro is driving a bus from his home base in San Luis Obispo, CA to San Jose where his trip will begin in the morning. This is all part of a long flashback sequence that began in Act IV, including a cathartic fight with Nadia after his two week stint, and eventually leading up to the events that precipitated his conflict with Nadia on September 10, bringing the narrative full circle back to the start of his September 11 birding trip. He is reflecting on his recent efforts to come closer to an understanding of Nadia’s quirky spirituality that he knows she is trying to impart to him while she still can.
This idea started to percolate a couple months ago when Nadia convinced me to try a Quaker meeting in Atascadero. Aside from their predominance in the history of Pennsylvania and their association with oatmeal, I knew almost nothing about them, and assumed they were just another scoff-worthy denomination of Protestantism, with its own list of in-group policies and procedures to get one’s ticket stamped for Heaven.
I couldn’t have been much more wrong. The focal point of their weekly prayer meetings was not a moralistic sermon, but a shared period of silent worship –O, sacred silence! My ears loved the sound of that! The purpose of silent worship is to provide the space for each person to get in touch with the “Inner Light” that is within everyone, not just a clique of holy rollers or saved souls. The Quakers say that if we listen intently, we will hear the voice of the Inner Light and it will give us the counsel we need. So they gather to give each other silent space and wait to be moved by the voice of Inner Light before they speak.
If this is so, I pondered while the lush fields of Salinas and Prunedale flew by, why are most people unaware of their own Inner Light? Part of the answer might lie in my earler ruminations on noise –we have no appreciation for silence and immerse ourselves in all manner of noise. But my experience told me it must be something more fundamental than that, for even when I escape the manmade noise of our world for a while, something within me keeps me just as blind to any Inner Light, and deaf to its subtle voice.
A little further up the road, as I approached the savory aroma of Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world, a theory arose as to why we are unaware of the Inner Light: we aren’t. We have known of the Inner Light since time began. Ordinary people from all over the world have sensed it time and time and time again. In fact, it is as familiar to us as our heartbeat.
But we perceive Inner Light in the form that our culture has taught us, like a filter over a lens, creating an iconic image that resonates most with the individual’s mind and heart.
A Christian, for example, will see Inner Light and feel the presence of Christ or hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, or, for Catholics, an even more personified image like the Virgin Mary or one of the saints. I am sure other faith traditions have their own filters, creating their own images from the same source (I made use of a few from Hindu culture before). Each filter carries a whole host of cultural assumptions about the nature of the light, who it shines from or is intended to shine upon, the purpose of its voice etc –none of which are intrinsic to the light itself.
Nadia and I were both raised in what she calls a “dogmatically secular” culture, the new dominant paradigm in the modern western world, that denies the Inner Light altogether. Its perception is couched into vague, innocuous concepts like “intuition” and “conscience,” without any exploration of the origins of these faculties. Some of the storyboards for these filters are left in the hands of New Age philosophers and their marketing teams; others, in the homilies of the moviemakers at Disney Studios and the like. By and large, however, as I suggested earlier, to take with any solemnity or seriousness the perceptions of any form of Inner Light, in this day and age, is an invitation to have one’s sanity questioned. Given what I’ve concluded about sanity and its viable alternatives, this seems to me a dangerous path for an entire culture to tread at once.
But if I was right in my theory about the Quakers, there is hope. For at that moment it seemed clear to me that there is a significant subculture that travels a middle road, swimming against the streams of both traditional religion and modern secularism, seeking the direct, immediate experience of Inner Light with as little filter as possible, finding inspiration and guidance in all of the world’s scriptures but idolizing none of them. I see this as a loose affiliation of dissidents from all faith traditions or none at all –people who learned from the great exemplars that reforming an authoritarian institution only creates a new, more rigorous authority, so the only rational choice is to de-form it: boil it down until nothing rigid is left and only Inner Light shines through.
I would count the Quakers, who find all the evidence for Christ that they need in their own experience and do not deify the words of the Christian Bible, among the travelers of this middle road.
I would also count Nadia. Without a doubt.
Which is to say that following this middle road is no piece of cake. Being out there on what appears to be one’s own ontologically, alienated from the “normal” people all around –this has the potential to create its own kind of pathologies that feed on our vulnerability as individuals. When a light shines on any hard object, it also casts a shadow. Inner Light seems to be no different.
It was the shadowy aspects of the Inner Light that drew my attention as I reached the southern edge of San Jose sprawl, the slanty daylight of late afternoon cast upon the landscape. There seems to be a whole iconography in our cultural filters for the shadow as well, the most common and obvious being the devil and his crew of meanies and malignant forces. With someone like Nadia, the demon-intruder is more visible, more personal and more bent on premature destruction.
But even this very real and grave perception, it must not be forgotten, is shaped by images that are lodged in our collective imagination. If the devil did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, and that is the point: It was, and we did. God too. It was necessary to give names and faces to an inner reality, a tension that would go unnoticed but doesn’t go away when neglected. God and the devil give some semblance of an external reality to a twin experience that is universal, to some degree, in all human beings: one day we wake up and we are dazzled to see that life is a brilliant light that shines within us, all of us, without explanation; at the same time, we are spooked, because of an equally unexplained, unrelenting dark space that follows us everywhere. Our brain and our five senses tell us that as life leaves our body, the darkness overcomes us and persists as a death without end….but the voice within us whispers the most inexplicable part of all: the Light prevails. In every life. Each and every time.
As the bus hissed to a stop behind the hotel just off the Southbay Freeway, I felt like I had just learned to formulate the question that homo sapiens has been asking itself for thousands of years, without any definitive answer. We keep going because it swallows every other question whole. We have to ask. If we stop, we may survive, but we will cease to fully live.”