Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection


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The number of things I can’t remember is fortunately much larger than the number of things I can’t forget.

Among the events of my life I can’t forget is one that took place when I was around eight years old. I had a friend named Billy who lived across the street with his grandparents. His grandmother was a woman who laughed easily and smiled even more easily. His grandfather rarely laughed or smiled. Every time I saw him he was lying on the sofa reading a well-worn Bible. Every Sunday the grandparents got dressed up and took Billy, also all dressed up, to church. Since my family did not go to church (unless someone was getting married or buried), I could rarely find any playmates on Sunday morning. I had to wait until Billy got home from church and got out of his dressy clothes and into something that he could risk getting dirty in the course of the rough play that delights males aged eight.

One day—I can’t recall whether it was a Sunday or some other day—Billy and I came indoors for a drink of water and found several very serious-looking adults sitting around formally in the living room. Even Billy’s grandfather was sitting up with the Bible on his lap, rather than lying down reading it as was his wont. Billy was told to sit down, and I was briskly ushered out of the room and asked to wait in Billy’s room while he talked with the adults. Accustomed as I was to the strange behavior of adults, I was nevertheless taken aback by the unprecedented urgency with which the adults seemed to require Billy’s company. The atmosphere in the house indicated that something terribly serious needed attending to. Since Billy had already suffered the misfortune of being forced to take piano lessons, I knew that could not be the urgent business at hand. I could only imagine that some favorite aunt had died, or that Billy was going to be whisked away to an orphanage.

Billy had a collection of enviably good toys in his room, and normally I could have amused myself for hours in the absence of Billy and in the presence of all those toys. On this occasion, however, I could not bring myself to play. I just sat on his bed and felt the tension rise in the form of an accelerating heartbeat and a prickly feeling at the back of my tongue of the sort I got when I was quite sure a monster was hiding in my closet at bedtime. My shortness of breath assured me that something terrible was afoot.

After what seemed a very long time, Billy came into the room. He looked very shaken, pale in the face and trembling. Then he began to sob. I asked him what was wrong. He told me that the adults were from his church and that they had come to examine him to determine whether he had been saved by his faith in Jesus Christ. The diagnosis was not positive. He had shown no signs of the kind of faith necessary to save a lost soul. The prognosis was uncertain. If some sign of salvation should appear, then there might be some hope. Otherwise, it looked pretty much like an eternity of damnation for poor Billy.

As Billy told me about the cross-examination he had undergone in the living room with all those dour adults dressed in dark clothing, I found myself struggling to find a frame of reference in which to put this story. I lacked any of the indoctrination necessary to help me interpret it. Every aspect of the story was so unfamiliar to me that understanding was out of the question. All I knew was that my friend was sobbing and terrified and at least temporarily beyond any form of consolation that an eight-year-old friend could provide. I had no idea what to do or say.

Billy was apparently not saved from eternal damnation, but I was saved from the temporary discomfort of witnessing his unconsolable fear. The very adults who had cross-examined him and found him wanting came into the bedroom and told me I should run along now. I knew that “Run along now” was the default command issued by adults who wanted children out of the way but could not think of an explanation for why the current situation required the absence of children. In this case, I should hasten to clarify, the absence of children was not required so much as the absence of one child, namely me, and the presence of the unfortunate Billy.

Confused and bewildered, I hung my head (and would have put a tail between my legs if I had had one) and somehow got myself through the living room and past all those unsmiling adult inquisitors before they could determine the no doubt sorry state of my own soul. I fumbled the living room door open and bolted out into the fresh outdoor air and filled my lungs with it as someone might do after being trapped for days in a collapsed mineshaft.

Billy and I never spoke about the incident. No mention of it was ever made again. The next time I saw Billy’s grandmother she was smiling with her indomitable good nature. The grandfather was back on his sofa, lying down as he read the Good Book and took in its good news, his face relaxed into its natural scowl.

Unable to talk about the incident with anyone else, I was left to figure out for myself the question that would not leave my mind: What kind of people would do this to a kid? Who would tell a charming, freckle-faced boy with a room full of wonderful toys that he was probably facing an eternity of damnation?

The question remains with me to this day. Unanswered.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 13:07

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