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Some years ago I was stricken with an unforeseen religious fervor. Until then, I’d been your normal, rational secular Jew raised on the fusty ideas of those apostles of reason, “the great agnostic” Robert Ingersoll, and the free thinking criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. Suddenly, like an iron bar crashing on my head, I began to see – and “be” – Jesus Christ.
True, the ground had been prepared by my working closely with hospitalized, often visionary or delusionary schizophrenics in England. Of course, any spontaneous expression of religious mania got them medically tagged as mental cases and dispatched to the nearest “bin”. In therapy sessions we’d sit for hours exchanging our mutual visions; on examination, theirs seemed no more weird than mine. As Jesus, I did not prophesy or insist I was a reincarnated Roman gladiator as some of my schizophrenic friends did. But they respected what I was seeing, and gradually I came to understand the validity of their visions.
A mitigating factor in all this was that it was the ‘swinging Sixties’ in London when taking acid and Triptomine and similar exotic herbs was fairly common among the young – and for a short time, me. It was when everybody could be his own Krishna or Buddha.
My own previous teenage attempts to join an organized religion had ended badly. The friendly priest across the street at St Agatha’s church on Chicago’s west side threw me out when I suggested that Jesus was the first union organizer. And the rabbi my mother sent me to for Hebrew instruction hurled me down a flight of stairs for throwing spitballs in class. Religion of any form seemed a no-go area after that.
When Jesus later came to me in London, he (not in Capital Letters) seemed as palpable as the corner news vendor. This was a secret, personal Jesus. Devotional messages began to creep into my writing. I submitted and had published an entire article for a Sunday newspaper riddled with disguised canonical code, without getting caught.
All this time I kept wondering, why me? And why not Moses or Mohammed?
Over time, Jesus and I developed an easy conversational dialogue. I’m told this is how certain native tribes connect to their tutelary spirits, a guardian or protective presence. It wasn’t quite the same as a Christian patron saint. He was colloquially accessible and wasn’t afraid to use street language. I never asked for advice per se for fear the bubble would burst if I asked him the winner of the third at the Newmarket races.
In this condition, I thought it wise if I dated a BBC religious affairs broadcaster, but even she kept giving me strange looks.
In the end there was a “breakdown”, or moment of illumination (choose one), where, perversely, Jesus signed off with a farewell word which, boiled down, urged me to stop messing about with the myth and mystery of the Christ and to go back to mundane work that had no extraterrestial “meaning”.
I miss “my” Jesus.
The ultimate result of my passing passion for The Passion was a feeling of closeness to both the myth and whatever we know of the historical Jesus the rebel Jew, rabbi and prophet.
We Jews are not supposed to believe in a heaven – Olam Ha-Ba (the world to come) or She’ol, hell. But I like to think that in a happy afterlife, amidst all those puffy clouds and singing harps, these two great men, Robert Ingersoll and Jesus, are up there having a gentle, friendly debate that will forever be without a resolution.
CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. His latest book, Hemingway Lives!, will be published this spring by OR Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org