Bent Too Far: A Missionary, A Bookstore, A Change of Heart

In my last life, back in the late 1990s when I was a fundamentalist missionary in Papua New Guinea, I came upon the online magazine Killing the Buddha.

Although I was quite aware that my life as a fundamentalist was nearly over, I did not know that I had about four years before any ontological aspect of my faith would be gone. How was I to know? In my heart, I knew I’d broken away from the body of Christ, calved like an iceberg. Unmoored I was, slowly drifting away, and my identity as a Christian melting.

I truly, consciously, thought in those terms.

On especially searing days there so close to the equator, I’d cheerfully joke to one fellow missionary or another that I was like the Wicked Witch of the West, “melting. I’m melting!” It made me both sad and secure knowing those fellow missionaries had no idea I was referring to my spiritual status. Sad, because I really had for some time of my Christian career experienced something of a romantic relationship with Jesus and the idea of that relationship disappearing grieved me. Secure, because I had long ago learned to not trust my fellow fundamentalists with anything remotely heretical.

As many readers of KtB know, it is stifling to be a fundamentalist.

Killing the Buddha was a breath of fresh air for me. Its early writers were so daring in the things they said, so very sincere and yet not at all adolescent.

And authentic. If there was any one trait about KtB that most drew me, it was how very real, how very true to life as I knew it the KtB writings were.

Back then, I pretty much valued authenticity as much as food and air. I had a couple friends who, although also fundamentalist missionaries, were brilliant with their open honesty about their struggles to live the Christian life. Once, one went so far as to say he thought “God must be some sort of evil cosmic masturbator because he seems to get off on our failures.” I nearly moved away from him when he added, “Or maybe he’s into voyeurism. You know, how he watches all we do. ‘Be careful little hands what you do, for the father up above, is looking down in love, be careful little hands what you do.'” I half expected to be ​hit by the lightning I thought God would strike him with for such authenticity. I feared it arcing from his body to mine.

So it was that when I encountered similar, daring authenticity in Killing the Buddha, I became a hungry, devoted reader of every new piece posted on its website.

And then came Bent, by Peter Manseau, a short fiction piece that came out at the end of 2000. Here was the story of some ancient monastics who spent so much of their lives on their knees in prayer that their femurs became permanently bent.

Had I ever been that devoted? I asked myself. Despite having left the comforts of America, despite having dragged my family to live with me as I worked as a missionary in a remote mountain tribe, despite that sort of dedication, I knew I didn’t have the same level of devotion as the monastics who bent their femurs from praying for hundreds upon hundreds of hours on their knees.

Maybe that’s what I needed to revive my faith, to keep my long dark night of the soul from completely annihilating any last shred of authentic, ontological aspect of my Christian life.

So, surreptitiously, I went to a Roman Catholic bookstore, in order to find for myself what I hoped might be the sort of prayer book the monastics of old might have used.

Once, several years before, I had visited the store to purchase an anthropological monograph with material about the culture of the tribe I had been seeking to evangelize. The bookstore was part of what is known as the Melanesian Institute, an organization, as I recall, dedicated to academic research and publication of material related to the peoples of Papua New Guinea. How it was affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church I do not know. But I do remember that there was enough affiliation that when a leader with New Tribes Mission, the fundamentalist mission society of which I was a member, learned about my intention to go there to get the monograph, I was ​strongly warned to be careful. He admonished me to remember that Satan was the true leader of Catholicism.

That first venture to the bookstore was several years before my faith was waning so precipitously. I had gone there truly expecting to see drunken priests and cowering little boys.  What I saw, instead, was a very well organized, very inviting bookstore.

Bear with this digression: I love bookstores almost as much as I love books. The first time I walked into Portland, Oregon’s, Powell’s Bookstore I got tears of joy in my eyes. I felt like I’d entered some form of paradise. So in love did I fall with Powell’s that I used to joke with those I felt safe that “if there is a heaven, it must be something like Powell’s.” Back to the Catholic bookstore in New Guinea . . .

I had already been living in Papua New Guinea for several years when I walked into that bookstore  to purchase the monograph and it was the closest thing to a Western-style bookstore I’d seen in the country. Right away, I felt at home. Since I figured it was highly unlikely that any of my Protestant fundamentalist cohorts would show up, I let myself enjoy a solid half-hour of book-browsing. Only once did the quiet nun wearing a light blue habit ask if I needed help. She bowed politely as she backed away from me and returned to the cash register.

And so it was that I ​returned to the Roman Catholic book store and bought a small, red, leather-bound missal. I had been surprised and pleased with how much of its text was Scripture. It was not what I expected.

My thought was that it could not hurt to assist my re-devotion, as it were, to fervent, sacrificial, down-on-my-knees prayer, as I’d read about in Peter Manseau’s story, with the same sort of prayers made by those whose femurs became bent.

And so, thank you Peter Manseau, for a year or so I staunched the flow of my bleeding, wounded-by-severe disappointment-and-doubt heart with a new regimen of prayer.

Daily, ninety minutes before the sun rose, at its almost never changing near-equatorial time of around 6:30, I quietly stole out of my bedroom and went to the east-facing veranda, got down on my knees and prayed. My ritual was ecumenical: I first prayed as a Protestant, “Dear Jesus this and dear Jesus that”. Then I opened the missal and prayed from it. I followed that with praying through a portion of the Psalms. Finally, I knelt in in silence, waiting and hoping to hear back from God. This whole process took all of forty minutes.

I had determined to follow this regimen for one year. Occasionally, I added to the forty minutes and supplemented them with twenty minutes of lectio divina, sacred reading. This was something I’d read about in an issue of Christianity Today, the Time magazine of American Evangelicalism.

For the first few months, I felt a slight bit of the old-fashioned zeal for Jesus and His way that had driven me to become a missionary in the first place. A couple times I may have even moaned with that zeal, thinking of Teresa of Avila and her orgasmic prayers.

Alas, that flicker of zeal faded, and after a half year of spending each morning on bended knee, I knew it wasn’t going to work. My faith was not coming back.

But I am not one to give up easily. So I kept at it for the full twelve months before finally owning up to the fact that –apart from shoving my hands into the pierced side of Jesus–there was nothing that would stop my doubts.

It was over. I bent myself to the breaking point. My femurs snapped.

My faith had melted completely away.

(Too many metaphors? Not for us who are given to finding purpose and meaning at nearly all costs.)

It took me nearly ten years to go public with the reality of my departure from God. That ten years included six more years in the ministry, the death of my marriage, estrangement from my lovely children, the death of a second marriage, triggered by my announcing I no longer believed in God and that I was attracted to men.

Now, here I am, out of the closet as an atheist and bisexual man for these past five years or so . . .

I am happier now. For me, giving up on God felt like I imagined it felt for Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress to be relieved of his sin. God was a burden for me. Even when I had some modicum of genuine ontological experience with God, I found Him very burdensome. And not at all easy.

God knows, if there is a God (I actually think of myself as a non-theist; one who just doesn’t have a place of substance for God; I don’t think of myself as anti-God, which is for me what the term atheist implies), that I tried. Like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when he accepted the challenge of his insane cohorts to rip up the massive cement fountain in their asylum and throw it out the window so he could escape, “At least I tried, goddammit, at least I tried.”

Mike Cordle lives in the Pacific Northwest. He has written short fiction, as well as a novel under consideration by a literary agent, and an as-yet-unpublished memoir of his life in Papua New Guinea called Nietzsche in New Guinea.