Spiritual certainty takes many forms — the small Negro man who carried a shopping bag and spoke at my doorstep of the last days, quietly expressing his hope that I would believe, and survive them; the huge woman at the shopping center, wordless and stolid, her hair dyed red in a high bouffant, who handed me a pamphlet outlining a four-step plan for salvation; the burly man who limps and sweats beside the post office downtown, slapping his Bible and hoarsely proclaiming God’s word, while people maneuver around him as if he were a post; even the boy who stood the other day in the laundromat, mouth dry and hands trembling, while his eyes darted furtively in search of a target for his message.
Apart from my uneasiness, I sympathized with him. A few months ago he went to high school somewhere, followed sports, perhaps had a girlfriend. Now he attends the Bible college a few blocks from the laundromat, and a terrible weight has been placed on him. He has discovered that he can influence eternity, if only he will choose the right person, speak the right words.
No doubt there were those in the laundromat who would have welcomed the boy’s message, others who would openly have scorned it. I sat in a chair by the door, glancing through a discarded newspaper; he chose to speak to me.
I have never quite grasped the believer’s certainty. In the church of my youth there was a massive organ which shook the sanctuary with music too complicated for me to understand. The minister wore a black robe, and spoke in a deep baritone the complex formulae that his faith involved. I have since drifted away from organized religion, but I will always remember that setting. The music, the minister’s words, the ornately carved pulpit, the intricate designs of the stained glass windows, seemed to me our homage to a mysterious Creator, and a kind of shield from His ultimate mysteries.
The vastness of those mysteries always terrified me. I don’t think terror is too strong a word; as a child I prayed desperately for some certainty, a sign that I was satisfying God’s will. I remember a kind of calm from those moments of prayer, but no certainty ever came. Throughout my life, the man on the doorstep, the woman at the shopping center, the street preacher beside the post office, have beckoned with their simple answers, but I have hesitated, in awe at the extent of God’s mystery.
That boy at the laundromat finally stepped forward. Flaxen hair hung onto his forehead; his face still bore traces of acne; he tried to moisten his lips. Behind him the washers thumped, dryers hummed. His glance did not quite meet my eyes.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Could I speak to you for a minute?”
“Maybe just a minute,” I said. “I’m about to go.”
“It’s pretty important.”
“In fact it’s very important. I think you’ll see. To me it’s the most important thing in the world.” A trace of fear appeared in his eyes, as if the words he was about to speak still frightened him; I wondered what enormous fear it had taken to lock him into that certainty I could not feel.
He stepped closer, lowered his voice. “I’d like to ask you something,” he said. “Even though I know it’s an awful thought. It’s really an awful question to ask. But if something happened, something terrible happened, and you were to die this very minute, do you know for sure what would happen to you?”
I wondered if anyone, anywhere, could sincerely answer yes to that question. I pictured a tract I had seen once, with little comic strip figures, an angel flying like Superman and carrying a man in his arms off to God’s throne for judgement. For a moment I tried to think of an answer; I pictured only vast endless blackness.
“No,” I said. “I’m afraid not.”
“I know it’s a terrible question,” he said.
“It’s all right.”
“But do you know the promise of our Lord, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life?”
We had reached that crucial point, when I would admit I had heard those words, but a voice to my right said, “How do you know when you believe?”
I had never thought of the question that way. The evangelist and I both turned. I cannot say the young man we faced looked ordinary — he had red hair, freckles — but that was the impression he made, of being an ordinary man. In slacks, a green turtleneck sweater, his reddish hair prematurely thinning, he did not seem disputatious, but smiled, as if there were something about his question that he enjoyed.
“What do you mean?” the evangelist said.
“Elsewhere he says other things,” the young man said. “About everlasting life. And even there, the words get stranger the more you think of them. What does He mean, believe in me? How do you know when you believe?”
Suddenly the evangelist seemed confident, stared back at the stranger. “You’d know brother,” he said. “Believe me. You’d know.”
Words like that always frightened or angered me, but the man to my right still wore a calm smile. “I’m not sure,” he said. That was what he implied, through all the words he spoke, but of the three of us, he seemed the most sure. “Something happened to me once,” he said. “Maybe you’d like to hear about it.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I’ve told it to so many people. I’ve never really understood what it means. Maybe you can explain it to me.” He was looking at the evangelist, who nodded.
“When I was a kid,” he began, “I broke my ankle. Things like that happen to everybody, sometime or other. I don’t really even remember doing it. When you’re that age, it’s about as much fun with crutches as without, you get so much attention. After I got the cast off I had a limp, like everybody does, but mine didn’t go away. After awhile the doctor took another x-ray, and said I hadn’t mended right, the bones set crooked or something. He said he could break it and set it again. He thought I’d always limp a little.
“I don’t know why my mother took me where she did then. She died when I was twelve, and of all the things I never got to ask her, that’s the one I’d like to know most. I know she didn’t want me to have that cast again. We were an average family, went to church most of the time, but we weren’t fanatics. Some of our friends would have thought we were crazy. I knew kids at school, who used to watch that guy on T.V. just for laughs, and who ran around putting their hands on peoples’ heads and yelling ‘Heal!’ I even laughed with them.”
“You shouldn’t have,” the evangelist said.
“I guess. Anyway, it was a big tent, out in some field in the country, filled with people in folding chairs. The place smelled of the hay they had scattered around, and of sweat. You had to stand in a long line while there was a lot of singing and preaching. It was a cool enough night outside, but real hot inside that tent. By the time I got up toward the platform my leg was aching pretty bad. I could see the woman up there, who looked tall to me, and kind of old. When we finally got to the front of the line she said, ‘What is this child’s affliction?’ and my mother told her.
“I looked up at her and she seemed tired, looking over me at the crowd, her face pretty wrinkled, a mole the size of a pea on her chin. ‘Boy,’ she said quietly, just to me. ‘Do you believe you can be healed?’
“Well I had come all that way. Besides, I always believed an adult, when they said they could do something. So I said yes.
“I didn’t feel much, when she put her hands on me, except that they were warm, and strong. I was still limping when I walked away. By that time my leg was about killing me. But in a few days the limp went away, and when the doctor took x-rays again he said the bone had healed straight, there was no more problem. He didn’t know how it had happened.”
“That woman’s faith healed you,” the evangelist said.
“All right.” The young man looked up at him. “But what about mine? I’ve been to that tent since, trying to find out, and that woman always says, believe and you shall be healed. She doesn’t say believe what. I said yes when she asked. It seemed like a simple question then.”
From across the room two washers, one just after another, made hollow knocking sounds as they shut off. The young man was smiling again, as he turned to me, somehow calm in that certain knowledge of a power far beyond his understanding.
“It’s not so simple anymore,” he said. “I’d almost rather have the limp. I said yes to a question sixteen years ago, and I’ve been trying to figure out ever since what it was I answered to.”