continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 1.4 / 2011:

Belief: An Essay

Jamie Iredell

continent. 1.4 (2011): 279—285.

Concerning its Transitive Nature, the Conversion of Native Americans of Spanish Colonial California, Indoctrinated Catholicism, & the Creation

There’s no direct archaeological evidence that Jesus ever existed.1

I memorized the Act of Contrition. I don’t remember it now, except the beginning: Forgive me Father for I have sinned . . . This was in preparation for the Sacrament of Holy Reconciliation, where in a confessional I confessed my sins to Father Scott, who looked like Jesus, at least in Western cultural representations of Jesus since the middle ages, and if Jesus put on a few pounds. Father Scott was long-haired, redheaded, bearded, chubby, and tall. When he left church with the procession of altar servers and Eucharistic ministers, yelling, “Sing a Good Song Unto the Lord,” he smiled, hands folded, and he gazed over his parishioners, and bounced along. For four months every year he lived among the Crow Nation in Montana, where towards the end of his tenure at Our Lady of Refuge, they adopted him as an honorary member of their tribe.

*

This is the prayer we chanted, holding hands, every night before dinner: Bless us oh Lord, for these our gifts, which we are about to receive, our bounty through Christ, our Lord, Amen. Then we all said, God bless the cook! When we were with my grandparents, Grandpa said, God bless Chicky, and Holly, and Harvey, and Boots—all the dead dogs.

*

My sister tells me that she sits next to a handsome man on a flight across the country. After chitchat, she withdraws her book. She’s reading Kevin Sampsell’s A Common Pornography. After a few moments, the handsome man also reads from his book—his leather-bound Bible. Sister thinks, Oh, Jesus—too bad. She falls asleep. Later, settled in Nashville, she opens her volume and out falls a Jesus-covered card that reads, You can still find God and Salvation! Because that handsome God-fearing young man saw that word—pornography.

*

I suppose Father Jim’s dark hair, beard, and glasses made me think doctoral-ly of him. He called while I was in the midst of a breakup, after I’d twice attempted suicide, and my mother was desperate for help. She somehow found and phoned him. And Jim, now years out of Our Lady of Refuge’s parish, twenty years since my baptism, years even since he’d left the priesthood and the Catholic faith, still made the effort to bring me back into the fold. He said, “Have you seen a priest?” I did not respond, as I was more shocked to hear his voice than anything, so I said, “How are you, Father Jim? Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t call you ‘Father.’” And I said, “Why did you leave the priesthood? Do you have a girlfriend?” He said that I should call him just “Jim.” He said, “Do you need someone to talk to?” I said, “Not really.” He said, “Call your mother; she’s worried about you.” That was the last time I talked to Father Jim.

*

Mother let me know just how disappointed Jesus was. I cried and cried, and said I was sorry. Into my hands she placed my missal, ordered forty Rosaries. She said next Saturday I would go to confession. I hated confession. Who wouldn’t?

*

I realize, of course, that this page is a kind of confessional. * The Kumeyaay, Ipai, Tipai, Chumash, Esselen, Rumsen—all Native Americans of Alta California—shared similarities in their religions. Southern Californian tribes made use of Datura, or jimpson weed, a hallucinogen, for religious rituals. In the creation, God made brother sky and sister earth. Brother and sister mated, and sister gave birth to all things on Earth, including people, but it was difficult to distinguish people from all other aspects of Earth because everything was alive: granite and obsidian, the Pacific and its waves, the San Diego and Los Angeles Rivers. Wiyot—a hero—was very powerful, born from lightning, the son of the Creator and a virgin. When Wiyot thought that human women’s legs were more beautiful than Frog’s, Frog became jealous and poisoned Wiyot. The dying Wiyot went to all the people’s villages, and he distributed his power among them. He said, “When I die, I should be cremated.” The people built the fire and funeral pyre. When the fire was ready, and the people about to place Wiyot’s body upon it, Coyote came and snatched away Wiyot’s heart.

*

My friend Nick told me once how he ate some jimpson weed and that he hallucinated for three days. His family took a road trip and, while driving over the Sierra Nevada mountains, he kept seeing dinosaurs roaming the open meadows and charging down snowy slopes. So it’s no wonder that Native Americans who ingested this plant would have developed religion.

*

Walking Castroville’s streets after school I got into fights but mostly watched other boys scrabbling on the asphalt. I went to Burger King for Whoppers. Me and my friends cussed. Antonio admonished me when I said, “damn,” while strutting a sidewalk alongside the church. He said, “Jaime”—pronounced Hi-May, which was what all the Mexicans called me—“you’re crazy, eh. Don’t cuss at the church.” He meant while at church, as in, within its vicinity. I said, “We’re not in church.” Once we’d crossed the street, Tony said, “Damn dude, you’re fuckin crazy!”

*

Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra raised the Eucharistic goblet to his lips, and candlelight danced on the blood’s tiny waves. Incense clouded the church so completely that some of the Pame natives grew nauseous. So, too, felt Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra later that night, as he bent over a ceramic bowl and vomited blood, not only the Lord’s, but his own, for poison had laced the sacred vessel into which he poured the sacrament. The physician tending to the sick prelate urged him to take the remedy he’d prepared. But Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra refused, said that he would pray, for he had never taken any medicine in his life, and he never would.

*

The Chumash of El Valle de Los Osos called themselves the Stishni, separating themselves from Chumash of other regions, those varying tribes of the central California coast that spoke mutually unintelligible dialects of their Hokan language. This made learning their languages impossible for the Spanish friars, to say nothing of translating the Doctrina. Thus the priests baptized few natives, despite the help that the tribes offered the fledgling settlements in the form of meat and acorn meal, which the Spaniards found repugnant. Some from these cultures, feeling threatened by the newcomers, shot flaming arrows into the thatched roofs of the mission structures. And why wouldn’t they feel threatened when priests chastised them for performing, for example, their Coyote Dance, wherein a man donning a coyote-skin-and-skull costume dances while a singer sings his tale, which laments the human feces strewn imaginatively about the Earth? Coyote, meantime, tries to get an onlooker to lick his genitals, and finally engages in public sexual intercourse with a female tribe member or two, then ends the dance by defecating. Though the Franciscans called such forbidden acts devilry, the Chumash maintained their Datura cult religion, along with the enforced Christianity. For the Chumash, the Earth was made of two enormous snakes that caused earthquakes when they slithered past one another—a vast reptilian tectonics. In the 20th century, long after Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra and his cohorts had died, when asked by an anthropologist about religious contradictions, conflating the Datura and Christian cults, a Chumash man replied, incredulous: “But these are two different religions.”

*

When Portolá ordered that if by March 19th, the feast day of St. Joseph, the San Antonio had not arrived in San Diego Bay to relieve them, the Sacred Expedition to Nueva California would be abandoned, Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra prayed a novena for San José’s intercession. And lo, a lookout sighted the San Antonio’s sails—what seemed to the priest a miracle—that very Saint’s feast day. Europeans would stay in California, and Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra would continue to reap a great harvest of souls for the Lord. By the end of mission secularization in 1836—sixty-six years after the San Antonio rescued the Spaniards—Native American populations in California had declined by seventy-three percent.

*

When Peter the Aleut would not renounce his Eastern Orthodox faith the padre of San Francisco had a toe severed from each foot with each refusal, totaling ten. The native Ohlones employed in this gruesome task—their obsidian chiseled knives tearing through skin and grinding bone—continued as per their orders, and cut off also each of Peter’s fingers (equals a total of twenty refusals). They quartered the martyr, spilled his bowels, as if from bear attack, attack by a bear in the shape of a Catholic.

*

Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra absolutely believed that the slow rate of conversion for the native people was due to the influence of the Devil, who had been outraged by the coming of the Catholics to California, this region that he had long held in his dominion.

*

In his reception speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, John Steinbeck said, “Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope. So that today, St. John the Apostle may well be paraphrased: In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man—and the Word is with Men.”

*

In 1602, when Sebastián Vizcaíno and his friars sang mass on Catalina Island, as many as a hundred Pimungans witnessed the rite, asking by signs what it was about. According to Vizcaíno’s records, the Californians marveled not a little at the idea of Heaven and at the image of Jesus crucified.

*

Vizcaíno was brought to a prairie on Santa Catalina Island where the Pimungans worshipped their sun god. Upon the prairie they had placed an icon, a headless figure with horns protruding from the body, a figure that Vizcaíno predictably described as a demon. The Pimungans urged Vizcaíno not to approach the image of their deity, but he ignored them. He placed his crucifix against the wooden figurine and prayed the Our Father. Vizcaíno told the natives that his prayer was from Heaven, and that their god was the Devil. Vizcaíno held out his crucifix, encouraging the Pimungans to touch it and receive Jesus. He pointed at the sky and indicated Heaven. The Pimungans worshipped a sun deity, so they were impressed with this white man and his description of his god, for their gods seemed to be one and the same. It’s no wonder then that Vizcaíno’s diary reports the natives being pleased with this exchange. “Surely,” the diary says, “they will be converted to our Holy Faith.”

*

The Miwok women wailed and scratched at their faces when their men consorted with Sir Francis Drake and the other Englishmen who had landed on California’s coast in the summer of 1579. “The blood streaming downe along their brests, besides despoiling the upper parts of their bodies of those single coverings . . .they would with furie cast themselves upon the ground . . . on hard stones, knobby hillocks, stocks of wood, and pricking bushes.” Drake and his men fell themselves to their knees in prayer, their eyes Heavenward, so that the natives might see they prayed to God and they too might worship God then their eyes that had been so blinded by the deceiver might be opened.

*

Father Fray Antonio de la Ascención—Carmelite friar in Vizcaíno’s party—writes that the Indians of California can “easily and with very little labor be taught our Holy Catholic faith, and that they would receive it well and lovingly.” He calls for two hundred older and honorable soldiers to ensure brotherhood during the conquest, so that peace and love—the best tools to pacify pagans—should reign. The religious, the friar says, should likewise be wise and loving to easily quell animosities between Spaniards and the heathen, and therefore avoid war. The Spaniards should bring with them trinkets—beads, mirrors, knives—to distribute amongst the gentiles, so that they might come to love the Christians, and see “that they are coming to their lands to give them that of which they bring, and not to take away the Indians’ possessions, and may understand that they are seeking the good of their souls.” No women are to accompany the conquest, says Father Fray Antonio, “to avoid offenses to God.”

*

In 1955 Wallace Stevens admitted himself to St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. There, it’s rumored he converted to Catholicism before dying of stomach cancer, exclaiming to his priest after the baptism, “Now I am in the fold.” Stevens’s late-career poems seem less cynical, more in awe of being and death (read “Metaphor as Degeneration” from The Auroras of Autumn). He could have chosen from at least three secular hospitals in Hartford at the time.

*

I was reading Stevens’s Collected Poems when I joined eHarmony and listed that as my “currently reading” book among the “more than twelve” books a year that I would read. I fell in love with my wife when she said, “Are you sending your work out to literary journals?” Prior to this, the first girl I talked to on the phone, when I explained my doctoral exams, said, “So, you’re like, reading Stephen King and stuff?” When I said not exactly she responded defensively: “He must be doing something right, since he makes all that money.”

*

Mom walked me, my brother, and sister, through the Stations of the Cross. We did this on Ash Wednesdays, or whenever she thought we needed extra God after church. It might’ve happened before church, though that’s unlikely because we were always late. Anyway, it’s easiest to walk the Stations of the Cross when there’s no one else around. To walk the actual Stations means one goes to Jerusalem and walks the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. So the Stations elsewhere—usually paintings, or low-relief sculptures upon church walls—serve as a kind of virtual Dolorosa. Mom held our hands and started from the rear of Our Lady of Refuge: the First Station. Mom said we should say a prayer at each Station and to think of all the pain Jesus went through so that we could go to Heaven. It was hard to keep thinking about that one thing for so long. My mind went to that Saturday’s little league game, to the donut and chocolate milk (our after-church reward from Castroville Bakery), and as I grew older I thought about girls. When you’re thirteen you can’t not think about the girl’s butt in the pew in front of yours as she kneels and stands to pray throughout mass.

*

It grew increasingly juvenile to lie awake at night daring myself to utter a simple sentence. Even if I said I didn’t believe in God, wouldn’t He know the truth? He was omniscient, like a narrator. Even the idea of Him as a him ceased making sense. Not only did this come with a budding realization of my paternalistic culture, but due to the simple question of why? If God was everything, everywhere, all knowing, then why would he be a man? There’s that question: If God is a man then God must have a penis, and if so, what for?

*

The Catholic Church incorporates some modern scientific research into its dogma concerning the formation of the Universe, Solar System, and Earth, as well as evolution. According to Catholic doctrine, in approximately the fifth millennia BCE, humans began to worship the one true God. Those humans were Adam and Eve, though the Church says humans had been around for thousands of years prior to Adam and Eve. The Church claims to be infallible. Every time the Church changes its doctrine it remains infallible.

*

One Catholic writer, Tom Meagher, writes that “Modernism[—]the idea that we come to our beliefs individually through emotional or personal experiences[—]has crept into our Catholic schools.”

*

Catholics believe that evil spirits, given power through Original Sin, can imbue ordinary inanimate objects of everyday use. Thus, such objects should be blessed in order to induce in them the desire to serve the good. Such objects are not limited to, but include, “new ships and boats, railways and trains, bridges, fountains, wells, cornmills, limekilns, smelting furnaces, telegrams, steam engines, and machines for providing electricity.”

*

In The Sound of Music Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer sing together: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could...”

*

To explain competing theories on the very early universe, and pre-verse would be another book. What was the inflaton? Did (mem)branes collide, initiating the Big Bang, as opposed to Lemaître’s primordial atom, a singularity? Without a unified theory there’s gravity hanging out there, fucking everything up. We cannot make sense of the mechanics of the Planck Epoch—0-10-34 seconds into the Universe’s creation—named for Max Planck, who stumbled into the discovery of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century.

*

My students often ask if I believe in God, since I espouse evolution, the Big Bang, Science, reject a strictly biblical or creationist theory of the Universe. I tell them that yes, I believe in God, though not the God that they imagine one must believe in.

*

When questioned regarding the rumor that, before his death, founder of quantum mechanics Max Planck had converted to Catholicism, he replied that he did not believe “in a personal God, let alone a Christian God.”

*

Physicist and Catholic priest George Lemaître, who formulated the theory and wrote the 1946 book The Primeval Atom Hypothesis, was made a household name by then-detractor Fred Hoyle, who pejoratively referred to the idea as a “Big Bang.”

*

Suicide is a mortal sin. To end one’s own life one must have despair, which is to lose hope, which is to lose faith, and to disbelieve in God.

*

Archaeology has uncovered graffiti in all of California’s missions—Indian pictographs inscribed into the adobe, covered with layers of whitewash. Native deities and depictions of cultural practices show that tribespeople never fully gave up their native traditions even after baptism and coming to the missions. There was something inside Native Californians that would never die.