The Gods

In the darkness of our childhood,
when we lived on red plains beneath vast and empty skies,
when we heard the roar of monsters beyond the light of our fire and were afraid,
they told us stories to calm us and sang us softly to sleep.
When we went out on hunt, spears held high,
they guided our arms, gave strength to our sinews,
directed our thrusts as stone and bone plunged into the steaming flanks of wild-eyed prey.
When we roamed the woods and the plains,
they whispered in our ears, told us where to search for what was good,
led us to the secret places and the holy groves where sacred light streamed through the air.
And when we returned to our shelter at the end of each day,
they were among us, red and vital, as firelight danced on painted cave walls.

We were children in truth then, with a child’s view of the world,
large and simple, drawn in sharp lines and bright colors,
presided over by powers we did not understand,
stern authorities that would sometimes give and sometimes take away,
that could sometimes be placated and sometimes could not.

When the rains came and the hunts were good, we praised their mercy and benevolence,
and when famine and drought and plague swept us, when the earth turned to dust and the sky to ash,
then we wept and implored them and pleaded to know what we were doing wrong,
and the wise among us said:
“Our God is a mighty God and terrible.”

We sought to appease them,
with drums and dances, songs and sacrifices,
with the fragrance of burning incense and the stench of burning flesh,
the black smoke of altars, the brassy tang of spilled blood,
the cruel iron of the rack and the wheel, the glint of the knife blade.

And as time passed, we grew up,
a little,
learning to spin cloth, to forge metal, to write on clay and stone.
And as our tribes expanded and our people flourished,
the gods grew more remote,
no longer among us, whispering to us, but now distant, on high,
handing down commandments from the flame-wreathed peak of the holy mountain.
No longer did they take our hands, caress our arms, speed our feet,
but they were as mighty and terrible as ever, and we trembled before them,
fearing even to speak lest we do something to offend them, and thus bring down doom upon all.
And those few who did not fear, who could commune with the gods and divine their will,
we gifted with riches and power, imploring them to act as ambassadors on our behalf.
So the shaman’s staff became the crook and flail,
the feather cloak became robes of office, the headdress a golden crown.
We labored mightily to build cities,
throwing our lives and our children’s lives into great works to show the power of our God
to all our far-flung fellow tribes,
and when our leaders told us that God wanted us to make war on our neighbors,
to take their fertile valleys, their gold and riches, their wealth and their women,
we did not question but marched forth, glad to do God’s will.
And we returned to the temples with bloody hands and prostrated ourselves,
eager to show our God that we his children were faithful and obedient servants,
that we were willing to do whatever he asked of us.

And a little more time passed, and empires fell and new nations arose,
and our civilizations grew ever more powerful, our works more clever and wondrous,
and the gods grew more remote still, receding into the past, now speaking to us only from history and tradition,
but they thoughtfully delegated even more of their power to their earthly representatives,
so that we would not be left without guidance.
And still we loved them, and offered up our devotions to them.
We erected vast and beautiful cathedrals of stone,
composed stirring symphonies in praise of their greatness,
raised monarchs and bishops and popes at their will,
and spilled out the blood of countries to please them.
And when a dissenting voice arose, or when someone dared to impugn the gods,
we reacted with great fury and righteous indignation,
shouting be silent and how dare you and who are you to say such things,
sweeping the countryside with inquisitions, demanding oaths and vows of loyalty,
chastising the heretic with bayonets and red-hot pincers and the crackle of the flames at the stake.
For in truth, despite all our inventions, all our learning, all our wondrous works,
we still shared a heart with those hunter-gatherers who feared monsters beyond their fires,
still feared the unknown, the stranger, the darkness,
and when we found one whom we knew had been corrupted by those sinister and malign powers,
we were determined not to let his contagion get a foothold among us,
and turn our minds to wickedness and evil.

And time passed, and we grew.

Today, we bustle about in sleek silver cars beneath tall city lights,
span the world with our chatter, send golden emissaries into space,
delve the cosmos on every scale from the largest to the smallest.
In vast winged chariots, we soar above the clouds like angels.
Our great revolving mirrors peer into deep heaven, watching distant stars die
as if they were falling sparrows,
the all-seeing eye imagined by the dreamers of old, reinvented.
Our white-clad healers repair the human body,
restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf,
working the miraculous cures we longed for when we were children.
We bottle lightning, harness the sun, split the atom,
shut up the sea with doors and travel to the deep springs thereof,
perceive the breadth of the Earth and the ordinances of heaven.
But for all our achievements, we still possess the brash arrogance of youth,
certain we always know best, fearless in our imagined invincibility.

But time is still passing,
and a day will come when we reach adulthood at last.
A day will come when our compassion and wisdom catch up with our bright lights and majestic cities.
A day will come when our ability to build and heal outpaces our desire to destroy.

On that day,
the bright colors and sharp edges will take on shadow and clarity and depth,
and the stern faces and the distant voices of childhood will fade
as we discover they were only illusions of our own creation,
veils imposed on reality like mist on the landscape.
We will step behind the authoritative faces
and find they were empty, hollow masks all along,
and what we thought were harsh decrees
will turn out to be merely the rustling of the wind and the cries of birds.
We will discover that the ambassadors of God,
despite their trappings of office, despite their fine robes and great gilded buildings and weighty texts,
were never anything more than men, as fallible as the rest of us,
struggling in vain to hear speech in the corners of dreams and fading noise of echoes
and the gentle crash of the sea on the shore.
We will finally dare to venture beyond the light of our fires
and find that there are no monsters waiting for us, no demons, no ghouls, no ghosts –
that there was never anything in the night but our own fearful imaginations.
We will arise and see the world as it truly is
like a sleeper touched by the golden light of morning
who wakens from a dream he thought was real
and, seeing the world glowing in the glory of the sun,
perceives that now he is truly awake at last.

And on that day the gods, our forgotten childhood guardians,
will fade to echoes of voices, fragments of speech on the wind,
memories of a distant laughter –
remnants of a time long gone, things no longer needed.
Perhaps their memory will be set aside for well and all as we step into the morning,
or perhaps they will be preserved, even if only as yellowed records
in some great archive, a family scrapbook of our species,
kept as a precaution, a warning of what might happen
should we ever again desire to creep back into fearful darkness.
And though it may pain us to learn we are truly on our own,
it will hurt in the same way as growing up,
a separation wrenching at first, but necessary in the long run,
for it is only this that will teach us once and for all that we must be the ones to care for each other.

How long will this day be in coming?
Will it be soon, or will it be an age?
Only time will tell.
But even while the gods still blind us,
we who dream at night can look to the stars
and visualize the future that awaits beyond the horizon of dawn.
Whether it takes a day or an age,
we will awake.