• Christopher McHale

Confession of a Sin Eater

My journey to find something to believe in a faithless world.

I died. They took all the blood out of my body and I died.

Modern surgery is a miracle. They put you to sleep and then you wake up. Your conscious mind is in oblivion. Your body is not. Your body experiences every cut. Surgery is a crude violation.

I had open heart surgery. They cracked my bones and opened my body and drained away my blood. My body experienced all this, my mind didn’t.

My mind experienced something else. Something deeper. A call from the soul. A perfect, resonant chord.

When I was a kid, I saved Jesus. That was the first story I wrote. Age 8. It involved a fire in a church and me risking my life to save the Blessed Sacrament. Catholic Hero Boy.

I complicated my sense of religion. Besides saving Jesus, Catholicism was an opportunity. On my way to confession, I stole a candy bar and then confessed the sin. Have your sin and eat it too. But something took hold of me — a spirit, a connection.

I believed. I felt the beating heart of Jesus. I heard the whispers of angels. There was one in particular. His name was Michael. He came with me everywhere, a dedicated guide. He was loving, but firm. A bit of a pain.

And then there was Mary. Jesus was unapproachable. I can’t say I ever had a conversation with Jesus. Jesus kind of intimidated me. But Mary — Mary gathered me in and delivered miracles. Mary took care of me.

When I was nine, my family began traveling. We traveled to Europe. We traveled to Africa. We traveled to Australia and dozens of journeys between. The world opened for me. Me, my angel, and Mary too. They came along.

The Catholic Church was perhaps the first authentically multi-national brand, a comforting sameness to the church no matter where you went. The same rituals and prayers and incense. The same taste of communion.

I practiced prayer. I practiced ritual. But the world was before me. I felt other callings of soul.

I heard Druid chants locked in the stones on the Salisbury Plain. I walked into the African bush. I felt animal spirits. I heard the music of the rivers. I saw the ghosts of the ancestors. I stood on rocky shores in the spray of crashing waves and felt the ocean’s spirit. It was there. It was in the stars above and more vibrant than plaster statues and Latin prayers. The Orders of The Church faded in the brilliant dawn at the edges of the world.

But what were these unfamiliar voices? Were they real? And what did it mean to my life, to the world before me? How were they important?

My angel kept faith. And Mary. They were unexpectedly loyal to my interior wanderings. I attended Mass every Sunday, the long habit of worship instilled by my mother. It’s just that other spirits joined me in the pews. I heard a deeper prayer.

There’s a tradition in Irish families that every generation contributes a son to the priesthood. I was the one. I felt it. I heard the calling, but in my heart I was unconvinced I’d make a wonderful priest. For starters, there were girls. I really liked girls. And for a second, there were these other spirits leading me into fertile fields of ancient world soul.

There was room in my soul. They all got along. And a new desire grew. I wanted to find the common root of it all. I wanted to find the First Prayer.

I started digging down through the layers of global religion. I began looking for bedrock. It became a lifelong quest.

An ambulance came. Different angels. They rushed me to the hospital.

Many years later, in the street in Bedford Village, New York, I collapsed. It’s strange to go down, to feel the grass pressing into your cheek. A sudden change of orientation. And I felt foolish. I’m making a scene. Get up. But I couldn’t move.

An ambulance came. Different angels. They rushed me to the hospital. My blood sugar was through the roof, but they couldn’t find anything wrong. We’ll keep you overnight, they said. The next morning a cardiologist visited. I’d never met the man, but I trusted him on sight. Some doctors walk in trust.

He suggested I get a test. It involved big needles and nuclear medicine, a scary affair, but several weeks later I took his advice and went into the city.

The technology of modern medicine is incredible. We’ve come a long way from slimy leeches on the skin.

The test itself was nothing. You’ll have the results in two weeks, they said. My partner and I walked into Central Park to enjoy the autumn sun. On Cedar Hill, my phone rang. It was the clinic we’d just left. The woman said we’d like you to go see your cardiologist. Oh yes, I said. I’ll make an appointment. No, the woman said. We want you to go see him now. Right away.

I believed in a common humanity. I’d traveled all over the world. What struck me were not the differences between cultures, but the sameness.

In my twenties, I read ‘Hero With A Thousand Faces’ by Joseph Campbell. Me and millions of others. In the book, Campbell said he’d made a lifetime study of religion and because of that he could never have faith. He was an observer, living outside the boundaries of the world soul, disconnected from the vibration of the chants and prayers he recorded.

I was on the same journey, but I didn’t want to lose my faith. I wanted to deepen it. More than that. I believed in a common humanity. I’d traveled all over the world. What struck me were not the differences between cultures, but the sameness. The differences were superficial. Skin. Language. Climate. Experience. Underneath, in the bone, was a marrow of vibrant connection, a shared soul. I sensed it.

My idea became to peel back the roots of religion layer by later and uncover the shared earth beneath. Find the earliest expression of spirit. Find the essence. The trappings were different expressions of the same thing.

This wasn’t a journey beyond my Catholic roots. This was a journey of affirmation. I heard the shared spirit in Jesus. I heard it in Buddha and Lao-tzu. I heard it in stories on the banks of the Zambezi and in the Dreamtime of the Australian bush.

This wasn’t a scholarly journey. It was experiential. I traveled to sacred places and felt it. My blood rushed in the presence of these spirits. I lifted off the ground.

My Catholic faith held me in place. There was always Mass to anchor me. But I hoped no priest would grill me on the deep tenets of my faith. I needed Catholic ritual, but my journey was leading to unknown lands.

I reached a turning point of my journey in a remote place south of Perth, Western Australia, in a commune of the spirit led by a man named Fred Robinson. The commune prepared to build a spaceport for the arrival of ‘The Space Brothers.’ They had a set of gestures that would call these spirits down. Every morning they gathered and practiced. I sat on the sidelines and sipped tea and watched.

Flooded with seekers, the world’s filled with many gurus and visionaries. But looking in Fred’s eyes as he spun his vision turned me back toward home. I couldn’t join the Space Brothers landing crew.

One night, in the Nullarbor Desert, the stars painted horizon to horizon. I fall to my knees and grab the earth. It feels like I might float right off the planet into outer space.

‘I’m far from my home than I’ve ever been. I’m alone on earth. Do I stay here in a field of stars or I return to my urban roots in New York?’

I decide it’s time to go home.

The world changes. When I was born there were less than three billion people. Now there’s over seven billion.

New York is the opposite of the deep desert. My faith trails after me. I get a job in advertising and my office over-looks St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Sometimes, I go to the small Mary chapel at the back of the Cathedral. Mary never speaks to me, but she listens. Small prayers are answered. She’s my rock.

My work involves travel, so I search out the spirit in many places. I actively open my heart. I travel to the west coast of Ireland to pray in ancient beehive huts off the coast. I wander the Mohave Desert with an Apache shaman. I track through the sands of the Arabian Peninsula, listening to the poetry of Islam.

The world changes. When I was born there were less than three billion people. Now there’s over seven billion. The resources of the earth are scarce. Poverty squeezes the heart. Hunger grip’s the gut. I dig deeper.

There’s violence rising in our souls. People fly planes into buildings in God’s name. We tie loyalty tests to tenets of a particular faith. The closer we become, the further apart we grow.

My quest for a communality of spirit takes on a new urgency. My entire life is an affirmation of the oneness of our humanity. Much of humanity doesn’t see it, this oneness, but it’s plain to me, it’s obvious. If I’m ever tempted to bring it up, I’m quickly shut down. The habits of the tribe are strong. Heresy is a trap easily sprung.

We build walls around each faith and weaponize God. We shred holy texts into little snippets and reassemble faith into a servant to power over others. We fly banners and ask priests to pray for our football team on Sunday. Such are the tasks we set for God.

It makes no sense to me. And worse. There’re no solutions in these choices. The world is closing in and we double-down on our tribal grounds. Unless we see our common humanity, we’re stuck riding on a tribal merry go around, going nowhere, the brass ring forever beyond our grasp.

The sexual violence against children by priests finally breaks me. It becomes impossible to sit in a pew and listen to false testimony. I’m set adrift. But that doesn’t threaten my core belief in the Divine Spirit. The opposite happens. All questions burn away.

I see my purpose differently now. I’m no Evangelical. I keep my sense of things to myself. In fact, the very first of line of the Tao Te Ching becomes my compass. ‘The Way that can be Spoken is not the Way.’ Faith is silence. It’s useless to declare the specifics of your faith. We cannot set them down into words. If you try they whip away in slightest wind. We can only feel the Divine Spirit. I’ve felt it all over the planet. I wrap my belief in silence.

What I think is surrender. I’ve had a long life. I’ve packed it hour by hour. If this is what it is, it’s what it is. What else are you going to do?

I show up at the hospital for an angioplasty. The docs just want to have a look. We do. It’s fascinating. There’s a big TV screen inches from my eyes. See that, the doctors say. I watch a little squirt of liquid turn back on itself. That’s not right, they say. That’s you not leaving the hospital until we operate. What do you think?

What I think is surrender. I’ve had a long life. I’ve packed it hour by hour. If this is what it is, it’s what it is. What else are you going to do?

This is Friday. My operation is Monday. I’ve an entire weekend to live with my days, my years.

There are no angels in my hospital room. I miss them. I write. I’m writing a novel. My road to survival involves getting my hero into a deep pickle. His only way out of it will have to come from me after my operation. It’s a cliffhanger life raft, I guess.

I have a middle of the night phone call with my daughter. My partner sleeps in a chair. My cousins come to visit. My brother and sister-in-law, too. Some friends. The fence posts of love surround me, keep me safe.

Before dawn, the darkest hour. A nurse comes to visit me. Her name is Edith. She’s from the Caribbean. I’ve visited her island.

I talk about a woman I’d met there who’d sold me some medicinal herbs for a stomach issue. Edith tells me she became a nurse in honor of her mother, who’s also a healer. Edith calls her a witch.

Edith asks me if the herbs helped, and I tell her they did. They settled my stomach and let me get back to my journey. I ask Edith something that’s fascinated me since I was in university in Africa. I said a doctor told me some African women go to a shaman to get pregnant and a hospital to give birth. I’ve wondered at those two worlds existing side by side. I’ve done it myself, sitting in church pews with Druids and Saints.

The question doesn’t surprise Edith. It’s the same for her. She’s a trained nurse, but she still practices the traditional healings. She offers to lay hands on me and wrap me in protections. It’s a generous offer and one I gladly accept. Surrounded by machines, hooked-up to a tangle of tubes and wires, Edith wraps me in a cocoon as warm as the waters of the Caribbean.

I’ve been making a living producing comedy radio commercials. I’m surrounded by comedians. Life’s a punch line, an endless quest to make people laugh. As they wheel me through the hospital corridors toward the surgery table, I’m telling jokes. People laugh. I feel good about it. Looking back, I’m sure I’m out of mind on drugs and slurring like a crazy person. But the one thing ahead of me is the last thing I ever expected to happen. I’m about to encounter God.

Modern surgery is a miracle of technology. The essential experience is you’re there, then you wake up. In my case, the between time is nine hours. Nine missing hours. My mind checks out. My body goes through deep trauma, intense violation, but my mind is in la-la land.

My soul however goes some place startling.

I walk a path of global enlightenment, but the practitioners of religion build isolated castles of dogma.

I’ve placed my faith in neutral. After the collapse of my Catholic practice, I’m set adrift. Religion is the root of pain and violence. Prayer is an angry gesture of separation. God’s a political puppet serving the different interests of the carnival barkers of faiths. A faith betrayed is a wicked thing.

I walk a path of global enlightenment, but the practitioners of religion build isolated castles of dogma. God vs God. My saints are better than your saints. People put in cages and roasted in the name of God. People vaporized in a thundering fall of concrete and steel in the name of God. Crafty politician lining up tribes of voters under banners of God. Prayers a transaction. Prophets flying in private jets.

We’re living in the 21st century. It’s a crowded world. Our only hope is seeing our common humanity. Our response is to pull apart. Go tribal. Point. Blame. Build walls. Close borders. It’s outright insanity.

This is a world I’m ready to leave. It’s a world of religion without spirit. Faith in service of ambition. The Word deleted and replaced with a Tweet.

The core of my soul vibrates to a simple truth: The Way cannot be Spoken. And yet the world has become a dissonant chorus drowning out all prayers of hope. My journey is over. Which turns out to not to be true. My journey is about to reach its destination.

In the middle of my heart surgery, in a vast space, a door opens. It’s classic. A light in a dark space.

Nine hours missing from my life, and in the center of those hours, the most profound moment of my life.

When I was twelve, I bought a guitar. I bagged groceries for tips at the Navy PX in London, saving up money, and then went down to a shop in Soho and bought a nylon string guitar. For the rest of my life, I’d have a guitar with me. No matter where I traveled. Guitars become an obsession. I’ve bought dozens. I’m writing this story in a room filled with guitars. Each one has a story.

When I first meet a guitar, I put it in my hand and strum a single chord. That’s all it takes. Either a connection is instant, or they go back on the rack. My partner and I once took a 1500-mile road trip seeking a four-string tenor guitar. I get obsessed with a guitar. They’re treasures, each with its own character and voice.

In the middle of my heart surgery, in a vast space, a door opens. It’s classic. A light in a dark space.

We fill the bookshelves with near-death experiences and an army of cynics to counter them. Until I had one, I was on the fence. Not after. After my life changed

From a room of light, I hear a guitar chord. It’s a single chord. A voice speaks.

‘You have a choice. Either enter the room and take this guitar, the most beautiful guitar, and play the most incredible soul satisfying music you’ve ever played, or return to your family.’

It’s such a sweet moment. The voice filled with love. I want to wrap my hand around the neck of the guitar and play a chord. I ached to. But that’s not my choice. My choice is to return to my partner and my kids.

The world I return to erupts in chaos. We’re living through the end of history. Religion thrashes through our lives. Political dogma presents unworkable solutions in a rapidly shrinking world. We can’t breathe. Great fire storms sweep through west. The life-giving oceans weep with melted ice.

I’m living a gift. A week before my operation, I walked around with a death sentence. Now there are years waiting for me. I’m inspired by my experience. I want to go as deep as can on my quest. I’m looking toward Source. There are sparks in the world. They’re from Before Times. Before Religion. Before commodification of Spirit. Before Tribes.

I circle back. I dig through the stories of Jesus. It’s easy enough to extract the Word of a Palestinian Prophet from the Nicene imposition of Romans hundreds of years later. I visit the Greeks, the stunning clear and unfettered insights of the philosophers. The questions asked and the answers they attempt. I read the Tao Te Ching. Several translations. ‘The Way that can be Spoken is not the Constant Way.’ It feels to me that everything that comes after that specific verse is tarnished by Tribal Culture and purpose — every book, every sermon.

There’s farther back to go. Dreamtime. Before the Antediluvian Flood. How pure is the world of Dreamtime, rising out of the dust, rinsed by stars? What can I learn?

I’m cycling back to the Australian desert. I’m gripping the earth before I get sucked into stars, reading about the beliefs baked into the dry gullies and red sand. One phrase strikes me.

‘We are born out of our own eternity.’

Sailing on the wind of the Greek Apeiron, a compass forged by the Wuji philosophy of China, bound by Gospels of Christian Mystics, I’m set toward a unified insight that resonates for me. Is it that simple? We are born out of our own eternity. I sense I’m close to understanding the purpose of a long, meandering and curious journey.

All the questions of Spirit are about purpose. Imagine a 30,000-year quest for purpose. Every soul that’s ever breathed on the same road. The question needs answering, but how? Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. We ask why are we here and we get 30,000 years of answers. A war of spiritual attrition. We stand at the end of the world with nothing more than anger. What did we miss?

I cannot break my rule of silence on these matters. Not to be coy or annoying, but just from the belief there’s no way to use words to describe the indescribable. I’ve traveled the world and witnessed a festival of different faiths. And somehow, they all spin around the same axis. It’s more difficult to see the differences that supposedly separate the different faiths. It’s easier to feel the Spirit that unifies them. So why the war? Why the blood shed on the fabled plain? Why do we crucify prophets and burn heretics? How can any of that make sense? The answer is, it rarely does.

All of it, the suffering and joy, the violence and love, the boring days and the days brimming with electric guitars. Has it ever made sense? Does it have to? I heard the beautiful tone of the mystery guitar in my near death experience without judgement, without boundaries, without templates of sin and redemption, without beseeching or seeking miracles. I slowly woke from my surgery, the guitar in echoes set against a twisted torrent of words.

I lay in my hospital room for days. In the middle of the night, I reach over to my bedside table and find a piece of paper and pencil. I still have the scrap. It has a trace of blood on it. The graphite is flaking off. I’d forgotten about until I sorted through papers and found it. I read the words and sit down and write this story.

‘Every birth is a celebration, and every death is a thank you. The reverent prayers of the devout ring into the stars, but so does the sharp reasoning of atheists. The sinner and the saint.’

What did any of that mean? I’m not sure, and there’s no way to grasp the smoke. It’s all fading fast. I share it in the midnight spirit in which I wrote it, my blood drained, my body in crisis, my mind still echoing with the music of mystery.

We all eat the sins of the world. Our guilt drives us into the arms of priests. But if we’re born out of our own eternity, is our only purpose an obligation to that eternity? Is our life’s purpose to live our life? Is the fullness of our experience our debt to our Divinity? Believing or not becomes irrelevant if there are no sins to eat.

As our streets fill with chants for racial justice, and the magic world of anti-science and superstition drives us apart, it becomes more important than ever to raise our common humanity. What we’re seeking is right there at the beginning of our 30,000 year story — not in the tribal calls or torches of ire we carry through a violent tale of history. Not in a crucifixion of fire. But in the eternal silence of the starry sky. The stars above us all.

All the spirits share the same pew, say the same prayer. My journey taught me every morning smells the same, every dawn paints the same light. No matter where you are on this tiny planet.

I told him I think our energy serves its purpose and dissipates into the stars. Except.

One day a friend of mine is told he has scant days to live. I’m not sure what his spiritual journey has been, but he has questions about mine. I break my rule and tell him of my journey and what I now believe. He thinks it’s crazy. He thinks it wild. It shocked, though I didn’t understand why.

It feels to me a simple, uncluttered perspective. He then asks me the question most on his mind. ‘What do I believe happens after death?’

Death isn’t a focus for me. Life is. I don’t see much purpose in contemplating death when my purpose is to experience life, but his question has an urgency and deserves an honest answer.

I tell him I think our energy serves its purpose and dissipates into the stars. Except.

‘Except what?’ he asks. I want to hold his hand. I want to look into his eyes, but we’re on a phone miles apart and scant days ahead. I pause a moment before I give my answer, and then say, ‘Except maybe you get a guitar.’


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