We are Forerunners. Guardians of all that exists. The roots of the Galaxy have grown deep under our careful tending. Where there is life, the wisdom of our countless generations has saturated the soil. Our strength is a luminous sun, towards which all intelligence blossoms... And the impervious shelter beneath which it has prospered.
... and he doesn't burst into flames! How's that for a punchline?!
Actually, I am well aware that the Church and its Lord and King have a rather open and accepting attitude toward heathens. But it is not easy for an outsider to enter into something that he does not understand particularly well, even if he knows that it is right and good that he do so.
Of course, I have in fact been inside churches before. I have visited a good many of them during my travels- but until a few years ago, visiting a church meant little more than walking into an interesting tourist spot to take a few photographs and then leaving. I have also, sadly, attended the funeral of a former colleague who tragically committed suicide.
Without fail, I have always been impressed by the beauty and architecture of the churches that I have seen. But I never really appreciated them as places of worship, of communion with fellow travelers down the long and often difficult road of faith, until I was myself forced to come before the Lord and ask Him for His aid.
That changed when I walked into that church near my workplace the other night and sat down to witness the Mass.
The events that drove me to that point are complicated and personal, but ultimately, I went to Mass for one very simple reason. I had made a promise, and I knew I had to keep it.
Back in 2016, my sister, who was living in the tropics at the time, contracted dengue fever. This is a disease that very few Westerners understand particularly well. It is a very painful, debilitating disease transmitted primarily by mosquitoes. During the worst parts of the infection, sufferers experience very high fevers that last somewhere between two and seven days, a severe rash, and- worst of all- deep and serious pain in their joints and muscles. This is why dengue is known as "bone-break fever".
It is a potentially lethal disease, particularly if reinfection occurs.
And it had struck down the one person in the world that was most important to me.
I remember quite clearly the day that I heard the news. She called me up and told me herself- and was obviously in a great deal of discomfort, on her way to the hospital to get treatment. I had to listen to her telling me that she had contracted a potentially deadly tropical virus, and there was absolutely nothing that I could do to help her from halfway around the world.
In the old country, or at least the bit of it that I come from, there is an annual ceremony that happens according to some lunar calendar in which brothers swear oaths to protect their sisters, and their sisters give them a small cloth bracelet of some sort as a symbol of honour and fidelity. I went through all of that as a kid and thought nothing much of it, but as I grew older, I came to accept that I had sworn oaths to look after and protect my little sister, and I took those promises with utmost seriousness.
And there I was, walking back home late on a spring night, unable to do a single damned thing to keep my promise.
There was only one place to turn. So I did what my teenaged self could never have imagined: I prayed to my Creator and asked Him for help.
And in return for His aid to my sister, I promised that I would offer Him whatever He asked of me.
Rationally, of course, there was a very high chance that my sister would be fine. Dengue fever is well understood in the tropics, because it is a fairly common disease there. The hospitals there- at least, the good ones- know how to treat it and stabilise their patients. My parents flew out practically the next day from the old country to be with her, and she was in good hands for two weeks as they made sure she rested and recovered.
And in the end, of course, she was just fine. It took her several weeks to recover back to her full strength and fitness- such as it is, given that she is considerably chubbier than I am- but she got back to normal eventually.
In such moments, however, cold rationality does a man no good whatsoever.
In the time since, as my understanding of faith deepened and I saw more clearly how important faith is, I could feel an increasingly urgent reminder about my oath to the Lord in the back of my mind growing louder practically every day. It was clear to me that I was being pushed, and not necessarily particularly gently, to do something about keeping my promise.
And every time I walked past that beautiful old Catholic church in my neighbourhood, maybe about ten minutes' walk away from where I live, I could feel something telling me to walk in, sit down, and pray.
This is not something that can be rationally explained. But then, faith is not a question of rationality- one can certainly be argued into faith (as I was), but absent war and conquest, a man cannot be forced into accepting the primacy of any religion and its attendant rituals and ceremonies.
Even so, I made excuses. I tried to dodge the idea that I needed to go to a place of worship to commune with the Lord. My natural laziness stopped me from reading the Bible nearly as frequently as I knew that I should have. My own extreme introversion made the idea of walking into a place full of strangers seem like a horribly uncomfortable idea.
Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes,
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated -- so:
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges --
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you -- Go!"
That voice has not gone away. It is not supposed to. The act of walking into that church and sitting down on that pew was only the first installment of payment of my promise. I know that- and He knows that too.
I do not pretend to understand the first thing about the Christian rituals and traditions surrounding the Mass- and the pastor, or whatever he was, who conducted that service didn't help, given that he is African and his accent made it very hard to understand what he was saying. I sort of get why it happens the way it does- the idea is to pray to the Lord as a community and share faith in the miracle of the Resurrection that smashed open the Gates of Hell, and to appreciate the sacrifice that Christ made for the rest of us.
Yet I am aware, at some level, that the Mass that I saw was merely a shortened and more "modernised" version of the traditional Latin Mass- because the Mass was conducted in the vulgate.
At least there was no righteous SJW-friendly sermon- which has been one of my biggest concerns about going to Church, because the last thing that I want to do is waste my time upon so-called "modernist" interpreters of the Gospels who insist on preaching the Churchian creed and ignore completely what Christ actually said.
Nonetheless, it is instructive to me to look back to what I was like at 16, when I called myself an atheist, and see how far I have come since then.
At that time, one of my friends decided to deepen her Christian faith and got herself baptised. My reaction was... ungentlemanly, to say the least. I am ashamed to admit today that I criticised her quite severely for falling prey to what I thought at the time were merely trite words and silly rituals and irrational, foolish, anti-scientific dogma.
If the man that I am today could meet the boy that I was back then, I would have slapped that kid silly for being a moron.
There are a few more lessons that I have learned in the last few years, as my faith in the Lord has grown- and been amply rewarded, time and again.
First, the Lord evidently has infinite patience- but then, He would, as He seems to have a rather different understanding of time than we mere mortals do.
Second, the Lord quite clearly has a remarkable sense of humour.
It isn't necessarily always a pleasant sense of humour, mind you. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Big Fella Upstairs has rather interesting ways of making His children wake up and realise what colossal asses they have been.
And third, and most importantly, the Lord doesn't particularly seem to care how you come to the truth- as long as you acknowledge that Truth is what it is, and understand that it does not care what you think of it.
I am not a Christian, not yet. I have no idea whether I ever will be; I'm the sort of man who likes to know what he is getting into before he signs the fine print. But somehow I don't think His Hugeness will be particularly bothered about how long I take to finally accept that He is, in fact, right. About everything.