By Kent Monroe
Follow the wood line at the back of the house, past the currants, past the birch-lined pond, and there comes a trail that leads through the woods to the secret garden. This is where I bury the children–dogs and cats, all loved–and this is also where flowers sometimes blossom among the thorns in my mind.
The secret garden is a modest clearing circled by ash and poplars. At one time, the weathered bench in the center was white. Fawns sleep in the woodland ferns that form a soft fence in the summer. My girlfriend, Gail, helped me plant deer-resistant perennials here and there. Depending on the season, daffodils, lupine, foxglove and coneflower bloom. They color the earth about an old apple tree where Moe, Larry, Zachary, Ebenezer and Claus lie in eternal rest. Above the flowers, birds glide through the air I breathe. The sun is bright, the shade cool, the wind sweet. It is a dimension of peace, a place where demons disentangle and die.
I can’t say exactly when I stopped believing that there is a God as described by narrative. As a child, my mother took me to the Episcopal Church most Sundays. The Church baptized me as a baby and confirmed me at the age of 15. As a young man, I spent several years in the company of two uncles who revered a fellow they believed to be the modern-day incarnation of the Prophet Elijah. Another uncle held the title Doctor of Divinity with the Church of God. I painted his bedroom walls shortly before he died of pancreatic cancer. He had asked me to pick the color, and I chose baby-boy blue. He sat in a chair in the hall as I painted. We reminisced for a couple of hours, and when I looked into his eyes for the last time later that day, I saw him as a child.
I recently tried to read the Book of Genesis from the Bible. By the fourth page, I’d had enough. How could I ever believe this was anything but mythology? We collect dust from the tails of comets, then bring it back to earth to examine. We smash protons together in our study of particle physics. We map planets orbiting stars light years from our sun. We evolve. We were not created from clay by some omnipotent grandfather. To believe so is to depart from reality. There may be an infinite number of universes. If so, not one would be populated by beings condemned to death because they were tricked by a talking snake.
Let me be clear: it is a beautiful notion, the savior—compelling to the core, and even though I don’t believe it now, the idea still reverberates emotionally with a lonesome power. Somewhere deep within me is the catacomb where I buried that belief. It pops up now and again like some quantum spirit, resonating the separation from something righteous, something essential. And although I understand why this is, that interred belief of Christ the Savior remains something of a haunting—the ghostly mist that shrouds my enlightenment.
So what do I now believe? Stephen Hawking asked why there is something instead of nothing. I would ask why there is something so beautiful instead of nothing. It is beautiful, this universe, this reality, despite evil, suffering and death. It is beautiful because I believe it was designed to evolve sentient beings along the arrow of time to some glorious purpose, driven by the irresistible power of love. The atoms formed at creation just happened to be primarily hydrogen, which turned to stars with time and gravity. We exist as the children of supernova — exploded stars. Those dispersed atoms have collected, animated, evolved to think and love. We are the zenith of cosmic expression. Our hearts beat in the void. These truths defy the possibility of coincidence. Thought and love are bound together now, as designed, and their bond will tighten as we evolve.
Still, I would be lying if I said I was content. At a certain point, this glorious design I believe in becomes a work of faith itself — faith in the beauty and power of love. Evolution is the architect of our transformation, sure — but it is impersonal, dispassionate and savagely cruel in its long, inexorable path to completion. Civilizations surviving until the consummation of everything seems dependent as much on luck as the laws of nature. It seems there are no promises to me and you. Earth could vaporize tomorrow, with our only solace being that in such a vast universe, somewhere love shall fulfill its purpose. Reality, therefore, suggests that we—you and me—are not necessarily precious as individuals, and that our personal, unique witness to the universe bears no lasting meaning. We might merely be disposable building blocks used for the construction of some wondrous end. Bloom today, wither tomorrow.
The mind doesn’t wrap itself comfortably around such notions. I don’t want to die; I don’t want anyone to die. My need for a narrative that promises eternal life in the presence of love cannot overcome the integrity of my reason, but my reason cannot free me from my need. My cognitive harmony is often drowned out by the buzz of my emotional dissonance. When I try, for instance, to marry the soul with evolution by reason, I trip on paradox and fall into a black hole of conundrum.
Our days pass with similar speed, it seems. Nights, isolated in the muted, starless bedroom air, I wait for sleep. As my mind cools, settles, my thoughts sometime turn to my life — the distant, receding dreams, the procession of misses. The memories float past, a stream of sepia snapshots, vaporous and ironic. It is the movie of me, incomplete, bittersweet and shockingly swift… and I understand that one day I shall die.
This is when the stone rolls away, when the quantum ghost inside me stirs, whispers from the ornate chamber of my longing. This is when it releases into the air, pulling me with it down the hill, past the currants, past the moonlit pond to where my children sleep. This is when night becomes day, glorious and golden and blue, with great sculptured clouds where the angels dream of love in their glowing skins. Awakened, they fly down to us, and where their feet touch the fragrant earth, the dead rise. Families and friends reunite with perfect minds and hearts created from the angels’ dreams, and we live always, daughters and sons of the stars, together in the fullness of love.
Kent Monroe lives in Troy, New Hampshire with his girlfriend and a gang of motley cats and dogs. He prefers to write and garden, but must work when he can to feed the gang. He believes people should smile as often as possible.
Artwork by Ali Chaudhry