ROYAL (an excerpt)
Royal felt the pressure of the preacher’s palm on the back of his neck. He discerned an insignia ring, an escaped hair from a knobby knuckle, and damp exertion mixed with Royal’s own sweat. Around him Royal’s fellow Christians were twitching on the floor, elated. They had had hands laid on them, and they had felt the Spirit. All Royal felt was the preacher, bearing down. He became aware of a hissing in his ears.
“And I say, I say the Lord is here! The Lord is come down and he is filling this soul with His divine radiance. Come down! Overwhelm him with your awe!” This was the preacher, bellowing, spraying spittle, dripping sweat. But in the breaks between his oratory he brought his face close to Royal’s own and sibilated like a snake.
“Don’t ressssist, boy. The Sssspirit is coming for you. Do you think you can’t be sssaved?”
But Royal was having none of it. The harder the preacher pushed, and he was pushing now, leaving nothing to chance, the straighter Royal stood. He had come here to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to give it all up to God. He was ready to sway at the knees and spiral to the floor. He craved the emptiness of an appropriated mind. He yearned to black out, come to, open his eyes, and remember nothing at all. He would rest his faith in that uncertainty; certainty would be the darkness in which he had been overcome, a vessel.
It was the perfect moment. Before him, a hundred fervent worshippers made like palms in a storm. They leaked out over the sides of the thatched-roof church, wall-less but for the dead wind. Curlicues of smoke from heady incense burners hung in the air like hieroglyphs. Royal’s head buzzed with the congregation's moans and his throat stung from the fumes. The scent alone was enough to make him dizzy, like cow shit and sweet wet grass, and the heat, the heat like a dense vestment. But when his time came and the preacher thundered over him, the odor from the hollows of his raised arms adding sour citrus to the still air, Royal felt nothing. He was still in control, still Royal, still standing firmly in his own Velcroed sports sandals. The thoughts in his head were all Royal’s own. He closed his eyes and ordered his mind to quiet. He dispelled all doubts. But the Holy Spirit did not let itself in. That is when the preacher began to push. What had been a gentle, but firm, benediction became a crusade, an unflinching insistence that Royal buckle at the knees and faint like the rest of his faithful friends.
Royal was filled with dismay. He had done everything he was supposed to do. He had given himself up unto the Lord. He had accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior. He was walking with God. He was spending his Spring Break here, in Arkansas, to build churches and dig wells and spread the Good Word. He had brought his guitar as his sole carry-on and every night he strummed the major chords of praise.
The preacher was losing his patience.
“Lord!” he roared. “Find room in this soul!”
Filled with shame and self-pity, Royal succumbed. He sank to the floor and the congregation volcanoed in whoops and war cries, delighting in His grace, His munificence, His perfect timing. But that was as far as Royal would go. He did not writhe on the floor like his fellow junior missionaries. He did not cry or tear at his hair (where had Sarah-Anne learned to do that? he thought, feeling distant already). Instead he sat up on his knees and found Father Chris in the crowd, the youth group’s radiant-eyed leader, who was not much more than a youth himself. Chris’ unrelenting grin faltered at something in Royal’s stare. He pinched his brows together in scoutmasterly concern and pursed his lips into a wordless question. You okay? Royal stared into Father Chris’ eyes and made the smallest shake of his head. No. No, he was not okay.
By the end of the trip Royal’s shame had calloused into a black, angry scab. He had been duped. He looked suspiciously at the rest of his group. Had they felt anything? Were they faking it? He was afraid to ask, but all he knew was that he had been pushed, thrust earthward, when all he’d wanted was heavenly ascent. Now, it seemed a foolish thing to hope for. He blamed himself for falling for it, for the whole thing, for believing an earnest prayer to an idea could save him from…what? Royal didn’t know anymore.
For the rest of the week—an insufferable eternity—Royal sat sullenly in the back of the van, earbuds jammed into his ears. During evening devotion his guitar remained in its case. He threw himself into the manual labor, working without pause in the blanketing heat, producing, at times, a stumbly, blurry-eyed dizziness not unlike the transcendence he’d been seeking. Father Chris pulled him aside every night, trying for brotherly affection and settling, finally, on adult disappointment.
“Frankly, Royal, your attitude has been difficult for me fathom. I thought we were all drawing closer to God on this trip, but you have become more and more withdrawn. It’s been a drain on me and a drain on the group. I appreciate the good work you’re doing at the building site, but this experience is about fellowship. We can’t do our Walk on our own. We need each other to hold each other up.”
“Or push each other down,” Royal muttered bitterly.
The meeting house was on the other side of the property, and on the last night Royal slipped out from his tent while his roommate was deep in prayer, his creased Student Bible open on one knee. He followed the noise of shouts and cries through the dark fields until he arrived at the makeshift church, buzzing like a bare bulb in the deep night darkness. A new group of high school volunteers had arrived that day and Royal watched as one by one they tripped up to the front, just as Royal and his friends had, drawn by the preacher’s magnetism, the sheer force of his attractive conviction.
“Which of you will feel the Holy Spirit? Which of you will open yourself to his All Mighty Grace? Come, let us welcome you into the House of the Lord!”
Standing over each in turn, the preacher reduced each initiate to a heap on the floor. His script was the same but the congregation didn’t seem to care; they filled in like a faithful chorus, punctuating his fiery pronouncements with Alleluias and Amens. They were tethered to his words, but Royal could see that they were set free by them, too, like passengers in inflatable life boats on roiling water. The boats had been given a long lead, but they were still lashed to the main vessel, and Royal grasped that without the preacher as lifeline the congregation, for fear of coming unmoored, would never have ventured as far as they had into the unchartered waves of faith, night after night.
He was disgusted by it, done, as he was, with God and the church and rule-following. He had come to search the eyes of the newcomers, to see a flicker of doubt there and gauge how much pressure the preacher was applying. Surely, he's thought, it can't just be me. But the prying self-doubt—was he doing it wrong? Praying incorrectly? Saying it out of order? Not concentrating hard enough? Too far gone? At 16?—was replaced with cool appraisal. The gun-shy volunteers no longer interested him, still pale from the cities they'd bussed in from, hours, no doubt, of Jars of Clay on the sound system or maybe some Sufjan Stevens if their leader was down with that. He had come to commune with them, to fix on any pain or confusion, but instead he wanted to discern the magic trick. He was so taken by the magician. Royal had been too self-conscious before to see it, too aware of himself as a newcomer in a world whose rules and mores he was just beginning to apprehend, to be able to step back and see that power was there for the taking. Everyone felt like a newcomer in this world. No one knew where they stood in the grace of God—because for all their talk of saving and universal love and sameness it was a game, it was a contest to be won. He saw it in his nascent youth group, pious competitions for most faithful, best verse memorizer, best proselytizer, most pure. What made it worse was that no one could talk about their successes, no one could brag and declare themselves the victor in Quiet Time. The pages of ones prayer journal went unread, un-graded. No one but you knew what you had truly given up, how deep you went, how close you felt to God. How were you supposed to know if you were doing it right, when everyone agreed to talk around the biggest question there was: What if you weren't really doing anything at all?