Sunday, July 06, 2008

Innocence, Holy Men, and the very dangerous world

Yesterday I was out walking my daily walk and a gold sedan pulled up beside me. People pull up by me all the time when I'm out walking, usually to ask directions, a request that I very poorly answer.

This was different right away. Pulled up right to the curb and put the car in park; my eye hit the leatherbound, beat-up book on the console--definitely a Bible--the pillow and blanket in the backseat (is he sleeping in his car?), and his face--young, maybe early twenties, without a recent shave and with the dark circles and earnest of eyes of the devout, at least to my eyes.

My first impression: I'm about to get a have-you-accepted-Christ-into-your-life talk.

"Excuse me," he says, "I'm sorry, I just got this impression, like, an idea from the Lord, that I should ask you: does your father need any prayers? I felt like I had to stop and ask that. Should I pray for your father?"

I stop and think for a moment. "Well," I say honestly, "not that I know of."

"Okay," he laughs. "What about you? Do you need any prayers?"

I look away and think for a moment. Yes, I'm an atheist, but if it pleases someone to pray for me, that's all right. I'll answer honestly. And honestly, I have a pretty good life. I don't need prayers--maybe I need help being the man I know I oughtta be, but that's a small enough prayer.

"No," I say finally, "I don't think I really need any prayers. There's lots of other people need more prayers and blessings than I do."

"All right, well, I'm Ernie." He sticks out his hand for me to shake.


"Just want to say that Jesus loves you."

I thank him, wave as he drives away. I prize these little encounters where people try to show concern for others, where they bring a little God into the world. I may not believe in it, but I think life can always use a bit of holiness. One of my favorite memories is of sitting on a beach as a child and being suddenly presented with a beautiful shell by a middle-aged lady, who told me Jesus loved me and then walked away. I do wish I still had the shell.

Really, I start to feel a little bad about it as I keep walking. If he really was living out of his car, I should have offered to buy him dinner, or something. See if I could find someplace he could sleep for the night. I've just finished reading The Dharma Bums, so I'm feeling very charitable to wandering holy men.

I'm living at home for the summer. Later that evening I tell my mom about the whole encounter, and my mild regrets that I did not do more. She purses her lips, looks hard at me. "Do you really mean that?"

"Well . . . yes," I say. "I mean, there might be some danger to hanging out with a new-met stranger, but it felt like the right thing to do."

"What impression did you get?" she asks me.

I had had some misgivings. My "wandering holy man" notion was just a romantic idea--in this age, no poor monk drives a car. Who can afford the gas? But I don't say that. "He seemed like an earnest, honest guy, really. And it's the whole WWJD thing."

"Phillip, that's well and good, but think about this. He's driving around in a car. He sees you out walking alone, asks about your father--are there problems at home?--will someone miss you if you don't come home? This is how kids get kidnapped."

I'd protest that I'm nineteen years old and can take care of myself, but I don't look it, and truthfully, Ernie was probably stronger than me. I have to yield a bit to my mom's experience--she burned herself out working with runaways and troubled kids when I was little, and has a few too many horror stories.

"And now he knows your route, and when you go walking," she goes on. "Next time you're out walking, think he'll be there again?"

"I usually walk at night . . . this was an early afternoon walk."

"Good. But be more careful."

I suppose this is a long anecdote, but it precedes a big question. I know I'm a very innocent guy--I always assume everyone has the best of intentions at heart, but things get muddled up in the struggle of the everyday. It rarely occurs to me to think people might be dangerous--heck, I though Annie Wilkes just needed a good firm hug in Misery--but I still stand by my impression that the guy was honest. And I resent my mom a little for turning what felt like an encounter with holiness into Stranger Danger.

What do you think? How much has the world warped, and how much kindness can we afford strangers? Is there holiness moving out there, quietly and sweetly, or only predators under evangelical beards?