So. God caught Abraham napping somewhere in Eastern Mesopotamia and decided to test him. He laid out his plan in simple, Sunday-School terms.
“Take your son Isaac to Mount Moriah,” God said. He cleared His throat. “Build an altar short and fair. Bind him, soothe him, and kill him.”
Abraham, running a sun-beaten hand through his beard, found himself hard-pressed to agree.
My parents joke about the little “tics” I had growing up. Clearing my throat after every time I spoke. Roaming the floors at night to make sure the doors were shut. A phantom cough that lasted over a year; peeing.
And I peed a lot. I peed during play dates, between meals, during commercials of Courage the Cowardly Dog. Running my bare feet over bathroom tiling like infant white noise. Visiting family down the shore, some aunt or uncle grabbed my mom – quietly – by the shoulder and asked if she was sure I shouldn’t get tested for diabetes (what with all the pee trips and what not). Of course my mom just smiled and shook her head in that small, easy-going way she has.
Instead, she and my dad sat me on the front porch of our old house and laid out words before me, simply and quietly.
There are multiple ways of looking at Hell. I had a teacher, once, who came to church on Wednesday nights to feed us soft pretzels and old pizza so long as we let him talk. His name was Mr. F and he was built like a house. He liked to slam his fist on the plastic, kick-stand tables to catch our attention, shouting that he would rather “scare us into heaven than let us cozy up to Hell”. Which he did, weekly. Mr. F told us that Hell was a real, living place of some pungent darkness that we could all see and feel if we so wanted. Hell was endless, void and vacuous, a highlight reel of every opportunity we’ve ever had to reach Heaven’s pearly gates and failed. There was no escape to Hell, no ending in the way our bodies are trained to accept things, which made it pure.
There’s a scene in Paradise Lost where Lucifer is surveying the vast expanse of fire and gruff he and his ragtag group of fallen angels find themselves in. He lays his plans out to Beelzebub. Yes, Hell is grand. Yes, Hell is terrifying. But he doesn’t feel that bothered. Because Lucifer is proud in the way that only a fallen angel can be, and explains to his friend that “the mind is its own place, and in itself / can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
And I think that’s true for anyone. Even outside bubbles of faith, where Lucifer’s words are oddly soothing because they sound like they’re describing obsessive compulsive disorder.
My dad did the “Sinner’s Prayer” – knees bent – in front of my mom when he was nineteen. My mom did it when she was four, bending down on Christmas Eve in front of grandparents and grand uncles pledging that on that night her life would begin anew. I did the same thing when I was seven, at a bible camp in North Jersey. We were asked to call the counselors aunt and uncle so-and-so, so I dug my knobby knees in the grass while Aunt Trisha held a soft hand on my shoulder and I admitted that, little as I was, I was a sinful boy with brown hair and lots of freckles who wanted to make a vacancy in his heart for the love of Jesus Christ.
There’s a pattern here. My youngest brother slept through his baptism. He was held in front of the congregation like a shaman holding some sacred, fleshy stone. Growing up, we – my parents, my brothers, my sister, both sets of my grandparents, my great grandparents and I – went to church promptly. Weekly. Like clockwork.
The sun was hot and getting heavy in the midday sky for Abraham’s father-and-son trek with Isaac. He had taken along two servants, and a donkey to carry the provisions. Wood and tinder and the like.
Isaac helped Abraham make the altar at the base of the mountain. It was stout, sturdy and sure. For a moment, Isaac thought. He put his hands on his back.
“Father?”, he asked.
“Yes, my son?”
“The fire and wood are here,” he started, pointing, “but where is the lamb for the offering?”
Obsessive compulsive disorder works on a system of intrusive thoughts. For example, you’re driving to work when you wonder if you’ve left the stove on. Which is normal. But an intrusive thought goes beyond this. You’ll tell yourself that no, the stove was turned off, but the smallest embryo of doubt will remain and fester until the possibility that the stove could be on is all you can actually think about. You’ll be walking to your desk, avoiding the gaze of the secretary with the piercing blue eyes and the one tooth that’s mesmerizingly crooked, all the while fixated on the still-lit stove you left at home. That small gas flame in your mind – an ember, really – has spiraled and grown and traced its fingers along your neighborhood block, leaving drifts of cinders where everything you ever loved once stood. In this way, going into middle school my own tendencies had gone from active quirks to full-fledged, intrusive fears.
Case in point: the idea that listening to “Father and Son” would force my dad to die in a fiery car accident, which meant that I could never, under any circumstances play it by mistake. I understood on a surface level that that would never happen, but the constant “what if?” thoughts were enough to maintain a constant level of doubt in whatever I told myself. There was also the fear that the air conditioner – now locked in a Houdini’s grip of bungee cords around my bed – would fall from my window onto my brother’s head while he dug under rocks in the backyard. Fresco-like images of blood trickling onto the pavement while he gasps and whimpers. Or that gnawing thought that if I did not pray or pushed my thoughts in the right direction then something bad would have to happen. In my forced imagination friends and family would grow smaller and smaller without me knowing, becoming body-horror ant-men and women until they’re too small for me to see, let alone help.
And I think what happened is that some point, when I was thirteen or so, the binary code lining of my brain made a connection. I had fused together my obsessive thoughts with my own faith.
This only makes sense in hindsight. I couldn’t really be conscious of it at the time. All I knew was that I was terrified of Hell. Dramatic Hell, Mr. F’s Sunday-school Hell, the blood-soaked Martian graveyard Hell in Doom. By obsessive mental gymnastics I had become convinced that any bad experience in my life was the direct result of some kind of sin. As if a cloud of divine, everyday wrath was hanging over me in the unavoidable chance that I would make a mistake.
Let me be clear and say that I’m not denouncing the faith that reared my parents and my grandparents. After twenty years of rigorous church going – sermons, Sunday school, picnics and youth retreats for the Whole Nine Yards – I’ve realized that there is a beauty and vibrancy to spiritual connection that I can’t even attempt to describe. Maybe this is just my way of rambling through something I could never understand as a kid, and only understand a little now.
But. I have realized looking back that so many of my Altar Boy Tendencies have been driven by a fear of some kind of punishment. And maybe that’s possible. Who knows? I could have an Essex Class aircraft carrier flung through my bedroom window for writing this. The point, though, is that I had twisted the warm, ever-present idea that God is a cosmic force of love into some vengeful being of punishment. My obsessive compulsive tendencies had driven me to pray, day-in-and-day-out and pledge allegiance to a God-filled world out of fear of my own afterlife. I was never really devoting my energy into a relationship with God, but my own theoretical relationship with Hell.
And it’s kind of liberating to realize that.
It’s impossible to say whether Isaac struggled when Abraham bound him to the altar, or even how he reacted when Abraham proposed it. The Bible never really mentions it.
I remember watching two teens tie their sleeping friend to his bed during a thunderstorm. We were at camp, and they were tossing rolls of duct tape, delicately, across the bed, over and over again. It looked like a slow, drawn out version of a spider ensnaring its prey, and by the time the friend woke up, the tape was wrapped so tightly around his torso and hips that he had no choice but to fall back asleep. Abraham could have tied Isaac in his sleep, teary-eyed, hands shaking.
Either way Abraham took the knife from his robe and raised his hand to swing the knife in a righteous arc towards his son’s heart, and before he reached the chest an angel called his name from the heavens above. Abraham, panting quietly now over his son’s bound body, had passed the test.