How I Found God in Limbo-land
On a trip to Bermuda a couple of decades ago, I learned the Good News. Religion lives!
This revelation did not come to me in a quiet church on a tranquil lane, nor in a lush meadow carpeted with morning glories, nor by the incredible sea painted a brilliant turquoise only God could have wrought. No, I discovered religion in the function room and cocktail lounge of a luxury resort hotel where Evangelists gathered to bear witness to their faith.
No sack cloth and hair shirts for these worshippers. They wore instead crinolines, western shirts, jogging shorts or warm-up suits. For some of them were square dancers, and some of them were long-distance runners. And all of them had seen the light and were reborn.
They had come to that tiny isle in the mid-Atlantic on separate pilgrimages--one hundred square dancers from the United States for a week-long festival of joy to the Deity of Do-Si-Do, and a thousand runners from all over the world for a 26-mile offering of pain to whatever gods look after masochists in Nikes. And both groups were seeking converts with a fervor not seen since John the Baptist walked the earth. No one was safe from their proselytizing.
Not even me, an unwary vacationer looking for the cocktail lounge. Making a wrong turn, I suddenly found myself in Crinoline Country, surrounded by gray-haired matrons in short, flouncy, little-girl skirts, and portly gentlemen in incongruous Levis and cowboy boots. I knew how Alice must have felt when she tumbled headlong into Wonderland.
I turned to leave, explaining that I was lost. It was an unfortunate choice of words. Even a non-believer like me could mend my ways and share in the Eternal Joy, they said, urging me to sit down and watch the services.
They squared their sets, swung their partners and moved through intricate patterns with studied symmetry and precision. Their faces were furrowed in painful concentration as they performed one maneuver while straining to hear the caller's next command. This is fun?
"Oh, yes, indeed!" they exulted. "You'll see!"
It sounded like a threat. A chill ran through me as helpful fingers flicked through pocket directories until they found a square dance group in my hometown. An acolyte was instructed to phone and enroll me immediately.
"No!" I protested. How could I tell them that puffy petticoats and Mary-Jane slippers would destroy the sophisticated "Cosmo"-girl image I'd been striving for? "I wouldn't fit in," I said, trying to sound unworthy.
"Nonsense!" they countered. "Everyone fits in. Doesn't matter if you're a Supreme Court judge or a garbage collector!"
"Worse luck," said I, trying to sound disappointed. "I'm neither."
It didn't work. They were still determined to baptize me into the fold. And catechism instruction began immediately: "We have only two commandments," they said. "Thou shalt not drink alcoholic beverages before a dance lest thy step falter; and thou shalt use lots of deodorant lest thy offend thy partners."
Here was my out. I scurried through. "I have a confession," I said. They bent forward, ready to forgive. "I have a perspiration problem that's so bad, it drives me to drink." There was a moment of shocked, sympathetic silence. Then they made a very wide path to let me pass.
I resumed my search for the cocktail lounge. This time I found it. But something was wrong. It smelled like a locker room after the big game. Obviously, there were no deodorant-addicted square dancers here. However, again too late, I realized I had unwittingly crashed yet another gathering of zealots. The lounge was jammed with runners rigorously "training" for the Bermuda Marathon to be held the following day. This phase of their regimen consisted of chug-a-lugging huge mugs of beer and swallowing fistfuls of peanuts and pretzels. At the center of this strange communion service, surrounded by adoring believers, was the aging guru of long-distance runners, Dr. George Sheehan, who has since passed on and I'm sure is now running marathons in Heaven. But back then, in that little bit of Paradise on earth, he was expounding on the glories of physical fitness, the benefits of strenuous exercise. He looked awful--gaunt, green and gasping for breath--as he exhorted all to go forth and exhaust themselves, to hurl themselves gladly against "the wall" of pain where thousands of marathon martyrs before them had been sacrificed.
"Why, oh Wise One?" I asked, seeking to comprehend the great mystery.
"Because," he intoned, "unless you go through suffering and guilt and death, you miss the initiation."
I had no idea what in God's name he was talking about. I just knew it sounded like no fun at all, and I decided the only running I was going to do was away from there.
But, again, I was thwarted. The guru's disciples enfolded me, trying gentler persuasions. They told me of the high runners achieve, the joy, the oneness with the Universe. They spoke of other cynics before me who had scoffed at the Word and now gladly did ten miles of penance a day.
I pleaded advanced age. "No sweat!" they said. "Look at Dr. Sheehan."
"I did," I replied. "That poor man!"
They laughed, convinced I was joking. So I played my trump card. "I don't like to complain," I said. "But I have this trick knee..."
"Come and meet Bobby," they said.
"Bob Hall. He was stricken with polio as a child, but that didn't stop him. He races in a wheelchair. He'll inspire you."
They led me to him. He was seated at a table with friends. When we approached, his companions rose to greet me. And then, miracle of miracles, so did Bobby! He walked towards me to shake my hand! That cocktail lounge was another Lourdes! "I believe! I believe!" I cried, falling on my knees in ecstasy.
It wasn't until the next day, when they were pinning a number on my back at the starting line that I discovered that Bob had been walking for years. But he can take only a few steps at a time, and running is impossible. Hence the wheelchair for his racing. There had been no miraculous, spontaneous cure after all.
Here, then, was a true sign. God's way of telling me I'd been had. I ripped the number from my back as the starting gun went off, and I headed in the opposite direction.
"You're going the wrong way," shouted runners streaming by me. But in my heart I knew I was finally on the Right Path-back to the hotel to join a new congregation which had checked in that morning-a group of Sun Worshippers who by now were basking on the beach.
Now that's a religion I can live with.
Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.