This is the story of when I met a real God. It happened once, and I don’t know whether it will ever happen again, but it was enough to fill a lifetime.
Just bear with me, it’s barely the memory of a dream, but all you will hear is nothing but truth.
At the beginning of this story I was an undergraduate in nuclear engineering. You can’t really split substance from form, action from essence, so I’d say that my college major kind of matters, in the grand scheme of things. At least for this story.
Douglas Adams once said “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”, and I used to spout it all the time when talking with obtuse fanatics. Not that they ever listened.
I used to think about the world as a massive scientific lab; thesis, hypotheses, proof, repeat, and I expected the rest of the people to share this belief with me. Sort of ironic, isn’t it? You shouldn’t believe in science, you should prove it.
Still you have to believe that science can fully describe the whole world. It’s not a given, that science can explain everything, and it’s definitely not something you can prove.
To put it in mathematical terms: it’s a postulate not a theorem. You have to accept it as true.
Or you accept that science is just a mean to describe and predict measurable facts, and there it stops: science will tell you everything about the garden, but whether the faeries are there or not, is not for it to decide.
I was in Hiroshima that year, a European tourist in Japan; with my studies I could not miss the opportunity to visit such a pivotal place in history, even if just for a day.
That city is something else.
I remember arriving very early in the morning, the museum would open some hours later, and I had the time to explore.
The Motoyasu riverside is scattered with memorial monuments, that one after the other cook you up real good. I’ve never been much of an emotional guy myself, and my time alone there was spent reviewing my WW2 dates and facts.
It was time to go to the museum, better get there early and avoid the crowd. It was a short walk to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, and then across the Aoi Bridge; I had mapped it in my head, piece of cake.
Nothing, until then, had me moved.
Not the prefecture building in ruins, not the statue of paper cranes dedicated to the children killed in war, not the tearjerker captions on the signs.
Across the bridge from the skeletal dome, maybe by pure chance, I caught a glimpse. Something grabbed me, pulled my guts, demanding for my eyes to find it.
A lone branch in bloom rose to the sky against the backdrop of crumbled concrete and steel beams.
My feet started sinking in the ground, collapsing under the weight of such a view. My stomach was pulled to the center of Earth by a gravity of impossible proportion, I could feel the touch on my skin of every photon coming from the sun and hitting me, I could hear the sound of the universe reverberating through my body, the four elemental forces called on me by thundering absurdity of that sight.
It’s easy to tell what I was seeing: a tree, with a branch, with some pink flowers, and a damaged building. I could ear the flow of water a few feet below. Clear and easy. Verifiable.
Just go there, and try it yourself, there will be the memorial, and there will be trees, and a river surely. Experiment, hypotheses, proof, repeat.
But it was not like that. It was not just a tree with some flowers, not just a run down building, I, I was not just a random cocktail of atomic elements connected by electrical currents.
I still can’t possibly fathom what it meant. I was stuck, glued to such a view, that shouted to me, crying for understanding in words without language. Purity in front of the filthiest residue of our collective history. Meaning against substance.
The garden, and the faeries.
I didn’t understand then, I don’t understand now and I don’t expect to ever understand.
I doubt there is anything to understand.
I don’t know what face did I have on, but when I arrived to the ticket office the lady there asked me a gentle “Daijoubu desuka?” I’m not much of a Japanese speaker, but I knew it roughly meant “Is it all right?”.
Well it was all right, sort of. I was all jumbled up, but I didn’t feel bad, I just… felt. Felt in a way I never did before, everything came at me at lightspeed, and passed through me like I was a sheet of paper, marking me in ways I never knew. "Daijoubu desu".
I cried a lot in the museum. I felt ashamed, and guilty, and in horror facing the faults of my people. And I’m not talking about us westerners, the Japanese were not cute little lambs either, nor is any other people that I know of. I'm talking about us people of the world.
I cried for every human, feeling each of our stains as my own. It took me some time to cross that sea of ruins and stories, of shattered tools and anguishing images.
One thing, there at the museum, struck me in a special way. It was a glass bottle of milk, that was stuck inside a brick. Not something you see everyday, how is that even possible? How could glass pass half-way through a brick? My guess is that the heat front from the explosion traveled faster than the pressure wave, partially melting the brick and the glass, before slamming one into the other, without breaking either, and causing that gentle penetration.
It was a work of modern art, and incredibly beautiful piece. But it was a remain of the killing of 166’000 people. Funny how nobody counted how many animals were killed. Collateral damage I suppose.
Yet that brick with the milk inside had an absurd and powerful beauty that transcended the hand that made it.
When I got out of the museum I felt absurdly empty inside, with my internal matter pulverized by the shocks of the morning leaving just a shell of flesh.
There’s no way I can remember who, at that point, directed me to Miyajima. I had no previous knowledge of the island, that lay just a handful of minutes from the harbor, and I had no idea of what it may have had in store for me.
The island welcomes her guests with the impressive torii gate that rises from the water, granting leeway to the Itsukushima shrine. It’s a graceful heron floating on the water, with wooden planks of bright red, masterfully decorated by expert craftsman.
Whatever dwells there had a power, a power to start filling up the void that had taken my chest. I was hungry and restless and curious, and I buzzed up and down the village, exploring the nooks and crannies, but it was not enough.
Then, out of nowhere, I noticed the trail, it was a mountain path leading up, following the course of a crystal creek.
I love walking, I have always loved it, and my feet lead me along the path. Some signs suggested there was a Buddhist temple up ahead, and I reached it. Wonderful, carved wood in the shape of dragons, stairs decorated with praying wheels and lush fountains in the garden. I lingered there some time, but my void had not been replenished still.
The path went up, and I went up. It was the ancient pilgrimage trail of an holy monk. It skirted around a waterfall that fell like a satin ribbon, and rose up higher, among rocks and trees and scents of flowers.
At some point it started raining, and one after the other, all the tourists started walking back. One after the other the people left: all the people left, and the was only me. I’m not sure if in that moment I was “people” or if that part of me had left with the others, and on the trail walking up there was only my soul.
The trail reached its maximum peak at a point, bending around and going back down. On the side, half hidden, I noticed a new, wilder path that pointed still further up. My thirst was still there, and I obliged. The path was bumpy and hard to cross, but I had no rush, I had nothing to care for, except for this urge, this strange emptiness craving to be filled.
The calm of that place, the strain of the rise, had me completely disconnected from the anguish that I knew before, that shame towards my kind was distant, but made the path yet more meaningful.
There I found a cleansing fountain, a small basin filled with water and a sort of spoon, used to clean your hands and your mouth before entering a shrine.
I have never been a superstitious person, and up until then I had felt that mimicking the religious acts of a cult that was not mine even by tradition was almost sacrilegious.
Cultural appropriation or not, I knew that I could not cross that path without abiding. I cleansed my soul with that holy water, and pushed on.
At the very peak of the mountain a small shrine met me in its glorious simplicity, a tiny wooden house protected by two statues of spirit foxes. They looked at me, glaring with their otherworldly eyes for several icy moments, and accepted my presence.
There I prayed.
There was a God in front of me, and my words were not empty.
I don't know what name did that God bear, on an abandoned shrine on the island of Miyajima.
I don't know if there is a way to go back and meet again the stern look of those two foxes, and I don't know how many other people met and talked with that God.
But I can tell for sure, that in that garden I saw some faeries, and they filled me with awe and magic.
They gave me power and meaning, and now I know -that to some lucky few- the world is just a little bit larger, just a little bit warmer.
This is the story of the time that I met a real God. It happened once, and I don’t know whether it will ever happen again, but it was enough to fill a lifetime.