Flesh to Fire


Catherine Doherty describes what happens as you spend more time in the poustinia — the hermitage, the desert, the “school of the love of God”:

His fire is over you. You are moving slowly up his mountain, the mountain of the Lord. To get to the top you must pass through the heart of God. As you pass through his heart, you become a bonfire, and, together with him, a huge bonfire. You become a bonfire on the top of the mountain.

Moving slowly up the mountain: I’ve heard that somewhere before. It takes me a few minutes to realize that I am thinking of Wilbur Mercer’s mountain, in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep.1 Mercer, god or messiah or scion of the religion of Mercerism, is a half-mythical figure, a gallows god with no resurrection: he climbs endlessly up a steep mountain, away from an Ezekielian valley of dry bones and broken robots, towards an unknown destination. Along the way, unseen assailants pelt him with rocks.

He never reaches the top, or if he does, the whole thing starts over again. It’s not the cheeriest religion.


The reason Catherine Doherty made me think of Wilbur Mercer is the nature of Mercerism’s central rite: Fusion. Fusion is accomplished by means of a device called an Empathy Box:2 you grip the machine’s handles and, by a mystical/technological union, you are united with Mercer, and also with every other Mercerite who’s gripping the handles on their own empathy boxes at that moment. Forgetful of yourself, you become Mercer: his weariness, his thirst, even his wounds become your own.

It’s not just a trick, either. If you’re hit by a rock while fusing with Mercer, you’ll bleed in real life.

Maybe Do Androids Dream… should have gained its resonance for me from my understanding of the Mystical Body of Christ, but it worked the other way around.3 I first read the book when I was fifteen or so, a time when my knowledge of the Mystical Body, and the union of our sufferings with Christ’s, was more theoretical than it is now. Reading DADoES, on the other hand, was the opposite of a theory: an experience.

Climbing up the mountain with Mercer; moving slowly up the mountain of the Lord; and, finally, suffering the stupid, mundane slings and arrows of an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. The secret of the mystic is that these things are not other than the stuff of daily life. Body and soul, we are creatures of two worlds, and we exist in both of them at once.

Say I am sitting in the attic, having retreated from my own party to hide here, quaking with jealousy and fear and despair — but really I am with Mercer on the craggy heights, hanging on by one hand while unseen enemies wound me in delicate places; which is to say that I am with Christ in Jerusalem, being mocked as I am scourged.

Or say I am sitting in Adoration and experience a consolation: peace comes flooding in, all free and unlooked-for — but really I am with Mercer in a shady mountain pass, having found a stream just when thirst was most overwhelming; which is to say that I am with Christ, within Christ (O which one? is it each one?), on the road to Golgotha, and a beautiful young girl stands in front of me, with tenderness in her eyes and a cloth to wipe the sweat and blood from my face.

So we climb. Christianity is not Mercerism; although, if it were, it would still be closer to the truth than one of the weak-broth quasi-religions4 — the kind that has nothing to say about suffering at all, other than that (1) it is unpleasant and (2) it could probably be avoided if only [mumble mumble] technology, [mumble mumble] contraceptives.

Mercerism is not Christianity, because the latter contains hope. Christ’s climb up the mountain, like Mercer’s, is experienced in each life — truly, each of us is Mercer, or he is each of us (Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his!) — but where Mercer’s climb is an endless repetition, Christ’s climb happened once, and every life-pang of ours is a participation in that one event, the one Passion.

Our empathy box is the Mass, which is not a re-enactment of the Passion nor yet a re-occurrence, but a kind of wormhole in time and space, giving us access to Christ at the moment of his crucifixion.

But then afterwards, resurrection; at the top of the mountain, Transfiguration, robes whiter than any fuller could bleach them, apotheosis: the transmutation of flesh (however slowly) into fire, and fire into lightning.

1 That’s the book that eventually got made into Blade Runner. It’s the only one of Dick’s novels that ever seemed cohesive to me, or ever seemed to be saying much besides his standard message — that life is terrifying and bleak and sinister and you have no idea what’s going on, and then when you find out what’s going on, things are even more terrifying and bleak and sinister.2 From bladerunner.wikia.com, this tidbit, which I had forgotten about: “Adherents of Mercerism grip the handles of an electrically powered empathy box, while viewing a monitor which displays patterns that are meaningless until the handles are gripped.” Whoa! The metaphor deepens. There is no Mercerism in the movie adaptation, which makes it an entirely different beast; but wonderful in its own right.

3 The redoubtable J. B. Toner, whose novel I recently plugged, had a similar experience with a similar doctrine: he once admitted to me that the idea of St. Paul’s many-parts-but-one-body/many-gifts-but-one-spirit is expressed much more vividly for him by teams of superheros with different abilities than it is by 1 Corinthians.

4 Look at me not naming names when I lambast things! It is because I am learning to suffer fools less cantankerously. Tolerance &c.

3 Comments on “Flesh to Fire”

  1. David says:

    “Nothing the god of biomechanics wouldn’t let you in heaven for.”

  2. richard says:

    I first encountered paintings like the above in my grandmother’s massive King James Version Bible.

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