Following Jack

Sunday was a lucky day for me. Ronnie and one of our friends spent time at our apartment to have a girl’s day. The original plan was to hang out with another friend, but he was otherwise incapacitated so I opted to go to the north side to Half Price Books to search for my more books by and on Jack Kerouac. There are four Half Price Books in Indianapolis—one on the south side, two on the north side (Castleton and 86th & Ditch), and another in Avon. I prefer the Half Price in Castleton because they have free coffee, and a quality selection of literature and Jazz. What I wanted to do at the bookstore was to sit, drink coffee, read a few books before buying them, and get in a little writing. Unfortunately, Half Price was busy with people lounging at the tables. No bother. There are plenty of coffee shops to go to, one of them a Starbucks one block east of the store. I found Stephen Eddington’s  The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation Writers as Spiritual Guides and On the Road the original scroll with four essays of brilliant literary criticism. I have a On the Road based on the original scroll, but I had loaned it out to a friend who also enjoys the writings of Kerouac. I texted him to let him know he could keep the book as a gift. I think the 1957 Viking publication of On the Road too tame and did not say what Jack wanted. When Kerouac first wrote the book in 1951, he spent three weeks of all-nighters tapping out his story on a scroll so his thought would not be interrupted by the changing of paper. When told he would have to edit and revise, Kerouac, with his right index finger in the air proclaimed, “This was dictated by the Holy Ghost!” like an Old Testament Prophet. Having read both versions of the story, I am inclined to agree with Kerouac.

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With Eddington’s book, I felt like I hit the literary jackpot because this is the kind of criticism I should have written for my senior thesis on Dharma Bums. While keeping up with my regular academic load, I researched Jack Kerouac, The Beats, the political and religious culture of the United States, and, the protagonist’s, Ray Smith, role as a spiritual wanderer to support my claim that Dharma Bums, though published in 1958, was still relevant to 21st century spiritual seekers. Eddington made the remark that On the Road is the gospel for the modern world, and I agree. For many Christians I know they rely on the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to point them to Jesus. For me my four gospels are, On the Road, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, and Big Sur pointing to the wilderness to look for the God who left the churches seeking honest hearts.

For the introduction of Eddington’s work, David Amram, who was a friend of Kerouac, noted how Kerouac was at peace with his Catholic background even though he stopped going to mass at the age of twelve. The reason he stopped had to do with the hypocrisy of the Church, and its control issues. The control wasn’t about the people, though that did play a significant part, but controlling God—going so far as to tame this God into a bland New England boil. I have similar objections with my refusal to go to mass. The doctrine of Republican Christianity has infected the holy faith and tainted the host. Every Mass has become an act of sacrilege. My last Mass was just before the election at St. Jude’s off Thompson & MacFarland where, in a sanctuary packed with white people, the priest roared about the persecution of Christians in this country, and how the laity needed to galvanize and impose their faith on everyone. I was done. The other Catholic Churches I went to in Indy shared similar sentiments, or talked about playing nice with Trump and his supporters. At the moment in the Mass where Christ descends upon the altar becoming the host we Catholics imbibe to be his image to a world searching for peace, he skipped the altar and ran out of the sanctuary.

I have been in a state of dissonance ever since I walked away from Mass, and I’ve been fighting that tension at every turn. I exacerbated this internal struggle when I threw out everything connected to Christianity, including God, but I am no more at peace than when I sat in the pews encumbered by robed Trump acolytes. The reality is, and I am loathe to say it, is I am still very much a Catholic who cares deeply about the image and message of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and Holy Mother Church. Kerouac didn’t waste his energy bashing the negative behavior of The Church, but sought God’s face in everyday life while wandering. Perhaps, I should as well. Like Kerouac, and many others who were of similar mind, I am a displaced Christian. Alan Watts in his essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” talked about these Christians who desire to be like Jesus but lack the tools and examples in a Christianity whose adherents make the company man with the grey flannel suit synonymous with being a good Christian. That spirituality chews life into a gnarled mush spitting it on the ground. Where is that abundant life that Jesus talked about in The Gospel according to St. John? That life is overshadowed by waving American flags and hate pouring out from red clean shaven faces like sweat on the pulpit. It’s one thing to acknowledge this lack of life, but it is quite another thing to remain in the pew with constant complaints. The better option is to get up and leave the building, and finding God for yourself. Waiting for Godot in the church is an act of futility because “he” will not set foot in a church anymore. God can be found in the homeless face, the child’s laughter, the open flower, and the transparent artist. God is found on the road with a rucksack strapped to “his back” looking for anyone who wants to meet “him” in spirit and in truth.

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The way Kerouac came to peace with his own faith background was through the teachings of the Buddha which he came across by accident. One of his favorite American writers was Henry David Thoreau who daily read the Bhagavad Gita, the holy scriptures of Hinduism, and the basis for Thoreau’s writing. Kerouac wanted to tap into the same spirit as Thoreau, but instead found the Buddha. Kerouac’s discovery of The Buddha was serendipitous and answered the questions of his sensitive heart through the four noble truths, and the first noble truth, “All life is suffering,” spoke to him. Kerouac wanted to know more so he devoted three years to studying Buddhism. That research produced his book, Wake Up: The Life of The Buddha, and his posthumous work, Some of the Dharma. From his first four published novels, I can only speculate that Kerouac was influenced by The Dhammapada, the collected sayings of The Buddha. In this Buddhist text, The Buddha says, “’He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease. ‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.(3-4)” Kerouac does not mention his disdain for the poor practices of The Church, but remains Catholic while looking for God outside of The Church. He forgave everybody while walking down his road.

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