After Franz Kafka’s ‘Conversation with the Supplicant’
The church service was livestreamed and I stared at my reflection in the black square while waiting for the video to start. I was a dim outline, upon a surface smudged with fingerprints. I scrunched up my face and tried to look away, but found myself moving ever closer to the glass.
On Sundays, I would log on and scan for his name in the chat. The stream showed the number of viewers – always in the lower double digits – but did not list the names of attendees. There was, however, a chat in the sidebar, where people posted greetings during the passing of the peace.
‘Peace of Christ!’
I was searching for a former friend, who had recently ‘converted’ – because I suspected that his conversion was false. It was an aesthetic decision, I believed, like everything else on the internet; a personal brand, disjointed from the struggle of the everyday. He posted about it regularly, with vague platitudes like ‘All in God’s time,’ or ‘Taste and see!’ He just wanted others to see him; but instead of him, it was a small icon of a sunset and a link to Psalm 91. I hardly remembered his face . . . I could only conjure up a flimsy memory from a camping trip, decades ago, when he rescued a young boy from a ravine at night. I had been shocked, shaking behind a tree in my swim trunks, unable to help, as the boy struggled not to slip into the dark gorge.
I clicked between the church livestream and my email. Sometimes I wished to be useful during the service, and would tidy the books in the study, or move piles of laundry from one side of the room to the other. The people in the church chat seemed like robots, I thought. I was like a robot also, with strained movements isolated to my fingers and eyes, while the rest of my body lay slack against the bed. One morning, I added my voice to the chat, just to try.
‘Is Felix here?’ I typed, to no response.
On Good Friday, the priest in the livestream video stood inside the darkened sanctuary. I had brought the laptop outside onto the balcony, where the day was warm, even though the internet connection was weak, and the homily lagged to load as he commemorated the death of Christ. I shielded the sun with my hand, while the leaves shifted in the wind and a lone pedestrian collected bits of littered plastic. I didn’t notice when the livestream of the service had finished. In my inbox, Felix had sent out a blog update. I had signed up to his newsletter and this week there was a reflection on the opening verses from the Gospel of John. I felt sick, but maybe it was because I had barely eaten.
One evening I went for a drive. I passed a small white chapel, and then another, followed by a large brown church, and then a tall gray one. They were like mushrooms: once I became aware of them, they slowly revealed themselves to be everywhere, speckled through the trees, beside mailboxes, at the end of every block. One church had a lawn sign that read simply follow your desire, another advertised a clothing drive, a spaghetti dinner. The signs felt like bumper stickers; so many customizable differences that it was hard to believe that they were all based on the same thing. When I returned to my apartment, I parked beneath a tree and stayed in the car, scrolling through my phone.
An hour elapsed. I’d encountered two new posts about faith from my former friend Felix. Until now, I felt that I’d risen above them, but this time, something – perhaps it had to do with my stilled car – made me respond.
‘You’ I typed, then deleted. ‘Y’ I typed. I caught the loomy gray outline of my reflection in the screen. I decided to message him privately instead.
‘Hey,’ I typed. ‘Are you there?’ No response.
I did this intermittently for days, attempting various approaches:
‘If you’re there, please answer me.’
‘What happened to you?’
‘Remember Thursday nights after football practice?’
I began to feel frightened, unable to remember the face of my former friend. I could only picture a faraway figure, wet from the ravine.
‘Hey,’ he finally typed one day, as I was getting out of the shower. ‘What’s up?’ I wandered into my bedroom and sat at the edge of the bed. Towels and blankets were strewn all around me, lacking any continuity.
‘Why do you post so much?’ I asked. Fingers stiffening. ‘It seems like you’re just begging for attention.’
‘I’m not begging for attention,’ he typed.
I scrunched my face and moved closer to the phone. Now this was obviously not true. ‘You don’t look at the “likes”?’
‘Of course, But I’m not begging for them. I just post stuff I’m interested in. I want to share.’
‘But isn’t God supposed to be holy and private?’ I asked, although I didn’t know where the question came from. ‘It seems cheap.’
Felix did not respond.
The following Sunday, I logged onto the livestream and saw his name in the chat. It wouldn’t be ideal to talk to him with all these onlookers, but something had to be done.
‘Peace be with you!’ and its many iterations began to fill the chat as I prepared my remarks.
‘Peace to all!’
‘Look,’ I typed, then deleted. Perhaps I wouldn’t say anything after all.
‘Peace be with you!’
‘Okay, Felix,’ I typed. No. I tried to delete it, but accidentally pressed enter, and so, surrounded by faceless others – despite not knowing them, or even knowing if they were real – I felt pressured to continue.
‘Peace of Christ!’
I squinted at my reflection and tried to make out my own mouth shapes.
I suddenly remembered a story I’d heard as a child, about a mountain, or some rocks. I heard my mother on the phone, explaining to someone how it felt to climb, how from the incomprehensibility of the vast landscape emerged a presence, and how she felt whole for the first time. What did she encounter? My head had been kind of foggy; I’d been playing a video game and so everything around me was a part of the game. I searched ‘pictures of mountains’ online and scrolled quickly through the images before returning to my game. I would continue to remember my mother and the mountain, and when I did I would look at images of distant meadows and summits. Some were pixelated; some looked more real than real life. Sometimes I would catch her cutting radishes in the kitchen, or idling in the car. I wondered if she was thinking about the mountain and wished that I knew at least the name of it, but didn’t find the words to ask, and would forget the desire almost immediately after it flashed, replaced with me peering into the screen.
I looked at the livestream chat. Everything was in black and white. The letters of the text remained close, sharp and jagged.
‘Peace’ I began to type, now feeling angry and exposed.
I deleted what I’d typed and stared. Suddenly, I felt a kind of freedom come over me and I began to type intuitively, although I didn’t know what I was saying.
‘Felix, I’ve been looking for you. The other day I passed by so many church buildings, and I thought about you when I passed each one. Do you ever go inside? Do you even know what a church is like? Do you feel holier when you’re out of reach?’
I paused. No response.
‘I wish to disappear when I pass them, but I keep driving. I wish to enter through the doors and lock them from the inside and fall into a deep rest amid the pews. But no one can disappear anymore. Have you tried? They crumbled, even as they continue to stand, and all that is left is one large glaring fluorescent light, exposing everything at all times. It is painful. I think I even wished to hide in you Felix, in my attempt to track you down, somehow. I know I sound crazy. Yeah, yeah, “Peace, peace” I know this all sounds like nonsense. Maybe it is. But I see you all here, and I see Felix too, and I have no idea what you all look like, and it just seems definitively impossible. Doesn’t it just make you want to hide?’
I didn’t know what I was saying. I moved my cursor to click out of the screen and forget the whole thing. But then I saw the three dots below the chat. Someone was typing.
‘Hey,’ Felix typed. That was all. Was he going to type more? I felt dizzy. The three dots appeared then disappeared. Then they appeared again.
‘I was not in any of the churches you passed. I only come to church here now. And I post in part because I don’t have many friends,’ he said.
Three dots appeared, he was still typing.
‘I do want to hide. You accused me of posting in order to be seen, but it’s the opposite: I post so I can disappear. I’m trying to find something to hold onto, that’s the truth. But when everything is exposed, all equally illuminated, it is sometimes hard to grab on. In a place where there are no shadows there can be no such thing as time, just permanence. And it doesn’t even feel like light, just a cold blue, and I can’t see the contours of a real object, or even of any fragments. It’s just a gnawing brightness, a looming presence, and a screen that keeps me from standing up and, I wish to God that I could get away from it.’
He seemed to have stopped typing. Had we both gone insane? I was afraid that what he had said made more sense than I wanted to admit. I felt the urge to cry.
‘I don’t know what to say,’ I typed. ‘Or,’ I blinked. But I couldn’t find any words.
I suddenly didn’t know what I was doing at all, staring at a screen of a priest who occasionally said things like ‘fruits of the spirit’ and ‘bring your suffering to the cross,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself, and God above all things.’ The priest was accompanied by a choir that I never sang along with. I would often mute the choir, in fact, and continue sitting on the couch, or the balcony . . . I felt the force of my absurd pursuit weigh down upon me. It was the first real thing I’d felt in a while. My finger hadn’t touched the keyboard in a minute, so the screen dimmed and I caught my shadowed reflection once again. I closed the laptop and walked down the steps into the apartment lobby, dazed. I opened the front door and collided straight into a woman with her groceries. I helped her pick up the loaf of bread and the toilet paper.
‘Peace be with you.’ I said, instinctively reaching my hand out to the woman, before walking hurriedly down the street.
Image © Jerold Paterson