“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”
–2 Corinthians 6:14
The Greek word Koinonia is used twenty times in the New Testament. The direct English translation is “fellowship,” or “communion.” It has connotations of community and closeness, sharing and common experience.
My father preaches its importance to his congregation. He tells them about the fellowship that God meant for all His children.
I don’t feel communion with God or His children. I feel spliced, cast-off, deceived. I feel like a tool wielded.
“Mahler, Mahler, Mahler. Mahler.”
This is all that comes out of my grandfather’s mouth for twenty minutes. He holds a framed high school picture of himself, points to it repeatedly. Laughs.
He looks out at the many birds on the feeders he erected many years ago.
“They’re not all yellow finches.”
He appears to have emptied his mouth of Mahler, for the moment at least. My father nods, not sure what else to do.
“They’re not all yellow finches. They’re not all yellow finches.”
“No,” my dad says quietly, “they’re not.”
When I was in undergrad, my grandfather insisted on taking me out to a new place called Cookie’s Jazz for dessert and music. However, it became clear upon entering the place that there was no dessert to be had. It was a dark room filled with candles, smoke, and glasses of wine.
The woman behind the bar explained carefully to my grandfather that Cookie was the name of the owner. When my grandfather still demanded cookies, she was able to scrounge together some packaged sugar cookies, likely out of her own lunch bag.
My grandfather didn’t eat any cookies, but he insisted that I did. I nibbled on the stale, tasteless things and tried not to squirm. He spoke loudly over the music, ignoring it, wanting to tell me about prestigious awards he had won, the way to make money like he had, what a pain it was to teach college students like me.
Within three months of that night, Cookie’s Jazz closed. My grandfather heard about it and called me, insisting it was their failure to have a dessert menu that had doomed them.
My father preaches about the wealthy. He chastises their arrogance, reading from Revelation: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
When I was in middle school, I asked Dave, my youth minister, how he knew the Bible was true. I don’t know what answer I wanted. Perhaps I hoped there was some secret proof he was holding back. Maybe I wanted some science, history, or math.
Instead, he told me “The truth is, it’s a feeling. I can tell you about all the prophecies that have come true, I can tell you about the corroboration of ancient texts, I can tell you about archaeology. But at the end of the day, I’m just empty without His presence in my heart.”
I didn’t know how to tell him how empty my heart was, even with God in it.
Gustav Mahler, composer, was the second child born to a family of Jewish Bohemians in Austria. His work was not extensive, only writing twelve symphonic scores over his lifetime. These were large, elaborate pieces of music.
However, at the age of fourteen, trying to cope with the death of his brother Ernst, Mahler composed a very simple opera, his first, called Herzog Ernst von Schwaben (Duke Ernest of Swamba).
This opera has since been lost. No one alive has heard it.
Though opera could be heard piping through the built in speaker system at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather loved opera, loved it so much he went weekly with his wife. During our visits to my grandparent’s massive, secluded manse in the woods, my siblings, cousins and I would run through the darkest corners of the narrowest hallways of the house. We would hide in rooms filled with the corpses of decades-old computers. We would run our fingers over the dusty bindings of leather-bound books by B.F. Skinner and Carl Jung.
We did all this to the soaring climaxes, the ominous crashes, the heartbreaking arias of beautiful music. I now associate such music with the dark, with dust, with intellect and no heart.
When I was a toddler, my grandfather had dinner with my father to discuss his new Alzheimer’s diagnosis. My grandfather told my father that this was his worst nightmare, that if he was ever helpless like his mother had been, to kill him. He was earnest about this.
My father apologized, said he couldn’t ever do that.
In response to his refusal, my grandfather yelled at him in the restaurant, food spitting out of his mouth. He yelled about my father’s Christianity, that it kept him from doing the moral thing, the kind thing, the right thing. He yelled for a full half-hour.
When my father left the restaurant, he sat in his car and cried.
Though Mahler converted to Catholicism in order to become the Director of the Vienna Court Opera, he was still harassed. The press, his peers, and his in-laws attacked and criticized him for the faith of his fathers. One of his peers referred to him as “that rachitic degenerate Jew.”
When my dad was a replacement preacher, he would drive across the state to preach at a different church every Sunday.
At one church, instead of hymnals, they sang songs praising America. At another, they spoke in tongues. I remember one church’s basement in particular, where I sat quietly in Sunday school until a scream interrupted us. A girl had been running through the basement and hit her face, hard, on a concrete pole. A blood trail followed her back up to the sanctuary.
I hated the pews in these churches, the old couples who smiled at me. I hated the summer heat and stained glass windows. I hated the smell.
The only reason I went at all was to spend time with my dad. Often, we’d drive for hours or more. We’d sing along with music, talk about sports.
When we got close to the church, we’d find a remote parking lot and pull over. There, I was to be silent while he reviewed his sermon, repeated an elder’s name to himself over and over. I always tried to remember the name, too, as though my remembering would somehow help.
I don’t know much about classical music. In fact, listening to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, I just keep hearing the Star Wars refrain. I’m not altogether displeased by this.
Still, I wish I could hear what my grandfather always heard. Instead, I hear vague grandeur and melancholy. A labyrinth of stale emotion.
When viewing a recent performance of the Symphony, I grimaced at the composer’s capped teeth, his sweaty red face, his repulsively overt melodrama—like he’s giving birth.
Carl Jung theorized a collective unconscious that all members of a species shared. This was made up, he surmised, of unique, personal experience organized into a whole that we all drink from.
When he turned thirty eight, Jung started seeing visions and hearing voices. He withdrew from his friends and family, worried that he was “doing a schizophrenia.” Still, he wrote down his experiences during this seclusion in The Red Book, hoping it was an up-close encounter with his hypothesized collective unconscious.
Madness isn’t far from understanding.
My father preaches about the folly of knowledge, the danger of seeking to elevate ourselves to God’s level: “‘You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”
My father laments that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
I have much grief and know nothing.
I don’t know when I stopped believing in God. I don’t know if I ever did.
I don’t know if Mahler’s little opera for his brother is somewhere in my subconscious. Maybe I’ve heard it. Or maybe it lives on in another way—maybe he grafted the music into one of his later symphonies, clipping and molding it into something that fit into a larger whole.
Or is this just another way in which it is lost?
In order to encourage Koinonia, my youth group arranged four-hour long prayer nights. I would sit silently in a pew in the darkened sanctuary, surrounded by lit candles and whispers and crying teenagers.
One young middle-schooler got up to earnestly ask for prayer for a friend who had been brutally stung by a bee. After ten minutes of group-prayer on the subject, I spent the rest of the night meditating on the best method to murder a twelve year-old.
My grandfather insisted that we call him that—grandfather, not grandpa or papa or pawpaw. He worked hard to project an image to his five-year-old grandkids of an aloof genius.
My father preached once about the greatest folly a man can have: “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.”
During one church camp, we were instructed to write and send a letter to a family member who wasn’t a Christian, telling them how much we loved them, how often we prayed for them. I wrote to Grandfather.
I never told my dad about it, but years later he mentioned it to me in passing. I asked him how he’d found out about it. He was silent for a while, then said “Your grandfather mentioned it.”
Mahler’s composing was greatly influenced by the work of Richard Wagner. Perhaps Mahler never knew of the German composer’s intense anti-semitism. Or perhaps he knew of it and paid it no mind.
However, I can’t help but wonder if he admired Wagner entirely because of the strength of the man’s hatred. Perhaps Mahler recognized in Wagner the singular conviction of inspiration. Maybe he knew that faith and art and hatred all come from the same place within us, that this is what Jung’s collective unconscious is made of.
My father recites Matthew 15:19: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”
I do not have the heart, the courage, to tell my father what he already knows; I am no Christian.
I don’t know how to tell him about the petty spite I hold for his faith, the community I have instead with his father, a small man who greedily collected books on how to debate his own son’s Christianity—
How close I feel to my grandfather now; a man who, finally, one night in the hospital, just closed his eyes, held tight to my father’s hand, and listened to him pray with something like resignation.
In Fishlake National Forest in Utah, what looks like a simple grove of trees is actually the largest single organism on the planet. The trees themselves are actually more like stems, clones, from a single root system that lives under the ground.
These quaking aspens are called Pando, which is Latin for “I spread.”
“If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches.
If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.
[…]Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”
I spread. I grow larger, further from the faith of my father than from the arrogance of my grandfather.
I mourn my lost faith like a family member. My family mourns me as though I am dead. Somewhere, my grandfather smirks. In this, our root system, a phantom limb hangs taut.
I offend my father’s faith in God like he injured my grandfather’s faith in himself. They gift their scars to me—this, my heritage. Our roots twist again through earth.
We spread. All our collective humanity roils somewhere beneath our feet and over our heads. Voices we thought dead and buried sing choruses to our subconscious. They swear they will leave their mark.
Perhaps that’s what my grandfather hears now—Mahler’s chorus. His symphonies playing over and over in his head. Or perhaps he’s more in tune now than he’s ever been. Maybe he’s hearing Mahler’s lost opera for a little dead brother.
Or maybe it’s only about the way the word turns on his tongue: “Mahler. Mahler. Mahler.”
He stops speaking for a moment. “I need to shut up now,” he says. But he doesn’t.
Jacob Little is the Editor-in-Chief of the literary journal, Profane. He is a Graduate Instructor at Minnesota State University, and hosts interviews with authors on KMSU’s Weekly Reader radio show. His recent poetry and creative nonfiction can be seen in Treehouse, Word Riot, and The Frank Martin Review. He has won the St. Louis Poetry in Motion Contest and a Robert C. Wright award.