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Faith on a Mountainside

HE was no magician, but you would have thought he was Prospero, shipwrecked in those mountains, his fleet a host of solidly built prayer chalets, where the community turned the King James into action. The chalets were beached in rosy gardens scattered along the mountainside. The chapel looked like a boat, long and simple and wooden, bare of all rudiments but seats and a low, humble stage. He even had the locals - farmers and cheese-sellers - amiable to the invasion of Americans, who had adopted their vil lages as study places for the things of Le Seigneur, the Lord.

At first, I didn't like him, the pastor of this religious community, at all. In those days, I didn't like anybody who had answers for my generation - for those of us who had "trod and trod and trod" the byways, seeking what the pastor called "true truth," only to find out that going to San Francisco with flowers in our hair was not eternity.

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I had trod my way through the civilized fixtures of Europe, past literary and religious shrines, and ended up at his simple religious rest stop for seekers who had thrown in the towel, abandoned colleges, and had seen too much casual sky over tragedies. For me, it was a mission work, a free cup of tea and bed. I thought that if I read the Bible mornings, as if to renounce my immoral philosophical ideas, I'd get a bite to eat and the companionship of other pretty youth (I believed then in youth).

That's why I didn't take to the pastor at first. Who was this short, stocky evangelical, dressed in knickers and boiled-wool jacket with silver buttons, a goatee and longish hair in the back? He had a bad speaking voice that screeched from the pulpit, worse French, and an affected British accent. But there was something about him. He shined with a cleanliness and seemed conservative enough with his other dress to be a Quaker forefather, an adviser to rich men or the thrones of Europe. He'd written books I considered unreadable and had a theological following.

I hated coming upon a myth I didn't know about.

AT this height in the mountains, he seemed to command the round moon rising out of the valley below. Without soliciting, he had received the means to buy one large chalet, then several others, and had formed a foundation; he now lived humbly on the top floor of one of the chalets with his family. Later in his career he spoke, on invitation, about his views on war at a government hearing, but he began by speaking to us; young people fascinated him. A simple statement by one of us had changed his life as a

pastor. "Christianity doesn't have an intellectual leg to stand on," someone had said to him. He took it from there.

It was his down-to-earth, logical vision that pervaded the sky over the chalets, shared by others, that made it seem he commanded the moon and stars. The place was so beautiful as to be enchanted by Prospero's spirit-boy, Ariel, though he wouldn't have liked the word "enchanted."

Biblical scenes were everywhere: cut hay with flowers drying in it, sweet-breathed cows, old barns and churches, people living a gloriously simple life. All around were peaks, pure air, and the gold of sunrises. There were young women who spoke like handmaids of the Lord, men who could bow without decorum, and many of the philosophically troubled of my generation.

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I liked it there, but I was determined not to let prayer change the way I thought about things. I had my own ideas. I made myself difficult. But I didn't know that created the yeast of the place; they liked difficult people. It challenged their own thinking. Because they were prepared to answer, without fudging, and think it through, my "difficulties" enlarged them. I fit right in. It made me angry.

I was unused to everything. One evening my throat tightened when a lady worker said, at grace, "Thank you for bring us Hallett this day." I got over that and figured they said these practiced phrases for their own belief.

I delighted in asking the old questions, raising controversies about the Bible, at every opportunity. I loved throwing out barbs at fireplace discussions with some of the "hothouse" children of the faith, who grew up without cards or dancing or Haight-Ashbury.

I questioned the pastor about the role of modern art and literature, asking whether somebody like D. H. Lawrence was acceptable. I had never heard the word "content" in art as prerequisite for it showing God's grace and refreshment to a weary world and was unfamiliar with the idea that art was a gift. Even children of the faith were surprised to hear their pastor say a "non-Christian can make beautiful things because he has a beautiful Creator." That night I almost forgave him his classic bad French and his jacket and knickers.

I was coming to the conclusion that this pastor had come out of a tight theological background, sometimes anti-intellectual, and was a thinking rebel, liberating his church to the richness of art and the feast of acceptable moral action in life. Having met his own difficulties with honest courage, he was not only reaching his own flock but drawing in interested new minds.

This man had the inner basics, never abandoning the premises of the Bible, and he generated excitement, exploring the world on that foundation. I had "moved on" too quickly in my thought, long ago picking this and that from schooling, whatever delighted me temporarily; but I was vague on the "basics." My beliefs had gone out of me, through my intellectual pores, in the first sweats of disillusionment.

I needed a credo I could count on. But how? I was still holding on to a belief in youth as moral legislator. But that would pass, surely.

Then came my biggest disillusionment with the pastor. I couldn't go for this rock-hard belief of doctrine. Were they super-gods or angelic beings that accepted the Word so simply that it worked for them? I had moved and had my being in the results of it, "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: ... but the word of our God shall stand forever." If nothing else, I had seen the cut hay with dried flowers all about the chalet slopes ... I didn't have the kind of faith the pastor had. So it seemed closed to m e.

I mourned my condition of doubt. I was a lesser human being.

Then one afternoon, coming unannounced to a prayer meeting held by his wife, the pastor brought some good news. The local authorities had renewed the foundation's permit, a subject of much worry and prayer.

"You see," he said, "I really think it is true."

HE meant the Bible. I knew then that with all the simple miracles of his mountainside pastorship, with the many lives that had been changed, with his success as a communicator to the dropout rebels of the '60s and '70s - with all that - he himself had struggled with portions of the Bible. "You see," he said, elated, "it really is true."

I had compassion for him. It opened up a door of courage for me.

I had come there for some sort of compassionate handout, ready to bite the hand that offered it. But when I had compassion for his doubts, I had them for my own. I was still guarded. But I realized I could live like some of these people, and with some courage at least explore what they were talking about. I could dig into the pages of Scripture bequeathed to us, where the flower of the fields have been fresh for centuries.

Later when he was gone, I realized I loved the pulpit-preacher, in spite of the good time I had with his people, disillusioning me properly to the truth about the dignity of every man. Even me. He was a small man, who may have had some doubts, but his vision, honed and worked out with courage, made him seem he could command the moon.

He must have had a beautiful Creator.

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