For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in personal experience, they are not the better for having heard the truth.
—A. W. Tozer
Eden is 12 and a firm believer in a variety of mythological forest goblins. In particular, he detests the Pombéro, chief mischief-maker among the fabled Paraguayan creatures. People say the diminutive furry scamp steals chickens’ eggs, drinks cow udders dry, and generally upsets local farm animals. Leaving bottles of whiskey out at night supposedly appeases the nocturnal beast.
I consider letting my young friend continue to believe in these amusing cultural anecdotes, but my sense of duty as a Peace Corps volunteer and, therefore, arbiter of scientific fact, compels me to correct him.
“The Pombéro is a myth,” I explain in a mix of broken Guaraní and Spanish.
We are sitting outside the dilapidated shack I call home. Evening quiet has settled on Tuna, Ava’i, Caazapá, a rural village situated hours from any paved road. As the day’s stifling heat dissipates, it leaves a palpable somnolence.
Éden insists that the Pombéro’s counterpart, Kurupí, has impregnated a number of virgins. To Éden, their newborns are prima facie evidence of goblin tomfoolery.
I attempt to distinguish between myths and legends: Forest goblins are mitos, I explain. When real world people—such as local teenage mothers—are involved with mythic creatures, these stories are called leyendas. Neither are true, I say resolutely. The only way those girls got pregnant is from real men.
Obviously dissatisfied with my explanation, Éden says nothing for quite a while. Eric Clapton softly croons from a battery-powered CD player in my shack, a half-played game of chess sitting on the table between us. It has become our nightly ritual to eat black beans and yucca together like this.
“What about La Virgen, Peter?” Éden asks.
I don’t have the heart to tell him that the Virgin Mary is also a legend. I have only been in Paraguay a few months, but I know life is sometimes very difficult and hope often hard to come by. Life is especially tough for Éden, who has already established a solid reputation for smoking, drinking, and petty theft. His dad drinks too much and his mom looks perpetually exhausted from caring for Éden’s four younger siblings. I have become Éden’s hero because of my habit of subverting longstanding cultural norms and occasionally snubbing highly respected community leaders. I like to think of Éden as a Paraguayan version of Huckleberry Finn.
“La Virgen is the one exception,” I reply, casting my eyes toward the chess board that sits between us. Éden has the uncanny ability to recognize when the adults in his life are lying to him, which I attribute to his spending so much time with unpleasant men often drunk on cheap cane rum. I can’t tell if he believes me or not, but I suspect that if I look him in the eye, he’ll know for sure that I don’t believe my own words.
A Hero’s Journey
Paraguayans love dubbed-over versions of Baywatch and Walker, Texas Ranger. Because of this, I learn that I am almost universally admired by the villagers for my culture’s adherence to a strict code of honor (à la Chuck Norris’s insistence on a fair fight) and clear aesthetic preference for a certain archetypal blonde female. Also my light complexion, green eyes, and baby face serve to reaffirm the stereotype that los Estados Unidos is a country of delicate Nordic peoples.
At the same time, residents are wary of my motives. Why would anyone fortunate enough to be born in a wealthy country populated by honorable men and beautiful women choose to spend two years in a poor country where corruption is a fact of life and where the only blondes are descendants of Nazi criminal refugees? One popularly imputed motive, according to Éden, alleges my involvement in international espionage. The real reason for my sudden appearance in Tuna is part of a secret plan by the US government to expropriate Paraguay’s reserves of agua dulce (fresh water).
I am grateful for the rumors and cultural stereotypes. They make me sound heroic. One of the main reasons I joined the Peace Corps right after graduating from New York University (NYU)—though I would never have admitted it to friends and family—was because I felt destined for heroism. My career prospects as an English major fresh out of college—copyediting trade magazines and ghostwriting fundraising letters—seemed like jobs for nerds. I was fated for something more.
My mission in the Peace Corps, teaching beekeeping to subsistence farmers, sounded exotic and noble. Maybe even heroic. To my chagrin, no one seems even remotely interested in beekeeping except for Felix Tavy, Crazy Felix. Felix is my age—22—though a lifetime of working outside has left him looking much older. He is easy to like, with gentle, squinty green eyes and a quick laugh that reveals a row of missing front teeth. I am desperate to make an adult friend and thankful for Felix’s singular aim: He wants to harvest honey.
I pledge to make Felix’s wish come true, though it does not occur to me that a liberal arts degree and three months of cursory beekeeping training might not have adequately prepared me for the rigors of capturing colonies of killer bees from the Paraguayan jungle.
Our first attempts to capture bee colonies from the wild are fiascos, involving long days of getting stung repeatedly in the stifling Paraguayan heat. We sift through tens of thousands of killer bees looking for the queen. Slightly longer than the rest, sometimes of a deeper hue, she is the key to success: If we fail to capture her in a matchbox, the bees swarm in unison, an amorphous shadow rising in the sky spectacularly punctuating our failure.
We return to Felix’s house, a modest thatched roof hut, and are greeted by his four excited children who quickly relieve us of the few panels of honeycomb we pilfered from the hive. They don’t ask about the empty wooden bee box.
I accept the invitation to eat dinner with the family out of courtesy, but I have a hard time looking his very pregnant wife, María, in the eyes. Felix could pick another way to provide for his family instead of spending long days failing to capture bee colonies.
His faith in me and the whole dubious enterprise of beekeeping as a significant revenue stream seems misplaced or imprudent. But Felix remains undeterred.
Eventually we learn the trick for finding the queen: Instead of focusing on individual bees, we must watch the whole colony. The tens of thousands of worker bees behave differently near the queen, creating a discernable order in what seems like total chaos.
Felix and I spend almost every day together for several months, laboring to increase his stock of beehives. Before long, he has a dozen hives on his tiny plot of land, a mostly unfarmable two hectares of marsh, full of cattails and scrub brush. Even when we aren’t beekeeping, I continue to spend my days with Felix, and he welcomes me.
In conversations I am often struck by the gulf between us. One day I find myself talking with Felix about his plans for the family, and he confesses that he knows nothing about human sexuality—despite his growing family. It puzzles Felix that people would do anything to impede pregnancy.
“Kids are a blessing, Pedro,” he says matter-of-factly.
I try to explain the economics of children, something that I think he ought to easily understand. He is unconvinced.
“Why don’t you want a wife and kids, Pedro?”
I use a term that has become a refrain in our conversations.
“Es complicado, Felix,” I say. It’s complicated.
Our conversations range from the daily minutiae to our dreams, fears, loves, and losses. When I spend time with Felix, I forget how lonely and homesick I am—even though I often find I have a hard time explaining myself to him.
Why don’t you find a Paraguayan girlfriend, Pedro? Es complicado. Why you are not content, Pedro? Es complicado. Do you believe in God, Pedro? Es complicado.
Es complicado is an insufficient response on the night that Felix’s oldest, Teresa, rouses me from sleep. I run with Teresa through the sultry night to her house, and find a sweet, fat newborn baby and an exhausted mother sleeping in bed. Felix, teary-eyed, brings the girl to me and shows me the baby’s feet. They’re clubbed.
Es complicado is trite. That night, looking at that tiny crippled baby in my friend’s arms, I realize it has always been.
A Personal Relationship
Once a month I journey to the municipal seat where a bank provides me with my means of survival, a $100-per-month Peace Corps sueldo. The journey takes four hours by bus on a rutted dirt road.
San Juan is a sleepy city where it is not uncommon to see cattle grazing in the public squares. The whole trip would hardly seem worth the effort except that an American missionary family resides there, and the patriarch, Brad Word, is known to be generous with his stockpiles of American cereal and peanut butter. All the Peace Corps volunteers know about Brad, and we debate whether it’s worth enduring Brad’s unique form of evangelism in order to enjoy the coveted American foods.
A big Okie with a freckled, bald head and piercing blue eyes, Brad’s proselytization style is intense and dramatic, focusing mainly on the eschatological horrors that await us. He graduated from Moody Bible Institute but has lived in San Juan for over a decade and has a throng of blond children who speak Guaraní like the natives. As a tactic to shut down Brad’s evangelism, I tell him I am Jewish, which is technically true because my mother is Jewish. If I were honest, though, I would tell him I don’t believe anything.
I am surprised to find that Brad thinks being Jewish is a good thing. He assures me that my people have a specific role in the apocalypse. I find his diatribes amusing and not at all unpleasant enough to give up the occasional opportunity to eat his tasty American foods. When I have eaten my fill, he foists poorly written evangelical screeds upon me, which I accept only because I know my appetite for Frosted Flakes and Rice Krispies will return.
My evenings in San Juan are spent in a dumpy local inn where the proprietor’s daughters flirt with me.
I am half-drunk in the lobby of Ña Mirta when I lose myself reading A. W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God, one of those evangelical “screeds” Brad gave me. “In this hour of all-but-universal darkness, one cheering gleam appears,” writes Tozer. This line immediately appeals to the world-weary, jaded sensibilities that I had meticulously cultivated during my four years at NYU. Finally, I think to myself, here is an evangelist who sees the world the way I do.
Most astonishingly, Tozer describes the nature of my lack of faith with intimate detail. He calls it “inferential” faith. “To most people, God is an inference, not a reality,” Tozer writes. “He is a deduction from evidence which they consider adequate; but he remains personally unknown to the individual.”
I have always fancied my skepticism as something tempered by the intense fires of university classes led by some of the world’s finest modern philosophers. Yet, here Tozer describes my skepticism with such deftness that, for the first time in my life, I cannot help but see it as superficial.
Tozer encourages the reader to take a broader view of the Divine. The God of the Bible is a Person, knowable not through inference, but through relationship:
“The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of his world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of his Word. We have almost forgotten that God is a Person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can.”
I finish the book in one sitting. I have never read anything quite like it—part exhortation, part achingly intimate invocation—prose flowing seamlessly into metered verse, reveling in mystery and mysticism.
I realize with sudden clarity why Éden continues to have such a hard time accepting my sanitized view of Paraguayan myths. While I had long suspected the goblins were personifications of the baser passions, I had never before considered what it means to Éden that we can be in relationship with them—even if the relationship is as simple as leaving a tribute of whiskey at night.
As in all relationships, there is some give and take, implying personal freedom. In the face of powerful forces—whether a sovereign God or the mysterious passions of the heart—the fact that human beings remain free to choose our own path, free to choose the nature of our relationship with these powerful forces, suggests that all of creation is infused with a certain moral character.
Instead of insisting that the stories are not true, I should be asking Éden what he thinks the stories mean.
And, perhaps a more important question: What does the Person of God mean to me?
The rest of the night I lie awake in my stuffy motel room, unsure how to respond to this invitation. I cannot articulate the nature of the hunger Tozer ignited in me, but one line sticks with me: Self is the opaque veil that hides the face of God from us.
I begin reading anything I can get my hands on that speaks to the idea of a mysterious, hidden spiritual and moral signature infused in all creation. I read the entire Bible cover to cover, the Bhagavad-Gita, an English translation of the Qur’an, the complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet Rumi. I write long treatises in a leather-bound journal on subjects like the “over-soul” and “transcendence.”
I find myself returning to the literature with Christian symbols, themes, motifs. Maybe this is because all the books I enjoyed in my university classes suddenly seem much deeper and richer. My favorite scenes from Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Faulkner—and even some of my favorite movies and music—are imbued with a transcendent quality that I now grasp as I recognize the biblical allusions I had missed. For the first time, I appreciate that I grew up surrounded by artifacts of Judeo-Christian culture.
Soon, imagining the Person of God gives me comfort. When I am alone in my hut at night it calms me to think that I might be in the company of a God who lived as a human—with the capacity to empathize with my fickle and sometimes overwhelming emotions.
I become fond of the English-language program I’ve found on my shortwave radio. Every morning a station billing itself as “The Voice of the Andes” brings me a sermon from Chuck Swindoll, whose down-to-earth stories illuminate this God-saturated world that I am just starting to see. I listen to Swindoll one innocuous day and realize that I am a Christian. It is not anything in particular that he says as much as it is the fact that I am beginning to see the world like he does: a place infused with the mark of the Holy Spirit, saved by the divine Person of Jesus, created for and by God.
Plants and Prayer
I make friends with another Peace Corps volunteer, Daniel, a farm boy from Iowa who is the only person willing to talk about the strange ideas that have captivated me. Daniel participated in Nevada’s Burning Man festival several times while he was in college and says it may be the most important thing he has ever done in his life. He thinks I ought to consider consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms, which are plentiful in rural Paraguayan communities. They’ll help me plumb the great mysteries of my life, he argues.
I am with Felix when I carefully pluck a small cluster of hallucinogenic mushrooms from the top of an old cow patty, where Daniel told me to look.
“Why do you gather those?” Felix asks.
I tell him. Felix stops in his tracks.
“Pedro, those are drogas!” he says.
“They aren’t drogas; they’re medicina—they’ll help me see things differently, maybe better,” I insist. I use the term I learned from Daniel—psilocybin—because I think it sounds more clinical, more scientific.
“Pedro, do you know why they call me Felix Tavy?” he asks, exasperated. “They call me Crazy Felix because I went crazy for a while. My woman left me to go back and live with her parents and took Teresa.”
Felix’s gentle green eyes are glassy, tears running down his craggy face. I don’t know what to say so I put my hand on his shoulder and look away.
“Pedro, I used to see things that are not real—like with those mushrooms—and it is the devil. I am just a poor farmer and have not read many books like you, but I know this. It is only thanks to God that I regained my sanity. Please, Pedro, don’t take it.”
I drop the mushrooms in the dirt.
“Thank you, Pedro,” Felix says, wiping his face.
I feel awful and try to think of something to say that will make me sound slightly less like a spoiled American, ungrateful for his own health and sanity.
“I read something,” I tell Felix finally, trying my best to translate my favorite line from Tozer. “ ‘Self is the opaque veil that hides the face of God from us.’ I guess I thought the mushrooms might help remove the veil, you know?”
“You want to know God, Pedro?” Felix asks.
I nod, realizing suddenly the source of the longing I feel, a hunger for relationship with God.
“Let me tell you how to pray,” Felix says.
He tells me how he talks to God when he is alone in the jungle. He tells me that sometimes God replies and, for reasons I couldn’t begin to articulate, I believe him. His prayers are at once conversational and reverential. He says that faith isn’t actually knowing anything about God; it is about acting a certain way. He compares faith to a garden.
“I plant seeds,” he explains. “I do not know if something will grow. That is faith.”
Locating the Queen Bee
Looming ominously in front of us is Hospital Central del IPS, a huge medical complex composed of uniform cinderblock buildings in Paraguay’s capital city of Asunción.
“This is where I will stay,” I say to Felix and María, pointing at a café across the street from the hospital. Felix’s wife is visibly pregnant again and the happy, fat little baby with clubbed feet, who I call bebe’i, sits snugly on mommy’s hip.
Felix nods and stuffs his big bare feet into the knockoff Nike tennis shoes we bought a few hours earlier. He hates wearing shoes, but knows they’re required for most places in the capital. He and his wife look apprehensively at the enormous building across from us.
“This is just a preliminary visit,” I try to reassure them. “Remember what they said at the Ministry of Health.”
Felix nods again, and he and María set off toward the hospital. I watch as the two figures walk through the automatic doors and are swallowed by the darkness of the lobby.
I find a seat at the café, overcome with a sense of anxiety and sadness. My Peace Corps service will conclude next month, and despite repeated trips to the capital—first to a series of doctors’ offices and then to some manufacturers of leg braces—we still haven’t settled on a solution for sweet little bebe’i.
Several months earlier, a Mennonite told me that my Anglo complexion would prove a liability to my friends if I accompanied them on their medical visits.
“Your skin and hair,” he said, pointing at me. “They will know you are American and insist on exorbitant prices for the medical procedures that are supposed to be covered by the state.”
I took the advice, but here I was, a month from the end of my Peace Corps service, and we continued to be lost in what seemed like an endless series of visits to various government-sponsored medical facilities. Surgery was required, the doctors had decided, which pushed us into some sort of Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare of endless appointments that never seemed to result in an actual surgery.
Meanwhile bebe’i grew bigger and fatter, and even began scooting about in the dirt because she could not use her feet to walk. It broke my heart.
Some hero I turned out to be. A waitress comes to my table and asks what I’d like. I plan to drink Pilsen until I feel something different from the sadness that is making it hard for me to breathe.
The waitress nods and disappears into a back room. I am all alone, staring at the monolithic concrete edifice across the street that has swallowed my friend, his wife, and their beautiful baby. My eyes become glassy and the building blurs into a pattern of uniform shapes.
My distorted vision reminds me of the way Felix and I first found the queen bee. Eyes unfocused, looking for patterns, searching for the order in what presents itself as chaos.
The waitress brings me the beer and I pretend something is in my eye while she pours it into a jar. It is an insufferably hot day and small beads of condensation gather on the glass, refracting the light from the sun. Then, as if carried by a soothing breeze, a peace that surpasses all understanding washes over me. I am not alone. Not now. Not ever. God is a Person and can be cultivated as such. A Person like that queen bee, the center of order in a mad world. I just need to remember to take a broader view should I wish to find him.
Peter Johnson works at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is married to Ashley and has three children, only eight fewer progeny than Felix now has.
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