Review of Jeanne Gassman’s “Blood of a Stone”

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In my post-religion days, having been a very happy agnostic (haunted by healing from scrupulosity) now for four years and counting, the greatest, single blessing of my fourth year as an agnostic is that I can freely enjoy the best elements or features of the Jesus story with a peaceful, guilt-free mind. Just in my near past, the mention of Jesus would often sent me into bouts of extreme anxiety because the very mention of anything in relation to Christianity often made me extremely nervous. I’ve lived through many bewildering nights of some downright scary hell nightmares, probably fifteen years to be exact. Many people can do religion, and I have nothing but the deepest respect for many of this people in my life, but I have been silently convalescing from my self-inflicted phase of scary scrupulosity. It is really hard and tough to articulate this part of my life because just the mention of it is extremely controversial, and divisive to others. We live in a time that is very polarized, with how we view religion, and it has made serious works of religious-themed literature, or books dealing with interesting subjects from religion very hard to be published.

As an agnostic, I actually found healing from the more progressive, sane, and intellectual voices of Christianity, a religion that thankfully does have a lot of diversity in its beliefs. It was Madeleine L’Engle that helped me to forgive the past, and move onwards. It was her book Wrinkle in Time that made me feel ultimately safe for having free-roaming, inquisitive mind that has trouble conceptualizing anything as permanent beliefs. Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord book was the first book that helped aid me in getting over my Jesus phobia. I still have trouble going anywhere near most churches, but I have slowly healed to the point where I can go to certain churches,without fearing that there will be a sermon about hell that will usher me into a cloud of extreme sadness and excruciating anger. I go as an agnostic that enjoys the ritual, the quietude, the solace within the ritualized beauty. Those are the things that I have imbibed from Madeleine L’Engle’s books, or Anne Rice’s novels, and now I can safely add Jeanne Gassman’s phenomenal, emotionally-powerful book, Blood of a Stone to this growing library of writers that take themes of redemption, spiritual depth,  forgiveness, and love seriously enough to allow their works to powerfully evoke these themes.

Now I know many are wondering how the last two paragraphs of this review hold any relevance whatsoever to what I’m writing, but the journey of the main character of this story Demetrios was really illustrative of my own experience with scrupulosity. It was hard and sometimes terribly difficult to read at points. At one point in the story, the story’s dynamic hero has horrifying, surreal nightmares, indicating to him things to which he must commit that go against his own inherent morals. This is of course, relating to the way that Demetrios feels tempted, by a misconstruction of different fragmented messages from the Pagan Gods that he worships, that they are insisting that he be the one to kill Jesus, for Jesus has discovered the secret of the fact that this character was the one chiefly responsible for killing his imperious, drunken, cruel Roman slavemaster, who was a rich patrician, living in the territory where Israel was at that time (I may be mistake with this, as I sometimes have trouble remembering specific places when reading novels, as much as I forget specific character names).

I’m getting a bit distracted from my main point, but the single greatest thing I gleaned from this ultimately powerful, enrapturing story was the sorrowful ghosts of vengeance, grave neuroticism that our minds can wreak, in a psyche devoid entirely of the chance and opportunity of redemption and forgiveness. For me, that was a pathological Christianity that was obsessed with a punitive God, a hell concept, a God that was a power-hungry, meta-Hitler of sorts. For Demetrios, his own unresolved guilt over the murder of his roman slavemaster, and the incessant paranoia that haunts him throughout the tale was emblematic of my own 25 year and counting struggle with scrupulosity.

When religion is done poorly and is leeched of any real, fulfilling messages of forgiveness,  it can be psychologically destructive, as Demetrios’s Pagan faith became characterized by his own internal turmoil, and those psychologically predisposed to an obsessive pathology, as in the case of OCD, can find themselves using any religion as a literal opiate, no different from alcohol. Our spirituality can become deranged or poisoned by the moral focus, or lack thereof. The negligence of many strains of Christianity about the Golden Rule, about the empowering message of forgiveness, and more of a pestilent focus on the invisible sins of others, or the inherited/inborn sins has done quite a devastating not just to many following that poor form of religion, but also does a grave disservice to the Jesus story.

The Jesus story, as illustrated by Jeanne Gassman’s book, about a Pagan main character, directly experiencing the latter events of the Jesus story, while dealing with the chaos of his own internalized psychological world. The ensuing chaos that factors in both the external events of the story, and internal events of Demetrios’ mind helps paints this story with sharp emotional realism and resonance. Rather than focus on any moral polemic or didactic dogma, Blood of a Stone is more of true subtly told story, woven expertly through the art of emotionally-empowering, deep writing that probes the human psyche, and really addresses some very serious moral issues, without ever devolving into a cheap diatribe or sermon of any kind.

Incorporating the enigma of Jesus into your story can easily be something that becomes derailed by a loss of focus, or a propagandic agenda, that tends to skimp on the allegorical and numinous power of the Jesus story. This is a story that holds great value for many people because it a story that speaks to our greatest fears that life intrinsically has neither value nor chances of redemption. It’s quite easy to lose track of just how the Jesus story affects people, in that it’s the emotional power of the tale and what it says about the human experience, in allegorical terms, that really enthralls us. Most people could care less about the dry theology, or the empirical proof behind his existence, because the very reality of the story itself and the dramatic effect that is has had on the souls and mind of people is a much more tangible, interesting facet of it.

Yesterday, author Anne Rice left a comment on her status, echoing my own feelings about the Jesus story, in a world obsessed with theological correctness. The artists, or those with a proclivity to go into the wilderness and be alone to ponder their own spiritual beliefs probably relate to Anne a lot, in a world that can be extremely exhausting for the artist or mystic. We feel a much different type of emotional frisson from the Jesus story, than those just fretting over its empirical value or theological correctness.

“I think at this point I don’t care. I’ve researched the topic for most of my life, and when it comes down to whether Jesus existed or not, for me that’s beside the point. I know that sounds strange perhaps, but I don’t much care. The concept is what has always intrigued me and drawn me — of God incarnating amongst us. Whether it actually happened? I honestly don’t know. But I believe in God and God Incarnate. Just don’t have a lengthy theology to explain it at this point. There are times when theology doesn’t seem to matter.”
(Taken from Anne Rice’s recent Facebook Status)

It’s become very tough to have sincere discussions about spirituality, especially for the creative, inquisitive person, or even the introvert, the wanderer. Demetrios in this story is all these things, he is a very introspective character, given over to lucid dreams that reenact his subconscious fears ,and his interest in the way these dreams that sometimes carry omens about terrible/apocalyptic possibilities  can easily lead him astray, much like my own Scrupulosity made me lose focus on what is important. If your spirituality or religion lacks emotional catharsis, room for mystery, paradox, love, and forgiveness, if you are allowing the emotional blackmail tactics of a darker, more sinister form of religious extremism to darken the skies of your spiritual outlook, and make it more neurotic, you have entirely lost focus on what is important. You have forgotten how to love and empathize with others around you; you have cloistered yourself to the self-created demons of deep-rooted fear and paranoia, caused by an unwillingness for forgiving yourself, and accepting your own limitations. Demetrios has to undertake this journey of self-acceptance and forgiveness, before he can leave, once more, to open his hearts to others.

For me, my greatest reflection on my own spiritual journey, which continues, is just to stop trying to seek or become obsessed with absolutist claims and answers for things of which you know nothing about. Certainty is overrated, and can be destructive for the artistic thinker. Learning to embrace the daily mysteries of our lives, and above all, seeking forgiveness for our own flaws and grave errors, and thus moving forward is the greatest lesson for Demetrios.

In a world obsessed with absolutism and impossible, dogmatic certainty, it is hard to lose focus on what truly makes the Jesus story riveting to not just Christians, but to people of all faith persuasions and ideologies. As an agnostic, I can safely say that I can once again find the beauty in the Jesus story, without all the self-loathing of my fundamentalist past. For others, it is about making peace with where we are on our spiritual sojourn, and focusing on what can be controlled, like our willingness to love and forgive our transgressions, and even the transgressions of others.

As Easter approaches, I highly recommend this story to the spiritual sojourner like myself, anyone that does not know where they fit in the overstimulated world of religion. It can tiring, exhausting, disillusioning. All that inane chattering about what to believe, in order to safeguard one’s own individual salvation. But sometimes it takes s story that focuses on deeper magic, something far more powerful, and impacting than abstruse dogma, something that makes us not lose focus on who we are, the people in our lives, and the important faculty we have at all times to keep us spiritual afloat, which is our ability to empathize deeply and dangerously with others around us.

There are a cast of many stabilizing forces for Demetrios, and it is these characters or personalities that exude a certain degree of unconditional love and acceptance, from whom anyone in a torpor state of neuroticism/self-loathing, can seek out to anchor them. Early on, Elazar, the Jewish slave, becomes that stabilizing force for Demetrios, showing him the beauty found in his religious rituals, but it is really Rufus, who does not have a clear religious status, who truly shows the simple truth of enduring love, compassion, forbearance that the human soul at peace with one’s own self can find. Rufus is the character you cannot help but empathize with because he is that one person we cannot imagine life without because they are living reminders that living out a life of compassion,self-acceptance, and forbearance brings healing to not only yourself, but others around you. It is a peace that can be found in the here and now, within our own lives, if we decide that it’s time to just let it go, as a certain character in Disney’s Frozen famously sings.

Much like the scrupulosity-sufferers of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s psychological short stories learn to forgive, and rejoin their families and communities, Karen Armstrong (one of my absolute favorite religious scholars) reminds us all of the true focus/mission of good religion and spirituality. This is something that Demetrios, at the end of the story, is left with, after being so enamored and obsessed with a darker approach to religion. He recognizes the admirable personality of someone that has found self-acceptance of who they are, and is able then to have a mind that can tap thus into the deeper magic of empathy and moral clarity.

“If all religious life is reduced to getting into heaven, and all your good deeds are about getting up there, as it was for me as a child, this is no more religious than paying into a retirement annuity. Heaven is supposed to be about the loss of ego, not about preoccupation with its eternal survival in optimum conditions.Also, if we do not experience a bit of the eternal now by hard, dedicated practice, it’s no good thinking we’ll get anything like that after we die.

(Karen Armstrong)

With only one life, the true unforgivable sin is letting it be wasted away by nihilism, neuroticism, or just general insularized dogma obsessions. If you never learn to heal from your vengeance, your anger, your grief over something, you have effectively forgotten how to live entirely, and Jesus’ one forgotten mission by many is reminding people to ultimately remember how to enhance life around you. This is a message for everyone, and it is the reason I think anyone that enjoys powerful storytelling that will move you, and reduce you to tears at times should really read my favorite read thus far of 2015: Blood of a Stone. Jeanne Gassman follows in Madeleine L’Engle’s footsteps, in creating an edifying religious/spiritual themed tale that works alchemical magic on the reader!

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