Raised in the Catholic Church, William Elliott's faith was shattered at the age of twelve when both his parents died. Many years later, he embarked on a journey to find answers to the questions that continued to haunt him-What is the purpose of life? Does God exist? What happens after death? His travels resulted in Tying Rocks to Clouds, an engaging narrative about the renewal of faith he achieved through the simple act of presenting his questions to a broad spectrum of thinkers and spiritual leaders. The review in Publishers Weekly summed it up this way: "This invaluable record deserves to be a bestseller, not only for its inherent wisdom but also for its clarity and respect for the many ways there are to be and to believe."
A Place at the Table is an account of Elliott's latest pilgrimage, and like its predecessor, it is a magical blend of humor and idealism. Triggered by the memory of praying for his dying mother beneath an ornately framed painting of The Last Supper in their living room, Elliott set out to discover the role Jesus plays in people's lives. Over the course of several years, he interviewed such spiritual teachers and icons as Deepak Chopra, Neale Donald Walsch, Marianne Williamson, and Billy Graham. He went to Jerusalem to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and even conceived of a bold (if ultimately unsuccessful ) plan to meet with Pope JohnPaul II in Rome. Each encounter illuminates another facet of Jesus' teachings, but it is Elliott's wry and sincere commentary on his own spiritual journey that reveals the most insight.
A Place at the Table is at once down to earth and rich in spirit. The story of one man's persistent search for answers, it provides invaluable guideposts for everyone seeking to understand Jesus' centrality in Western civilization and the meaning of Christianity in today's world.
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Do you remember the day your parents' world died in you, and the day you began making your own life?
For me, it was twenty-seven years ago, I was twelve years old and three things stand out in my mind. I remember the quiet, I remember my breathing, and I remember my praying hands upon her head as she died.
We had been watching television when my mother passed out. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed the phone.
"Billy," her weak voice called out, "come here."
I dropped the phone and ran back to her.
"Help me into the living room," she said softly.
I helped her stand up, and supported her as we walked into the living room.
"There . . ." she said, pointing to the couch.
We almost didn't make it because with each step, she got weaker and her body got heavier. My arms held her as she slumped onto the couch and I cushioned her fall. I laid her head gently on the pillow and stood back. Above her, a painting of The Last Supper hung on the wall. It was huge, four feet across, and three feet high with a frame that was thick, carved, and painted gold. My mother's favorite painting seemed to be looking down at us and bearing witness.
In the painting, Jesus stood in the center of the twelve apostles. He held a chalice high above his head.
He was praying.
I looked down at my mother and realized she was dying. I placed my hands on her head.
I started praying.
I remembered the miracles of Jesus. I believed in miracles. I actually thought I had a good shot at one because my father had died six months before, my mother was a good Christian, and Iwas an altar boy. If I wasn't due a miracle, who was?
I put every ounce of soul I had into bringing her back to life.
My mother died.
I was just a kid then and home alone with my mother. When my father died, I came through it okay because I never talked to him much anyway. The only thing I remembered about him was that he spent the evenings in front of the fireplace with one foot up on the ledge, poking and prodding the glowing embers with a blackened, ashen poker.
I didn't live in his world--instead, I lived in the world of my mother. She was a Christian who went to church every morning, and often took me with her. She taught me that God was my friend, and like I said, that world died twenty-seven years ago under a painting of The Last Supper.
A few days later, when I asked the parish priest why my parents had to die, he replied, "It was God's will."
The day we buried my mother, my family gave the picture of The Last Supper to my mother's best friend.
Twenty-seven years later, I met with my editor at Doubleday. We went for a walk in the park and I handed him my first novel. I was excited and eagerly awaited his reaction, but without looking at it, he suggested a different book, a book about Jesus. He didn't look at me when he made that suggestion, instead he looked at the scenery while we walked. I'm glad he didn't see my face, because he would have seen my "crazy Elliott face." My brother, a Chicago cop like my father, was on the force for thirty-six years. He's been punched, shot, and stabbed. Whenever I tell my brother something he doesn't like, his jaw tightens, his eyes bulge and then roll around in their sockets. I call it "the crazy Elliott face."
If my editor had looked at me when he suggested the Jesus book, he would have seen my eyes roll around in my head just like my brother's. For a moment, I was angry, perhaps a little crazy. But then I thought about Jesus, and remembered how he had turned over the tables in the Temple. He was angry that day, a little crazy, and the world was never the same. Who knows, maybe his eyes even bulged out a little, and I'm sure his disciples probably knew that look and got out of his way whenever they saw it. I took a deep breath and thought about it. A book about Jesus? Wouldn't that be a book about Christianity?
I tossed the idea into the well of my soul and waited. Not a sound. Not a splash. Not a single ripple. That told me that my soul had no interest in writing a book about Christianity. Because for me, writing is soul work. It comes from the heart, and more than the heart, it comes from the guts. It takes everything I've got and more to write a book. It's attrition. It's war. It's love. It's an endeavor that I can only finish if I have soul on my side and passion in my heart.
You see, Christianity had become irrelevant in my life. It had failed me twenty-seven years ago when my parents died. And now, when my editor suggested I write a book about Jesus, something in me felt like the way that fire must have felt when my father poked and prodded it. Irritated. Enraged. Glowing.
Yet, at the same time, I felt nothing. I felt like the ashes my father had swept aside. Spent. Burnt up. Lifeless.
No, I thought. I wanted nothing to do with this book.
When I was a kid, I got up early on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons. I always made two stops on my way to the television.
First, I stopped in the kitchen and grabbed a turkey baster. Then I went to the back door and grabbed a quart of chocolate milk, which was delivered every Saturday morning by the milkman. I spent the rest of the morning happily rocking in my chair and watching cartoons. Every ten rocks or so, I'd squirt a turkey baster full of chocolate milk into my mouth. That was heaven--rocking, squirting, and watching.
The fireplace was next to the television, and one morning, I got up even before the sun came up. In the morning's darkness, I was surprised to see that a single ember still burned in the center of the fireplace.
Twenty-seven years later, I awoke before dawn with images from a dream still in my head: a dream about different blocks that moved and switched places with each other. On each block was a phrase about Jesus, and they were trying to fit together. Daybreak slowly revealed to me what I already knew. I had to write the Jesus book.
"You Elliotts are all the same," my sister-in-law had once said. "You get an idea in your head and you can't let it go."
Now, she's not always right about everything but she was right about this. I realized I was compelled, as though something or someone poked and prodded at me from within until I agreed. On that day, I caught a glimpse of my torturer--a single, smoldering ember from some long ago fire. As I breathed life into it--it glowed ever brighter until the anger came, and as the anger grew it threatened to destroy everything in its path. For a moment, and longer than a moment I might add, I wanted to destroy everything about Christianity because twenty-seven years ago it had failed me so badly that I had to stop being a kid like other kids and instead go on a long and painfully confusing journey that brought me to the brink of suicide and death.
Eighteen years ago, at the age of twenty-one I had had enough of life. I now realize that I didn't really want to die, it's just that I didn't want to live the way I was living. I didn't know why I hated and loathed myself so much--but I did, and after months of trying to erase the self-hate through smoking pot, watching television, and trying on every other distraction I could find--the answer became obvious. It was time to die.
Each night, over a period of months, I prayed for God to kill me. As soon as my head hit the pillow, my prayer began.
"Please, God . . ." I pleaded, "I know I'm only twenty-one years old--but I'm tired. I've had and seen enough of this life. Please let me die. Please!"
But no matter how much I prayed, no matter how much I cried out during my nightly torture and no matter how much I begged God to kill me--my prayers were never answered. What kind of God was this? When I prayed for a happy life--I was denied. Now when I prayed for death--I was denied again. What did God want from me? Why was I left in this hell--this place that was neither alive, nor dead?
Since God wasn't killing me fast enough, I decided to kill myself. I had discovered that there was something in me that felt tight as though it were grasping on to life. Maybe if I could just let go of this holding that would be enough to sever the cord that kept me attached to life? Thus my nightly attempts at ending my life began.
I would start by lying in bed and imagining myself as a corpse. Then I would let go of my connection to my life systematically by letting go of my body, my emotions, and my thoughts. I thought that if I could just disconnect from those three things, then perhaps my breathing would simply stop and I would die. This detachment was made even easier when I saw how I had suffered because of possessing those three things.
I had that fantasy many times, and then one night I went deeper--actually "I" shouldn't say I did it--it just happened. I went deeper than my body, my emotions, my thoughts, and I found myself in a place where I was immersed in God. Immediately, I realized that God had always been with me, though I hadn't been aware of it. My experience was like one of those comic strips where the characters are playing hide-and-go seek. In the first picture there's someone hiding in a dark closet and the person thinks he or she is alone and all you see is one set of eyes in the dark. Then in the next picture you see another set of eyes in the dark with the individual and the person realizes he or she is not alone in the dark. That's how it felt when I realized I wasn't alone--and actually had never been alone. I was filled with the knowledge that without a doubt, God had loved me, and had loved all of us, since the beginning--and even before the beginning, and throughout our lives. Since I was faced with--and experienced--the all-encompassing love of God, I just had to ask the most natural of questions.
"Why the hell are you screwing me over in life?"
The answer came back to me--not in words but in a conveyed feeling--"If you sincerely try, we will show you."
After that experience of God's presence, my whole life changed. Looking back on it--the term "born again" could have applied because I was starting over from a place of spirit. I still had all the same fears, thoughts, emotions, and depression that I'd had before, but now whenever I encountered them--I would take a deep breath and remember God's presence and that I was loved. Then I'd walk through the fear and realize that that fear had been a creation of my own mind.
Most important, I had experienced that I, along with all human beings are born from a place of love--and we are born into a world accompanied by love--not abandoned. I now understood the meaning of the Gospel of John's words that the true Light had "lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9, King James Version).
Whereas before I had been living my life from a place of feeling forsaken (and thus I had experienced Jesus' words "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"--which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [Mark 15:34, NIV]), I could now start anew, knowing I had been conceived and always lived in the midst of love, not fear. In meaning, not meaninglessness. In the presence of Spirit, and not abandoned or forsaken.
I spent many years after that traveling and trying to understand what I had experienced. Gradually I found a deeper peace, wisdom, and relationship with God--but not through Christianity--through other religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism, and also through psychology and psychotherapy.
So when my soul finally decided to pick up a pen and begin this book, my first inclination was to use the pen as a knife, cutting and ripping away all the faded and dusty fabric Christianity had at one time tried to comfort me with. But as I threw off the robes of my religion, I saw Jesus watching me off in the distance and his manner seemed to ask, "What have those robes to do with me?"
It was then that I realized that twenty-seven years ago, when my world died under a picture of The Last Supper, it was my understanding of Christianity that failed me--not Jesus--and between he and I stood a labyrinth of interpretation and teaching that was two thousand years in the making.
I had been told my whole life that Jesus was the ideal human being, and if this was true, then I wanted to know all of who he was, and not just what they wanted to tell me. Without being too paranoid, who were they anyway? Who were they who had interpreted Jesus' life for me? What mistakes had they made in their interpretations? What did they leave out? And what did they put in? Who was he? And what was his relationship to me?
In hindsight, I realized that Jesus had always been too much a part of me to ignore. I grew up with Jesus, and our lives were intertwined in the same way that a vine grows around a trellis. While I had often tried to ignore and reject my Christian roots as many people do, I couldn't really separate Jesus from who I am without injuring myself. That kind of rejection only leads to a resentment and anger that never die.
Thus, there was only one way to be free.
I am on a search to find the real Jesus, so that I can accept myself and forgive others. Jesus said, "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you."