Called by Joan Thomas
An original essay by the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award winner for fiction
I grew up in the End Times, when the world was ephemeral but my soul was eternal. All around, we saw signs that the apocalypse was near: In the dust and grasshoppers and cracks in the dry earth (it was a prairie drought), in wars and rumours of wars, in Elvis gyrating his hips, in teenagers making out in cars. Any day now, Christ would say, "I've had enough," and would hover in the clouds in a white robe, snatching up his own. They'd vanish without a trace, leaving the unsaved to be ruled by Satan. And then the Battle of Armageddon where horses waded up to their bellies in blood, and earth melted away, and all of us wretched left-behinders were thrown into the lake of fire.
They were good people but their goodness would not save them.
In our little country church, sunset lay rosy on the windows. The church had been built beside a marsh, and a chorus of frog song accompanied the minister's hoarse voice.
Maybe the adults sitting silently in rows understood metaphor. I, on the other hand, would momentarily lose my mother in a store, and my heart would bang with the hideous realization that on an ordinary Monday morning, shopping for oatmeal and baking powder, she had been "raptured," leaving me behind, the door to heaven closed for ever. My mother seized on my anguish. She was fiercely energetic and devout, and she had God as her enforcer; he had organized the cosmos to back her up. At 7, 8, 9 and possibly 10 and 11, I took it all in: sin, hell, the devil, the apocalypse, eternal tortures. Eventually I said the magic prayer. I was born again and I sank into trying to prove it, spreading the word, warning others.
Everyone who did not believe as we believed was doomed to be left behind. This included our kindly neighbour who grew gladiolas and came over with an armful for my mother. It included the mechanic at my dad's garage, lying on his back in the guts of a truck and wisecracking as I ran past on my way to school. They were good people but their goodness would not save them. It included an old woman distantly related to us, who languished in the senior's home with no one to visit her. So I did, I took her a jar of crocuses and sat by her narrow bed, trying to find the words to warn her about the hell that lay ahead. Although honestly, in that cramped, stinking, falling-down lodge where ragged old voices called out their sorrow in dim rooms, I think she was already there.
I went to see her every week for a long time. I don't remember what I said. What did it matter? The crust of her years encased her, nothing went in. One day when I arrived, her teeth had been taken out and her face had collapsed and she lay a terrifyingly husk on the bed, breathing like someone under water. I bolted back down the stairs. She died soon after, and then when I rode my bike past the seniors' home, the whole street thrummed with my failure.
An evangelist visited our church and tried to cajole the adults to go door to door in town with him, sharing the gospel. No one was up for it but me. I began to grasp that in my mission to be the best Christian ever, I was an outlier. The nice people in our church, prairie farmers most of them, went about their daily lives as if none of these horrors were real. Even my mother, for all her zeal. They might say they believed in the apocalypse and the lake of fire, but really, what they cared about most was fitting in with their neighbours.
So you could live the sort of double life they lived, or you could give up on the whole thing. Thus my belief collapsed into rubble. Was I just the victim of emotional manipulation? No. Not entirely. My poised older sister and my sweet-natured younger sister steered a cool course through the drama, keeping their heads down, complying just enough not to attract attention. It was me. Something in me made me willing to stand apart, like a bearded prophet with a REPENT OR PERISH sign. Something in me relished the thought of going up to people and saying, "Listen to me, something terrible is about to happen, and I can save you."
I began to grasp that in my mission to be the best Christian ever, I was an outlier.
This is all a long time ago—those scenes are like tiny dioramas in the long dark hallway of my memory. I've spent my adult life dusting brimstone and ashes off my shoulders, trying instead to fully inhabit this world, to see what is lovely and sacred in it— sunlight through the scarlet vines climbing our porch, the beauty and economy of a speckled egg.
But if you find your solace in nature, these are painful times. So zoom ahead to 2019, to September, when a Scandinavian teenager with long braids sails across the Atlantic and addresses the United Nations in New York. How dare you! she cries. She is staring down not just the global catastrophe that lies ahead, but humanity's collective denial of it. These are the end times, she's crying. The apocalypse is coming and we're slumbering towards it. Repent or perish.
I sit in my living room in Winnipeg and watch her on the TV news. Her face is full of naked rage, I can't look away. A cool fall evening, and I'm in front of a gas fire, clutching a mug of tea, perversely prepared by my childhood for this moment in time. I know Greta Thunberg. I know her sense of calling, the way it fills her, molten and heavy like lava. And I'm shaken by the fundamental difference between her and the child I was. I was mistaken in my mission, but Greta Thunberg is right.
About Joan Thomas
Joan Thomas is the author of Five Wives, the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award-winning novel inspired by a group of evangelical American missionaries killed when they tried to converted an un-contacted group of people in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Thomas's novel imagines the lives of their wives and children, left behind in the aftermath.
She is also the author of three previous novels: Read by Lightning, Curiosity and The Opening Sky.
- Why Joan Thomas wrote about the wives of missionaries killed trying to convert Ecuador's Waorani people