Cult of Shadows by Jaime Mathis

No one ever called it a cult. It was too big for that. There were hospitals, schools, and industries covered in its name and this imparted a self-reflecting credibility. 

Occasionally, the word was uttered when a disenfranchised member would retreat into the wilderness, start recruiting people to their Extra-Right doctrine, and end in a fiery heap of bodies, but those were negligible. They were always explained to critics and children as being misguided and not representative of the whole. The line in the sand was then re-drawn.  Cults had to fight for their existence and live on compounds. The majority of us lived comfortably in single family set-ups and were just plain Right. We gorged on Truth every Saturday, both from the Bible and our prophetess, Ellen G. White. Cults expected extreme shows of loyalty to the cause to the exclusion of all else.  Our Great Right of Passage was to be a student missionary in a distant land, preferably one where you could easily lose your life or get featured in Mission Spotlight, an internally produced propaganda reel that showed in congregations around the world. Becoming an artist or performer was one step away from joining the malevolent forces that prowled in a circle around us, waiting for someone to stick a toe of song-writing or acting over the line so they could drag them off into a life of decadence and damnation.

Terry Harper appeared at church when I was about ten. I was in the middle of chemo then. His hair was a lion mane around his shoulders, fluffed on top in a respectable mullet. He had a full moustache and wore sweaters with black cuffs and collar which featured graphic patterns that were a maze of lightning flashes and Morse code. Terry spoke softly and would often stroke the corners of his moustache in a conversation. Several years back, Terry had illustrated a series of young adult readers about a girl living in Hood River during pioneer times, a cult version of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It had been wildly successful on the True Church circuit, and I had a complete dog-eared set— worn from many Sabbath afternoon reading sessions.

I imagined what it would be like to write a best-selling book that every member of the church would read. Would I tour campmeetings around the world and sign books at the Saturday night book sale at the ABC? I might even be asked to speak at the General Conference. All the lights and attention spun me into a cloud of intoxicating success. Blinded by the glory of celebrity and salvation, I would eventually hoist myself back over the keel to reality. I had nothing to compete with pioneer girls who lived on apple cider and prayer.

This was during my second round of chemotherapy. The first hadn’t killed off all the cancer and the last assault before a bone marrow transplant had just commenced. The entire cult rallied around the world in prayer, and I was anointed with olive oil in a circle of elders who entreated the Almighty on my behalf. I listened hard while they intoned Jehovah’s might, opening myself to feel a healing current ripple through my body. I pictured white light streaming down from heaven and burning through my body like winter fire pushing back the edge of darkness.

My back became stiff from anticipation. I began to open my eyes and peek at the faces endlessly repeating, “If it is THY will,” “Holy Spirit come,”, and “In Jesus’ Precious and Powerful Name.” There was a rhythm to their words, as though they all heard the same cadence and syncopated their pleas accordingly. Their pitch was monotone, sliding up a step when invoking Jesus, Oh Lord, or the Holy Spirit. I could almost weave a melody around their devotion, but I didn’t see any fire and I felt no rushing wind.

When I didn’t die and went into remission instead, countless members approached me and proclaimed that God had saved me for A Reason, though no one presumed to inform me what the Divine Plan was. The Seal of Ownership had been placed on my forehead and hands, I was earmarked for Greatness In God’s Service and potluck was waiting.

We did not associate with humans outside the faith unless we were on a Mission. Since missions only happened in languages we did not yet speak, our social network was the church.  In the hospital I met sick children of The World. They listened to rock music, wore makeup, and wished for things like meeting movie stars and eating hot dogs every day for a month. I feared them. I also watched them closely. They raged like demons and laughed as though Disneyland was free for life.

I never cried in front of anyone when I had cancer. Never when my mother was awake and never around Adventists. The forest or the middle of the night when the ward was sleeping were times for that, but quietly, and not more than a minute. It was either face pressed into a tree or the ground for loud crying, face to the sky for silent tears. The hospital was a slow gasp that I measured out in long, controlled breaths that tapered off at the end. Occasionally, control surrendered to a staccato inhalation and my mother or another patient would stir. I quickly lowered the shutters and crawled back into bed.

There was a stream that flowed through the canyon on our property, and it curved around a great Cedar tree that sat on a bluff above the water.  An old-growth Cedar stump stood next to the living tree and kept silent. I would sit atop it or stay down and place a hand on its decaying bark and listen to water fall. Hours passed under hypnosis; I hardly moved until the sun began to fall.  I was a soldier in the army of Truth; God was saving me, and there were so many faltering. My feet danced to the cadence of moving liquid, tucked under the long dresses we wore to church and the surface remained smooth.

Terry and I never had a conversation alone. I wouldn’t have known what to say. There was sadness in his face that sat primly at the edge of his eyes and gave his laugh a minor key. Just looking at him revealed my inner landscape, and I worried about being found out. He was an easy target with his sweaters and ephemeral gestures, an anomaly that no one could define but everyone wanted a crack at. I teased him about his long hair with the other children, asking if he was a girl or wanted to be one. Terry never took the bait; he became still and gazed at me—two lone wolves, looking for protection, hiding in someone else’s salvation. I was cannibalizing myself but I couldn’t stop; it was too dangerous. I was a bald-headed walking miracle with a big mouth and no real gratitude to show for it.

I don’t recall exactly when Terry stopped showing up at church, but he wasn’t there for life, I can tell you that. No one mentioned the absence. I overheard my parents and their friends talking about him years later during a Bible Study. Terry was homosexual and had struggled with it for years.  He was a man with a loaded gun being forced to play Russian roulette until he’d clicked through every chamber. Convinced that Adventism was the Right Way and with his proclivities in the open, he wouldn’t get work as a religious artist, and he’d never find true love without signing away eternal life. I have no idea what became of him, but I knew Terry had been screwed just by being born.

My parents gave me a journal for my 9th birthday. It had a lock on it that I hid the key to.  The lock was impossible to pry apart or pick, and I never left it lying about in the open. I saved it in a box with the words CANCER STUFF written in black Sharpie. When I opened it years later, a stranger sidled up and embraced me. Every entry began the same way: “Dear Diary, Today was (fill in blank with words like ‘ok,’ ‘Sabbath,’ ‘great,’ ‘pretty good.’)”  The only way to tell I experienced emotion was in the lack of it next to sentences like “The doctor said it was either pneumonia or my cancer back, so my mom had a nervous breakdown. Then we went home.”   I could not physically breathe, but I could write empirical truth with the detachment of a pre-adolescent sociopath.

I sang every chance I got and wrote under the covers at night, hunting a voice that harmonized instead of clashed. Another special music would end, “What a gift you have’s” be offered, and I’d scurry back to my facts. To chronicle was to control the uncontrollable and convert the incontrovertible into something I created, bland though it was.  No one could come after me for stepping beyond the snake rope, even if it was starting to look like a hoax.

If Adventism was Survivor, cancer gave me a pocketful of immunity, but I wasn’t born wanting to use it. I memorized the memory verses and spit them out on 13th Sabbath like an angelic machine gun. I had the Bible down forwards, backwards and at speed. In Bible duels, I was the undisputed champion. Bibles at the ready, finger fanning over the pages’ surface, text called out, and bam! Another win for Jesus. The future looked bright on the straight and narrow, but after cancer, I had an itchy trigger finger. The law was unbending and I had ridden uncertainty through every buck and spin across an endless range.

Billy the Kid died young, and I figured I would too— so a slim window of living lay before me. If things went well, 30 would be my final birthday. Death settled into me like a diamond embedded in coal. Questions rained hot and hard from my mouth as I sensed a renegade truth lurking within me. Death is its own miracle.

It made the sunset drain straight into my eyes as I squinted at the plummeting pinks and molten globe suiciding down the sky. It cast an electric web of twinkling cities at my feet when I sat alone at midnight in Doernbecher’s Children’s Hospital, salt surfing down my cheeks from the panoramic hope winking below. My heart was beating out of my chest; it wanted a mouthful of that bloody, raw life just beyond sundown and Bible study.

By the time my second round of chemo was over I was ready to commit to a savior from the demons of desire. Wanting was agony. I was hanging between hope and the weekly ride to church. Melodic streams and the ever watchful Eye of God. It was thumb-screws that grew tighter every time I blinked. The undertow was getting deadlier by the day, and I was counting on ritualistic strokes to pull me free.

I applied myself to finding solace in routine. Every Sabbath, a parental sermon on the topic of setting a good example and being a family of standing in the community was delivered on the ride to church. Breaks were taken for the parents to sling condemnation at each other over the state of the kitchen or who made us late. Every Sabbath after the age of 11, I arrived pressed and scrubbed to Sabbath School with a stomach full of acid. Why did God give a crap if we were late or not? Why did God care if we rode bicycles? Why was it important not to swim on the Sabbath? Why should we not be allowed to wear shorts?  Why couldn’t we dance?

Carol Pagar was a stout woman with a 1970’s fashion sensibility that never updated and a beehive hairstyle that certainly originated in the same decade.  She had tinted glasses and drooping jowls and a very low tolerance for deviant behavior. Adults volunteered to teach the children each week. I knew she had to believe something. I became her clumsy suitor sitting in the front row of Juniors, hurling questions at her with all the passion I could muster. Her voice raised an octave with each answer. She tried dodging my advances by reading louder from the pre-packaged lessons. I was relentless and she, unbending. Ultimately it was time that released us from our hopeless relationship.

I didn’t dare deface myself or any concrete object in a show of despair.  The worst outburst I managed was to stick a piece of chewed up gum between the pages of a hymnal. I chose the most popular hymn, The Old Rugged Cross, and wadded the gum thick and placed it about an inch in from the side so it would rip when someone tried to pry it apart. Emotion was ratcheted to the ground and buried in a dank corner of my heart.  

Christ and the Creative Arts was a class accessible by audition only. I was 17, and it had been a six-year wander through a desert of adolescence and Adventism without an identity.  It was impossible to be a tangible presence in the world when it was safest to remain a shadow. This class, however, demanded a concrete item. A story based on any picture hanging in the room. To be written spontaneously in fifteen minutes. The teacher’s only instruction was to “Be as creative as you can. Nothing is too much.”

My pen lay paralyzed in my hand; the thought of its progeny being openly judged and decided upon bounced sweat against my lips and held me over a drop deeper than hell. 

Around me, students pressed lead against paper and paused to reflect on the pictures. 

Mine was a forest, darkened with silhouettes that were neither plant nor obviously human. Deep purples, blues and greens saturated the canvas except for one point of yellow on the upper left side. You’d have to push through a lot of shadow to get there, and I was at the farthest point from it.

The clock tripped forward landing at seven minutes to the end. My paper was pristine. Beckoning.

The greatest experience I was taught to hope for as an Adventist was a True Conversion. A moment that blazed so clear and full of truth that you had to accept salvation. You’d never be in serious doubt again with an encounter like that, and the zeal for God would naturally permeate every cell of your being. It was as close to the Second Coming as you could get without Christ actually showing up with the heavenly host.  

Doctrine was very specific on what to expect from the Coming of Christ. A small black cloud in the East, half the size of a man’s hand, would appear in the sky.  

My pen drew a straight line.

The cloud would expand, revealing Christ and his host of angels, seated on a flaming base.

The next letter came faster.

Every righteous person would recognize this and watch in solemn anticipation.

Then there were two paragraphs.

The dead would rise and unite with the living in a shout of victory.

My hand trembled as I stabbed the last period down.

Then they would rise in the clouds to join Christ and go with him to Heaven for a thousand years.

The words crackled on the page and tried to return to my chest.

After the thousand years, the New Jerusalem would return to earth with the righteous and regain its place on the Mount of Olives where the saved and Christ would live eternally.

I recognized them as my children.  They were mine and I was theirs, and we stared at each other until the clock ran dry and bells rang out salvation.


Jaime Mathis grew up believing that words were magic. She has authored three books of historical fiction, mystery and poetry in a continual quest for ultimate expression. Jaime resides with a Dane, a half-Dane, 10 chickens and a cat in Portland, Oregon.