Capsaicin as Religious ExperienceSaturday, May 8, 2010
It seems that I've been reading about this eucharist of the Transcendental Capsaicinophilic Society forever. In a sense, all those reports of the ChileHeads that preceded me have been a kind of catechism, preparing me for the day when I myself would open that understated plain brown (like a monk's robe) box and experience the truth of El Grande.
Like all great transformative rituals, there is a moment when one's mind penetrates the mystical trappings and sees that the sacred vestments and magical equipment are just clothes and dishes -- and that we're just people, play-acting at the miraculous. "What’s the big deal?" we ask. That's what happened when I pulled out some ordinary newspaper and lifted out the zip-lock bag.
The bag was marked with a simple greeting. No more.
Profoundly skeptical and irreligious thoughts, such as: "How hot could it be, really?" came to mind. I opened the bag and took a deeply agnostic sniff. It had a pleasantly nutty, yeasty smell -- like home-made whole-wheat bread with a touch of molasses. It was as ordinary and reassuring as home itself.
I broke off a small corner (just as, supposedly, there are no atheists in foxholes -- there seemed to be no good reason for taunting the deity during the services). Another sniff confirmed that this was, indeed, an empty ritual, devoid of real meaning. I popped it into my mouth and chewed it up.
As I said, the rituals that mark the major transitions in our lives (the bris or baptism, the initiations of all kinds, the wedding, the funeral) are really rather ordinary human exercises, gussied up to look as if something magical is taking place. I silently congratulated myself for being above such silliness.
For about one second.
I recognized another flavor behind the wholesome wheat and molasses of the bread. I knew this flavor, but there was something unfamiliar about it. It had an ethereal fruitiness -- and yet there didn’t seem to be any fruit in the bread. Perhaps that's what it was -- a familiar flavor that tasted different because there was much more of it than I usually tasted.
St. Paul walking along the road, Moses staring into the burning bush, Gautama sitting beneath the sacred Bo tree, Newton under his apple tree -- any of them would have smiled and nodded at the flash of insight I experienced when I realized what that flavor was.
I knew that taste, alright. It was exactly the same as the haunting sweetness that hovered over the most incredibly hot foods I had ever eaten. But this was not a trace. It was a full mouthful of flavor.
It signified a truly humongous dose of pure essence of habanero.
I'm certain that when Buddha recognized that all was one, he was simultaneously able to fully comprehend and assimilate all the suffering of the world. Likewise, my recognition of that habanero flavor was accompanied by a complete understanding of what was about to happen to my corporeal self.
I was about to become enlightened.
For a brief moment, a healthy and natural cowardice wanted to cry out, "I’m not worthy!" -- but the perfect inevitability of the force that carried me like a tsunami of bliss/pain/transfiguration stifled my voice.
Or maybe it was just that I hadn't thought to breathe.
Fifteen minutes later, my head soaked with penitential sweat, my pulse slowing to measurable levels, my conversion complete, I realized that -- yes -- the trappings of our rituals are indeed mundane, even tawdry. But if one, properly prepared, peeks behind the tacky vestments and brassy thingamabobs, one finds there revealed a brilliant ineffable something, something that is hidden to those who are just smart enough to see the shallow gleam of brass.