“Great love and great achievements involve great risk.” –Dalai Lama
I always intended to write the full story of my summer with the people who handle venomous serpents for their faith. I had great intentions of chronicling each church service with them, of all the media interest and their responses to the camera crews, photojournalists, grad students, and spectators that showed up week after week. I thought I would write as best I could what set them apart from other churches and other Christians; after all, that is the topic of my dissertation and what led me to them in the first place. And though for my dissertation I will have to write the details of my experience, the more I saw strangers rush in to get the pictures, sell the story, or throw in their own two cents on the lives of the people I’ve come to know as friends, the less I felt I had any right to say anything. And the more time I spent with them, the more real, inspiring, and important their beliefs became to me.
You see, if you spend enough time with anyone, what at first seems strange, intimidating, or confusing will cease to be so; it will simply become normal. And when the spectacle is gone and all that’s left are ordinary people, it’s not so hard to relate. The people I met this summer have been called fools and idiots by strangers, are condemned and outcast by fellow Christians, and their beliefs and lifestyles are summarized by the press in five-minute clips and 200 word articles. But then there are also the scholars who have worked with and written of them for decades, the journalists who stayed longer than a day to write books instead of articles, the Christians who send their support and encouragement despite differing beliefs, the traveling evangelists whom they welcome, and the visitors to their churches who keep coming back. This alone should be enough to conclude that there is something about the people and the faith which defines them that touches others. Very few who have heard of the practice of serpent handling have remained indifferent to the idea. The very basis of this practice, the faith required to uphold it, seems to incite a reaction in all of us, be it one of interest, approval, or judgement.
I have a hunch that what is really so intriguing to each of us is not so much a matter of doctrine or religion, but one of passion and commitment. There are a lot of self-help books, religions, and philosophies telling us we need a purpose in life, a goal to drive us and sustain us. As children we are often asked what we want to be or do with our lives and answers come easily. As a child it is easy to identify our dreams because no one has yet told us our dreams might well be impossible to achieve. As we age, we so often readjust our purpose in life to match what we think is possible, instead of adjusting our lives to match our purpose. We know all too well that living for something bigger than oneself implies that the self must become very small and that sacrifice and suffering always accompany those who take risks. Every now and then, however, you hear stories about people who were brave enough to take on their purpose without making amendments. They are people like Greg Mortenson who, as a broke and unemployed mountaineer, accidentally discovered a village in Pakistan without a school yet pledged that someday he would return to build one. He has since built hundreds. They are people like journalist George Hogg, who in the 1930s set out to cover the Second Sino-Japanese war, and instead lead 60 orphans over 700 miles through the mountains to live in safety. They are people like Kierkegaard who sacrificed his personal happiness for the task of writing what he believed to be necessary to reform Christianity. But they are also people like my landlady, who recently quit her job to write a book about her own journey. They are people like the serpent handlers, who literally place their lives on the line because they believe it is part of their purpose.
In the introduction to The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho calls an individual’s purpose his or her personal legend. He writes, “Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend. However, we don’t all have the courage to confront our dream […] But if you believe yourself worthy of the thing you fought so hard to get, then you become an instrument of God, you help the Soul of the World, and you understand why you are here.” It is the courage, passion, and commitment which so many of us, myself included, lack that stirs such a response when we hear of people who are taking risks and making sacrifices to fulfil their purpose. Sometimes we are encouraged and inspired, sometimes we are envious. At the root of our reaction, however, is our own purpose. It is not an easy road to travel and quite often it is a lonely one, but I’ve come to believe it is an important one.