We’re driving north, through Virginia, Jon at the wheel. I feel groggy and restless. What am I doing here, anyway, I ask myself — all day on the road to interview a ghost? This SUN interviewer role is definitely wearing thin. I switch on the tape deck and turn it up loud. Springsteen sings a gravelly song of working-man struggle, and joining in I start to relax.

Jon smiles and taps his foot excitedly. He reminds me of a happy panda bear and I laugh. He’s been looking forward to meeting Emmanuel again. Emmanuel, the spirit-being whose guidance from the other side — “channeled” through psychic Pat Rodegast — had changed his life. Jon is organizing a Chapel Hill workshop for Pat/Emmanuel, and now tells me about the multitudes he hopes will attend. He reassures me of Emmanuel’s wisdom, clarity, earthy humor. “Jon,” I say, “you don’t know how weird this sounds.”

I’d accepted the interview “as a favor” — all detachment and jaded professional veneer, but underneath it all, still that twinge of blushing excitement. What do you say to a naked spirit? What could it tell? Wisdom’s well-turned phrase — I’m a sucker for it. As if this time I might really learn something useful. Bullshit. It’s not the idea of communicating with a disembodied spirit that throws me; it’s the notion that another dose of disembodied Words of Wisdom would do me, or anyone else, any good. I feel I’ve heard it all before, and after nearly thirty SUN interviews, and thirty million thoughts, all I really know is that I really don’t know — and even that I keep forgetting. The spiritual words now tantalize, then annoy me. Perhaps all true, but not my truths, learned in the living. I’m tired of pretending. Give me life’s wordless, hands-on wisdom, I think, and praise God if it ever sinks in.

But here I am again, feeling gritty and rebellious, wheezing from morning asthma, reaching for one more set of questions — and coming up empty. “Question One,” I scrawl finally. “Who does Emmanuel think he is, and why on earth should he be taken seriously?” I see another reason why I had come: to pick a fight. A fight with all the love-and-light work$hops so maddeningly familiar; a fight with the lifelessly spiritual; a fight with myself. Howard, seeker, meet Howard, ghostbuster. I remember Jon’s telephone conversation with Pat Rodegast arranging this interview. “Is he receptive?” she had asked. “Totally,” he had answered. We’ll see.

A stop for coffee and greasy southern lunch settles me somewhat. Back in the car, I let Springsteen’s lyrics run through my mind; when they remind me of a question, I write it down. Carrying on a last-minute tradition, I down my last question and my last sip of coffee as we pull into the tranquil confines of the retreat center. I imagine the herd of pleasant, like-minded folks inside — talking, hugging, smiling blissfully — and part of me snarls like a Steppenwolf. Another part winces; I’ve been here before.

The weekend workshop was just ending. Folks milled around the snack bar, talked heartfully on throw pillows, read their notes. I see an old girlfriend, and share an obligatory hug.

“You’re gonna love meeting Emmanuel,” she says with appropriate awe. “I’d like to be a fly on the wall for this interview!” I’m encouraged; her instincts are good. Still, she seems so wide-eyed, I wonder if they’re functioning.

On the outside deck sits Pat, Jon, and guest psychic Marty Soloman, talking business. I plug in my own disembodied partner — my tape-recorder — and wait. Now another anxiety. All of my questions are aimed at Emmanuel; in Pat-the-psychic I have no interviewing interest. But would I even get to talk to Emmanuel? After fourteen years of private readings and workshops, maybe he only comes out when the meter is running. . . . Wait a minute. Comes out from where? What is going on here?

Pat sits beside me on the bench. She’s 58, though she looks years younger, a poised, handsome woman with short silver-streaked hair and a warm if somewhat reserved manner. At the moment she seems refreshingly ordinary. I switch on the tape and take a deep, quieting breath. My attention narrows to just us two (three?) and something in me clicks into interview mode.

“By way of introduction,” I say carefully, unsure just who I’m addressing, “who is Emmanuel, and what is his relation to Pat?”

She smiles. “He’s a being of light who has been human but doesn’t have to anymore. He’s a teacher, who has stayed in this area near human consciousness because he loves us, and because his purpose is to help us find out who we are. Because when we find out who we are, we find out who God is, and we can transform our illusions into light.”

Fine. But it sounds rehearsed, much too pat.

“And his relation to you?”

“You know that’s a funny question,” she says, hesitating. “I think he is part of my higher self, though in this reality we’re separate. But then beyond that everything’s all one anyway. . . . Right now, all I can say is he’s a very loving friend.”

“Mish-mash,” I think, but don’t pursue it. My thoughts grow dizzy at such heights also. “Well, when you say Emmanuel ‘walks into the room,’ ” I say, “where does he walk in from?”

“He appears,” she answers with mock drama, then laughs. “Actually, what he says is that he’s always there. It’s just whether and when we’re able to lift to connect to that reality. He doesn’t go anywhere. We do the bouncing.”

I ask to speak with Emmanuel directly, and she just says, “Sure,” and waves her hand matter-of-factly. She closes her eyes and nods.

“So Emmanuel,” I say, feeling a little foolish, “from where you sit — at least figuratively — what do you see as the special limits to human understanding, and what are your limits?”

Now I don’t know what kind of dramatic response I expect, maybe a quick head-spin like in “The Exorcist,” but what I hear is Pat’s voice respond unchanged. Well, almost unchanged. Her style is clearer now, more succinct, her tone even and measured — like she’s taking dictation from an unseen source.

“He’s saying, ‘There’s none where I am. The only limitation I experience is in my ability to communicate infinite consciousness to finite intellects. The limitation in human terms is simply finiteness and the false belief in it which creates terrible fear, and therefore distortion. And then you have the karmic workshop. . . .’ ”

“Well, no limits whatsoever,” I think. “All the wisdom of the universe and time on his hands.” And aloud, “What karmic workshop?”

“What I mean,” he explains, “is that each soul, when it has come home, so to speak, and is rearranging its consciousness to enter again into the schoolroom — your human planet — holds within it a desire. And that is to explore, until reasonable doubt is vanished, illusions that have kept its consciousness believing in separation rather than in oneness. And so it chooses the parenting, the time, the proclivities of its own humanity to act or react in certain ways that will bring about the manifestation of the doubt, so that it can be perceived in physically human terms and therefore be recognized, and ultimately understood, loved, and transformed.”

Transformed, there’s the question. I see myself nodding my head in agreement. Here’s the same spiritual theory I’ve got memorized, the same one I might spout back in properly knowing tones when my wise-old-teacher button gets pushed. Is it true? I haven’t the foggiest.

“One of my illusions,” I say, “is a tendency to look to others for wisdom and guidance, instead of looking within myself. Speaking with you I see this. Can you really enlighten anyone else to anything, except just to point them back toward themselves?”

And Emmanuel answers: “Of course not. I never said I enlightened anybody. What I refer to is your own human experience that renders illusion so painful or so inadequate that it has to be viewed ultimately as illusion. And when illusion can be perceived in its nature, it can then be released. That then is one more area of doubt, of forgetting, that has regained its natural status, which is light and truth. I help to remove illusion just as many human beings do in their own vocabulary. I point to what the soul already knows and I attempt to remind the human consciousness of what it has forgotten. For, as you wisely said, no one can enforce wisdom on another person. No one can force another’s eyes to see or another’s ears to hear. But I tell you, the power of truth and the power of love is so evident and all pervasive, that there is little danger that when love is spoken it will not be heard.”

Wisdom’s well-turned phrase — I’m a sucker for it. . . . The spiritual words now tantalize, then annoy me. Perhaps all true, but not my truths, learned in the living.

“So why would someone come to you for counseling rather than a regular psychologist?”

“Because they’re a bit wiser,” he says, and Pat laughs — a laugh somehow unmistakably hers, and opens her eyes. “Terrible!” she says. “Ego at that level.”

By now I’m intrigued. Whatever Emmanuel is — and by now in the conversation I’ve assumed his validity — he’s no fool. I move closer to home.

“Your focus in workshops is on helping people to open their channel to inner wisdom,” I say. “In myself I find both a deep confidence and desire to write, and an inability to discern and express what I’d really like to write. How would you point me toward opening that channel?”

“In the first place,” Emmanuel says, “I would question whether it is your channel that you are reaching for. I would mention perhaps that you hold yourself in too little regard, and that what you have to say as a man and as a human being — just from the very roots of your humanness — can be extremely valuable. Once you have aligned yourself with your own worthiness, and trusted your own integrity, then what would channel through you would be inspiration that would enhance what you yourself have come to say. No channel can be alien to who you are; it is simply your higher reality. So first come to know yourself, the whys and wherefores of your unbecoming modesty, and therefore your reluctance to allow yourself to hear what you truly know you want to say, but believe as yet that you have no right to.”

The irony isn’t lost on me; here I’m wary of Emmanuel’s other-worldliness, and he’s pointing me back to trusting my own humanity. I feel anxious, wanting to spin Emmanel’s fine words into golden understanding, almost forgetting that it won’t work. I’m a fish on a line of words, and I’ve already swallowed the bait. I try to wriggle free.

“So much of the so-called spiritual movement is ungrounded, thrill-seeking, glamorous,” I say (and what could be more glamorous than a spirit-guide?). “It separates people from the gut-level spirituality of their humanness. Do you agree?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then what about all the emphasis on past lives, and on developing psychic abilities? They seem more alluring traps than real transformations.”

“I absolutely agree with you,” he repeats, “and I seldom indulge the curiosity of those who come to seek guidance by describing past lives. Only when it is applicable.”

“And psychic abilities?” He seems to have forgotten.

“That depends on what you mean by ‘psychic abilities.’ If you mean that they are able to read someone else’s thoughts, I don’t find that remarkable at all. What I find remarkable is when someone can perceive the consciousness of another and perceive it with love and tenderness and delicacy — and the sense of allowing that other to be exactly who they are.

“There is not a soul that walks your physical earth that is not a consciousness of greater light seeking to find what it has forgotten, who it is, and seeking to transform those areas of shadow into light. There is not a soul in human form that is not longing to hear the word of God. But all of you are so armored against love. For you have all tasted insincerity. You have all been promised love and received imperfect substitution. It cannot be helped; no human being is perfect. You stand guarded and ready to flee when the thought of love enters into your world and into your life. Therefore, developing psychic abilities can be a rather circuitous albeit valuable way to come to where you can perceive that in your psychism there really is something more than just the trick of the mind or the sleight of hand of higher consciousness. Where the purpose behind developing such abilities — and everyone has them, of course — is not to astound oneself or others, but to find truth, to prove that the world is neither flat nor round, but infinite.”

Infinity, Truth, Love . . . more four-star words so mangled in translation. Especially love. I think of my friend V., heart as big as a soup plate, writhing under the weight of aborted romance. There’s humanness. We yearn for high love and scorch our hands black reaching for it. Then reach again.

“Emmanuel,” I ask, “what do you see as the relationship between romantic love and divine love?”

“Romantic love is fraught with peril,” he says, and here Pat can’t speak for laughing. “Because again, no one is perfect, and because in romantic love, there is a desire not only — in a very realistic way — to merge and mate and procreate the species, but also to somehow be magically filled by the superiority or the undersanding of the other, rather than to perceive that only oneself can fill oneself. And that is why I say it is so fraught with disappointment. Romantic love exists even here, I am most pleased to tell you, but it is not confused with separation, duality or sexuality; it is very much a oneness that is experienced in your human world as well in rare ecstatic moments. Always it is the lack of Self that causes the confusion. Oneness and love seem to come from a completely different area of consciousness than twoness and love.”

“What about lust and passion?” I ask. “What place do you think they have in life?”

And Emmanuel replies: “The place is exactly where you want to put it, understanding that it is not an ultimate truth. Everything in your physical planet is a learning device. Everything — whether it be pestilence, famine, war, divorce, intimacy, childbirth, death. It’s all a stepping stone, a catalyst, if you will, to move you from one level of consciousness to the greater level. Lust is fine. I see nothing wrong with that at all. Passion is one of the most necessary ingredients of human life. Again, something that has received remarkably bad press. No allusion to you.”

I think about the idea of everything in life being a potential lesson — a basic tenet of my work-a-day faith. And I wonder: can all suffering be explained away so easily?

“It has awakened you, hasn’t it? Not that you required such a startling awakening, but many do. One can be taught when one is sitting comfortably in a middle-class schoolroom that there are people who are less fortunate than they, and truly nod their head in great compassion, but the adults in their world soon distract them into materialistic thinking. And yet when such a phenomenon as mass starvation happens, there are very few people who can ignore it. There are very few people who do not question — whether they allow answers to come or not — as to why this is taking place. Every negative or seemingly negative experience that happens in groups or in mass in your human world is designed by those who are participating, to offer themselves as voices of truth. The Holocaust was no different. The souls in that time — while not consciously aware of it, though many were — died in an act of love to show fumbling humanity the results of their own fear, and therefore their own greed. They say, ‘Look what is happening here. Look what can happen when we lack regard for another. Look what can happen, in short, when the heart is closed.’ ”

He’s hit a nerve in me. Images pass quickly before my mind’s eye: the charred stacks of naked, emaciated bodies, the gas chambers with fingernail holes gouged in concrete walls, the skeleton faces of the survivors. My mind rebels at Emmanuel’s detachment.

“A striking lesson,” I say, intending sarcasm.

“Absolutely.”

I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s statement, “There is no birth of consciousness without pain,” and ask Emmanuel if he agrees with it.

“I agree and disagree,” he says. “I agree that for a time, when a consciousness is evolving, that the only thing that will get the required attention is pain. I do not, however, agree that this is the only way to learn. One can learn equally well through joy; you really ought to try it.”

I feel patronized, but the reminder feels appropriate. Or is it? If this is all so true, why doesn’t it resonate in me more deeply? Maybe it’s just that Emmanuel’s views from on high seem so generic, naked without a covering of human experience to drive them home. Where’s the beef? I ask myself. Usually it’s in a person’s life story. What about Emmanuel’s?

“From where I sit,” I say, “it’s a little hard to imagine what kind of surroundings you’re in. What’s life like up there, or in there . . .  wherever?”

“Well, since there’s no time or space, it’s neither up there nor down there. It simply is. And I tell you, that is a remarkable improvement. For without limitation, and without fear, I must leave it to your own imagination. Imagine love in all things. A constant state of grace, light, and color. Clear, serene sounds that go beyond the imagination of the senses. Perception with awareness.”

“You’re no help,” I think, and ask, “What about death, then? Is it an experience you have a firsthand memory of?”

“Absolutely, and so do you.”

“Well, I don’t have as easy access. So what was it like?”

“Death is one of my favorite things to describe,” Emmanuel says, “because it is so remarkably distorted. From the viewpoint of humanness, all you perceive is a physical body that you have known, often loved, and will certainly miss, going through the process of deterioration. You fail to see what happens to the inner consciousness and what happens on the other side of death. The moment that physical consciousness finally decides to release itself and allow the greater spirit to soar, the moment that the cells of the body have aligned themselves again with the consciousness of the earth — for that is what they are consisting of — then the soul is free. And there is a moment like none you have experienced since you were born. All pain ceases, all discomfort quiets, all limitation vanishes. And the sense of self, rather than being lost, is intensified a thousandfold. For remember, the part of you that is walking around in your physical body is only a fragment of who you really are. And when you can remove yourself from this schoolroom, the instantaneous delight of finding the rest of you goes beyond words. Also there is at that moment a great knowing of your eternality and a touching instantaneously — with love — all those you have ever loved. I am speaking now about just above the physical plane, because much beyond that all is one, and though individuality — uniqueness — exists, and you do remain yourself in consciousness, you are also very aware at that time of being one with all things in the name of love. So death is the most pleasant thing that will happen to you, though it is very hard to convince people of that.”

I think about the idea of everything in life being a potential lesson — a basic tenet of my work-a-day faith. I wonder: can all suffering be explained away so easily?

He paints a very beautiful, reassuring picture, and I yearn to buy it. But the truth is, I don’t know.

“What about disease,” I ask. “What are the ground rules?”

“The physical body is a most uniquely designed instrument, aligned to the blueprint of the soul,” he answers. “What is required of it is that it register, in exquisite timing, when the consciousness has lost its way, when it requires a boost, and ultimately —of course — when it is ready to come home. So your physical body is an outer manifestation, an extenuation, of the consciousness of who you really are. And it serves you very well. When people say, ‘my body is failing me,’ it is all I can do not to burst through the shield that they require to separate my world from theirs, and to say to them, ‘No, no, no. You have it backwards. Now your body is serving you.’ ”

“Let me use a personal example,” I say. “In the last few years I’ve developed a rather persistent asthma. What might I be learning from this?”

“Well, the first thing you’re learning is that it’s very uncomfortable not to be able to breathe freely. And that is not only on a physical level. That permeates all of your life. You require more rarified air, if you will. You require a more sympathetic environment, and you are beginning to seek that. When you do, when you allow yourself to relieve yourself of both inner and outer stress, demand, infringement, you will find that what seems to be so troublesome now will simply leave you. Remember I mentioned your unbecoming modesty. Your voice also wishes to speak out. And in order not to permit that, you have allowed yourself to develop this difficulty.”

There’s a pause, and Pat opens her eyes. “And I’m asking, ‘So what can he do about it?’ ”

“I wish you’d go to the top of the mountain and shout! Literally, as well as figuratively.”

The mountain image touches deep. I’d seen it before, last Summer, in a half-waking dream, and followed it. Travelling the West — feeling lost, pressured, vaguely guilty — I’d found the most majestic mountain I could, snow-capped Shasta, and set out for a four-day vision quest. I was going to fast, be silent, turn inward. Everything but shout. I passed a frozen night, and a long hard day — surrounded by a horde of persistent, newly-hatched flies — with no strength to pray, or even sit up, gritting my teeth. And having visions. Visions of hot dogs, pizza, beckoning supermarket aisles. I heard my message loud and clear: cut the dramatics, just get on with living. And so, back down the mountain, toward an all-you-can-eat Mexican supper. Looking back up from its base, I could have sworn the mountain winked. That night, dream of deep strength, living in the world powerfully.

“Given the world we live in,” I say, “and the limits of our sight and our ability to affect, where would you recommend people look for ways of bringing about a real change in society?”

The answer is immediate. “In themselves. You can change nothing until you change yourself. Until each one can perceive their own power — the power of infinite love — they cannot possibly know what their responsibility consists of or why. Therefore beings like myself are teaching not the how-tos but the who: who you are, why you have come. The how-to is entirely up to you. Once you have aligned yourself with the greater purpose, once you have recognized yourself as not only worthy of love but love itself, then perhaps the self-respect will emerge enough to proclaim the time of the millenium at hand. But you must all be empowered within, not from without. Nothing can give you your own power. You must come to the recognition of who you are and why you’ve come. And when that happens, then there’s nothing more to be done.”

I can’t resist. “Who am I,” I ask, “and why have I come?”

“You are God incarnate, and you have come to find that out. And once you really know that, you have come to speak that, to help others to find it within themselves. You are a voice. You are a teacher.”

“This is everyone,” I say, “right?”

“This is you,” Emmanuel says. “Did you hope I wouldn’t say that?”

There’s general laughter. “No, no, quite all right,” I say, embarrassed, and hurry on.

“Let’s look at nuclear war,” I say. “Do you see it as a serious threat?”

“Well, I do not see it as a serious threat, though I encourage you to — the effect being that humankind is being brought to the point of the need to really consider the power of fear. For not one nuclear weapon — or any other weapon for that matter — has been manufactured or created except through fear. One can view the monstrous illusion of fear and see truly that now man has moved to the brink of where the choice must be made — the heart or the mind. For it is the mind that knows fear. The heart knows no such thing. So again, it is a marvelous tool for learning. It is saying to you: ‘Don’t you think it’s about time you began to realize why you’ve come, why this planet was initiated to begin with? Can’t you see that fear begets fear and that perhaps, just perhaps, love will beget love?’ So I see it as both monstrous, exciting, absolutely harmless, and very timely.”

“Emmanuel,” I ask finally, “if you could put your message in a paragraph, how would it read?” And now, for once, he pauses — as if even beyond the limits of time, he wants to get this one right.

“It would read something like this: dear sweet children of God, do not believe for one moment the illusion that has been presented to you as who you are, but insist on finding your own heart, your own truth, and your own voice. And follow that, no matter where it takes you. No matter how distant, no matter how difficult. For ultimately, you will find truth. And that is your quest.”

And now, having heard the meaning of life, the universe and everything, I’m out of questions. I’ve been fascinated, informed, reminded, and still I’m left hungry for something more. It’s like a photograph of a gourmet meal — beautiful, but rather tasteless and hard to digest.

“Emmanuel, one last question. With everything having its reason, what might be mine for coming to speak with you today? What might I be here to pick up?”

“Well,” he says, “I believe I have touched several areas to remind you that you need not suffocate yourself anymore, that your voice is worthy of being heard, though only you can strive to make it heard. I believe I have urged you to disencumber yourself from whatever illusions of responsibility to others have kept you suffocated — if I may used that word again. And therefore, I hope I have served you in that way, as I believe you are serving me. Thank you for coming. God bless you.”

Ah! Caught again with my mouth open, waiting for that rush of insight, special delivery. Once again I had almost forgotten; it’s not that easy. Life goes on, lit by occasional bolts of gracious lightning. Mostly I grope in the near-dark, — embodying my wisdom like scrapes on my knees — pratfall by pratfall.