Two stories to begin:
Years ago, in the banquet room of a restaurant, about 30 of us watched as two relatives were feted for their wedding anniversary. Off and on, the man seated across from me studied me. He was the minister of a small church. His hair had turned early to all white and his eyes under that white hair were direct in their gaze.
For about 10 minutes we ate, made small talk, were polite, but his gaze was discomfiting. It did not take long for the small, polite conversation to stop. He asked me about my religious beliefs. Before the dinner, I had been aware of him. I knew of the rigid, patriarchal laws that he enforced in his congregation. I knew of his desire to control the members of that congregation. I knew of his condescending, often cruel attitudes towards women. But he was not my preacher. I only had to sit across from him for one meal.
I evaded his question, one I thought to be probing and rude, especially coming from a stranger. I smiled coldly. He would take the hint, right? He did not. He pressed me. I evaded again. He then looked at me and said forcefully, “I would love to get my hands on you.”
I know what I wanted to do. I wanted to hit that puffed up tyrant in the head with my plate, but instead I looked at him and said, “That will never happen.” We did not speak the rest of the night.
On October 23 four members of the congregation of my church were baptized as the culmination of that Sunday’s service – three adults and a boy — each of them by turn stood in the pool at the front of the church, the congregation and the band encompassed them with song, the minister leaned in to speak into their ears and then guided them under for a full immersion baptism — emerging from the water, all of them were smiling. I too felt a part of the rising joy of a community all joined in acknowledgement of the choice of others to enter into the ranks of believers.
Those two stories represent the twin poles of my experience with faith. I believe in worship and in joyous community, but I loathe self-righteousness and dogma.
I believe. What I believe sometimes shifts. What I believe has evolved, has been evolving. On October 23 I believed in the joy of the congregation, in the power of song. I reaffirmed my belief that there was a better way to live one’s life. How I arrived at this October Sunday in this church is a story with twists and reversals and dead stops and sharp cracks to the heart.
I was raised Irish Catholic and attended 12 years of Catholic school where I was taught primarily by priests and nuns; their discipline instilled in me a respect for logic, a respect for the dialectic, a distrust of authoritarian power, and a guerilla’s stealth in rebellion. But I also remember the chanting of the Latin Mass, scarlet vestments, incense rising in clouds from the altar, the sound of the Ave Maria in the vaulted space of St. Mary’s Church in Lebanon. For 20 years I lived a completely secular life; the only exception to that came in one vivid hour when I felt the presence of something vast and eternal.
On the Aran Island of Inishmore in July of 1976 I attended a sunrise Mass in a tiny whitewashed chapel filled with enormous fisherman in tweed coats and women with black shawls draped over their heads. The priest said the Mass in Gaelic; the parishioners chanted their responses in Gaelic. I didn’t understand a word, but I was present in their worship and in the space of worship and in the light pouring in from east-facing windows, a static, pooled gold. In that one hour, something was engraved into me, maybe the beginning of a return.
Many years later, my first wife died of cancer 57 days after its diagnosis; we both understood that she would not escape. I began to attend her Presbyterian church with her; she had been a faithful member for years. She bore her knowledge of her impending death with resolute faith and courage. In an osmosis I still cannot explain, a part of her faith shifted into me. When she died, the Christian charity of that congregation kept me from madness. Ultimately, their acts of fellowship, of love, of consideration above and well beyond mere duty helped bring me back to belief.
In Christianity (and in other religious systems as well I suspect), I think we build our own irregular structures of religious belief the way ravens build a nest – high up in a tall tree, in a secret place, with many twigs and sticks wrapped in a large bowl, but then the scouring of individual chance and the individual raven eye takes over and perhaps these are added to the mix – a bit of blue plastic and red ribbon, a yellow rag and a white label.
In constructing our systems of belief, we begin with a set of imperatives – we believe in both the Resurrection and in the Cross, as I do, but then we add our own raven measures and designs — a specific doctrine, specific verses from scripture, Bible stories, a priest or preacher’s words delivered from the pulpit, habits of prayer inculcated into us by our parents. How could it be otherwise – the Bible is a vast text and the tenets of doctrine and theology that grow from it only expand that realm and then expand
it again infinitely because doctrines also vary from sect to sect. So, like ravens, we keep our eyes and ears open for those bits of color that help us make a design that we understand and that pleases us: this act is heinous, but this one, not so much. We may be repulsed by deliberate cruelty, especially to children and the weak and believe that we must consistently act in kindness and humility, but also believe matters of gay marriage and whether to use birth control should be left to the individual. So we each build our nests, aware that we cannot be sure they will withstand a hard wind; our tests of faith come with tribulations.
Our belief and practice also must include the spirit, and by that word I do not mean something as nebulous and squishy as feelings. Spirit is the yearning we feel for transcendence, for a state-of-being beyond the gravitational heaviness of the flesh. It is the sense that there is a beyond-us, a beyond-this material world. The idea of the soul is part of this mix, the act of faith that leaps beyond bio-chemistry, genetics, physics and chance and believes human beings to possess a worth more than the weight of our bodies.
I suspect that a flow chart describing our beliefs would show seven billion of us now scattered along dozens of paths – Sufis and Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Catholics, many Protestant denominations, and on and on. When we meet and speak of our beliefs, we rarely talk about doctrine. We tell our stories – our conversion stories, our stories of leaving, our revelation stories, our stories of final disappointment, our stories of rising from the ashes, of salvation, our stories of prayers answered, our stories of
betrayal by sect or leader and our stories of those special few who seemed touched by a benign force beyond our understanding. Our stories tell others about the spiritual path we have traveled. We edit them of course, but still, some stories acquire more weight in explaining what we have become.
I believe in a loving God. I struggle to believe. My belief is riven with doubt. Sometimes I look at the horrors that human beings create and my misgivings besiege me, my unanswerable questions overcome me. Sometimes I look at the pain inflicted upon children by nature, for example, by pediatric cancer and progeria, and I do not know how to go on in my belief, but I come back because at some moment that I cannot remember, I made the decision to believe in spite of all the baleful evidence, in defiance of all the awful logic of Pol Pot and Auschwitz and slavery and human evil. I made the leap of faith. I cannot leap back.