In the forests of the night
Obligatory warning: long post. Much religious auto-biography and reflection on piety and faith. Some heresy. Proceed with caution.
(But, sweet reward awaits! Gratuitous WonderBaby photo at end!)
A month or two ago, Amalah wrote a powerful post about her struggle with issues concerning faith. A couple of days ago, Nancy took on the same topic. Both wrote from the perspective of lapsed believers, of women who had grown up with faith but grown apart from faith. Both struggled, in their posts, to make sense of their relationship to God and Church. For the sake – for the possible sake – of their children.
Both posts hit me in the gut. Hard. I’ve been wrestling with these issues for, well, forever. Since my own faith started taking sucker punches from Real Life - divorce, death and other tragedies that make the voice waver as it recites the 23rd Psalm. Oh, yeah, and a young adulthood spent studying political philosophy, and reflecting upon the political uses of religion, most of which reduce to pacifying or mobilizing the masses. Hurt, and reason: both have a sobering effect on blind faith.
I was once a passionate Catholic. As a teenager I thought seriously, if briefly, about becoming a nun. (This in my goth phase. Yes, I was a Catholic goth. I wore a rosary as costume, but I took that rosary seriously, by God.) Not so much because I felt strongly about commiting to my faith, but because it was fascinating and I wanted to make it my own: all of the esotericism and the Latin and the mysteries and the feeling, at once giddy and solemn, of tapping into some deep vein of meaning. I would sit in the dark in my room during thunderstorms, looking out my window and trying to wrap my head around the relationship between God and Nature, trying to work out the theology of Milton and Blake and Big Blue Marble. I read the Bible for fun.
(You would have wanted to be my friend, for sure. I was good times. A bit intense, but really! Fun!)
I was into it. I loved it. It provided both security and stimulation, soothing me to sleep and pricking me awake, for a very long time. But then I grew up, and the stars threw down their spears.
I grew up, and my family – that had long been so solid, so secure – hit difficult times, and my parents split up, badly, and I left home and made all the bad decisions and took all the dangerous steps that disillusioned Catholic girls who leave home at 18 make. My mother declared that God had abandoned her, and me, and us, and insisted that she would herewith keep faith only with Mary and the saints and that I should do the same. God was a mean old guy who provided no comfort because He could not, my mother insisted, be trusted. He’d turn on you. He’d turned on her, and on us, after we had prayed so hard for Him to guide us and keep us.
I wasn't sure that I agreed with my mother, but with every bad thing that happened in my life and in the lives of others, as the world came to seem uglier and uglier, my commitment to the Church waned. My faith waned. And it took a direct hit when, in my very late teens, after I had left my broken home to try to find my own place in the world, I was informed by a well-meaning - and very Catholic - boyfriend that I was going to hell. He had discovered, by finding and reading my diary, that I was tainted by sin (a long story, and a whole 'nother post). And, after going to confession to consult with a priest as to whether my sins might taint him, he informed me that God had told him in the confessional booth that he could no longer associate with me. I was corrupt, I had committed a mortal sin, and I was going to hell.
God told him to break up with me. And that was that. It was absurd, unreasonable, and just enough to tip me over the edge that I was already teetering upon. This was not my Church, not my God.
It was, in a twisted way, my Lisbon Earthquake. I thought: how could a just God, a reasonable God, inspire such nonsense? And then I thought: what evidence have I ever had that God was any of those things? A few moments of spiritual epiphany while watching cute altar boys light candles and a succession of thunderstorms didn't weigh up very well against broken families and death and starving children in Africa and fucked-up twenty-year-old boys spouting nonsense about God's greater plan for their dating futures. Clearly, God was, as my mother said, a dodgy piece of work.
I wanted nothing to do with it, with Him. That day was the last day that I ever went to confession.
And then I went off to university and began studying philosophy and that did nothing to restore my faith. I began studying the Bible as a book and God as source material for art, literature and politics. I presented papers on how modern philosophers used women as figurative representatives of conventional Christian morality. I argued that some philosophers suggested, quietly, that women could be understood as the ultimate practitioners of moral deceit and use this deceit to their greater strength and that this practice reflected the politics of the Catholic Church and of Christianity generally and that this revealed all variety of interesting things about morality and virtue and the power of women.
I liked these arguments. A lot.
And I liked that, on one or two occasions, during mid-summer lectures in which I related these and similar arguments, a thunderstorm would roll in and lightning would flash right after I said something about Nietzsche or Machiavelli and godlessness.
It was an ambivalent relationship. Philosophy was more interesting when it was transgressive, and it only really felt transgressive when it confronted and challenged my faith. So faith became a way of keeping things exciting, of pricking myself awake when I became complacent about Liberalism and Secularism and Rationalism blah blah blah. I became an opportunistic believer, using God and belief in God as a tool to advance my own learning.
Then the Husband and I decided to start a family, and there were problems, complications, and for a while it looked like we couldn't have a family. But then the path opened up and I became pregnant and thankful. I struck bargains with God. I swore up and down that I would raise a believing child if He let this child come into the world. And when more complications emerged I swore harder. I went to sleep murmuring Pater Nosters and Ave Marias. I prayed.
And I meant it. I prayed with full acknowledgement of my own confusion, my own ambivalence. I couldn't do otherwise; there was no comfort in prayer unless it was confused prayer, if that makes sense. But my promise to give my child the opportunity to experience faith was not confused. I meant every word. I wanted - I want - my daughter, my children, to know God. As I did.
I do not want this because I think that it will make her, them, morally superior beings (I don't think this, not at all). I do not want this because I want to secure them a place in Heaven. I don't know that I believe in security-patrolled Pearly Gates; I do know that it is possible to be 'good' without God (but please do not ask me to unpack that statement here.) I'm not looking for spiritual guarantees or moral failsafes, if such things even exist.
I want this because I want my children to have a meaningful choice in the matter of whether or not to embrace faith. And I don’t think that they will really, meaningfully, have such a choice if they are not exposed to faith from an early age. It’s all well and good to take a principled position against what might be called an indoctrination of faith, and to insist that exposure to religion is something best left until children have the maturity of reason to critically evaluate organized religion, but that position pre-determines its own end. If faith is set aside in childhood, and reserved for later examination and evaluation under the bright lights of reason, then it’s doomed from the start. Reason is antithetical to faith, especially in its first age, when it is clung to like a brass ring, when it causes us to chortle with delight at knowing, to thrill at being let in on the world's secrets (Chrissi is still a baby because she still believes in Santa, right Mommy?) It is only the strongest, most hard-won faith that does not pale at the approach of reason. Reason shatters faith, exposes belief as simply that - belief.
Who among us would ever have given Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or Tinkerbell a second thought if we had only discovered them in the age of our reason? We might be amused or entertained by them, but we could never take them seriously. But when we meet Santa Claus in the innocence of our youth, we give him a chance. And we’re well-positioned to decide, when we’re ready, whether or not we want to continue believing in him. If we never believed in Santa as children, we can’t be said to have ever made the choice to not believe.
So it is, I think, with God. I’m not suggesting that God is a character of myth or fantasy, as Santa is generally understood, although many have argued and do argue that God is exactly that. What I am suggesting is that belief in God usually (not always – people do sometimes ‘find’ God and religion later in life) requires exposure to the real practice of faith before one learns that faith is, or appears to be (appears to be), contrary to reason. It requires having someone say, emphatically, insistently, that yes, Virginia, there is a God. It requires, yes, some sort of indoctrination into faith during childhood. Saying yes to religion. Talking seriously and respectfully about God and church and faith. Reading Bible stories. Attending church or synagogue. Saying prayers. Watching Little House on the Prairie. Some or all or variations of the above.
The problem? I no longer do these things, for the most part. My faith, such as it is, is quiet, private. It is something that I subject to scrutiny every time that I pull it out for inspiration or for comfort. It lives in the strange space that I've craved out in my soul for those things that I fear and love and am confused by and ever will be confused by. I’ve made my choices, it seems, if living in a state of such critical ambivalence can be regarded as a meaningful choice.
But I don't want to make that choice for my children. So how do I create the opportunity for my children to have a choice, a real choice? For them to really, meaningfully explore the option of faith, and take that option seriously? Do I suck it up and re-enact the rituals of the religion of my own childhood, and swallow the hypocrisy as well-intended? Or is there another way?
How do you find your way when the path is dark?