believe it or not

I had an interesting conversation with an atheist the other night. Where, when, who, what circumstances: doesn’t matter. What matters was the shared conclusion we drew concerning the nature of and extent of the human capacity to believe. Which, again, boils down to: doesn’t matter. I believe it doesn’t matter. She believes it doesn’t matter. What anyone believes only matters to the extent that it affects how we treat one another in this convoluted, sometimes painful, often beautiful, always-taxing world we live in.

I believe in all sorts of things. She does not. But I also believe that what she doesn’t believe doesn’t affect my beliefs one whit, nor do they prevent her from being a decent and loving person.

She believes that many believers don’t believe everything they’re supposed to believe. And I believe that she’s correct. I don’t always believe everything I’m supposed to believe. Sometimes I’m incapable of believing. But I believe anyway, because the struggle itself is a form and expression of belief. I believe, yes, but I also realize that sometimes I can’t. This realization is itself belief.

Let me explain myself.

I didn’t always believe. I was once an atheist, too. My late parents were initially non-believers, my father devoutly so. I grew up believing only in the miraculous vastness of humankind and the need to drill down deep inside one’s core for moral guidance. Jesus was a good man, my mother said. She believed that. We all did. We believed his message of love, of serving the poor. But that son of God business? Dying into eternal life, blah blah blah? I didn’t go there.

Even when I began to believe, I understood that my own belief can never depend on my credulity: i.e., my faith can’t be pegged on whether This Actually Happened or That Actually Didn’t. So if I can’t wrap my head around, say, transubstantiation, I don’t sweat it, because no one can wrap their heads around transubstantiation. Our heads aren’t big enough to wrap around transubstantiation. Wouldn’t it be strange if they were?

Part of what I believe is that my brain is too limited, too small, too confined by this pressing and solid world, to grasp the things that span beyond it. That’s a major element of my faith, this belief in my own cramped capacity for belief. I believe that I’m more than the neural squishiness within my cranium. I believe that I’m not well-equipped to comprehend, much less believe, the infinite and complex wonder that is the unseen Other. I believe that I’m incapable of true belief, and that’s the basis for my belief.

And whether I or anyone believes that a piece of baked good literally morphs into the body of Christ doesn’t affect how I carry that chunk of God into the world. Because I believe I should be carrying it anyway.

And if I’m not? Then everything else I believe just doesn’t matter.

the broken one

Every year around this time, those of us who try to walk the path first walked by a rabbi from Nazareth are faced, again and always, with the oxymoronic wounded God that we all follow.

By definition Jesus was divine. By definition he was human. And because he was human, he had to break; he had to die; God had to do what we all do. And before he died, he did what we all do: he agonized.

Most people regard Easter as the holiday that sets Christians apart from others. If we remove the miraculous conception, Christmas is easy to comprehend: A baby is born! Yay hurray! Bring on the chocolate Santas! But Easter? A man, put away to rot inside a tomb, waking and rising and walking again among his friends? That’s a whole lot of supernatural stuffy-stuff to swallow, and yet I swallow it each and every time I receive Communion.

But I think of Easter as the great and unifying narrative arc that speaks to our grubby mortal essence. Imagine a God who chooses to die in sympathy with the entirety of humankind: What would that mean? It would mean a birth, and a life, and tears, and a wound, and a death, but it would also mean something more. He is God, after all; the bar is set rather high. And what means more in the wake of death than life?

I don’t believe that Jesus came to save the lucky few who see and worship him as I do. I believe he came and saved everyone, past or present, from well before his time to long after ours. I believe that we’re always saved, always broken, always doomed to die and yet always touched by the divine. I believe that God’s Now is forever, and that if, as Paul wrote, “Christ died for the ungodly,” then that means every last blooming one of us, from devout believers to utter atheists with every conceivable subset and gradation in between.

Who isn’t broken? Who’s not ungodly? Who isn’t pained by life and its burdens? This brokenness is one big reason I converted and one big reason I still believe: because I am sloppy mess! And so I follow the one who gets my sloppy-messiness and feels my pain. The dude lived it.

So tonight the kids and I head off to the Holy Thursday Mass —
the evocation of Jesus’ Last Supper, which was, quite possibly, a Seder on the opening night of Passover. Do this, he’ll say, and break the bread. Tomorrow he’ll die on the cross with a gash in his side. On Easter, he’ll rise.

And then he’ll start all over again, and we will, too.

…and all I got was this awesome t-shirt

tell me you don't want one

tell me you don’t want one

Here we have an item that has nothing to do with anything — death, woe, gnashing of teeth, shoveling of snow — other than my lovely daughter Jeanne and her recent, oh-so-fabulous school trip to Italy and Greece. (Yes, she went there. And NO, SADLY. I DID NOT.)

In Rome she ate lots of pizza and visited the Colosseum, the Forum, the Trevi Fountain and the Vatican, where she ooohhhed and aaahhhed at masterworks of the High Renaissance (I wasn’t there to hear her, but it’s a safe bet) and, even better, purchased this t-shirt, which I very much heart. The coolness of Catholicism’s latest pope is a matter much discussed elsewhere, and I won’t go into the specifics of his coolness here except to observe that, you know, it’s kinda nice having a dude in charge who apparently reads the same Gospels I do. (Love and forgiveness! Rock on!) It makes me feel warm and mellow and groovy inside, like all of a sudden I want to wear patchouli and crowd surf at a Phish concert, and I don’t even like Phish.

The point is, in 24 years of being Catholic, I have never owned, much less worn, a pontiff fan t-shirt. I have never before even idly considered such a thing in hypothetical terms, as in, “Oh, my ‘Hard Rock Cafe Vulcan’ T has holes in both armpits. Crud. If only I had a Pope Benedict v-neck to replace it.” But this one? I’ll keep it. And I’ll keep Pope Francis, too.

love won’t do that

love never fails
You know how things you see every day can smack you in the kisser in a new way? That just happened to me the other night. And how.

I’d bought the li’l framed knicknack at a dollar store years ago. Stuck it on my dresser. Looked at it every day. Absorbed its message, or so I thought.

“Love never fails.” If I were a biblical scholar, I would have realized that this is often translated other ways. If I were astute, I would have remembered hearing these other translations now and then. If I were only fractionally less spacey, I would have noticed that the remainder of that passage makes a big big big point of the ephemeral nature of prophesies, tongues, knowledge — basically everything in the world besides love.

But, well. I’m not any of those things.

“Love never fails.” So I had always interpreted this line as a testimony to the illuminating power of love, its ability to prevail over darkness. I believed this even though my own love hadn’t prevailed against the darkness that took my sister and my husband. I loved and loved and loved them. I tried and tried and tried.

And yet.

Suicide tests our faith in everything, most of all the force and gift our of own love. The guilt that slams the living in its aftermath springs from a sense of personal failure, impotency, inadequacy. What we could have done but didn’t! How we might have loved but failed!

“Love never fails.” But we’re not called to be successful. None of us is. We’re only called to give it our best shot — to love and love and love, to try and try and try. To hold out our arms when we see someone falling, even if we don’t catch them. Even if we fall, too.

I held out my arms for my sister and husband. Though I failed to catch them, I loved them as well and as deeply as I could, and I still do. My heart still fills with wonder and gratitude at the thought of them both — at the joy of being Lucy’s sister, Chris’s wife. The love I feel neither fizzles nor fades; it only waxes, never wanes.

This is what smacked me, one night at my dresser. It was so ridiculously obvious. I wondered how I’d missed it, all these years. It’s not that love will always heal a wound or stay a final restless act. It’s not about power. The eternity of love — the way it stretches from me to you and us to them, wherever we are, wherever they are, whatever seen or unseen fabric lies between us all — that’s the miracle.That’s the point.

“Love never ends.” It doesn’t.

the mess of an answered prayer

Do you ever pray for clarity? Or maybe just scrunch your eyes and hope for it hard, if you’re more secularly inclined? I do. Quite a bit. Mainly because I’m almost always clodding along in some murk or other, my poor, pointy head piled with dust bunnies that fog my sight and clog my thinking. Wait, correct that. Put quotes around “thinking.” Because what I’m actually doing is “feeling.”

So I’m always asking the Almighty for some handy-dandy clarification on some matter or other. I sent up one such request a few weeks ago, and while I won’t go into the specifics, the gist of it was: HELLOOOO, LORD! WILL YOU PLEASE LET ME KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON, HERE?! I’M SORTA KINDA CONFUSED! THANKS AND LOVE, AMY!

The Lord replied in no uncertain terms, and in a manner I did not particularly enjoy, over the course of several days. The celestial public address system blared out loud and clear: HELLOOOOO, AMY! HERE IS THE ANSWER TO YOUR PRAYERS. IT MIGHT MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE A BIT OF AN ASSHOLIC AND CLUELESS BOOB FOR A BIT OF A WHILE, BUT DON’T WORRY, YOU’LL FEEL BETTER IN THE END! HAVE FUN! HOPE YOU ENJOY IT! LOVE, GOD!

And in the end, it helped. I did find my clarity. I came out the sunny other side of a long, winding, dark, malodorous, garbage-strewn tunnel, and if it seems to you I might be describing a voyage through an alimentary canal, you’re absolutely right. At its conclusion I felt as though I had taken a really big dump.

I felt lighter. I felt free. I wept with gratitude and thanked the Lord. I’m not kidding about that part. I did both those things.

The whole experience served to remind me that God — or the universe, if, again, that’s where your faith lies — isn’t exactly prissy when it comes to helping out. Prayer dissemination isn’t quick n’ smooth, like some lofty milkshake that’s made at our request. (HI, LORD, IT’S AMY AGAIN. COULD YOU PUT AN EXTRA SCOOP IN THAT? AND MAYBE A SQUIRT OF CHOCOLATE SYRUP? THANKS!) More often, it’s a right mess; and when the object is clarity, we’re really in for it. The answered prayer can be a hard-fought battle, littered with misunderstandings and emotional complications of the sort we like to avoid.

And in the middle of it, I generally send up another prayer, either a sarcastic THANKS FOR THAT or an inquisitive IS THIS SOME IDEA OF A JOKE? One of the things that most amazes is me is that God never reaches down and cuffs the back of my head with an irritated grunt. I suppose, being omnipotent and secure about it, the Almighty can take my snotty back-talk without resorting to whoop-ass.

Anyway, it all worked out. Clarity achieved! But as the old saw goes, be careful what you wish for. You might get it, it might take longer than expected, and you’ll probably need a flashlight before it’s over.

dark matter rocks

I love dark energy. Love it. Dark matter, too. I have no idea what they are, but it’d be weird if I did, because no one does, not even all those crazy-smart astrophysicists who hypothesize their existence. All anyone knows is, dark energy in all likelihood accounts for about 68 percent of the universe (68 percent! that’s a passing grade in some places!), and dark matter takes up 27 percent, leaving plain ol’ ordinary matter, the mundane, run-of-the-mill, observable, occasionally stinky crap, to take up a mere 5 percent. I won’t even venture a guess on how much of that 5 percent is found in McDonald’s value meals. A lot.

I’ve been Catholic for 24 years. Been a Christian for 30 or so. Believed in God for almost 40. Before that, following the lead of my atheistic father and agnostic mother, I believed only in the goodness of humanity and the largeness of creation. But I tell you what: those beliefs remain the essence of my faith. As frustrated as I am by my failure to see the future, as sidelined as I am by my tendency to fret, I’m relieved to know that I don’t actually know a thing. It’s a gift to realize the full scope of what I can’t see with my squinty eyes and hear with my whistling ears and grasp with my pointy head: at least 95 percent of all existence. That’s a shitload of stuff I won’t ever understand. Thank God! There’s more to life than value meals!

We can all agree on this point, right? Whether we believe in a deity or dark matter?

Me, I’m down with both. I don’t believe that science and faith are incompatible. Faith, to me, is not an obeisance to the known but an acknowledgment of the unknown, an abandonment to it, an against-all-odds conviction that a limitless Unseen lurks and envelops us. In describing the universe and its mysteries, scientists delve into that Unseen and assign it properties, laws, shape.

I assign it character, too. I assign it love. I can’t see it, but I’m sure it’s there.

“stuck on hope”

Father Bob, a good friend and a great priestsaid this in my kitchen. The two of us were eating cake and cranberry juice, talking about loss. We agreed that it sucks. Burying those we love, saying goodbye too soon, too soon, too soon, weathering all the hailstorms of grief that follow, trying to believe that life can still emerge into daylight, drumming up the faith and foolishness to uncurl from a ball and head out the damned creaking door for another day: it’s all too much. It’s madness, really.

And yet we do it, because there is no better option. Correction: There is no other option. Hope is all we have. Even when we’re exhausted and drooping from effort, even when we don’t know where we’re going or why we’re going there, we plod blindly on. And in this blind plodding we put our faith.

Father Bob and I were chewing on this and sucking down juice when I asked why any of us should believe that life might hand out anything but pain. We must be delusional, I said. Here we are, minding our business, tending our loved ones, laughing when we can — as R.E.M. put it, “lost in our little lives” — when fate or God or the cosmos or bum bloody mindless luck clobbers us broadside with tragedy. Why should anybody ever expect anything else?

“I guess,” he replied, “you just have to be stuck on hope. I guess that’s the answer.”

I was recalling this conversation today as I rode a surge of optimism on the first fresh morning of 2014. It was Cicero who observed, “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” but the reverse is true, too. Where there’s hope, there’s life. It’s a syllogism. Life=hope. Hope=life. If we just keep hoping, if we just keep plodding, the schlep of life will take care of itself. It might even clobber us broadside with joy.

so this lady walks up at a traffic light, and. . .

It’s 6:15 on a Saturday morning, and I find myself — for reasons not worth explaining right now — driving east down Madison Avenue in Albany. I’m approaching a green light at the intersection with Ontario when a woman walks up to me, waving.

I slow down. Roll down the window. Assess her quickly. She’s 60, maybe a little older, in a knit cap and ratty parka. She’s weeping.

“Please, ma’am. Please.”

Watch out, I say. It’s a green light. Cars are behind me.

“Please. I’ve been homeless. Please, ma’am.”

OK. OK. Give me a sec. I’ll pull over.

“Please pull over. Please.”

Yes, I say. Yes. I’m pulling over.

And so, nicking through the last second of green, I pull over and grub around in my bag for a bill larger than a one. It is now 6:16, and the coffee I poured down my throat 20 minutes earlier has not kicked in. Continue reading