Dear Lily June,
To begin, a confession. A gracious, kind, patient woman of God has sent me an email, an email I haven’t known how to begin to respond to, and so I haven’t (yet) said anything in reply.
She isn’t the first. From across the world, from the other side of my own heart, I have been receiving well wishes and prayers from women who carry their faith like Atlas carried the world slung over his shoulder. I look at them with equal parts admiration and intimidation. I don’t know if I have strong enough shoulders to take on a burden so great, even if it might paradoxically make my entire life lighter for the bearing of it. To those ladies, fellow mothers all, I am in awe of their generosity. I hope they can forgive me my long silences. They are fuller than I can convey.
This is my start, to repay their kindnesses: I am trying. Because I am still relatively illiterate when it comes to the capital-W Word of God, I am turning to the words of men and women who have carried me through my life, and are only just now starting to connect in my heart (soul?) in meaningful ways I can, with all my limitations, start to make sense of.
The confession I really meant to begin with: That woman who sent me the email? She told me, in the gentlest possible way, that my attempts mean little if I don’t invite God into them.
So I have whispered aloud and alone in my office “God help me” before writing this. In my mind, I am met with the echo of my mother’s favorite quotation, snatched from the pages of the Ms. Read books:
“Fear not. Please God.”
And yet, I am plenty afraid. Of getting it wrong. Of failing to please God, myself, anyone. Of attempting, as Elliot Eisner described of the function of poetry, to use words to say “what words can never say.”
The confession I’m terrified to admit: I’ve lived most of my life fairly certain that I’m going to Hell, for a variety of reasons, most of which involve turning my back on Him. I have lied quite a bit but stolen little, and intentionally harmed others even less. I am not a rapist, a murderer, a molester, but I have been incredibly, incredibly selfish, caring more about my own pains than the pains of others. I am only trying, in my thirties, to change this. Is it too late?
In my heart of hearts, whatever my religious affiliations or lack thereof, I have spent most of my life believing that life is a gift, and the greatest sin is being ungrateful for it. By that definition, Lily, I’ve spent a long time as a sinner, not just being ungrateful for the live I’ve been given, but worse, acting like I’ve been blind. Like I haven’t even seen it.
And yet, as I look back through the library of my life, I see, much to the delight of a self-described writer and reader, that my faith always been there: In print.
I can count on one hand the number of poems I’ve memorized in my life. One I still remember down to the letter is a poem I memorized in high school, Stevie Smith’s “Our Bog is Dood.” Depressed and cynical about the beliefs of any like-minded herd (as any kid with a dysfunctional family who was taunted by cliques in high school might be), it appealed to my sensibilities. The poem’s narrator speaks with a presumably religious group about their “Bog” (i.e. God) being “Dood” (i.e. Good).
The trouble is, the group members can neither agree on who exactly Bog is, nor on the qualities that make said Bog dood. At idealogical odds, they turn on one another, and the narrator escapes, presumably belief-free and the better for it:
“Oh sweet it was to leave them then, / And sweeter not to see, / And sweetest of all to walk alone / Beside the encroaching sea, / The sea that soon should drown them all, / That never yet drowned me.”
I thought, in Smith’s speaker, I had found my prophet, and maybe as a teenager I had, momentarily. But for me, spiritual certainty has been as attainable as finding stillness in the middle of the ocean. Life–with all of its waves and tides–has kept pushing and pulling me in different directions. After all, did I really want to be that speaker who, upon encountering a sea full of imminent drowners, just keeps walking, smug in her sense of intellectual superiority?
In college, I studied a lot of God. I took courses on religion, American and eastern. I took a course called “Bible as Literature” and read, for the first time, the Word of God, as set in context, historically.
It was in this class that I first learned Christianity wasn’t always a beautiful beacon of hope the Hallmark cards and sitcom allusions of my youth had led me to believe. That Jesus, too, turned over tables in rage as I saw my father do, that he was a violent revolutionary, proclaiming (if you believe he’s “transcribed” in the Book of Matthew),
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
I knew nothing of being a parent, but the idea of turning people against each other unsettled me. The larger premise of God sending His child to the cross to die brutally for the callous cruelty and indifference of others seemed beyond me. (Confession: I still can’t fully understand this, though I’m starting to understand that the need to understand may be my own arrogance.) The violence of the Bible, especially against women–just like the violence of my father–frightened me.
In college, I also studied literature, where I was introduced to my favorite Shakespearean play, “King Lear.” I related to its plot of a dysfunctional family whose father has the power to bestow great gifts upon his children, but wants to dictate how they use them. My own father and I at the time were estranged, after I had watched him strangle a girlfriend my senior year in high school and called the police on him, an act which resulted in his revoking the offer to help fund my college tuition. His words at the time of that violence–“This is all a game to her”–seemed to echo back to me in Shakespeare’s lines from Act IV,
“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.”
In the play’s ultimate act of violence, Cordelia, the youngest daughter (as I was to my father) is killed senselessly, guilty of only being honest with her father about his foolhardiness.
God, to me, was starting to feel like an estranged yet divine parental figure, not only a figure who made me, then didn’t seem to care about my upbringing, but also didn’t seem to particularly like me (much as I felt about my own parents). I fell further into this kind of self-pitying religious rejection when I hit my health problems, a result, I knew, of finally having to begin processing–half as a child and half as an adult, as all early twenty-year-olds in America are–the childhood I’d been through.
I would fall in love with writers half in and half out of love (faith?) with their versions of God. There was Emily Dickinson who, in some poems, could speak with authority and certainty about Immortality and the capital-s Soul, and in others, could announce, unflinchingly,
“The abdication of Belief / Makes the Behaviour small – / Better an ignis fatuus / Than no illume at all.”
(My translation: An ignis fatuus is a will-o’-the -wisp, a ghost light seen by travelers at night, especially over bodies of water, like bogs. In comparing God with a false light, she is admitting uncertainty about her beliefs.)
Then there was Jeffrey McDaniel whose “Foxhole Manifesto” might be the single most accurate description of my spiritual life, especially in his struggles to label and define God, if only for himself.
But no other writer seemed to exemplify this torturous on-again, off-again relationship with their deity like Fyodor Dostoevsky, who ignited something in me through his characters that wrestled with their consciences, at moments brutally bitter and anti-social, in others wanting to save all, even the lowest, of society. The character of Ivan, from The Brothers Karamazov, may have been speaking to or for me when he attempted to convince his religious brother, Alyosha, that Alyosha’s faith was meaningless in the face of a God cruel enough to permit the brutal beatings of children.
In a passage that has never left me (maybe because its story seems so familiar, as if it still occurs on the news nightly), he describes one girl’s horrors to his brother:
“This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’!”
I, too, had once felt like a child who had cried out to a God that seemingly never answered me. I didn’t know how much fuller His silences could be than any person’s, but Dostoevsky must have had some glimpse into this truth. Once, he was sentenced to be executed in an unimaginably cold, stark Siberian prison, an execution only stayed at the last second by a letter from the Tsar, carried by cart. In that minute, strapped to a pole and looking into the barrels of a firing squad, Dostoevsky lived an entire lifetime, so the story goes. It was in that fearful trembling minute that Dostoevsky found his God.
In college, I also studied philosophy, namely “Intro to Existentialism.” It was there I would encounter thinkers like Sartre who believed God dead, but what surprised me was not connecting with that cynicism in the slightest. I always believed, with some small spark in spite of the darkness inside of me. Instead, I was intrigued by thinkers like Kierkegaard whose theories in Fear and Trembling may as well have been speaking directly to me. The book’s title came from the line in Philippians 2:12,
“…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
It was a far cry from my mother’s favorite quotation–“Fear not. Please God”–but the book, despite its subject matter, offered a surprisingly hopeful formula to faith for me. Kierkegaard philosophically ponders the biblical story of Abraham, called upon by God to sacrifice his only, long-wanted, hard-begotten, very beloved, son, Isaac. He defines this action as a contradiction:
“The ethical expression of what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac, the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac – but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet, without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is.”
Kierkegaard’s is a philosophy built entirely of these kinds of contradictions and paradoxes, with faith being the anxious leap between murder and sacrifice, destruction and salvation. This is what appeals to me most: He argues, ultimately, that faith is not a given, but a gift, granted to the ones most willing to make this leap. I had never seen it put in that direction before: That you don’t pray to/worship/take steps toward God because you believe; you are granted belief because you pray to/worship/take steps toward God.
He calls these steps/prayers/leaps “resignation,” explaining thusly,
“The act of resignation does not require faith, for what I gain is my eternal consciousness. This is a purely philosophical movement that I venture to make when it is demanded and can discipline myself to make, because every time some finitude will take power over me, I starve myself into submission until I make the movement, for my eternal consciousness is my love for God, and for me that is the highest of all.”
I wish I could say, Lily, that I wasn’t still terrified then of a God who asked a man to sacrifice his child, of a God’s son who put conditions on his love before he, too, was sacrificed, or who, at the moment of truth, called out so humanly to his father,
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
The pain of being abandoned by a parent, cut off and silenced; I knew it too well. I wasn’t yet willing to pray to/worship/take steps toward that God.
And then in grad school, I met your father, Lily, the man who would become the love of my life, the first wellspring of absolutely unconditional love I had ever come upon, and boy did I have a thirst to be quenched. He would (and still does) teach me so much. Like the poem he’d been made to memorize in college, that he recited for me and I fell in love with, despite all of its extraordinary difficulty, Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “Carrion Comfort.”
If I understand it at all, the poem is about about a man fighting his urge towards despair, maybe even self-destruction, when it comes to faith. Sure, he has, at points in his life, been dealt a raw deal, and he asks of God, who he calls “thou terrible:”
“Why wouldst thou rude on me / Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan / With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones?”
Whatever exact acts you interpret those lines to mean, it’s clear Hopkins feels abused, even preyed upon by God, and yet, he will not give up the struggle even towards faith in the face of all this. He is a man trying to understand how the pains of the world, of his life, could be for humanity’s, his, own good, and in doing so, he still acutely remembers when his struggle was at its sharpest, when
“I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”
Should it matter that your father of all people would be the one to introduce this poem of internal struggle to me, Lily? Maybe, if you believe, like your dad, that
“God is in your perspective.”
If I understand your father’s words, Lily, he believes that faith is the choice between seeing the world as a series of coincidences, and seeing each path as leading meaningfully into the next. For instance, one could say that it was only a coincidence that, in looking up a Dickinson poem that demonstrated her religious struggle to write this entry with, I found the passage about an ignis fatuus, a will-o-the-wisp, randomly.
And yet, I only knew that word from dating your father, because it was the name of an entire poem (“Ignis Fatuus”) by his college poetry teacher, Larissa Szporluk, the poem that ends with some of our poetic favorite lines of all time
“Part of the sky is all of the sky, / the rest is wasted.”
She was, incidentally, the same teacher who required your dad to memorize the Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Carrion Comfort” in the first place.
Your father, without knowing it, resolved so much of my crisis of faith just by loving me. “God is in your perspective,” he says, an interesting faith since he, like one of Ivan Karamazov’s imagined children, was abused as a boy and came to God not necessarily in spite of, but because of, it. And your father gave me you, the child I thought wouldn’t make it, the child I prayed for endlessly, not that you be born safely, Lily, but that you be delivered according to God’s will. “Do what you are going to do,” I’d pray fervently to God, as if there could be any other way.
I know that must be painful to read for you as my daughter, so let me explain. When I was told by doctors that I might lose you, I had to choose my perspective. I could pray that, regardless of any malformations, you be given to me so I could rejoice in your very presence in the world, but how selfish a pray-er might that prayer have made me?
I had no way to know, my darling dear, that you would be born healthy, with your organs inside instead of outside of your body, with a heart that had four working chambers or a brain two working hemispheres, or that you wouldn’t require a lifetime of surgeries your father and I might not be able to afford. If you were to be born into a fragile shell of momentary pain, I would rather your soul stay in Heaven, with God, a place where, when pregnant, I was first granted the gift of believing in, maybe as a result of so much praying. I would rather sacrifice my glimpse of you than to be a part of your suffering.
I awoke to the sunrise every morning of my pregnancy sure that the beauty of your soul lay just beyond it, and if it were God’s will, you would be given to me. Those sunrises became you, for me, and I prayed both to and about them. It was ironic, then, that your father named you, with the real name I don’t use on this blog. The name that means, literally, light. That part of the sky I could see became all of Heaven for me, Lily. It became all of the sky. It became all of love, of faith.
Does that mean, my darling daughter, that I love you more than God, and am thus not worthy to be loved back by Him who gave you to me? That is one perception of the situation. But another is seeing you and God and love as inseparable, the connection between the religious concept of a holy ghost and the literary allusion to a will-o-the-wisp as tangible, meaningful, purposeful.
After you were born–and born safely–it was also your father who gifted you and I with the Disney movie that we have already watched countless times together, Brave, a story about a mother and daughter whose entire lives are changed when one of them takes one small action: following a trail of will-o-the-wisps. The burgeoning believer in me wants to value the significance of all of this, especially since, in literature, a will-o-the-wisp often appears when the character who encounters them is attempting to achieve a goal that may be impossible to reach.
Kind of like explaining the evolution of one’s thinking about God in a single blog post.
Kind of like coming to God, as was described to me by the gracious, kind, patient woman in her email like C.S. Lewis did: “kicking and screaming.” Kind of like being pursued (her words) by God for a lifetime and finally surrendering. Kind of like falling in love with your father before I ever knew if he could love me back. Kind of like falling in love with you before I ever knew if you would live.
- By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27197029
- By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32173788