Saturday, July 28, 2007
God, the Universe and Everything
THE SPARE SIMPLICITY of the SHAKER MEETINGHOUSE (and service) in SABBATHDAY LAKE, MAINE APPEALS TO ME NOW
Lately I've been thinking a lot about God--especially the kind of thoughts I often return to when in doubt. Not the "why me? why does God allow any kind of suffering?" kinds of questions--more of the "does God really exist?" kinds of questions and, is there really an afterlife? As a child, I just always believed in a man with a flowing white beard and a wise, unconditional benevolence--like Santa Claus, only for Sunday school class (and from the pictures I saw of God and Jesus in THE CHILDREN'S BIBLE or the Cecil B. DeMille grandiosity of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and Wiliam Wyler's BEN HUR).
My first church school song was "Jesus Loves Me This I Know, For It's In the Bible So" Who could argue with that? We attended church, I was in several youth choirs, and when we moved to New Hampshire I became an acolyte and was soon after confirmed in the Episcopal church. I went through the motions because it was my familiar. Meanwhile, in two years of religion class in parochial school, I asked about graven images in the prevalence of crucifixes and statuary of saints everywhere and the relevance of loads of daily "Hail Marys". Rather than discipline me, Sister Catherine Feeney seemed to welcome these questions and for this I have always been grateful. The architecture and ritual of the two churches I grew up in--Westminster Presbyterian in Akron, Ohio and All Saints' Church in Peterborough, NH--were of special importance. Their associated music a close second, furthered by my father, a church organist and Classical music buff, who supplemented my musical education.
As a child I always knew my parents would answer persistent questions on all subjects and even if they did not have an answer that they were the ones worrying about these questions, perhaps, and that in my asking them, I was somehow relieved of their burden. ["The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable..." Confession, Rite I, COMMON BOOK OF PRAYER]. I was sheltered in the comfort of my parents taking care of things: food, clothing, shelter, education. At the same time I learned that the order of the world does not always stay the same: adolesence, my parents' divorce, new school and friends, and several family tragedies rocked our familial havens.
Now that I'm in the position of being a parent myself, with one of my parents deceased, I am the one faced with these questions with no real buffer. Like it or not, I am firmly in my middle-ages (staring down 45 in October which somehow is more unsettling than 40 ever was), and I find these old unanswered questions returning. If I was an apostle of Christ, I would certainly have been Thomas, the doubter. I've always questioned everything in my life because it is my nature as a researcher, writer and a woman who thinks about too many things sometimes. I brood, I worry, I analyze. I never believe everything I hear or read.
Many would tell me that we shouldn't overanalyze faith or a belief system but yet I am so untraditional in my approach to everything that I can never accept something blindly, even "the knowledge and love of God". If I am anything in the dogmatic sense now it would be a nineteenth century Transcendentalist who saw God in nature and a divine order to things. I don't know why religion or God--or any spiritual discussion around a belief system--is so uncomfortable for some. I find it endlessly fascinating. If I meet an atheist, which I often do, I am as intrigued by their reasons for not believing in a divine power or creator as I am by those who are so sure that they want to convert everyone they meet. [My first of many experiences of this was when in third grade, the parents had a church meeting after a potluck and the children were led upstairs to a Sunday school room. An evangelical couple told us, "If you do not accept Jesus Christ as your own personal Saviour right now, you will go to Hell." I was eight. Even then, I doubted that even God could be that judgmental--but humankind has certainly proved to be.]
Sometimes I want proof of an afterlife, of a creator. I have had glimmering experiences of the supernatural, in the other-worldy (and not in the bad sense, unless you count some strange adolescent experiences with a Ouija board--which should NOT be sold as a game, in my opinion). But it is never enough "proof" for my questioning mind. Even science seems to try and diminish the near death experience (NDE) as the brain shutting down. I read two books this winter about NDEs: one about a Baptist minister's 90 minutes of being clinically dead and the other was MY DESCENT INTO DEATH by Howard Storm. A complete atheist at the time of his "death", this man wrote of being plagued by torture and demons to an emergent and life-changing transcendence. It was such a life-altering experience that when he was revived and eventually healed, he became an ordained minister. [On my reading list for the winter are some books by Trappist monk Thomas Merton and I'd also like to take a crack at the current bestseller GOD IS NOT GREAT: HOW RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING by Christopher Hitchens, whose viewpoints I find refreshing in VANITY FAIR.]
Several years ago we heard from someone in regards to a difficult, extended situation which will likely never settle out again into the way things used to be. I have kept this e-mail because it has resonated with me and I have thought of it often. They wrote: "Each unit must create its own island of peace and love. If we are not good for each other, at least let us be good parents and good neighbors to those we encounter every day. We can not change yesterday - we can only live today, be thankful for our gifts and reach out to those in need." What better expression of the Golden Rule and the sentiment that everything good in our society starts at home and from within?
The other day on my Widgets, where I have a biblical verse of the day that pops up, the following verse from 1 Peter: 8 spoke to me: "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy." I don't believe I've ever read or heard a better definition of faith and I'd never heard that particular verse before. Last night when I was reading Susan Cheever's memoir of her father John Cheever, HOME BEFORE DARK, she mentioned the Japanese print on their wall to which her father refered when he learned he was dying of cancer: "Do you know what that says?" my father asked me, as he lay there the Christmas before he died...'Because you can not see him, God is everywhere.'" [Yasunari Kawabata, 1899-1972] It seemed another way of saying what Peter had meant, circa 60 A.D.
Today we were watching an old Granada film, THE KINGFISHER (1982), starring Rex Harrison. He was a dottering old bachelor trying to rekindle an unrequited love of fifty years prior. He quoted from this Victorian poem by Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861) and it reminded me of how I often turn to prayer only in times of great need:
"And almost everyone when age,
Disease, or sorrows strike him,
Inclines to think there is a God,
Or something very like Him."
A friend recently told me, "I know there are things I can't possibly explain, so I don't worry about them." But this week, like the bibliomancers who opened the Bible or other books with a specific question and let their finger fall to a spot with their eyes closed in search of an answer, I have been hit on the head with several literary and biblical answers to my own questions. A firm believer in symbolism and coincidence (or "coinky dinks" as my friend Sue likes to say), I can't help but think someone is trying to tell me something. Maybe I should just listen for a change.