At this very moment, it’s a decent bet that my mom is praying for me and my brothers who she hopes will inherit her bullet proof faith but are more likely to drive away in her navy Buick and left over case of chardonnay she bought at a discount over the state line in Delaware.
“I am telling you Kelly,” she has said to me a couple hundred times, “Prayers powerful, you should try it.”
The closest I come to prayer is to give a nod of thanks to a just right avocado or an ache that’s resolved or a five-star public school teacher like Ms. McKuen. At night, after I get in bed and pull my covers around me I sometimes think, “Thank you for this good man beside me and those girls in the other room. I have no specific ideas about who you is.” I have no specific ideas about who I’m addressing.
In cafes around Berkeley and Oakland, community bulletin boards scream with beliefs: tantra, tai chi, beading meditation. There are ads for weekend seminars where you can make your passion canvas, your soul colleague, your purpose manifesto. I once saw a stack of glossy cards promoting the international clitoris festival, praise be to that. When I go home to Philly I see gold crosses around the necks of my high school friends and drive past sandwich boards telling me to sign my kids up for Bible camp.
I want to dismiss it as so much yearning, but really who am I to say? What if there is something between and around and inside all seven billion of us? As Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is absurd.”
When the girls ask me about God, I say that people believe all kinds of things and no one really knows, including me, but that I hope for God. I tell them there are things that exist — 600 different varieties of ranunculus, child prodigies, altruism — that are so riddled with mystery I have to wonder. Edward tells them that being a parent has been the most spiritual experience of his life. He can’t explain why. “You’ll see,” he says.
Over the years the girls have occasionally wanted to talk about what happens when people die. I tell them some people think they go to paradise, a separate plane of existence where God holds them in the palm of his hand. Other people say the dead are internalized in the people left behind. Edward says they become part of the Earth and therefore, an endless part of the cycle of life. “If you asked Greenie,” Edward says, invoking my dad, “He would’ve told you that heaven exists and boy are you going to love it.” Just like if you asked him why I got better after a nasty bout with cancer in my 30s, he’d have said something about how God wanted me to be here, that he had big plans for me. When I told Greenie I got better because there was an antidote, namely four chemotherapies, he just laughed and flashed his big knowing smile. “Aw Lovey, don’t you see? What do you think makes a person want to spend his days trying to cure cancer?”
That’s what stops me from pushing aside the idea of God once and for all. If we’re just fancy animals or an accident between ice ages, where does our desire to do good and be good come from? Maybe it’s the social contract. Maybe it’s reincarnation or Freud’s superego. Don’t ask me, any certainty I pretend is a performance to keep the troops calm and in line. Alone in the campaign tent with maps spread out on the folding table, I work in pencil with shaky hands.
This post was inspired by a conversation I had with my mother, who goes to Catholic mass every day of her life, and Eboo Patel, a Rhodes scholar and passionate Muslim, in which I asked: Is religion good for society? How does a spiritual orientation change a person? What do we lose when we leave organized religion? We covered how faith has evolved in the lives of everyday Americans and how thinking of America as a “potluck nation” rather than a melting pot might help us to make better sense of our differences.
Many thanks to my mom and to Eboo Patel. Learn more about Eboo here.