What is Faith?
“What is faith?” A friend posed the question recently, and I realized I had no ready answer. First, I thought, faith is a tradition, a practice, a path, a way of life. A specific faith tradition: Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and many more named and unnamed, the latter often so embedded in the daily work of getting and begetting that one can’t pry faith and culture apart. But faith is also personal, a relationship to a tradition, to a community, to God.
My faith is a discovery that I am at home in the world, that I belong here. A feeling of coherence between my consciousness and its location, between inside and outside. At the same time, a realization that this home will not last, that I am a traveler passing through.
My faith is a widening horizon that reveals the world I perceive as part of a larger whole. Not only do I cohere with the small part of the world I can know, but this small part coheres with a larger universe that I can sometimes glimpse or imagine but can never know entirely. A sense that life is fundamentally good, despite its many evils, that the whole is benevolent. I call that goodness, “God,” but can never pin down just who or what God is. God is and is not a rock of safety, a judge, a king, a father, a mother, a lamb, a babe in a manger. I know that I am projecting when I imagine God as parent or child or any other familiar being. God is always more than I can grasp, and God language is something I use to express hope and faith about matters for which language is inadequate. Dreams sometimes bring me stranger metaphors for God: some wilted flowers, a woman who gives them to me with firm embrace, a shoe that doesn’t quite fit, muddy water that sticks in my throat when my footing suddenly gives way, the same water floating a wise child who jumps in, unable to swim, but knows how to surface and pull herself out.
So when I say God loves me (and you and everyone), I am trying to hold together those feelings of safe belonging and frightening passage. God’s love is not cozy or domestic. God gives and takes away, as Job discovered, and my task is to try to trust in God’s essential goodness and conform myself to God’s will. This will demands a love from me that breaks down walls between myself and others. It asks for more than I can give.
My path is Roman Catholic, but I would never claim that mine is better, in any sense, than that of my secular parents or children, none of whom is any kind of Christian. My parents were politically liberal, personally generous and philanthropic. An anthropologist and rationalist, my father attended to what he could see and hear, and he stayed away equally from psychological investigation and religious speculation. He believed in community and loved the native American tribes he studied, but other people’s religions were always more acceptable to him than the faith of his French Huguenot and Irish Catholic ancestors. My mother was Jewish by birth and psychologically minded, but her parents had embraced Unitarianism before she was born, and Judaism was practiced neither in her original home nor in the one she made with my father. My upbringing was purely secular.
I couldn’t die a better death than my parents’ peaceful and accepting ones. Diagnosed with kidney cancer and questioned about his view of the afterlife, my father said, “Long sleep, but without dreams.” My mother, in bed with lung cancer, read her visitors Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Let evening come,” using the poem’s final lines, “God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come,” to interpret her final hours. My husband, on the other hand, struggled against death in an agony of fear, despite his Catholic faith. His hopeless fight for control could not be soothed by any prayer or song, and he lapsed into hallucination before his final breath. I pray that my way of death will be more like my parents’ than like his.
Faith’s practice can be repetitive or boring. Liturgy imposes order on the flow of time, and Roman Catholic Sunday celebrations are structurally the same around the world, year in, year out, despite variations in culture, music and style. Likewise the Church’s seasons repeat themselves each year. I count on that. But liturgy also creates a different order—it gathers up some flowing time and sets it apart for contemplation, celebration. Benedictine Odo Casel saw his path as circular but tending upward, like a hike around a mountain, spiraling toward the top and filling with increasing light. Once, when I was newly Catholic, a minister of communion whom I did not know handed me the cup and folded his hand around mine. “Body of Christ,” he said, and I felt warm skin on the back of my hand, cold metal on the palm. With my “Amen” I affirmed that we were joined in that one body, and I knew I would never be entirely alone. My flesh saw God that day, my body perceiving what might elude my pinpointing eyes.
Faith connects me to people of all ages, races, and personalities, people whom I might never know as friends. Smart, dumb, rich, poor, generous and selfish, accomplished or disturbed, sick and well, we are a people gathered together to pray, and the light behind the other’s eyes tells me we’re on one quest, joined by an underground river that runs deeper than particularities of interest, personality or profession. Warm on one side, cold on the other—communion creates an intimacy entirely unlike one based on familiarity, friendship, or erotic love.
I have always had a desire for transcendence. From childhood I reached beyond self by training my body to stretch and jump, to articulate a nuance of feeling or a style of expression. I dedicated myself to dance, and it became my religion. I danced through college, married, and ran a household with four kids, rising early to practice each day in a studio on the top floor of our house.
When my first girl, Natasha, was snatched from me at three years old, neck broken in a rolling car, I crashed against death’s wall of separation. My heart defied my head and pushed past the world of things that I had learned to manage. I searched for her, light of my life, and faced a void. There had to be a way that I could cross and find my baby, so recently a part of me, still and always my own kind. My insides stretched so hard to her it seemed that I turned inside out, taking in her sounds and gestures to make them once more mine.
Newborn, Natasha had seemed a powerful Czarina, one whose cruelty captured my adoring heart. At two, careening with naked older brothers around the house, she paraded her body with hilarity, as proud of her pubis as they of their pricks. At two, her first sentence, “I bringing book and chair.” Her tuneless sunshine song. “Oke soke say,” Swanee River’s refrain. Her scream, on waking from a nightmare: “There’s a cow in my bed!” Her firm stride.
“What a doll!” observed a passerby.
“I’m not a doll,” said Natasha, all dignity. “I’m real.”
By three she was a tough outdoor camper, clothesline for a belt, feet in sneakers we called, “combat boots.” Those shoes still sit in my bottom drawer, next to the blood-soaked shorts and T-shirt that I wore the day she died.
In the hours and days that followed, I collided with the closed doors of impossibility, crashed, backed up and ran again. Gone? What’s does gone mean? There’s no such thing as gone. My mind offered up laws of conservation of matter and energy, and my heart turned them into hope that we would be together once again. My loss propelled me outward, onward, seeking a wider world where death had meaning, and God language crept unbidden into the daily dialogue between my husband and myself, continuing despite our red-hot grief.
Stumbling into a local Catholic church, I was unaccountably moved by the age-old liturgy, its suggestion that the story had not yet been fully told, its offering of self to something greater. God burned in me and wed my tears to hope that I could sow in sorrow, reap rejoicing. As I sought God with grief and longing, my understanding found belief, not in a mythical or even supernatural being, but in the way things are, a reality I’d not known before.
In this fragile state I came across an ad in a student newspaper suggesting one “investigate Catholicism,” and I, who’d always considered religion taboo, figured “investigation” was allowed. My old desire for transcendence turned to God, and I searched in prayer’s stillness, kneeling in early morning light in the studio where once I danced. Past a window’s threshold, bare-limbed trees stood stark against pink sky.
While I learned what “Catholic” meant, I made a dance of death and anger, “Dies Irae,” day of rage. The title is the name of a “sequence,” or liturgical hymn once used by the Church during Advent. The hymn contemplates “a day of wrath, a dreadful day, when heaven and earth in ashes lay,” and Verdi’s dramatic “Requiem” sets these words to triumphant music. Anne Sexton’s poems about babyhood and death, and “Ring around the rosy. . .all fall down,” the children’s play song about the Black Death, also figured in the dance. Each element laced together two poles that never should meet: childhood and death.
After the dance I made a child, or rather, two, the first one killed by amniocentesis before its birth, the second now my beloved grown-up daughter. Making is my way of coping with the world’s disorder. Sperm spurt randomly like falling acorns, but when one penetrates an ovum, order mounts up day by day until a person joins the world. Flour lies lifeless in a sack‘til water joins the dusty bits and living yeast jumps at the chance to have a feast. Bodies age and slacken, sicken, turn to earth, but making dances, bread and babies holds disorder off a while. Mass feeds the spirit daily bread. Dances, babies, bread and prayer: these are the concrete expressions of my faith.
Six years after my baptism my father died, and then one year later, my husband. Bereft, I yearned for all of family life, the bad with the good, from children’s spats to peeing puppies, many years of two in diapers, endless rounds of open mouths (like baby birds, a friend had said), the rare relief of empty lap, the scavenged moments by myself. I still would do it all again to have my husband, breathing, next to me and even more to give Natasha the life she never had. A paradox: that love ripped out, that open wound is what made God burn in me.
Now, thirty-five years later, with children grown and grandchildren thriving, I marvel at the persistence of life itself. At peace on the Catholic Christian way, I am often, reprehensibly, self-satisfied and no longer miss my raucous household. I fail to pray except in church and sometimes during Lent. Foolishly, I pray on airplanes. A bump, a hint of plummet, a rising in my gut, and I, who never prayed a rosary in my life, lean back, close eyes, and say the Hail Mary once, again, again, counting on my fingers. Repetition, bunching time in prayer’s cocoon. Am I praying for safe landing? Yes, I’d prefer that to any other outcome, but no, I don’t believe my prayer can alter anything but me. “Hail Mary, full of grace. . . blessed be the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Womb fruit. During my second pregnancy, my husband and I used to enjoy a bilingual pun based on obst, the German word for fruit. “Going to the fruit doctor,” we said. “Second one might be a lemon. More likely, a watermelon,” and so it felt when I gave birth to my second son, who weighed nine pounds. How blessed I have been by my own womb’s fruit, new life I never could have conjured on my own. “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Mary knew the angel’s fearful overshadowing, the joy of birth, the soul-piercing sword of loss. The plane’s next shudder could be its last, the final chance to reflect before the panicked dive, and my mind surrenders, grateful for the gift of life, my back supported by the seat even if the plane’s held up by nothing more than air. I am calmed and feel, if only for a moment, prepared for death. I start again, “Hail Mary.”