For Lent, an epiphany

March 29, 2012

Some people seek enlightenment, but I never have. I’ve sought answers, many times. I’ve sought better questions. But I’ve never been confident enough in my own comprehensive abilities to think that I would ever know – or even just feel – the meaning of it all.

And if you think I don’t have a high opinion of my comprehensive abilities, well, you’re wrong. If I am arrogant, that is where I am arrogant.

But in my heart of hearts, I believe that, if there is a deep spiritual understanding to be had, most of us get it in drips and drabs. And that’s when we are really trying. Before Teddy was born and before he took those precious last breaths in my arms, I went through a few searches for meaning – in high school and again in college I tried to figure it out and to reconcile the fact that human beings are subject to such random and intense pains and losses with the faith of my family. I worried away at the ideas of god and mercy and miracles and meaning. These things kept me up at night. I ranted about my loss of sleep and my philosophy professor was amused.

I thought I’d struggled my way to an understanding, that I’d wrestled my angel and deserved to move forward through life with my mind at rest.

I was, not an idiot, but I was thoroughly sheltered and privileged and woefully unaware of what it feels like to share the (not uncommon) fate of losing a child to untimely death. Okay, I was a bit of an idiot.

I thought I’d wrestled with an angel, but as it turned out, I’d been wrestling with a fluffy little bunny in a cheap angel costume, the kind with a plastic mask and a silly tinsel halo. I thought my faith was hard-won. It wasn’t. These days I am so very tired of trying to resuscitate my faith, of trying to find meaning in a world full of stupid, meaningless pain. That sounds really grim, and I’m not a grim or even pessimistic person. I’m fully aware of beauty and kindness, of creativity and caring. I see people making and finding meaning all the time, and I think this is marvelous. Sometimes I even find myself doing it, when I’m not paying attention. But it’s harder than it used to be. And I get tired.

And when I hear someone talking about how God helped them find their perfect new house, or a perfect pair of shoes, steam reliably pours out of my ears. I used to have that. I will never have that again. I’m immune to that kind of faith. I reserve for that kind of faith the same sort of sneer that my darling N, an ex-smoker, gives when we walk through someone else’s cloud of smoke on our way across campus.

I’m a no-easy-answers-please zealot, and this makes looking for answers – not all the answers, not enlightenment, just enough answers to be able to stop banging my head against this wall I’ve created out of my lost faith – really difficult. But I keep looking. I don’t know if it’s stubbornness or simply that I share in this part of the human condition and can’t give it up.

So, a few weeks ago I was catching up on some light reading. Specifically, my favorite online advice columns, which are Savage Love and Dear Sugar. (Tangent: I like advice columns because they make me feel more a part of the human condition while also allowing me to smile knowingly at the human condition. I know it’s bad to be a smug bitch, but sometimes I indulge. I also think there’s something to the art of the advice column that’s mysterious and intangible and wonderful and very daring. It’s very daring to give people advice, don’t you think? To take that particular kind of risk with your own thoughts and words?) It’s a fabulous form of distraction, this kind of reading – for me it’s an almost pure distraction, almost the opposite of what I imagine meditation would be if you were really good at meditation. I was reading through the Dear Sugar Archives, enjoying the sensation of my brain NOT worrying about my family budget, my dead baby, my current lack of sleep, my worries about work, and I accidentally stumbled upon my very own little epiphany.


There is this:

Countless people have been devastated for reasons that cannot be explained or justified in spiritual terms. To do as you are doing in asking if there were a God why would he let my little girl have to have possibly life threatening surgery?—understandable as that question is—creates a false hierarchy of the blessed and the damned. To use our individual good or bad luck as a litmus test to determine whether or not God exists constructs an illogical dichotomy that reduces our capacity for true compassion. It implies a pious quid pro quo that defies history, reality, ethics, and reason. It fails to acknowledge that the other half of rising—the very half that makes rising necessary—is having first been nailed to the cross.

And then, this:

What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?

There’s a great deal more to that post. Reading it felt like balm and revelation and relief. I still struggle with faith, but this is a way of looking at faith that makes me believe that faith may be, some day, a possibility. I’m still wrestling, but now I feel like I know better who and what I’m wrestling with.

It occurs to me that many of the bloggers I read who write about faith have written very thoughtfully on these precise topics. Why the words of this particular column, at this particular time, struck such a chord with me – well, perhaps it is partly due to all of the wrestling I’ve been privileged to read about. I’m very grateful to all of you for that.

(And if you’ve made through this incredibly long post, thank you for that, too.)





  1. I will have to come back and follow that link on the weekend … I don’t have quite the brain power to follow the quotes you left just now, but I am interested and will be back to do so.

    I found that the book ‘when bad things happen to good people’ by Rabbi Kushner was really helpful to me when I was trying to deal with the terrible pain and evil that exists in the world. It brings out a point of view and an explanation that rings true to me.

    I have loaned it to friends who had the opposite reaction though – they did not find peace and clarity with it … but if you are interested, I would recommend you give it a look.

  2. I love Sugar. I’m reading her memoir right now and it is awesome.This: “What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah?” This is perfectly put and captures what I feel about religion. I wanted to scream a HELL YES!! That is Christian existentialism at its core. And let’s cut to it, also Buddhism.

    Just lately, the last six months, I have tried opening myself to letting in faith, or rather, I have just been believing without questioning. The first time in my life I just let myself shut up and believe. Just allowing for mystery without figuring out the how of it. It is liberating. I write about God often, trying to figure out what God means to me, what faith means, and if I allow for signs, does that negate my rationale, for example? I have my degree in Religion and I have been on a seeking path for most of my adult life, trying to find God and meaning and religion, and it took me admitting I was powerless over alcohol, and to be desperate enough to pray in earnest for the first time in my life. I didn’t get the answer I wanted, but I got an answer.

  3. Provoking thoughts…if you’re Christian. I can think in thoughts of the Messiah or Messiach (Hebrew word) but not about the guy on the cross; ruins it for me who struggles with her own faith which is exceptionally philosophical.

  4. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. I started reading a book called “A Return to Love” by Marianne Williamson, of which the excerpts you shared remind me.

  5. I liked the tiny raft of good wishes and prayer in the full column. I’ve struggled with the purpose of prayer since Henry and my sister-in-law died. It clearly was not ask and you shall receive. And yet, I believe it has a purpose and does good of some kind. I continued, continue, to prayer, though sometimes I’m not exactly sure why. Those thoughts are where I found myself with this post.

  6. Beautiful post. I read eagerly, hoping for my own epiphany… and i cried when I read the excerpts. Yes. I get that: feeling my living children’s hands in my mine – really feeling them – only recently and for the first time in years.

    I do a lot of faith wrestling and (this may be cheating) but recently am coming to an awareness that I am not wrestling with whether I believe in God or not. I can’t seem to help believing in him. What my wrestles are about seems to be the character of my faith. It isn’t a happy clappy faith, but is that the only kind of faith there is? I think what I have realised is that my faith has a character. It has my character – it challenges itself all the time. It is always questioning. It doesn’t rest easily. It absolutely definitely does not go with the “things happen for a reason” philosophy, but things do happen and we can choose how we live with them.

    Still not feeling very resolved, but I am going to try and relax a bit and let myself feel the little things.

    In the spirit of advice columns – a song I am loving at the moment is Emili Sande ‘Read all about it’. Maybe it relates or maybe it doesn’t… xx

  7. Sorry for butting in again, but if you do go looking for that Emili Sande song, it isn’t the Professor Green mix!!

  8. It’s ok, I was a bit of an idiot too! I don’t have the faith that you and many of your other readers have, but that said I still really enjoy your take on it all. Sometimes I wish I did though, so that I would have had someone or something to direct some of that anger at or someone or something to turn to when I needed help.

  9. ‘And when I hear someone talking about how God helped them find their perfect new house, or a perfect pair of shoes, steam reliably pours out of my ears.’ Better hope somebody never says these things in the presence of us both or I do believe that they may end up rather scalded. Hate that. God helped you find your perfect pair of shoes? Really?! What weird and frivolous kind of God do you believe in?! The God of PERFECT SHOES? From plagues of locusts to this? Ah me.

    I liked your words on advice columns. I find them compelling too, perhaps because I like to feel smug (shamefaced)

    I remember arguing drunkenly with my boyfriend at the time when I was a student (wrestling with my own fluffy bunny in a tinsel halo) that it didn’t matter if the man who was crucified was the Messiah or not, if the resurrection were true or not. Because that wasn’t the point of the story. Still don’t think it is. Because the passion and the crucifixion are the heart for me.

    Resurrection of the dead and life everlasting would be nice (or not, depending my mood) but they are not the where the rub lies.

    I think I’ve lost my faith somewhere. Directly after Georgina died, I felt enlightened. As though it all made sense and I understood but it has been retreating from me, just as she has. The thing I’ve got left is something I have to build up myself, out of matchsticks.

    But I know I’ll come back to it. Like Louise, I can’t seem to help it.

  10. I have a hard time detaching the notion of God the Creator from the god that appears on a camouflage-print Bible cover at Wal-mart. I feel like the concept is just so watered down that I can’t even figure out what it’s supposed to be…much less acquire any. I’m not sure that I’ve ever had it or not had it. I guess the fact that I keep shoveling means that I have something like it, right?

    That’s enough about me. I enjoyed this post, even though it’s painful to read about your struggle. I like reading about topics that are sort of foreign to my personal experience when they’re written by smart folks like you. You’ve opened my eyes to a different part of this experience and I thank you for it.

  11. I love to read advice columns, too. Have you read (the book, not and advice column!) When Bad Things Happen to Good People? I think, if I can presume after reading only one post, that there might be some thoughts and theological (and otherwise logical) arguments that resonate with you in it.

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