The night of November 8, 2016, I went to sleep. My husband stayed up to hear the election returns. When my alarm rang, I rolled out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom. He’d left a pink Post-It on the door.
I sat down and cried. A few seconds later, the first coherent thought came into my head. It was a prayer.
To understand why this was weird, you’d have to know my long and complicated relationship with religion, theism, non-theism, atheism, and Christianity in particular. In few words: I grew up Episcopalian. I had problems with the church of my birth. At the same time, I got interested in religion as an area of study. While rewarding as an intellectual pursuit, that didn’t improve me as a believer. I spent many worthwhile, enriching years among other styles of Protestants, but I could not resolve my objections. About five years ago, I evicted Jesus and filled some of the empty space with secular meditation and ethics.
Now I was praying again, and not even in a foxhole way. More like a ‘hey, remember me?’ way. An ‘I’m late, but I’m here’ way. The break in my heart revealed itself as a break with my years of unproductive doubt. As Shirley MacLaine said, I’m over all that.
I noticed that I’d always expected to chuck my churchlessness someday. Something about that doorPost-It turned someday into five minutes ago. It was time to fish for men or cut bait, and I only had to wake up to the fact that the decision had already been made.
Some part of my brain and newsfeed were telling me I should be consumed by fury, terror, despair. For sure I’d felt my share of those during the campaign, or whenever I read about the latest polar ice melt or mass shooting. But now I felt afire with thankfulness, curiosity, and a positively goofy love for pretty much everybody. I went to work and hung out my own Post-It: FREE HUGS ANYTIME. Some of my co-workers took me up on it.
It didn’t stop. Some fury and some terror did follow, along with guilt and confusion and many of the things my friends and peers were feeling. Yet underlying it all, this unsought spark, neither triggered nor crushed by facts on the ground. A month later I was starting to feel self-conscious about it. It’s Christmas, I thought, or hormones, or too much espresso. I found myself misting up in sheer happiness at a glimpse of the moon over the skyline, the first notes of the Moana soundtrack, a perfect mouthful of miso soup with chewy kelp. Everything so fragile and so beautiful.
It hasn’t stopped yet. After two months my untiring feet carried me back to church. Not only to church, but to the Episcopal Church, the sect of my youth, where, with occasional exceptions, I hadn’t been for twenty years. Turns out it feels like home.
In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong reminds us that only modernism and its reactions associate faith with intellectual assent. Where they apply to God, the words faith and belief are dodgy translations. Earlier thinkers, or those more at ease with uncertainty, know that to believe is not to tick the boxes of some cosmic checklist, but rather to engage in a way of life. Faith is not something you pin down, but something you step out upon. I’d read a million variations on this, but it took a tragic bathroom Post-It to bring clear.
Take this from me; I’ve read a lot of books. Religions are imperfect. They’re limited ways of grappling with unlimited stuff. Some do much better than others. None is ideal. I don’t claim that a Christ-centric way is the only way or even the best way. I’m only explaining that, to my continued amazement, it seems to be my way. And once you know where you stand, you can figure out where to go.
Where I went this month was Foley Square in lower Manhattan, to a rally in support of refugees and immigrants. The current Episcopal Church is really rocking ministry to and about these groups. (Here’s a spot-on public statement by the leadership of the parish that’s recently welcomed me.) Foley Square was dark, and I get lost easily, but as soon as I found the crowd I spotted the church’s flag.
Even as a come-lately-backslider, I was intensely proud to march behind that flag to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building. We chanted NO HATE! NO FEAR! REFUGEES ARE WELCOME HERE!—which I’d say is pretty solid doggerel for “love thy neighbor.” And I got one of the best photos I’ve ever taken.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.