When I asked my six-year-old son, Dev, why he wanted to go to church for the first time that Sunday morning, he gave perhaps the only answer that could have nudged me into folding my newspaper and moving toward some faith I’d never bothered with before. He wanted to go, he said, “to see if God’s there.”
The wish caught me up short. In my two years as a single mom, I’d indulged Dev’s curiosity in all other realms — bass lessons, computer camp, tae kwon do. I’d stood in soccer fields stiff with frost all fall and cheered from the sweltering T-ball bleachers come summer. But should I — or could I, even — provide him with a God in whom I’d absolutely no belief?
I’d grown up agnostic in a swampy corner of the East Texas Bible Belt. My own parents were religious outlaws, although in different ways and for wholly different reasons. My oil-worker daddy figured religion to be another rich man’s trick to steal his wages. He swore never to set foot in church unless toted there in a box.
Mother sporadically showed spiritual leanings, but then only for the most unconventional sects. She flirted with yoga and theosophy. The Christian Science church she took me to a few times appealed to her in part because it demonized the medical profession, as she did. Otherwise, she preached against organized religion with all the ardor of a fire-and-brimstone evangelist. Her own strict Methodist upbringing had schooled her against premarital sex, a restriction that had led her to marry seven times — twice to my daddy, who was numbers five and seven.
The chaos these marriages wrought in my early life made me a wary child, scared of loss and inclined in most situations to presume the darkest possible outcome. Above all, I feared looking foolish. By the time I reached high school, my pose as world-weary realist certainly precluded my going to church. So I never walked on sacred ground except to marry or bury my beloveds. The pessimism I’d cultivated all my life as a hedge against disappointments had seemed cleareyed and permanent, somehow woven into the very fabric of my skin. My son’s hope challenged that view, maybe for the first time.
He stood before me, fiercely blue-eyed in his Power Ranger pajamas. Though his barely literate mind had gone unpreached to, he was professing a native belief in God, as if some circuit hardwired into his brain’s pathways led him to stare out the window at the pale autumn sky and innately view that sky as some mask for heaven. I’d parted with my own hope so glibly. Dev’s seemed dearer.
For his sake, I embarked on a journey of churches, not in God’s name but in the name of love, out of some instinctual need to protect his belief that God existed. We spent two years at it. In that time, my motives underwent a radical and wholly unexpected transformation. The search I started for Dev ultimately became my own. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In picking the first church (or mosque or zendo or temple; we weren’t die-hard Christians, after all), I had to suspend all judgment. My disbelief proved so enormous that I had to abandon it utterly, approaching God as I’d approached dating after my divorce, when friends had lined up innumerable blind dates. So, too, with church. Anybody who’d take my son and me to a religious service could have us. Dogma didn’t interest me. Neither did politics.
That first Sunday, I called a close friend who was active in the Episcopal Church. Dev’s father had been confirmed in that faith; he’d also gone to an affiliated prep school but had never — in our ten years together, anyway — bothered with services. Still, his history in that faith made it sound more palatable. Plus the 10 AM service my friend attended exactly matched our 9 AM decision to go.
It was a capital-C church, its gray stones like those of some horror-movie castle. It sat amid red maples at the intersection of two streets — one leading to the university where I teach, the other to a cinder-block housing project.
Dev bolted for the huge oak doors as soon as I killed the engine. His loafers slapped on the leaf-strewn walk. I’d never seen him actually wear that sport coat, a hand-me-down. With his green clip-on bow tie and wet-combed blond hair, he looked like a refugee from a 1950s wedding. Church seemed the perfect place for him to be loping to. Me, I was edgy. For no apparent reason, the whole enterprise made me watery inside.
In the foyer, I expected to find some Ozzie and Harriet episode in progress — the women in pillbox hats, white gloves, and pearlized earbobs; the men in lizard-green jackets and hard-buffed wingtips; everybody held in that old fluorescent light the color of celery that makes white people look so seedy. But half this parish was black. And their clothes involved khaki and flannel, denim even. Even the ancient blue-haired ladies had pants on.
Organ music started in the sanctuary. The room Dev and I drifted into was vast and barnlike, with tall stained-glass windows on which saints I didn’t know were doing saintly things I couldn’t decipher. We stood and sat and prayed for more than an hour. People took turns talking at the granite altar, which sat dead center. I moved my lips to the hymns that Dev belted out in his brassy, tuneless soprano. Afterward, people ate pastries in the foyer. Kids streaked around. A few parents from my son’s school walked over smiling. Strangers introduced themselves. Someone brought me coffee like I like.
This uninvited niceness made me uneasy. A memory flitted through my head to fuel the paranoia: an airport scene in which a Hare Krishna devotee had once given me an incense stick with a sweet bow, then pestered me for a “donation” all the way to the baggage claim. In short, I could view the Episcopal coffee only as some sneaky prelude to commerce.
Yet Dev’s experience wholly opposed mine. When I half jokingly asked him in the car whether God had been present in the church, he cocked his head at me and winced, as if I’d missed the obvious. “Where were you?” he asked.
My criteria in choosing a parish were at first entirely practical, without spiritual tint. We stopped going to the Episcopal church after a few months because I found the place too cold, not emotionally but physically. To heat that vaulted space would cost a fortune, I guess. Still, the scalding baths I took after services felt like penance.
Most of the subsequent places of worship got just one visit from us — the synagogues, for instance. The Hebrew that mesmerized me at the Conservative temple only frustrated Dev, who preferred the Reform service, which to me sounded — with its talk of Middle Eastern strife — too political. In truth, I now realize, I’d begun to yearn for some spiritual nurture from such visits, and politics seemed to undermine that. Dev and I both adored the Southern Baptist church, with its hand-clapping gospel choir and hugely active Sunday school. But its four-hour service was a bigger time investment than I cared to make each week.
Oddly, the two superliberal Protestant parishes, whose lack of dogma should have appealed most to me, instead put me off church entirely. The first one we visited — let’s call it Church X — had a strangely sterile quality from the outset. For one thing, its Sunday school disbanded every summer, so few kids were in evidence when we visited in August. This kept Dev squirming while I fussed at him to sit still. The sermon, on justice toward one’s fellows, had been so squeezed of reference to God or Jesus — perhaps in order to modernize the language or to free the parish from washed-out doctrine — that any sense of history was lost. The pastor asked for peace and gave thanks for plenty, yet showed not the faintest strain about the facts of war and rampant want. I asked the pastor if I hadn’t missed something in his talk, a reference to evil. “We don’t believe in evil,” he said, smiling broadly. To my taste, it was like a Rotary Club meeting, where everybody had agreed on the agenda in advance and only waited for the chicken lunch to appear.
To Church Y I brought high hopes because so many of my friends from the university belonged. That sense of fellowship was new. Other places, we’d been virtual strangers. But whereas Church X had avoided all talk of God, Church Y saw gods everywhere, all more or less interchangeable. This ubiquity, in my view, made these “gods” no more potent than the rabbit’s foot Dev carried for luck. This second church’s spiritual dilettantism had a random quality; like the first church, it seemed without ritual, sadly untethered to any tradition.
We stopped going to church for a while after that. In eighteen months we’d failed to find a spiritual home, though Dev continued with evening prayers, a practice I came to envy. Here’s one verbatim: “Thank you, God, for my pets and these warm covers.” Listening to him, I began to hope that prayer might do for me what church couldn’t — cultivate some internal sense of calm acceptance, a rightness between myself and the world. Left to improvise my own prayers, however, I tended to pitch my case to God like some broker peddling tax-deferred annuities. Unlike Dev, I lacked gratitude. My mind instead seized on whatever was broken or absent in my life — balding tires, ungraded papers, my mother’s failing health. My comforts and good fortune never got a nod. Or so I began to notice.
I sought an unlikely Buddha (or rabbi or confessor, as you’ll have it) for help with this. Jane works at a halfway house in Boston. Before she took up with God, she’d been a heroin addict. This led to a failed career holding up pharmaceutical warehouses. Ten years clean, she was possessed of that Roman quality the poet and monk Thomas Merton aspired to: hilaritas. She lit up any room she entered, but she was the least sentimental human I knew. Jail time had drained her of pathos. Yet I knew her faith in God was deep.
It was that faith I lacked, I told her. “Faith isn’t a feeling,” she said. “It’s a set of actions. Get off your ass and pray every day. On your knees. Morning and night.” She gave me a copy of the Saint Francis prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is conflict, pardon . . .” These sentiments were impossible to argue with. Still, I balked at kneeling. What kind of God required me to grovel that way? “You don’t do it for God,” she said.
A week later, a student invited me to a Zen-meditation service designed to still a scampering mind like mine, and I went. Alone. The fact that I went without Dev, who couldn’t endure a two-hour “sit,” forced me to admit — for the first time, really — that I’d become a searcher in my own right.
My enemy in this search, however, was my own head. I’d begun to notice as I tried praying that my head prattled more or less constantly, and most of the urgent truths it issued were, in fact, solely made up by it. Mostly my head liked to warn me — volubly and in great detail — against plots and disasters it saw hurtling my way (that bruise is bone cancer; a late-night hang-up on the phone is a mad stalker).
The Buddhists find in silence a cure for this. Their service starts with chanting the names of bodhisattvas in Sino-Japanese for five minutes or so. You could be saying jump-rope rhymes, the monk informed me before the service. The breathing of the chants, however, relaxes you into the posture you’re asked to maintain for two hours. Supposedly, you were counting each breath up to ten, then starting over. Me, I rarely got to three before my head started planning new tax strategies and composing oratorios.
A few times I broke through into peace, which was wholly foreign. My head shut up for some minutes. Indeed I felt “empty” then, but vastly so, as if some internal ocean powered my breathing and I merely surfed along without care. The process of sitting had thrown the random skittering of my mind into stark relief. I felt something akin to peace, which is why I practice meditation at home every day and go back to that zendo a few times each month.
But I still wanted a fellowship or set of beliefs to fill the emptiness that the Buddhist practice had started to carve out. And I wanted it to involve Dev. When friends active in a somewhat renegade Catholic church invited us to Mass, I said yes, but with trepidation. I’m emphatically pro-choice, for one thing, and canon law calls abortion a mortal sin. Also, the church hierarchy I’d known in the past was punishing, exclusive, doctrinaire — everything I wanted to avoid.
The feeling in this church, which I now attend regularly, counters all that. Toddlers zigzag down the aisles, and babies squeak and yell, which adds a comic element, a sign of life that opposes the sterility of many other parishes we passed through. One Sunday close to Halloween, kids costumed as various saints took turns at the altar, each telling a brief (and somewhat sanitized) story of a martyrdom. The tiny boy Saint George — visor askew, plastic breastplate listing — came last, announcing, “You can be a saint, too!” Which brought down the house.
A few Sundays, the ritual brought me to tears, the result of my own yearning for certainty, perhaps, or familiarity from childhood, when neighbors would drag me to Mass. Much of Catholicism has changed since then, of course. Latin’s gone. There’s a regular gay-and-lesbian service. The priest also spoke of Jesus as a Jew whose teachings aligned with the Torah. Most surprising, though, was how laypeople — including women — had taken over his duties, handling all aspects of the service but the liturgy.
The Eucharist particularly moved me the time Dev illegally received it. While I was thumbing the missal, he got lured into the Communion line by his pal Osiris. Osiris beckoned, and Dev shot out of the pew, which horrified me. Surely someone would know Dev was unchristened and would pull him aside for a scolding. I leaned forward to pinch his sleeve. He jerked loose. The line edged forward a few notches. I hissed at him to sit down, and he ignored me. People turned my way with tolerant smiles. Once the line curved, I lost sight of both boys till they popped up near the altar.
Before the priest, Dev stood reed-slim and somber. His expression flooded me with sweetness. I thought how his ancestors on all sides had found comfort in this Eucharist, which is painfully actual once you think of it. The body of the god is taken into the human body to nourish the spirit; a wafer of light is laid on the very meat of the human tongue. Dev’s mouth opened like a baby bird’s to receive it.
Afterward, the boys plopped down beside me whispering, their hands busy before them. What obscene gestures, I wondered, were they practicing? But I craned over to catch them in the midst of that old hand game: “Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Open the door” — you wiggle your interlocked fingers at this point — “and see all the people.” The game had been passed down for decades, no doubt, one kid teaching another how to bear long, adult-prescribed intervals when play was forbidden.
Here was a lineage I belonged to. Everybody did, really. That’s how comfort is passed down, hand to hand. Then some window in my head flew open, and the light poured in: Church worked the same magic, or was supposed to.
While the priest spoke and responses were given, I began to feel myself as an animal herded among similar animals. Strangely, I thought of my uncle’s cows, how during cold spells they huddled together for warmth. In order to speak the liturgical responses, I had to breathe in the same pattern as these other people did. Our bodies bent at the same angles to kneel. We had hair in most of the same places. At one point individuals in the pews took turns calling out their intentions, people for whom they wanted prayers said: “My son, whose tumor has metastasized”; “My mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s”; “The refugees from Bosnia and Rwanda.” Here was the acknowledgment of suffering that I’d missed in the superliberal parishes. Here was a place to give voice to your worst fears among others likewise scared.
Is this a conversion story for me? I don’t know. I’ve yet to take instruction or Communion in that church, but Dev and I go most Sundays. The Buddhist meditations help to empty my head of its incessant worry; the Catholic Church somehow fills that emptiness with unexpected light. Kneeling in Mass, I partake of both human suffering and an ancient human hope. Something warm has started to unfold in my chest, I swear. It’s still unfolding.
Copyright © 1995 by Mary Karr. Used by permission. All rights reserved.