“Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people, the places, the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse, had never been. What kind of hell would that be? ” -Dr. Rosen, A Beautiful Mind
When I was a young child, as soon as I was old enough to talk and ask questions, I suppose, I don’t remember it, my parents explained to me about Santa. They explained to me about the big funny man at the store, or the drawings on cards we got, or my great grandparents’ remark. There was a story, they said, that other people tell their children. About the North Pole and presents. They tell their children this story, and they make it look like the story is true. They tamper with the evidence- hide things from their children and make it look real.
My parents wanted me to know that they would never lie to me about Santa. Never.
So that I would never have to wonder if they had lied to me about God.
I was a horrible child. An evangelist. A proselytizer. I would stop other little children in the street and tell them that Santa did not exist. I would explain the trick. The lie.
The years I spent growing up were in a house in the country. There was nothing around us. Nothing. There were wide, wind swept fields. Sometimes an old farmer, wrinkled like a sunset apple, would smile and wave at the children as he went by. When you went for a walk, the sun hung in a circle overhead and the horizon hung in an even huger circle around your shoulders. No matter how far you walked, it never came closer.
No matter how far you walked, you would never get anywhere different.
But it was alright. Hidden in the quiet was God.
We didn’t go to town very often. We had moved to get away from town. My mom didn’t like it. The neighborhood where we had lived was decaying, and the school nearby was frightening. I don’t know what the school would have been like out in the country. From kindergarten on, she taught us at home.
When I was about eight, we stopped going to church regularly.
We visited churches, often. But we never went anywhere more than once or twice. By that time, we would have found something wrong with them. Or they would have found something wrong with us.
We would never seen them again.
The church we went to before hadn’t liked us much. The church ladies hadn’t liked my mom. My lasting impression of church from before is a horrible sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was too young to understand the reasons, but I felt it. Oh, I felt it. We were not wanted.
Their eyes would look through us when they turned our way.
It was the Sunday Morning Feeling.
Many Sundays we didn’t try to go to church. My dad would get out his guitar and my mom got out her black folder of praise choruses. My two sisters and I would sit with her, and to gentle guitar music, we would sing. We sang the same songs every week. The songs were simple and beautiful. She taught us harmonies.
We sang as the years went by. We sang to God, who would hear us. Who sees what’s done in secret, and, in secret, is there, like a bright cloud, whenever two people meet in his name.
The Sunday Morning Feeling never went away.
Our house was an old farm house. It was made of wood and plaster and wires that the mice might chew on, starting a fire while we slept. I often laid awake wondering what one thing I would try to take with me, if there was a fire.
When I was quiet small, no more than five or six, I had a toy elephant. It meant more to me than anything else I had. I couldn’t imagine how terrified and abandoned it would feel if I left it behind. In a fire.
I could never have left it.
As I got older I thought less about the elephant. My books weighed more and more heavily on my mind.
We always had books around the house. Mom read to us a lot and I learned to read pretty quickly. There were always books.
They were color and voice and sound. They were the scent of the jungle and the ice floe groaning around the hull of the ship. They were the cry of an outlaw trapped in a cave- not knowing if he would ever come out alive- tormented by thirst.
“Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!”
In books, you found God.
We had a lot of books about God.
We had books about how God had made the world. He had made everything and was the reason for everything. He was grace and beauty and truth. He had made people- he had made them because he loved them and they were precious to him. They were his image. But things had gone wrong. They had done wrong. He had driven them away, and they could never go back and be with him again.
Except there was a way after all. A way that we knew. It was a hard and terrible way, but it was possible. God loved us, so much, and longed for us to come to him.
One day we could go and be with God. Where he was.
As I got older the book became more complicated. They never stopped being about God. I read all the books my mother considered science. They told me that it was all true, that there was a God and it all had happened the way the stories I’d listened to at night had said. While the wind had moaned in the siding.
I read about the Flood. I read about layers of soil and volcanic ash and trees buried upright. I read about a warm moist world swarming with strange life and the strange terse accounts that ancient people had written, describing it. I read about a sun always peering through a halo of rainbow light.
I knew that some people in the world did not believe these things. But they weren’t like us. We knew the secret.
We knew the way to God.
I think the trouble is that I didn’t stop reading.
As I got older, the books became more complicated. They were books of theology. They were complicated arguments about the nature of being and morals and forgiveness and death. I was lucky enough to go to a college, a small and weird place. I suppose it would hardly have worked out any other way. I read philosophy and the different versions of theology that have been created. How they shifted out of and into each other. I read about geometry and I read how people had spent generations attempting to square the circle. About how some things are simply not possible. How some questions have no answers. Not because there are no answers. But because the question is wrong. Because sometimes we don’t even know what to ask.
Then I was on my own again. Maybe I should have stopped reading then. I didn’t. I kept having dreams.
I started reading Jung. And then Claude Levi-Strauss. I read about anthropology and the structure of the mind and myths and I started reading myths.
The dreams became vivid.
I read more myths. I read, not the Greek and Roman stories I already knew, but Akkadian and Mayan and Chinese and Canaanite myths. Canaanite- religion. I read strange terse accounts of things that sounded at once utterly alien- and as familiar as my mother’s face.
I wasn’t reading for fun. Not anymore. I was reading because my life depended on it.
And I started reading science. Real science. I read geology and biology and anatomy and as much astronomy as I could wrap my mind around. I read things that my mom wouldn’t have let into her house in a million million years. For fear that it would keep her children from finding God.
Life is different now. Most of the time, it feels emptier and more cold.
But the God I loved was Grace and Truth. I am not going to turn from him now.
Now that he’s dead.
I’m going back to see my family again in a week or so. I don’t know what I’m going to say to them. Should I try to explain the trick? The lie? Will nervous laughter or pointless anger give me away? Will they see change on my face? Will they guess?
If they guess, will they disown me?
If they don’t guess- If I don’t tell them- will I have disowned myself?
Which would be worse?
God has gone further from me than I could ever have imagined. He’s gone further into the sunlight than I can see, and deeper into the quiet than I can reach. Someday, I suppose, I will follow. Maybe I will go to him. Maybe he will be there, after all.
I don’t think he will come to me.