You say you don’t believe in God but the evidence is accumulating that God believes in you, right? You’ve met Him in many incarnations – logger, folklorist, soul-mapper – and each time He’s extended an invitation to join His club. But God makes you feel like he took away your GPS so you said “No thanks”.
The thought of unconditional surrender fills your head with hot bubbles as though you’re sitting in a mountain hot spring when the earth begins to shake. No, you’re not going to let someone else take charge of your destiny when the mountain is shaking. No. You wrestle instead. Despite His reputation as a blunt instrument – whacking Jacob in the hip and nearly crippling him, for instance – He hasn’t drop-kicked you yet, although you feel like you’ve been in a headlock for a long time.
You met God for the first time when you were 19 years old and He was a Mennonite logger. He had soft lips and friendly glasses. Your face was reflected in them. Your first kiss was heavenly. You zoomed around on the back of his motorcycle feeling confident that God wouldn’t lose His balance on tight curves. He told you he loved you and without thinking, you loved Him back.
You walked into His church for the first time shepherded by His family. You sat on plain blond wood pews in a room swooning with sunlight. Entering it was like sliding between fresh sheets. It smelled good and, clustered together, feeling the breath of everyone around you as they sang hymns, you felt aerated like a balloon clasped in a reliable hand keeping you from floating away.
Then one night in a bar, you argued about God with your logger lover and you said you didn’t believe in Him. It must have been a New Testament moment because rather than turning you into a pillar of salt, He forgave you but not before He stopped speaking to you for a while. That was the first time you felt like a lost soul. Before that you didn’t know you had a soul.
He left his mark – an unhealed scab that you constantly pick at. You studied God in university like a frog in formaldehyde but God the scholar was not as lively as God the lover but you acquired context – you had none because you were raised without religion. This a-theism wasn’t so much an act of parental rebellion; it was just that God was not in evidence in your house except in a small New Testament Bible given to your mother when she became a Canadian citizen. The only way you knew God was as an epithet spat by your hell-fire atheist father.
Your mother’s ancestors were Iowa Methodists – a Protestant sect that, according to your father, a lapsed Scottish Presbyterian with a pickled egg for a heart, involved a lot of shouting – Amen! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Your Methodist Grandma who lived with you never shouted but she scowled and scolded with Calvinist zeal and the dark lines between her eyes crushed your trespasses – until God showed up on His Honda motorcycle. She peeked out her bedroom window watching your God-loving Mennonite logger’s light-filled good night kisses shine in the porch. You didn’t know God could be so bright and fast. Neither did she.
You’ve met the devil, too. You wonder if God did that on purpose – you know, told the janitor to tempt nine year old you into the boiler room of your apartment building with the promise of letting you burn cardboard boxes in the big furnace. Or sent the cocaine dealer to your boarding house bedroom to offer you a snort of happiness, for free.
Despite you, God lives in your house. Everyone except you is part of the Big Catholic Church, which is kind of like big pharma, a divine dispensary. That’s four out of five (husband and three children) who call themselves Catholics. They’re Christmas and Easter Catholics but they’re good people. You like being around them. They make you feel good, too, even though you know you’re damned. You can thank God and the resident Catholics for that knowledge although thanks is perhaps too grateful a word. Your husband, a saint and fallen folklorist with toothbrush nose hairs and trumpeting sinus problems, has never tried to convert you, but he demonstrates a messianic patience with your so-called encounters with God.
After 36 years of marriage, you have attended at least 30 Christmas masses, an equal number of Easter masses, about a dozen Good Friday services and a fistful of funeral masses. You find the rituals of Catholicism comforting and even magical. Candles and crosses and chanting, incense and bells, and constant motion – up and down in your seat, kneeling, standing, lining up for the blessed sacrament (not you, as that would be Wrong, being an un-baptized Heathen and all). There is purposeful energy.
You like the hymns and the assumption that you will sing along even though you’re hearing the tune for the first time ever. You like warm bodies surrounding you and wailing babies and shushing mothers and family dramas played out on uncomfortable pews. You like the sing-song delivery of the priest as he moves through the rhythm of the liturgy. Your mind wanders in a calm way, not the frenzied scrolling to-do lists repeating themselves like chattering crickets. You leave the church feeling renewed like you’ve had a nap or a cup of chamomile tea or a hot-stone massage.
Before your youngest daughter became a cynical teenager with a mouth like an alligator, she was a force of God. Every night she prayed and asked you to pray with her. You sat on her bed in the dark, and she recited her prayer. Sometimes she cried and told you how sad she was that you wouldn’t be together in heaven because you didn’t believe in God. In these moments you prayed for a conversion experience because she was so worried and scared for you. Nowadays it doesn’t seem to fret her so much. She’s probably relieved you’ll be in separate places.
You worry about being left out. You think God knows this so He visits you now and then. Just last month He said hello in a coffee shop but you didn’t recognize Him in his Molson beer t-shirt. What happened was this: He was taking a picture of a dog wearing a coat outside the coffee shop where you sat with your husband. As he stood beside you, you remarked “He’s a cute dog, eh?” And so it began.
He said He was an agent of God hoping to map the soul. You were lost. It sounded vaguely Jungian – heavenly archetypes infused with essential oils of new age mysticism. Strictly speaking He wasn’t God but the encounter panicked you, in part because you thought an agent of God would already have a map of the soul.
God-the-great-fixer attracts you because sometimes you feel like a sweater with too many pills, those little wads of wool that ball up in awkward places like under your arms or on your breasts and that people can’t help but pick at, like flaking skin on a sunburn. The pills are your ills, a lifetime’s worth of infractions. You pluck them off but they keep coming back, like a wart. You wonder if God could remove them permanently. You’d like to give Him your sweater and be rid of the pills forever.
To say that you’re an atheist or agnostic would be wrong. Being an “ist” or an “ic” requires thought and reasoning, in the manner of Christopher Hitchins or Richard Dawkins. You’re more like a blank page or a piece of land with good geological prospects for God’s miners. When you’re raised with nothing, anything is possible. It is not fashionable to say this, but you admire zealots and their strident belief in their Gods; their absolute certainty. The only thing you’re absolutely certain about is uncertainty.
Still, you’re thankful for the introduction of God into your life. He is perpetually fascinating, like a great aunt who visits once every five years and brings exotic presents – foreign comic books, and crackers with German names, and stinky cheese, and Chinese firecrackers. You’re not sure what to make of these things but you accept them with a smile, read the bewildering labels and puzzle out what to do with the gifts – the evidence that God, maybe, believes in you. Right?