The woods are lovely, dark and deep.But I have promises to keep,And miles to go before I sleep,And miles to go before I sleep.-Robert Frost
My daughter made a painting of Narnia for Christmas for me. It’s a snowy wood bathed in lavender dusk with the beckoning lantern in the far right corner. I can’t describe how this image makes me feel – has always made me feel. It’s too much of a cliche to write about a childhood relationship with Narnia: the initial enchantment, the subsequent disappointment (who needs a clunky ‘message’ story, anyway?), the strange yearning that travels, for some, well into adulthood.
It’s the same unquenchable longing I sometimes feel when I walk into a church. Not just any church, but an Epsicopal church at Christmas time or, better yet, Easter week. I find all the ‘innocent babe’ talk a bit cloying but the Passion can really get me going if I let it. I love the high Anglican shtick: the smells and bells, Rite One, the glorious language from the Book of Common Prayer.
The thing is: I’m not a believer. Not at all. Not anymore, and not really ever, if I’m truthful. I claim a sanguine agnosticism but only from cowardice. How can I put this so you’ll understand? I do not believe. I have no belief. I believe not.
I was, however, a church-apologist for many years: I attended Epsicopal schools and sang soprano in the school chorus and Madrigal choir. I was Mary in the high school Christmas pageant, singing ‘Lo How a Rose.’ I was confirmed in the church as an adult (by choice, I mean) and I baptized my kids and took them to Sunday School when they were little, gritting my teeth at the Nicene Creed. I always liked being able to walk into an Anglican church anywhere in the world and know the liturgy and the hymns. Nairobi, Dhaka, Accra. Like a secret handshake. I wanted my children to have this sense of belonging, too. I told them, ‘There are so many ways to know God, different ways to understand the universe. These are some of the stories we tell.’ But it never rang true.
Why these stories? A patriarchal, sexist tribe in the Middle East 2,000 years ago? Is this really all the author of the universe has to say for himself? Hominids were roaming the earth for hundreds of thousands of years – millions, actually – not to mention the hundreds of millions of years, and indeed billions of years, of variously celled creatures establishing their earthly routines long before the slope-heads gained a foothold. All this incredible bonanza of life unfolding exponentially over an unfathomable time span, during which: total Godly radio silence. Nothing. Nada. Hey, thanks for the encouragement, Sir! And then…after eons… what, exactly? The population density in the fertile crescent experiences a little uptick? We’ve figured out how to write and keep slaves and stuff and God suddenly ‘reveals’ himself? Look, I’m perfectly happy to grant Jesus ‘Greatest Prophet Ever’ status. His teachings make way more sense to me than anything else on offer. But do I still have to keep pretending there’s an architect behind all of this? I’m not sure how I’m expected to believe that my 14 billion year-old universe, full of unknowable numbers of uncharted planets and organisms and civilizations, should be composed by anything remotely humanly comprehensible.
One day about 12 years ago, I couldn’t take this palaver anymore. I just packed it in. But I still feel culturally Christian. I don’t have an ethnic identity to speak of, so Christianity is my culture. I always envied Jews for being able to do that. (It doesn’t really translate to Christianity, so I mostly keep it under wraps, maintaining the spiritual fiction that my religion is both less and more important to me than it is.)
But the simple truth is that I get a really good feeling when I walk into an Episcopal church. It feels like stopping by a warmly lit room on a dark snowy night. I know the words, the music, the ancient rhythms. And for some reason it makes me weep every single time. We went to the Lessons and Carols service at St. Thomas Church in Hanover, New Hampshire a couple days ago and, sure enough, within seconds, the tears were flowing. They always do. The little girl soprano wasn’t even half-way through Once in Royal David’s City before I’d dissolved in floods. I suppose I’m crying because I want to believe. I’m so close, I can just feel it. But in the end, I’m not nearly close enough. My believing feels so tantalizingly real, like that wardrobe door in Narnia through which every little child can pass with such certainty. It’s not real but it just has to be. Has to be. Has to be… And isn’t.
I was telling some of this to a friend on Christmas Eve, a Catholic who’d let 45 years pass between confessions – not about the Narnia claptrap but the crying spells at church. He smiled and said: ‘Something very deep is going on, and it’s not rational.’ I want to be open to this mystery. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I’d like to be open to some of them. My God, I really would!
And in spite of my doubtful, disbelieving heart, I can still see a soft light drawing me in from the cold… And I still want to go inside and get warm.