She just couldn't quit crying when I told her I was going away for the evening. She is seven and all she wants is mama to hold her hand while she falls asleep every night. I was on my way to a tour of the Basilica of St. Mary with some friends. Maybe dinner. A few hours away from the craziness of the holidays and finals week and grading. A few hours with people who "get" me - so I can just laugh and enjoy.
I brought her with. My friends - childless - were entranced by the bewitching intricacies of this very special seven year old. We stopped at the organ shining silver in the candlelight of the silent basilica. I think about all the music Christendom has written over thousands of years. Haydn, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart.
The sanctuary is as cold and soundless as a tomb. An angel lifts her arms to the heavens, face upturned. She is in the deep shadows, lit only by a single strobe. I am this angel. Questioning, begging, gesturing. I am no longer able to talk because I no longer think anyone is listening. But for some reason, the sky still feels the full weight of my fury and my torment.
What do I tell a 7 year old while we tour a basilica on the brink of Christmas, the year I lost my faith? We talk about art. She talks, mostly. I listen to what an innocent seven sounds like. She is so accepting. Everything and everyone? They do their thing, she does hers, and she loves everyone anyway. Why couldn't we always raise kids this way?
Mary looks down from her perch and I feel sorrow like a waterfall falling off that stone. Did she know, when her son was in his 30's and bloody on a cross, that what she believed may not have been true? That now her son suffered and died and she had no idea why or what would become of all of it? Did she ask god why he allowed this? Did she beg for her child's life? Did she wonder, afterward, where her purpose lay?
It is a huge burden to watch my seven year olds grow up. When I was seven, my world shattered and bent like a tilt-shift lens that could only focus on one thing: pain. I've spent my lifetime in a bittersweet romance with pain, because pain causes panic but when I am in control, my hand on the knife, it also numbs me. I look at my little girl barely tall enough to look at the candles on tiptoe. She does not know that pain. She is so different, so real, so much herself, so audaciously Amelia.
I don't know much this Christmas. I know it doesn't feel like any Christmas before. There is an aching grief that comes with loss of faith, a heightened sense of emptiness and futility, an instinct to give up hope entirely. What I forget in those moments is that what I believe in now -
It's right in front of me.
Hemingway said, "Write hard and clear about what hurts." Amy is hurtling up the stairs curving up to the exit. My mind is remarkably silent. Hurt isn't there. There isn't enough belief left to be hurt. Now, I have to pick up and figure out and DO.
What if that man hanging on the cross just thought he was god, like so many before him? Did he know he was going to die, that there was no rescue. Did he wonder about what this "bearing the sins of the world" thing was going to hurt like? His statue at the basilica points to a deep scar on a thorn-cased heart. He points, directing our gaze. Is he telling us about a sacrifice, or just telling us how badly life hurt him? A warning, perhaps, that faith is a cage for the heart that cuts deep when one struggles against it.
I've spent many midnights during advent pondering what in the world to have faith in if it isn't a higher power. Every time, the faces of my children float up into my subconscious. I have to do this right. I have to save seven. I'm no longer waiting for a different savior for them. If he's there, he's not much of a protector. The statistics dictate that someone like me, a long-term, ritual abuse survivor - I should be an abuser, physical, sexual. A predator of children. Instead I have chosen to be a mother hen my whole life, gathering the fragile and vulnerable under my scarred arms and simply loving them. I have made my choice, and I'm going to live for good. I will not waver in that.
Saving seven is complicated. I don't want my children to be burned by the acid of my disillusionment and anger at the universe. Their childlike wonder if refreshing and beautiful. They can hold many truths in their hands at once, never asking how they fit together. They just exclaim at the beautiful colors of these jewels of human tradition we've handed them. Soon will come the time for questions and explaining and their own decisions about all of this.
But what I want to save about seven is seven. Innocence, imagination, the world revolving around their out-stretched arms, scattering love like snowflakes onto their open souls.
My faith is in the very flawed thing that I fear and hate. Humanity. Mine, yours, ours. Because we all have choices whether to join the ranks of those who hurt, maim and scar - with words, weapons, bodies, voices; or to be instead healing, light, love, acceptance, grace. I choose to join the ranks working on the unseen hospital wards filled with the aching and broken. I see them pass me on the street - disheveled sometimes, usually with those dead eyes that look right through you because not one passing stranger holds a candle of hope up anymore.
It is easier to understand evil as a simple choice rather than some labyrinth scheme of opposing narratives that frame an awful, awesome, terrible, fearsome, merciful, bountiful god. Would a god of love drown the whole world? Would a god of love destroy cities, murder men, women, children - would he ever give up hope on a whole generation? Would a god who is all-powerful and all-present and all-knowing need to send his son to sacrifice, to pour out his wrath on his own flesh and blood - was that really the best he could come up with? More death and suffering?
Christmas is here, and I am delighting in wrapping paper, sugar cookies, children wound tight with excitement. This year, I'll be listening to the Christmas story read aloud, as I have since I was a small girl. This year, I'm going to listen and think of that innocent baby on whose tiny shoulders was placed an enormous responsibility by society. I know what it's like to hold other people's happiness like a dozen balls I'm juggling, desperately trying not to drop one. I don't want who I am to shatter anyone.
I can still be friendly with the idea of Jesus. A peaceful prophet, an introvert, tempted, divided, wandering the earth for years on end. I just can't fathom that his father, whose name is Love, sent him as a tiny babe to be born in a stable and to take on the weight of the world.
So as we (the "good guys"?) send drones into the Middle East with no regard for innocent bystanders; as men hurl homemade bombs and face tanks without weapons or reinforcements in Syria; as Filipinos bury their dead and rise from the wreckage of another natural disaster; as we reel in the face of a media onslaught about bullying, suicide, teen aggression, murder in schools and no answers for any of it: there is nothing more - and nothing less - we can do but love where we are, who surrounds us. Grieve with the grieving and dance with the rejoicing.
As for me, I'll keep my questions about futility, being born into privilege, and social justice all to myself. After all, a made up day to be happy is a good reason to eat too much and laugh as much as I can.