About a week and a half into the Lenten season, I went to visit my (very Catholic) grandparents. I had lunch with them—tuna salad, as it was a Friday—and sat talking with them. They wanted me to write about their lives; I’m the writer in the family, it seems, and my grandfather especially was very keen that he not leave this world without a record of him in it. This was my first “interview” to get started on the project, as well as to determine if I could ever truly write a biography of people whose relationship to me was so very tangled and intricate.
After lunch, before I started the interview itself, I caught myself beginning a prayer for the right words and the right temperament to make this go well. As I mentioned last week, it was still sort of a muscle memory thing that I was finding was much more difficult to eradicate than I would have imagined. I stopped myself, though, and as I was sitting in my grandparents’ kitchen berating myself for invoking God, I suddenly felt very, very lonely. Haha! I thought with a backward sense of triumph, here was the loneliness that I had been waiting for. I’m not sure why this filled me with a sense of completion, as this really only proved the prior existence of God in my life and was counterintuitive to my idea that I could live on my own, but I felt vindicated that I should finally feel that I was cut off from God. My experiment was working. He had begun to abandon me, which is what I wanted, anyway.
God, it turns out, has a wicked sense of humor. The interview commenced, and we rambled through early years and stories both banal and incredibly disconcerting—there is nothing quite like realizing you both know your family all too well and you know absolutely nothing about who they are. But the kicker is that about two hours into it I found myself explaining the difference between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God to my grandmother, who was finally beginning to read the Bible for herself at age 85. She was confused because the God she was reading about in Genesis and Exodus didn’t seem like the same God to whom she’d been praying her whole life, and I was explaining how that could be. I was acting as an apologist for the same God I was so delighted to have finally shaken off.
I had to admit defeat in that round; just when I thought I’d won my independence, God showed me how truly connected to Him I really was. Why should it matter what my grandmother thought of Him? Yes, part of it was that I’m a scholar and I want people to understand things. But part of it was also that she was so very distressed; if I had any knowledge of this God she was trying to understand, I wanted to share it, to ease—if I could—the confusion of this woman I loved. I wanted her to grow in her faith, but I also wanted her to hang onto her faith—the polar opposite of what I myself was doing.
I called my (rather evangelical) father later and told him about the joke God had played on me; he got a hearty chuckle from it and gave me the analogy that I was like a child running out into a busy street. I could think that I was all alone, but God my Father was not sitting on the porch ready to let me be hit. He was running after me and I just didn’t turn to see Him.
So I returned to college and buried myself in its rhythms—studies were my god, they had been for years. But along with study was choir; I’ve been in choir essentially my entire life, so concerts are part of my own rhythm, and that year was no exception. My college choir was very much a small liberal arts concert choir, with the black dresses and the tuxes and the music no one will ever play on a radio station other than NPR. (I loved it.) And who hosts stuff like that?
Churches, of course.
So we had a concert at a church in the town near my school (hilariously enough, it was a UM church). It was a concert like any other concert (although, as I recall, we were not at the top of our game that day) and I’d been singing sacred choral music and considering it repertoire rather than worship for a very long time. But now, because it was in a church and because I was trying to distance myself (and maybe because I was sitting between a wonderful and brash young Jewish redhead and a very dry and cynical atheist), I actually paid attention to the words.
Being a Methodist now (which matters because Charles Wesley, one of the founders, wrote a whole boatload of hymns), I chuckle at such a blunder. Hymns, as with all music, are poetry. They are purposefully trying to pull emotion center stage, and in Lent? Yeah, right. They’re all about emotion and sacrifice and penitence and hope and despair and death and the promise of life and lots of REALLY COMPLICATED THINGS I was oh-so-failing to avoid.
I was very frustrated about this.
But, trapped as I was (and chuckling at my Catholic tenor friends complaining quietly about how the Methodists didn’t know not to sing “alleluia” during Lent), I paid attention to the whole service. I looked at it as a guest performer, not as a kid dragged along by her parents or as a lifetime member who’d stopped reading the sign years ago. I paid attention like I meant to be there—not like I agreed with it, or like I was happy about it, but like I was actually present in that alabaster sanctuary with the wine-colored carpet. I still hated the sermon, and the whole order of it, and was bored stiff by the children’s moment, but I saw the routine as the comfort that it could be…and in and through it all was this music that was as discomforting as I could have found.
To be continued…