An Old Story


Every so often I read a story that begins with the creation of heaven and earth. I read it in bits and pieces, in those stolen minutes before sleep, when I am alone and something moves me to pick up the dusty book from where it lies next to my bed. It is curiosity, I suppose, and not an urgency so profound as to call me to question and grow fearful. Sometimes I see beauty in the pages. Sometimes I recognize a saying I have heard frequently and I am surprised to learn that it was borne of this ancient work. On most nights the unkindness I detect in the words gives me somber pause and then the tiny text is out of focus and I close the cover in a hurry.

I keep returning to the story. When I was a child, it was chanted from scrolls written in another language and though I understood almost nothing, I loved it more than I suspect I ever will again. I knew too little to doubt the source of what I read and heard. It is difficult to recall now, but I’m not certain I even thought the tale to be true. The accuracy of these books was not relevant or important. They contained a history and the weight of lessons that I was sure applied to me. I believed in the way that only children can, enveloped in the warmth of faith that has not yet been scarred by the pain of an oft broken earth.

Somewhere between then and now my faith shifted from a place of apathy to a place of anger. As a student of history I was drawn to religion. I pored over the writings of clerics, soaked up the biographies of reformers, and read with fascination the re-telling of battles and wars waged over the interpretation of words. These bloody histories were not for the faint of heart, and they shaped my consideration of faith, and all that it implied. I lost touch with the child who once believed, until there was no longer a trace, even in the vestiges of my memory, of the ghost of this girl who knew God.

Then I moved to Botswana, farther than I ever had been from the reminders of the religion I was rooted in, and into a new community of people with an unshakeable belief in God. All around me the faithful were steadfast and doubt was wholly absent. I was prayed for by my colleagues, blessed, and urged to pray and count my blessings. I was often told that my day of reckoning had already been chosen for me. “Death will come,” they said. Yes, indeed, but the strongest parts of me still hoped that I might play some role in the circumstances of my ending.

I’ll admit that as the months passed, my cynicism softened. I began to listen with genuine interest and found myself, for the first time in my life, jealous of what the faithful possessed. I wondered what comfort I might take in surrendering worry and fear to something outside of myself. During my last week at work, P, the head chef, told me that she would pray for my mom’s good health. I thanked her, not with veiled doubt or reservation, but with overwhelming gratitude for her compassion. I left with a feeling of respect for faith and the goodness it contained, even as I knew that I could not take it up for myself.

I am back home, and after several years nearly devoid of any religious celebration, I have been here to take part in the holidays again. I can share challah and wine with my family, and softly chant the same blessings I sung happily as a child. The familiarity of the ritual feels inviting and safe. I am undoubtedly thankful to call it mine, yet I still struggle to reconcile my practice of these traditions with all that I’ve learned. I try to separate ritual from doctrine and the lines remain fuzzy. The book closes, and I have to accept that there will be always be more questions than answers.

I meant to say something about faith, and instead I’ve laid out another unfinished story, and one whose final chapter is out of reach.

I meant to say something of my own faith, but I fear I have never been, and will never be, a grand storyteller. I can only write what I know, and when it comes to God, there is so little that I have ever been certain of.

If you ask me what I believe, I will tell you this: I have made mistakes. I have spoken too quickly and caused hurt with poorly chosen words. There are times that I think I should pray for forgiveness, but it feels unnatural, so I pause, step outside, and tilt my head up. Beneath a sky painted by city lights, I am left to imagine those most precious nights – the ones undisturbed by the moon – when the stars are brightest. I am insignificant, standing solitary under the immense black canvas. I remember how small I am and this brings me more peace than all the ancient words I have read.

You ask me what I believe, and I can only tell you about this tiny space between my heart and the illuminated universe that extends beyond comprehension. In this sliver of silence cut from a world gone mad with noise, I find for a moment, a dark corner that contains the whole of my faith.