Twenty years ago, while watching some television report about depression and religion—I forget the relationship but apparently there was one—a friend who was entirely secular asked me with genuine curiosity and concern, “Why do they believe in something that doesn’t make them happy?” I was an ambivalent atheist at that point, beset with an inchoate loneliness and endless anxieties, contemptuous of Christianity but addicted to its aspirations and art. I was also chained fast to the rock of poetry, having my liver pecked out by the bird of a harrowing and apparently absurd ambition—and thus had some sense of what to say. One doesn’t follow God in hope of happiness but because one senses—miserable flimsy little word for that beak in your bowels—a truth that renders ordinary contentment irrelevant. There are some hungers that only an endless commitment to emptiness can feed, and the only true antidote to the plague of modern despair is an absolute, and perhaps even annihilating, awe. “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord,” writes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. “And you gave them to me.”
I thought of this moment not long ago when one of my four-year-old twin daughters walked wide-eyed and trembly into my room at night. My wife was traveling. The girls are accustomed to my being gone and have learned to allay their anxieties with the prospect of airport presents, but they are less sanguine about the absence of their mother. There had been a vociferous territorial dispute at the kiddie pool and then a principled aesthetic disagreement (over the length of my hair in a chalk drawing) that was decided by a bite. Still, I thought we were managing pretty well. Dinner was lively, the ice-cream bribery effective, and after story time, poem time, I-love-you time, I slipped out of their room without a fuss. About an hour later, though, I looked up to find my blond-haired blue-eyed scarily intelligent sprite of a child Eliza standing in the doorway.
“Daddy,” she said, “I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I’m seeing terrible things.”
I am a lifelong insomniac. I used to freak my own parents out when I was a small child by creeping quietly into their room and opening up their eyelids with my fingers in an effort—so the story goes—to see what they were dreaming. And in fact I began this very essay between two and four one morning when “[m]y thoughts were all a case of knives,” to quote the 17th-century poet and priest George Herbert. So I was sympathetic to my daughter’s plight.
I suggested she pray to God. This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide), since I am not a great pray-er myself and tend to be either undermined by irony or overwhelmed by my own chaotic consciousness. Nevertheless, I suggested that my little girl get down on her knees and bow her head and ask God to give her good thoughts—about the old family house in Tennessee that we’d gone to just a couple of weeks earlier, for example, and the huge green yard with its warlock willows and mystery thickets, the river with its Pleistocene snapping turtles and water-bearded cattle, the buckets of just-picked blueberries and the fried Krispy Kremes and the fireflies smearing their strange radiance through the humid Tennessee twilight. I told her to hold that image in her head and ask God to preserve it for her. I suggested she let the force of her longing and the fact of God’s love coalesce into a form as intact and atomic as matter itself, to attend to memory with the painstaking attentiveness of the poet, the abraded patience of the saint, the visionary innocence of the child whose unwilled wonder erases any distinction between her days and her dreams. I said all this—underneath my actual words, as it were—and waited while all that blond-haired, blue-eyed intelligence took it in.
“Oh, I don’t think so, Daddy.” She looked me right in the eyes.
“What do you mean, Eliza? Why not?”
“Because in Tennessee I asked God to turn me into a unicorn and”—she spread her arms wide in a disconcertingly adult and ironic shrug—“look how that’s worked out.”
What exactly does that mean: to pray? And is it something one ought to be teaching a child to do? And if we assume for a moment that it is indeed an essential thing to “learn,” then what exactly ought one to pray for? A parking space? To be cured of some dread disease? For the emotional and spiritual well-being of a beloved child? To be a unicorn? For one night of untroubled sleep?
The Polish poet Anna Kamienska died in 1986, at the age of 66. She had converted to Christianity in her late 40s, after the unexpected death of her beloved husband, the poet Jan Spiewak. People who have been away from God tend to come back by one of two ways: destitution or abundance, an overmastering sorrow or a strangely disabling joy. Either the world is not enough for the hole that has opened in you, or it is too much. The two impulses are intimately related, and it may be that the most authentic spiritual existence inheres in being able to perceive one state when you are squarely in the midst of the other. The mortal sorrow that shadows even the most intense joy. The immortal joy that can give even the darkest sorrow a fugitive gleam.
Anna Kamienska, then. A devoted and tormented Catholic, whose faith brought her great comfort and great anguish, often at the same time. No doubt this is precisely the quality that attracted me to her when I first came across a couple of passages from her diaries, high in the air above downtown Chicago in Northwestern Memorial Hospital, blood in my tubes and blades in my veins. I had—have—cancer. I have been living with it—dying with it—for so long now that it bores me, or baffles me, or drives me into the furthest crannies of literature and theology in search of something that will both speak and spare my own pain. Were it not for my daughters, I think by this point I would be at peace with any outcome, which is, I have come to believe, one reason why they are here.
Not long before her death, Anna Kamienska wrote what I think is her best poem (available in English, at any rate), a stark, haunting, and insidiously hopeful little gem called “A Prayer That Will Be Answered.” The title is worth some stress, in both senses of that word: “A Prayer That Will Be Answered.”
Lord let me suffer much
and then die
Let me walk through silence
and leave nothing behind not even fear
Make the world continue
let the ocean kiss the sand just as before
Let the grass stay green
so that the frogs can hide in it
so that someone can bury his face in it
and sob out his love
Make the day rise brightly
as if there were no more pain
And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane
bumped by a bumblebee’s head
—tr. by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak
This is an uncanny poem, giving God all power (the continuance of the world) and no power (it was going to continue anyway). The poem is implicitly apophatic, you might say. That is, it erases what it asserts: it is a prayer to be reconciled to a world in which prayer does not work. “Ah my dear God! … Let me not love thee, if I love thee not,” writes George Herbert at the end of one of his own greatest poems (“Affliction I”). “We pray God to be free of God,” says the 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart. Behind Kamienska’s poem, infusing it with an ancient and awful power, is the most wonderful and terrible prayer one can pray: “Not my will, Lord, but yours.” That’s Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before the Roman soldiers come to take him to his death, just after he has sweated blood, begged God to let the cup of suffering pass him by, and wept to leave this world that he has come to love so completely and, it seems, helplessly. And then: Not my will, Lord, but yours. It’s difficult enough to pray a prayer like this when you’re thinking of making some big life decision. It’s damn near impossible when your actual life is on the line, or the life of someone you love, when all you want to pray is help, help, help.
Not my will, Lord, but yours.
Kamienska’s poem is uncanny in another way too—and triumphant. “If you want me again,” writes Walt Whitman near the end of “Song of Myself,” “look for me under your bootsoles,” and this poem has a similar ghosting effect, gives its author a kind of posthumous presence. “And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane / bumped by a bumblebee’s head.” This, it turns out, has happened. The poem is indeed as clear as a windowpane, and we the readers, all these decades after Kamienska’s death, are bumping our heads upon it. The prayer has been answered, and to feel the full effect of this poem is to feel a little ripple of spirit going right through the stark indifferent reality to which the poet sought to be reconciled.
For a long time I tried to write a poem that had as its first line “Are you only my childhood?” By childhood I meant not only the encompassing bubble of Baptist religiosity in which I was raised, but also that universally animate energy, that primal permeability of mind and matter that children both intuit and inhabit (“The park lives outside,” as one of my little girls said to the other when they were going to sleep), that clear and endlessly creative existence that a word like “faith” can only stain. By you I meant You. I took dozens of different tacks for the poem, but it was all will, and thus all wasted. Years passed. Then recently, in a half-dreaming state in the middle of the night, I heard myself ask the question again: “Are you only my childhood?” And from deep within the dream, a voice—it was me, but the voice was not mine—said, with what seemed to be genuine interest and puzzlement: “Why do you say only? ”
Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love yet strike,
Cast down, yet help afford,
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise.
I will bewail, approve.
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.
George Herbert again. It’s likely he wrote the poem—“Bitter-Sweet,” it’s called—between the ages of 37 and 40, when he had just swerved from a disappointing political career into parish ministry, was newly and very happily married, and obviously dying of tuberculosis. “And all my sour-sweet days / I will lament and love.” Destitution and abundance. Submission to God and aggression against God. What might it mean to pray an honest prayer? Well, maybe it means, like Meister Eckhart, praying to be free of the need for prayer. Maybe it means praying to be fit for, worthy of, capable of living up to the only reality that we know, which is this physical world around us, the severest of whose terms is death. Maybe it means resisting this constriction with the little ripple of spirit that cries otherwise, as all art, even the most apparently despairing, ultimately does. And maybe, just maybe, it even means praying for a parking spot in the faith that there is no permutation of reality too minute or trivial for God to be altogether absent from it. If Jesus’ first miracle can be a kind of pointless party trick—he turns water into wine! voilà!—maybe the lesson that believers are meant to learn from this is that we have to turn everything over to God, including those niggling feelings and hesitations we have that the whole rigmarole of sifting scripture like bird’s entrails, and bowing one’s suddenly brainless head, and “believing” in something more than matter—this is all just a little ridiculous, isn’t it? An embarrassment even. The province, perhaps, of little children.
I can’t tell a story of one daughter without including the other. Fiona, then. The olive-skinned and night-eyed child, the lithe and little trickster sister: Fiona.
When our girls were just two years old, we spent a summer in Seattle, where I had lived for a while many years earlier. It was the first break I had managed to take from my editing job in a decade, and it was only eight months after I had undergone a bone marrow transplant. Time had a texture that summer, an hourly reality that we could taste and see. The girls went to a wonderful little daycare in the mornings so that my wife and I could write, and then we all came together in the afternoons to do something fun in the city. We had the same nightly ritual that we do now. I’d read to the girls and tuck them in before my wife took over, and the last thing I’d say every night was “I love you,” and they would always reply promptly, “I love you too, Daddy.”
But one night after my declaration, Fiona was silent. She just kept staring at the ceiling.
“Do you love me too, Fiona?” I asked, foolishly.
A long moment passed.
“No, Daddy, I don’t.”
“Oh, Fiona sweetie, I bet you do,” I said.
“Well,” I said finally, “I love you, Finn, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
And then as I started to get up, I felt her small hand on my arm and she said dreamily, without looking at me, like a little Lauren Bacall, “I will love you in the summertime, Daddy. I will love you … in the summertime.”
I have told this to a couple of people who thought it was heartbreaking, but I was so proud, I thought my heart would burst. I will love you in the summertime. What a piercing poetic thing to say—at two years old. And for weeks I thought about it. A year later, just after that dream I related above, I even wrote a poem about it. I will love you in the summertime. Which is to say, given the charmed life we were living there in Seattle and all the grace and grief that my wife and I felt ourselves moving through at every second: I will love you in the time where there is time for everything, which is now and always. I will love you in the time when time is no more.
Now, do I think that’s what my Athena-eyed and mysteriously interior two-year-old daughter meant by that expression? No, I do not. But do I think that sometimes life and language break each other open to change, that a rupture in one can be a rapture in the other, that sometimes there are, as it were, words underneath the words—even the very Word underneath the words? Yes, I do.
When Jesus says that you must become as little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he is not suggesting that you must shuck all knowledge and revert to an innocence—or, worse, a state of helpless dependence—that you have lost or outgrown. The operative word in the injunction is become. (The Greek word is strepho, which is probably more accurately translated as “convert,” a word that suggests an element of will and maturation.) Spiritual innocence is not beyond knowledge but inclusive of it, just as it is of joy and love, despair and doubt. For the hardiest souls, even outright atheism may be an essential element. (“There are two atheisms of which one is a purification of the notion of God,” says Simone Weil.) There is some way of ensuring that one’s primary intuitions survive one’s secondary self; or, to phrase it differently, ensuring that one’s soul survives one’s self; or, to phrase it differently, to ensure that one’s self and one’s soul are not terminally separate entities. To ripen into childhood, as Bruno Schulz puts it.
So perhaps one doesn’t teach children about God so much as help them grow into what they already know, and perhaps “know” is precisely the wrong verb. “Trying to solve the problem of God is like trying to see your own eyeballs,” writes Thomas Merton. It has been my experience that most adults will either smile wryly at this and immediately agree, or roll their eyes and lament the existence of this benighted superstition that pretzels intelligence into these pointless knots, this zombie zeal that will not die. It has also been my experience that there are on this earth two little children who, if told this koan by a father inclined to linguistic experiments, will separately walk over to the mirror and declare that in fact, Daddy, they can see their own eyeballs.
“I want only with my whole self to reach the heart of obvious truths.” Thus Anna Kamienska near the end of the fractured, intense, diamond-like diaries that circle around and around the same obsessive concern: God. I know just what she means. The trouble, though, as her own life and mind illustrate, is that, just as there are simple and elegant equations that emerge only at the end of what seems like a maze of complicated mathematics, so there are truths that depend upon the very contortions they untangle. Every person has to earn the clarity of common sense, and every path to that one clearing is difficult, circuitous, and utterly, painfully individual.
Here’s an obvious truth: I am somewhat ambivalent about religion—and not simply the institutional manifestations, which even a saint could hate, but sometimes, too many times, all of it, the very meat of it, the whole goddamned shebang. Here’s another: I believe that the question of faith—which is ultimately separable from the question of “religion”—is the single most important question that any person asks in and of her life, and that every life is an answer to this question, whether she has addressed it consciously or not.
As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish. Failing that, I would like them to be free to make of their anguish a means of peace, for themselves or others (or both), with art or action (or both). Failing that—and I suppose, ultimately, here in the ceaseless machinery of implacable matter, there is only failure—I would like them to be able to pray, keeping in mind the fact that, as St. Anthony of the Desert said, a true prayer is one that you do not understand.
Typically cryptic, God said three weasels
slipping electric over the rocks
one current conducting them up the tree
by the river in the woods of the country
into which I walked
away and away and away;
and a moon-blued, cloud-strewn night sky
like an x-ray
with here a mass and there a mass
and everywhere a mass;
and to the tune of a two-year-old
storm of atoms
elliptically, electrically alive—
I will love you in the summertime, Daddy.
I will love you … in the summertime.
Once in the west I lay down dying
to see something other than the dying stars
so singularly clear, so unassailably there,
they made me reach for something other.
I said I will not bow down again
to the numinous ruins.
I said I will not violate my silence with prayer.
I said Lord, Lord
in the speechless way of things
that bear years, and hard weather, and witness.