Go get a snack and a beverage to sustain you; this is a long post.
I’m reading Fingerprints of God by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. It’s about scientific study and theory regarding spirituality and the experience of God. It’s a topic that can either really fascinate me or totally make me roll my eyes. This one is resonating, and like Columbine, the last book I wrote about, it helped that she connected to my own experience immediately by calling God exactly that: an “experience” rather than a “person” or even “deity.”
She talks a lot about a single, defining, transformative experience that a person has in a state of brokenness or seeking. But she also talks about people for whom spirituality has always been a part of them. I would say that I fall into this latter category, and after reading her accounts of so many other people’s experiences, I thought I’d write about my own.
As I’ve mentioned numerous times, I was raised Unitarian Universalist. In the 1970’s, it meant coming up in a church where people fell somewhere along the spectrum between agnostic and atheist (tight spectrum). The church has become open to more spiritual views since then, but I can still get a little grin at the shock on church-members’ faces if I tell them I’m a teacher because that’s what God called me to be. It’s true, though, I was called; I don’t just say it for shock value, even if it is kind of fun.
Still, even when I was very young, I was drawn to faith. In elementary school, the comparative religion classes offered at my church fascinated me and inspired me to check out books from the library, or my mom would pick one up at the bookstore for me if it caught her eye. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism—it felt like a feast, and none of them seemed ridiculous or untrue at their cores. I went through a Christian phase in third grade, led by a Catholic friend. The prayers that came most naturally to me were ones of gratitude. Part of this phase included bowing my head and silently saying grace, which my parents respected but didn’t encourage. In my head, I recited a Robert Louis Stevenson poem I still know by heart:
It’s very nice to think
The world is full of meat and drink
With little children saying grace
In every Christian kind of place
But I wasn’t a literalist even then. To me, the last two lines united me with every child in the world who was grateful to have a family to eat dinner with. There was another Stevenson poem, “Foreign Children,” and though I wasn’t old enough to know the word “irony” when I first read A Child’s Garden of Verses, I knew the poem was ironic. Of course the little girl (I always imagined all Stevenson’s poetic speakers were girls) thought other children wished they didn’t have such “odd” customs and foods and could have her “normal” ones. What she didn’t know (but I did) was that other kids felt the same way about her. I figured religion was like that, too. It didn’t matter what you ate with your family or how you prayed your thanks. What mattered was thankfulness. That was the same, no matter what else was different.
When I was ten, my very good friend died of cancer. I was sad for her, and I’m sure she was sad, but she wasn’t afraid, so I wasn’t afraid for her. I have always said that Tracee’s lack of fear is why I have never feared death, but I really have never feared death, so how can I know that was the cause? Tracee had such a calm way about her. She was classically old beyond her years. Maybe we both felt that sense that the universe works as it should, but circumstances made her develop it faster and more intensely.
My first God experience occurred the day after Tracee died, and it wasn’t the hugely dramatic and transformative event Hagerty describes over and over in her book. It was subtle, but powerful, nonetheless. I went to my friend Patty’s house. Patty didn’t know Tracee, so she wasn’t affected by Tracee’s death, and she was doing her best to cheer me up. She lived in horse country, around houses with tons of property. I was at the top of the slide in her backyard and suddenly realized that Tracee was dead and I was having fun. I stopped and looked around from what felt like a higher place than a child’s slide, and the grass was so green and the horse a ways off was so beautiful, and Patty was there, and it was all OK. Sad, but OK, and in the wisdom of a ten-year-old, that wasn’t a paradox.
I’ve wondered about death, certainly. In junior high, I toyed with the idea of reincarnation in the classic Hindu sense, moving up or down a ladder depending upon your actions here, in this life. When a friend asked what happened after that, I said, “I don’t know. Maybe you become a star or a planet.” My friend laughed at me, but we were sitting in a Taco Bell down the street from our school, and a woman came over. She said, “That’s nothing to laugh at. That was a fascinating discussion. Thank you.” I was thirteen-year-old enough to think she was the odd one, talking that way to a kid she didn’t know.
I still don’t worry a lot about death. I have an intrinsic sense that this is not it; there’s more. I’m also well-educated enough to know that humans are fairly egocentric, and the idea that we will one day cease to exist doesn’t flatter our sense of cosmic significance. That is to say, of course, I may simply rather believe there’s more. For that reason, I fully accept that I may “die and die dead,” as I put it to a friend, who remembered the phrase for decades after we parted ways and brought it up again when we had lunch a few months ago. I don’t mind dying—just dying—and letting my immortality exist only in the endless ripples created by my existence, ever weakening, but the effects never fully erased. That’s cool, too.
Now, you don’t hit the teen years as a Unitarian without a big dose of religious skepticism and an encyclopedic knowledge of the impossibilities and contradictions in the Bible. I still use those as arguments that the Bible is not the infallible word of an omnipotent, omniscient deity, but I’ve always felt that was beside the point. The human invention behind God as a bearded man who grants grace to believers without regard to genuine goodness or condemns nonbelievers with the same disregard strikes me as obvious, like the cheap plastic “gems” in my daughter’s Pretty, Pretty Princess game when she was small.
But the existence of plastic gems does not negate the existence of diamonds. This is the roadblock I encounter in discussions with atheists. They insist on letting cheap, plastic theology define the concept of God and then take pot shots at the easy target. Like fundamentalists, they insist that God must be Biblical or literal to some other established religion. It must intercede in the inevitable and create preposterous miracles or it cannot exist at all. Atheists can have the shallowest understanding of prayer, and when I say that I pray, they say, “You really believe that God is going to listen and give you what you want?” It makes me sad for them that they think that’s what prayer is. It makes me even sadder for religious people who think that’s what prayer is. How can they be anything but hurt by the seeming indifference of God when the miracle they prayed for doesn’t happen? Besides, when you’re looking for the miracle you wanted, you risk missing the real miracles.
Prayer is connection and understanding. When prayer is a supplication, the answer may be a solution or merely acceptance. When I pray for others, I pray they find a solution or acceptance. What else can I pray for on their behalf? Why do I pray for others? Well, maybe I’m part of the solution, or maybe I can help them with acceptance. Knowing that others are going deep on your behalf can go a long way toward helping you accept the things you are powerless against. You just have to open yourself up to the love. To this day, my favorite type of prayer is gratitude. The answer is mindfulness, awareness of all that is good, and there is much. Miracles are similarly misunderstood. They aren’t manifestations of the impossible. They are manifestations of the awesome. Like Einstein said, you can live your life one of two ways, as if nothing were a miracle or as if everything were. I’m in the latter camp. The universe is an awesome, mysterious place, and the fact that I can witness it and appreciate it is awesome, too.
Hagerty describes the God experience as a sense of peace and wellbeing, a strong connection to everything and everyone, a perception of reality somehow more real than the everyday world. There is a sense of entity, but not personality. The vehicle of the entity—vision or whatever—is often influenced by the religion of the experiencer’s upbringing, but the feelings are pretty universal. Many interpret that entity as a collective existence, and that rings absolutely true for me. After this experience, life is infused with meaning. Nothing seems senseless anymore.
The next profound God experience is one I’ve blogged about before, the call from God to become a teacher. It was the day I stood in front of a classroom for the first time, when I was taking education classes just as a backup to acting. I felt that electric hum through my whole body, and on the walk home, my senses were so sharp. Color, sound, everything was more real than anything I could remember. It has been echoed a thousand times through the years. I still draw on the sense of connection I felt to the students the day of that call to help myself bond to kids who are difficult. It’s what makes it possible for me to love completely kids who drive me nuts. They are a big part of my life’s purpose.
I really think that when you make a living instantly loving children you have yet to come to know, you become capable of loving all kinds of strangers. I don’t judge people for superficial things like weight or clothes or looks because I love them and the package is not the person. I do judge things about people—actions that are mean or that do more harm than good—but it doesn’t change the fact that I love the people who commit these acts. I love them, but they frustrate me. I believe the spark of the divine is in everyone, and I am bitterly disappointed when people don’t even try to serve God’s purpose for us all—to grow and make the world better. How do I know this is God’s purpose for us all? Because I know that’s its purpose for me, and I know that I am not special.
I also experienced an echo of the day at Patty’s. Ever since I became a teacher, I have felt very close to God. I feel God in my job, my marriage, and my children, every aspect of my life. It disappeared after the shootings. I tried to force it, fake it, but it was gone, and I was so lost and depressed. I had never felt so utterly without a compass. On the one-year anniversary of the shootings we had a balloon release. The whole school gathered outside, in the same place I was the day we teachers herded panicked kids over the chain-link fence to safety. This time, I held the hand of a student I hadn’t known the year before but who had become special to me. We watched the balloons, and I thought about all the kids I’d lost, and the new ones I’d come to love, and the kids I hadn’t met yet but would love. I looked at the mountains, which came super-sharply into focus, and realized that our loss was nothing to those hills. The event had been crushingly momentous and yet utterly insignificant. As I had at Patty’s, I found tremendous comfort in those contradictions. I understood they were no contradiction at all. I didn’t fully connect right back up to God, but it was like a spark in cold, empty blackness—a small, fleeting assurance that somewhere light and warmth continued to exist. I just had to hang in there, keep going, resist the thoughts of self-destruction dragging me down. God had revealed itself to me a number of times. It would again. I had faith.
Writing is what connected me back to God. It is pure creativity, and I love the way words pour out on the keyboard. I give birth to one person after another. I kill some because that’s the way the story has to go. It really isn’t all within my conscious power. Maybe none of it is. When I “get” a story (from where?) I know what is right and wrong about it. I don’t decide what is right or wrong. I know. If that’s not a God experience, what is?
Lately, I’ve been fascinated by all the things neurologists are learning about our brains and how brain-function affects things like religion and morality. (I started researching all that for the book I recently finished but my agent nixed). Anyway, I’m aware of the fact that all the things we attribute to spirituality or the soul are really just various chemical and electrical impulses in the brain. To that, I say, “No duh.” Every single solitary experience we have is perceived through a series of chemical and electrical impulses. One sees a wall because of how our optical nerves react to light. One feels it because of the neurotransmitters in the skin and throughout the nervous system. In that sense, the perception of a wall is only our reactions to it. If, however, you were comatose, unable to use any of your senses—no wait, if you were dead—if your neurological impulses weren’t working at all—and I picked your body up and threw it against a wall, your body would still hit it. The wall exists outside of your perception.
If you put a piece of chocolate in your mouth and chew, the chemicals in the candy will react with the chemicals in your saliva. Your taste buds will react to those chemicals and send electronic signals to your brain. It’s all a neurological reaction. That doesn’t change the fact that there is something transcendent about Godiva.
I believe in the transcendent because I have experienced it. I call it God. You can call it anything you want, but the fact that I only experienced it because of reactions in my brain doesn’t alter its reality. Others may not have experienced it. None of us has experienced everything. That doesn’t alter the fact that the things we’ve never experienced exist and have been experienced by others. The concept of God is not at all at odds with science. The literalness of any set of scriptures is another story. Myth and scripture can form a vehicle to God surely, and do for thousands of people. They can also form a vehicle away from it. I just think it’s such a shame when we get bogged down in attacking or defending a single collection of them. It’s like being so focused on your car you miss your journey.
Are you still there? Well, God love you. Feel free to chime in.