I've been trying to write about faith for weeks, well, years really. It's been on my mind lately because this summer my father had a stroke. And nothing brings this former Baptist back to Jesus faster than praying that my father will be okay. (Which he is, by the way.)
Faith is something I've long been fascinated by, since I was six years old and heard our pastor speak in tongues at Sunday service. Then, when I was nine, I met a young woman who had lost both her legs in a tornado but she was still convinced that God was taking care of her. And then there was my childhood babysitter who secretly took me to Jehovah's Witnesses' meetings, unbeknownst to my parents, in the hopes of saving my soul. Faith was clearly a powerful force. And I wanted some of it.
But my relationship with the church ended as a teenager when I heard a minister hatefully and ignorantly preach that AIDS was God's punishment for "gays." I began looking for another way to find God, or my version anyway.
In college I enrolled in comparative religion classes and ate vegetarian dinners with the Hare Krishnas in Harvard Square. During my 20s I explored "walkabouts," listened to sermons by a local rabbi, and participated in silent retreats. In my 30s I attended weekly dharma talks and even studied tantric sex.
I tried once to talk to my grandmother about faith. It was a tough time in my life, and a particularly bad day, when I called to ask her how she held onto her faith. Now Grandma Doris was a small-town Texan who didn't usually talk about such things, choosing instead to discuss weather, and crops, and the ideal conditions for frying chicken. So I shouldn't have been surprised when she said simply, "I don't," and continued talking about the heat, and the pecan harvest, and the ideal conditions for cooking divinity. I got off the phone disheartened, and as I was sitting contemplating all of this I heard a knock at the front door. Keep in mind that I lived in a small house, hidden on the top of a big hill, behind a bigger house; uninvited visitors were unheard of. At first I thought I had imagined it, but then it came again--a strong, unmistakable triple knock. I opened the door to find two Jehovah's Witnesses standing on my porch. One of them wore a button that said, "You are not alone" and the other wore one that said, "God loves you."
Lately my spirituality has been guided by PayPal. I recently called their 800 number to ask for help and the representative who answered responded to my problem by reassuring me: "Nothing bad is happening, and I am here to help you." A surprisingly comforting mantra that I have now adopted as my own.
Which is all to say that regardless of your beliefs, or who your god or guru is, faith is challenging. One of my favorite inspirational writers, Anne Lamott, offers, "I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything." Generally faith is not a topic most of us talk about at all, even with our closest friends. It's even a difficult word to define. Though personally I dig Einstein's definition: "A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty." At some point I realized that that's it for me. Ask yourself where you find those things, believe those things, and you'll stumble upon your faith.
The answer now seems obvious. For me, it's books. Over the years nothing has made me feel safer, stronger, or more joyful than a good book, a stack of books, a library or bookstore filled with books. I talk about books the way others talk about their gods and religions. They are what connect me with something beyond my small, little world. They are what give me solace and hope. They offer me a way of pulling myself up out of my own dark abyss, and they lead me forward into the light.
In her writer's bible, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Lamott declares that books help us learn how to live, and how to die. Really, isn't that what every religion does? And faith is the compass to keep us on that path.
Several years ago on a booksellers' trip to Beijing, I spent a perfect afternoon at a Buddhist temple with my friend Karl, having lunch, wandering the grounds, and talking about books and our spiritual paths, how the two had become beautifully intertwined for each of us. Karl did me the great honor of sharing about his faith and allowing me to talk about mine. His involved a meaningful mix of Christianity and Buddhism, a soulful light that radiated from him when he talked about his family, and a passion for books that was unsurpassed--a faithful trinity that seemed to serve him well in life, and in his dying just a few years later.
At this stage of my life I know deeply that the journey is the destination, that faith isn't something you find or finally reach, but a process and a choice every day. Not a certainty at all, in fact, but an openness. One that allows for my father's stroke, a bad day, a favorite author, and the perfect afternoon, all the same. And though I believe more in a universal spirit than in God (even though he may have sent two Jehovah's Witnesses to prove himself), I'm still a Sunday school girl at heart; I kind of believe I'll see Karl again someday in heaven. A place I believe looks a lot like a bookstore.