Figuring Faith

Prior to an after-dinner conversation with Sister Pat and Sister Rose, the word faith carried no value in my life. I believed it was equivalent to math’s dividing by zero because of the way it exerted power over the rest of the words only to end in meaninglessness. I even felt betrayed if someone I admired said it—a disproportionately dramatic reaction—likely the aftermath of seeing it used as a status symbol while growing up. In my hometown, to have faith almost always meant to be Christian. On the rare occasion I heard it used outside of Christianity, it still only applied to those who believed in Yahweh.

For supper tonight, Sister Pat and I visited Saint Bernardine’s Home—a retirement facility for Sisters of Mercy near Toledo, Ohio. The women here housed and fed me for 10 months, the equivalent of a school year, while I worked on a book about mental illness and spirituality. They knew very little about me, only that I had been raised Catholic, suffered a mental breakdown in college, and that Sister Pat—their fellow Sister of Mercy—trusts me. They carried enough confidence in Sister Pat’s judgment to let me, a then 23-year-old agnostic writer move in, bringing with me little more than my plastic bin of books and a skateboard.

After tonight’s meal, the sisters asked me to stand up and summarize my first year living away from them into a microphone. I wondered what they thought seeing me stand up there, 15 pounds lighter, struggling to sugar-coat my past school year: 10 months of physical and mental health issues unresponsive to treatment and my nearly flunking out of graduate school.

Microphones make me nervous. Hearing my voice booming back at me intensifies any and all self-doubt. But this particular microphone in this crowd shouldn’t have made me uncomfortable. They use the mic after every dinner. It’s only necessary to help the hard-of-hearing sisters catch announcements. The twenty women who sat listening to my voice love me with such fierceness that I couldn’t doubt them even while feeling ugly, wounded, and unable to define much of anything in my life. These days, I can’t feel or see hope anywhere and have started to worry I’m headed toward despair. I’m struggling to trust the people who believe in me, the ones whose faith sustained me through previous periods of doubt.

Now, I sit in the lobby with Sister Pat and Sister Rose. Sister Pat’s cane leans opposite my arm on the couch’s armrest. She sits in the green cushioned chair beside me, talking to Sister Rose, who stands across from us, holding onto the back of a blue and green striped loveseat.

Sister Rose says, “I think it’s easy to romanticize her faith, or anyone’s who chooses to die for it, but it’s far from glamorous. It’s gritty and gory—gruesome even.”

“Will you listen to that poetry?” Sister Pat beams. “Gritty. Gory. And gruesome.” She takes care to pause in between each word, adding emphasis to every syllable, making it easy to imagine what she’s like as a poetry professor. Her high-pitched voice booms and echoes. Its unique boisterousness is difficult to convey to anyone who has never met her. I have yet to meet someone who speaks like her.

They must be talking about one of the martyrs again. I’m uncertain of which one and feel disappointed in myself for having been distracted by numbers. When restless, I create math problems to calculate. Something about the certainty behind basic mathematical equations comforts me. It provides occasional glimpses into the sublime spark Catholicism once carried for me. The everyday conversations at Saint Bernardine’s shift between surface-level and sacred with such ease and frequency that I sometimes forget to fully appreciate them and fail to pay my undivided attention. I lose sight of the way their typical degree of intensity and integrity don’t translate well into my secular, everyday life.

The sisters talking about faith must have sparked my desire to seek mathematical certainty and amazement. In this instance, I was figuring the largest number that—when multiplied by my age—yields a product still less than the sum of the two women’s ages. When I discovered it was six, all I could think was God damn—because of the way that means, between them both, they have lived more than six of my lifetimes. I can’t comprehend time in this way.

My calculations jolted me enough to bring me back into my body, which aches from having worked all day at a school in a small farm town between my hometown and the convent. I spend my days standing in front of a classroom, trying to convince teenagers—all of them sons and daughters of migrant farm workers—to believe in the value of their individual voices.

“And yet it somehow gets oversimplified—sanded down and polished before it gets taught in catechism classrooms to children,” says Sister Rose.

Sister Pat nods and says, “It presents this idea that faith should always be something solid enough to die for. But it doesn’t quite work like that, does it?”

When I am mindful enough to see the gifts within these conversations, I try to savor each word, storing it in my memory for times I feel isolated. It provides me with patience for myself, and others, when I find myself frustrated by the number of people who squirm and avoid eye contact anytime conversations transgress sports or the weather. It lends me hope during times I’m discouraged by all the fear that both surrounds and encompasses me, this collective fear of authentic connection anytime it’s not filtered through the light of an L.E.D. screen.

“I pray every day for faith strong enough to die for,” says Sister Rose. The evening sun shines through the window, revealing traces of black in her gray hair, which she keeps cut short. “But we can’t know how we’ll respond unless our lives are actually in danger. I’d like to think I have that kind of faith.”

“Some days I feel certain I could do it,” says Sister Pat. “But when I stop and think about it, even on the days when my faith feels infallible, I know it’s not up to me.” She shakes her head. Her individual white curls are short and move together as if a part of one mass.

Sister Pat likes to tell the story of the first time we met. She organized a weeklong writing workshop open to the community at the Catholic college in my hometown, where—at age 77—she continues to teach English courses half time. After the first night’s workshop, the participants agreed to continue our conversations over food and drinks. For the location, they chose the only place in town that served food like a restaurant and still carded at the door like a bar, a problem given I was underage. Most everyone in the group was over 40. I doubted they’d assign me enough worth to influence their decided location, so I didn’t speak up about the issue. The rest of the workshop participants filed out of the classroom. I waited to explain my leaving to Sister Pat.

When she gets to this part in the story, the part where she learned my age, the tone of her voice gets higher and she says, “And all I could think was Well, well, well. What little gem do we have here?”

On the surface it is an unlikely happenstance that a 19-year-old atheist would develop a friendship with a 71-year-old Catholic nun. But if I strip away the most basic identifying factors, like age and religion, to concentrate on more meaningful identifiers—like our mutual love for social justice, language, feminism, politics, art, teaching, and humor—then the formation of our friendship over the past several years feels natural and obvious.

Sister Rose adds, “And at 81, I still catch myself believing I’m more powerful than I am, not wanting to accept my lack of control, even if I know that when I step back long enough to think about it, I trust God fully. I forget to take that step back sometimes.”

Her statement reminds me to take that step back and embrace the moment instead of staying stuck on big words like faith or failure. After all, maybe confessing and accepting my current faithlessness is a form of faith in itself. It’s admitting to being stuck, and to feeling hopeless and helpless, without being bitter. It’s permission to just be, to strip away any expectations of myself, others, or a higher power that does or doesn’t exist. It’s believing that everything will be okay and understanding that even if it’s not, I’ll continue on. It’s knowing that human beings have resilience beyond any logical explanation and trusting the body, mind, and spirit’s ability to rejuvenate.

“Well, I still think I should get to be in control,” says Sister Pat with irony in her voice.

Sister Rose and I smile, and I think about how Sister Pat once told me she wishes she could choose how she’ll die. She said she’d like to fall over dead in front of a class, collapsing after having just stated something dramatic, powerful, and undeniably true. At first I found this morbid, and I thought about how disturbed I might feel as a student in that situation. She said not to worry, because she’s old enough to prevent it from being a tragedy, and that everyone could rest easy knowing she died doing something she loved. And then she added, “Plus, you bet every person in that room would remember what I said. It’d stick with them for life!”

It’s inarguable that such a dramatic and memorable death would birth a story bound to live on for decades. Her desire for such a death speaks to our shared human yearning for that ineffable point between trust and knowing—about as close of a definition to faith as I can figure.

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