I was raised fairly agnostic in Los Angeles, but I remember going with my grandparents to Catholic Mass every Sunday when my sister and I would spend the summer with them in Connecticut. I was perplexed by the “Lamb of God” imagery, and I tired from shifting from sitting to standing to kneeling so many times. But I also remember the way my grandfather, normally taciturn and reserved, would gruffly sing along with all the hymns. I liked dropping coins in the basket as it was passed down the row but was jealous of the people who stood in line for Eucharist because I was usually hungry. My favorite part of the ceremony was when we turned to our neighbors, stuck out our hands and said, “May peace be with you.”
I started talking to God after this — nothing major, not with much faith or vigor, but once in a while I’d shout when I needed something. But then there came the day when I asked and he didn’t show up. I was nine, and my parents were getting divorced. My father had moved out, our house was on the market, and we were living in limbo. I was feeling lonely, dispirited, and I wanted my friend Greg to come over. I called him but got a busy signal. For some reason playing with Greg seemed like the most important thing in the universe. God, please let Greg’s phone ring and let him answer and please let his parents say yes! I called: busy. I repeated this three more times and then said to God: If you don’t make him get off the phone this time, I’ll never speak with you again!
The subsequent busy signal sealed the deal.
I spent the next two decades proudly godless, relying on my own will power and abilities to make things happen. I looked down on people who hadn’t figured out the folly of giving up so much power to some holy force. But then I started to notice phenomena like deja vu and coincidences and thinking about someone just seconds before they walked into a room. When my friend Vince and I backpacked through southern Africa, we began seeing conspiracies of confluences sprouting up everywhere, from the backs of Malawian buses to the sides of Zimbabwe highways to the porches of Tanzanian youth hostels. Vince and I started calling such moments of connectivity “HP,” for higher power. (Later I discovered this term was common shorthand for God in twelve-step meetings, but at the time Vince and I thought we’d invented it.)
As I got older, I saw that my own self-will was not as potent and steadfast as I had come to believe. When it would falter, or come up against forces greater than it, I realized I could either drown alone or throw my hand up for help. I began to understand that “higher power” wasn’t a stingy overlord nor a haphazard genie who sprinkled good fortune. Rather, it was an animate force I could engage, one that resided much closer to my own imperfect heart than I’d realized previously. I began asking for aid and assistance more readily, and thus stumbled into prayer — the act of saying “I cannot do it alone” invited the holy in.
So when Rio asked me last night, unannounced, over casserole, “What is God?” I knew I had quite a task cut out for me.
“God is . . . love,” I replied. “You know how you felt when you were sick last week and you kept nuzzling into that warm spot under Mama’s arms? I’d call that God. And remember how we told you that when your grandfathers died their spirit lived on in the flowers and the rivers and the trees? Well, that’s God too.”
“And what about Jesus Christ?”
“What about him?”
“Well I know what happened to him!” Rio responded, jumping off his chair to act out the scene. “These guys didn’t like him so they made this cross and they used a hammer and nails and they stuck those through his wrists and ankles and he bled and died.” He squinched his face a little. “Why did they do that to him?”
“He was brave and he fought for justice, and he believed in helping people, and not being greedy,” I explained. “Some people didn’t like that. He was a great and important person. And so were others like Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Bob Marley and Harriet Tubman. Some people think Jesus sticks out over all the rest, but I don’t think so. They say he is the son of God. I don’t think he was the son of God — I think we all are. I think we all have God in us.”
“So God’s inside you?
“And me? Is God inside me?”
“Yes, my love. Yes.”