Thursday, July 23, 2009


"I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread." G. K. Chesterton

The quote above is one Evelyn Waugh used in his novel Brideshead Revisited. How ironic that my favorite book in the whole world is about grace and conversion. I, who am constantly negative and struggling and generally sarcastic about religion, love this book beyond reason. I’ve always felt that I’m on that unseen hook and line. God hasn’t bothered to reel me in, but I can’t get away, either. I’m just swimming about, irritated. In fact, I’m in such constant irritation that by now I should be spitting out pearls.

My mind balks. Make a statement about faith and my skepticism kicks in. If it’s the children who enter the Kingdom, well, I’m the brat who has temper tantrums, contradicts everything and always complains she’s bored.

I would like to experience the presence of God. Oh, and to know that’s what I’m doing, so that I can say, “Hey, that’s God. Cool!” I would rather the presence weren’t coolly eternal. I expect warmth and affection from my husband and friends, so I don’t see why God shouldn’t deliver something similar. Someone will say it isn’t about feelings and emotion, but I am a friggin human after all, and I experience the world through my senses, my mind, and my emotions. So unless I’m going to experience God on some ethereal plane, I would prefer something tangible, or a sweeping ecstasy perhaps. Hell, even the mysterious joy in the Lord that people refer to would work. A little change in brain chemistry. A vision maybe. My husband got a vision. Why not me? How are they parceled out?

The truth is, I’m a snob. I’m an aesthetic snob and an intellectual snob. Not in everything, but definitely in religion. I’m not going to lift my hands during crappy worship music and get all weepy and emotionally choked up. I can’t insert Jesus and Praise God into every conversation. Or even every 14th conversation. I can’t talk about “a personal relationship with Jesus” without flinching and wanting to suggest that we reframe the discussion into language that doesn’t sound like it belongs at a tent revival. Same for “born again,” a perfectly nice term that I have to scrub with bleach before I can handle. Give my life over to Jesus? What the f@#k does that mean? Should I wrap it up with a bow and leave it on His doorstep? I can’t read the Bible as if it were literal or settle for that much-used cop-out: “God speaks to us through His Word.” Meaning, shut up already and get your lazy ass to read this big boring tome. Then All Will Be Answered. I’m sorry. A book by Charles Dickens really is more interesting. Bite me.

So I’m bitchy sometimes, not exactly alight with Christian love. It’s not pretty. I’m well aware that pride is one of my flaws. But the thing is, I feel like a complete sham, completely false, when I try to fit into contemporary evangelical culture. I’ve tried, and I know that I am lying or at best telling half truths.

Which brings me to the few times I have experienced something beyond the ordinary, a sense of being lifted out of time and feeling a connection with the stream of human history and endeavor and its creative source. I’ve felt it when looking at certain paintings. When reading fiction and poetry. When listening to music. Sometimes when sitting in a cathedral, in a patch of quiet that smells of frankincense. Sometimes when driving and the light hits the trees in a certain way and the world seems like a pathway and yet at the same time the destination.

I have never felt it during a contemporary worship service. Or during a bible study group. Or during most of the praying I’ve done in devotions, or when anyone has prayed over me. Not even a little bit.

What I’ve felt in those true moments isn’t particularly Jesus-y or Christian-y. It feels more like being unfolded. That’s the term that came to me – not sure what it means. I suppose: that my soul which is forced to remain in my finite body, a rather cramped cage, gets to stretch its legs for a moment and suck in some fresh air. Then it gets shoved back in the cage.

Despite the lack of overt worship and Christian trappings in my daily life, I’m pretty invested in Christianity. I want it to be true. Maybe not literally true – do I really care if Mary was a virgin? – but True to the substance and nature of the Divine. That Christ reconciles a screwed-up world to the Father. That he died and rose. That He is creating a new kingdom and a new earth with us. That we aren’t at the mercy of the most hellish aspects of ourselves individually or corporately. That there is a life beyond this one. But don’t get me started on heaven, because I think singing praises to God all day long sounds dead boring (Waugh said, “The human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors; it is when it tries to invent a Heaven that it shows itself cloddish.”)

What the hell God was thinking in giving me this mental apparatus that constantly second guesses and deconstructs I do not know. I will never have a simple, trusting faith. I’m resigned to that. Still, I’m a fish, a hungry fish, so I took the bait. Now I’m just waiting for the twitch on the thread.

“Pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.” Evelyn Waugh


  1. You are brave and beautiful. You call it negativity; I call it honesty.

  2. Karen, I think you underestimate and misunderstand the word, "trust". I think everyone should have the guts to always look within them to question their "trust in G-d". I am writing a blog, which will probably never get published about how we think "trust" is the absence of "fear" but I think "trust" is simply believing. I know that is difficult to do or say with possibly emotional or mental issues but "trusting G-d" is not measured by a ruler. I know you were raised in a church and have heard the story of Jesus brother, James, the one who walked with him and was part of his family, and known for doubting. My faith doesn't grow because of "visions or miracles" but because of who Jesus is and G-d's mercy and love. I challenge you to go read the story and character of James and report back to us.

  3. One more thought about your "trust" worries. I would equate my trust in "good writing" compared to your "trust in G-d". Feel better now.

  4. I think you've found the words to express what millions are struggling to say as well.

  5. to paraphrase : organized religion of in form is the opiate of the clueless lemmings. Create your own ILLUSION. and live ins "faith " of it

  6. Alice, Brideshead Revisited is near the top of my list of favorites books. It's wonderful when I discover another who loves the book. I've read it over and over.

    But the thing is, I feel like a complete sham, completely false, when I try to fit into contemporary evangelical culture. I’ve tried, and I know that I am lying or at best telling half truths.

    Maybe I haven't read enough of your blog to know, but have you tried a different kind of church? Must it be an evangelical church?

    Those times when you feel your soul unfold when you look at a painting or read a poem, could that be the touch of God?

    A best-loved quote from BR:

    “Oh dear, it’s very difficult being a Catholic!”

    “Does it make much difference to you?”

    “Of course. All the time.”

    “Well, I can’t say I’ve noticed it. Are you struggling against temptation? You don’t seem much more virtuous than me.”

    “I’m very, very much wickeder,” said Sebastian indignantly.

    “… I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”

    “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”

    “But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”

    “Can’t I?”

    “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”

    “Oh yes. I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”

    “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”

    “But I do. That’s how I believe.”

    That's one way I believe, too. There's a bit more intellectual activity on my part than the passage describes, but some things are so right that if they're not true, then they should be - if that makes any sense at all.

  7. Some interesting and wise comments to this honest and real reflection. I totally get it...sigh...

  8. RevMom: you're kind. I try to be honest. Not sure I look all that pretty doing it.

    JeffS: Sweetie, you are always good to me, and very patient.

    JP: I think I need to meet more of these people.

    Irritable: Thanks. I think I've given up on negative capability too.

    John: Hmm. I might like some opiates.

    Grandmere: Oh goody! I've met only one other person online who is a Brideshead fan. You should go visit Lorraine sometime. And I was thinking of that very quote, too, about believing things because they are lovely ideas. I used to read Brideshead every year. I need to get a new copy. And I love the BBC miniseries. Both made huge impressions on me as a teen. The thing about church - I've had to try to find something my husband would also tolerate, and unfortunately episcopalian didn't fly. Our church does many good things with open hearts, so I've tried to make my peace with contemporary worship. Sigh. I may have to gather my energies and try to drum up interest in a taize service.

  9. Oh, the BR series! Isn't it beautiful? I've watched it over and over, too. Whatever happened to Anthony Andrews? Jeremy Irons went on to fame.

    Ah, I see. Your husband likes the evangelical church.

  10. On the church thing: I can relate completely. Contemporary evangelical worship leaves me cold. I'm not sure which is worse: the uninspired music or the insipid theology that always seems to go with it. But my wife is evangelical, and we both try to make an effort to see that each other can worship they way that works. So we alternate between liturgical and contemporary worship. I don't know if that would work for you and your husband, but it may be something to consider.

  11. I logged on to comments to add the "lovely idea" conversation from Brideshead, only to discover that Grandmere Mimi was ahead of me.
    So I'll simply say that you're not alone in your experience...and, as one who is responsible for leading worship in a kind of middling catholic Anglican parish, I've just had that same experience of unfolding that you describe having sat peacefully in St Paul's Cathedral.
    And, since I'm currently feeling steeped in God, I'll do some concerted praying that you find a way to access the sort of spirituality that helps you.
    This was a wonderful post.

  12. Bruce: I think it would work if there were liturgical churches closer to us. For some reason we seem to be hemmed in by Baptists.

    Kathyrn: Thanks for the prayers. I could stand to be steeped like a nice cup of tea.

    Grandmere: What did happen to Anthony Andrews? I saw him in a few things at the time (anyone remember Danger QXB?)but it's been ages. Theater, maybe? I know there was a 20th anniversary release of the DVD recently, which I need to get my hands on. I have the series on VHS, and it hasn't aged well.

  13. Alice, I remember Anthony Andrews in Danger UXB, but nothing else. I know that he married an heiress, so he did not have to work.

    I want a copy of the DVD, too, since I have only the video set.

  14. I've said it before, I'll say it of the things I love most about you is your honesty.

    That and the whole BR thing.

    I have the DVDs. You and Grandmere can come over and we'll eat and drink all the things that are talked about in the book.

  15. Lorraine: Mmm strawberries. And lots and lots of booze, including Brandy Alexanders, which I happen to like.

  16. And plover eggs and champagne.

    I ordered the DVD yesterday. It's on sale at Amazon for $49.99. If it's way cheaper somewhere else, please don't tell me about it.

  17. maybe its not the contemporary evangelical culture where you find Him. I believe many people can make the mistake of equating emotion for God.

    Besides this postI want to compliment your writings on tension your descriptors were excellent.


  18. I like Strawberries..

    I'm with everyone else. Well put...

  19. Another great post!

    Most of the time, I think the metaphorical Christ has more reality and truth than the literal Jesus.