There was a time when my non-belief in a supreme supernatural being would have upset (offended?) my mother quite a lot.
It’s not something we talk much about. When my daughters were babies (OK, Josie was 2 1/2…) I had them baptized in the Episcopal church, mostly to check that box for my parents’ sake. When Mom noticed I wasn’t taking them to church much afterwards, I explained why it wasn’t right for us without touching on the “because there is no god” part. When she said “well, it’s not like you’re an atheist. That would be really painful for your Dad and me,” I let it go, because it doesn’t matter. It’s not about her, or Dad (whose true feelings I don’t actually know). It’s not a position I need to defend or discuss. I don’t proselytize.
Fast forward a decade: In the car last week, she was talking about how my Dad’s suffering (blindness, ostomy) upsets her. “I love him so much. Every night I pray to God to heal his eyes, and nothing ever happens. I don’t know what to make of that.”
I didn’t say that what to make of that is that prayer is futile, unless doing it makes you feel better. The “power of prayer” isn’t in getting what you asked for.
Instead, I said “that’s a better question for Brian than for me, Mom.” Brian is the rector of my parents’ church. He’s checked in with them a couple times a year since they’ve been homebound. While it’s is not a role I hold in particularly high esteem, this is certainly his area of expertise. You bring taxes to your accountant. You bring questions of faith to your priest.
“So, would you call yourself a non-believer?” Ah… a direct question. I’m not gonna argue, but I’m not gonna lie, either. “Yes, I would say that.”
Pause. Then she talked a bit about how she’d been going to church and taught about Jesus since her earliest childhood. Faith, she was saying, is part of who she is.
I thought more about that. My mother’s always been a churchgoer, and an involved one. When I was about 6, she hosted a small serious gathering in our home at which a woman (the horror!) performed the Eucharist. It was the early 1970s and such things, I guess, were Not Done. I had the impression that we were breaking serious barriers in our dining room, behind drawn shades. It felt subversive and important and right. We were feminist radicals!
Through the years, she served on vestries, search committees, and, always very proudly, as a lay reader. In retirement she enrolled in a program for laypeople called “Education for Ministry.” It’s a four-year study, and I don’t think she finished it, but still: This is someone who wasn’t just a parishoner, but who actively pursued theological understanding, to some degree.
Now, she’s puzzled that God doesn’t fix what’s wrong with her 87 year-old husband, because she’s asking REALLY HARD AND A LOT.
It would be senseless and cruel to get into this with her. In the years when she had the wherewithal for the conversation, she was a critical and judging person with whom discussion would have been pointless. Now that she’s more agreeable, she hasn’t the brain power.
I just can’t help but wonder what the human condition could be if some of the energy that goes into pleading for divine guidance were directed instead into action here on Earth. Yes, I know that’s flawed reasoning… “energy” isn’t finite and you can pray and act, both. But still. Still.