I Let the World Fill My Lungs
I don’t think I believe in God. I usually tell people I do and I suppose I mean it. But I doubt it’s the case by most measures. I’m too terrestrial in my focus.
Years ago I prayed – fingers intertwined, eyes closed, kneeling or sitting quietly – but not lately. I’ve neglected the trinity. Still, I never shook the spirituality stamped upon me by twenty years of regular church. Like forming a bowl from clay and switching colors halfway through, I add more and more of the new, but removing the old is a physical impossibility. It just blends in more seamlessly.
There were four stoplights in the red dirt Virginia town where I grew up. Four stoplights and nine churches. When I was young, I went to a towering brick Baptist church on Main Street each Sunday with my mom, dad, and two sisters. “Sunday School” at 9:30 and “Big Church” at eleven. The preacher thundered as I sat solemnly on red cushions that coughed up dust with each squirm.
The Episcopal Church on Caroline Street was different. The rector gave homilies, brisk lessons on scripture. We knelt, stood, sang, recited, and responded among pious stained glass angels and saints who slew dragons. The kneelers creaked, and I spoke silently into the sunlit ceiling. A middle school boy, I petitioned, confessed, and muttered whatever I thought God wanted to hear at the time.
Younglife met out on Little Skyline Drive by a bend in the river. It was thoroughly contemporary and entirely individual. On Wednesday nights I sat crosslegged with other highschoolers and watched acoustic guitars beaten like anvils and words illuminated on projector screens. Praying was a personal conversation with God, but only one side spoke. When all that was left were the words, my faith extended only so far as I could make myself believe them. After a time I couldn't make myself believe the words anymore, so I left.
I went to class and soccer practice without God but found faith by pouring myself into work. I studied classical guitar in college and meditated to a metronome click. I cloistered myself in a cubicle under fluorescent lights and struggled to master my tendons and reflexes.
Where prayer fell short, repetition did not. Building did not. Climbing under streams of counterpoint did not. Things change and faith is no different.
I still meditate in working moments. In the broken spine of a book or in arranging letters on a blank page. It runs through quieter neighborhoods and in conversation. Eventually, even the meditation feels extraneous, a barrier. But the barrier comes down, removed stone by stone in the company of friends. Brought low by dirt, a homemade arbor, Pablo Neruda. Cheeks creased by emotion. Brows furrowed and postures bent. Eyes moistened and lips pursed. Words uttered softly.
My relationship with God has been uncertain for years. “Agnostic” might be an appropriate word for what I’ve always been. Skeptical of those who are sure beyond doubt. But underneath the uncertainty, a faith in the world. Not optimism or idealism or fascination with its beauty – but actual faith. A belief in the power and meaning of the simple, observable, and humble things. The smell of dirt, the bending of light, or the cracking of a voice under high ceilings.
I let the world fill my lungs.
Sometimes prayer isn’t really about prayer. God isn’t really about belief. Religion isn’t about ideology or any of it. Listening to something larger than myself is faith on its own.
God lies most obviously in the hard things. The wooden and brick things. In neighbors and rocks. In guitar strings, wine glasses, grass, asphalt, corn tortillas, chainlink fence, rain, pine twobyfours, soil, and small bands of metal.
It’s only rarely that I feel the hand of the evening on my heart, troubled or otherwise. I’m uncertain what those moments mean, only that they change me in some tiny and imperceptible way. Uncertainty leaves room for something divine. Prayer isn’t in squeezing my eyes shut, but in opening them. Those tiny and imperceptible changes are, as I understand it, what faith is supposed to provide. That’s good enough, I suppose.