It was a few years ago, when I was still regularly going to church. I attended a Sunday forum led by a priest I’ll call Father Robert (not his name, of course, not even close). A fire-plug of a man, who might have made a good boxer, he sat at the head of the table, talking to the dozen or so men and women assembled in that wood-paneled, book-laden room about the importance of rooting out heretics.
“The study of heresy is important. It matters,” he said, “lest the people believe the wrong thing. Relativism is a great danger and a great sin.”
He talked of Constantine and the Nicene Creed and how the path to heaven was narrow and hard. He talked of how it broke his heart when non-Christians, or those not baptized in this particular Christian tradition, were offered communion.
I thought how small his God was, and how different from mine. The God of my experience is so abundant, so wise, so canny that S/he will find you wherever you are, will make use of anything nearby – a bird, a painting, a trashcan, a street sign, a rock, a tree — any path you walk, no matter how far into the darkness you go. All that’s required is willingness, and even then, Grace can appear quite unexpectedly and flatten even the most recalcitrant unwillingness. It’s mysterious and wonderful. My God is less concerned with dogma and more concerned with love. My God wouldn’t turn anyone from Her/His table, no matter where they came from, no matter how they worshiped, no matter if they didn’t worship at all. That was, in fact, the entire point of His/Her table. Feed everyone. All are welcome.
I had come to Christianity because the narrative of Jesus’s life held meaning for me, as an allegory for the journey of one’s soul. It contained, as Elaine Pagels once said, “The glimmer and possibility of Spirit.” I had not come to be told I had special reserve seating at God’s table.
Perhaps my thoughts showed on my face, for the priest turned to me and said “I’ve read your most recent book,” referring to An Unrehearsed Desire, a collection of short stories. “And I must ask you, where is Jesus in this work?”
My heart did a little samba. I do not like to be challenged in public. I do not like to have to defend my work, which is sometimes a little mysterious even to me. Father Robert’s mouth was pursed and his eyes looked severe. So pugilistic. There was some uncomfortable shifting in seats around the table.
“Where wasn’t he?” I asked.
“I mean specifically. I read the book and I did not find Him.”
Stories about women who steal nipple clamps from an erotic store, young bullied girls, women who turn away strangers during storms, mothers who lie to their children, drug dealers, the mentally ill, the marginalized… I could understand why this righteous priest might overlook the spirit of Christ.
“That’s too bad,” I said. “My sense of the sacred infuses all my writing, as it does my cooking and talking and walking and sleeping and thinking and breathing. Perhaps it’s not so direct as some, perhaps it comes at one sideways. It’s possible. I believe The Christ is everywhere, always, even in the messy bits of life, the broken people, the pain and the mistakes we make. Perhaps especially there. But the reader of a literary work brings himself to the page. I can only write what comes to me, the reader can only experience that work through his own perspective. So I’m very sorry if you didn’t see anything of Jesus in my stories.”
I was not apologizing for my work, but he might have taken it that way.
“It’s the responsibility of the faithful to shine a light,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “It certainly is.”
I considered saying that what he called Christ I also call Vishnu and Buddha and The Thunderbird and a number of other names, since the God of my experience has no limits, and is everywhere, always. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps I shirked my responsibility.
As it was, shortly thereafter I slipped away from church services and back to my garden, my kitchen, my books, my streets and cafes and all the places of the world where my feet take me, places filled with messy, broken, searching people just like me. Although, I happy to say, I’m not out of churches entirely; I keep visiting church basements with other people who want to stay sober. I’m not sure my brother the priest would find The Christ in any of those places, but I do.