This post is part of our month-long series featuring different ways that parents of various religions have talked to their kids about God.
Our Lady of Loretto–the local Roman Catholic church–is within shouting distance of our home, and we walk by its sunlit, red-brick façade most mornings, admiring what my 6-year-old girl Percy calls the “sculpture” of Christ dead on the cross.
Most of Percy’s friends attend services at one of our small town’s four churches–in fact sometimes we see a few of them shuffling into the darkness of Loretto with all the zeal you’d expect of first graders about to endure a lengthy sermon–but thus far God has entered our father-daughter discourse less often than conversations on (e.g.) the debt ceiling, or certain elusive subatomic particles.
It should be mentioned that I am a non-practicing everything. I was raised Catholic, then spent a couple of decades thinking that God was stupid and wanting everyone to know it (my wife says that my hysterical atheism seemed like its own religion). Nowadays I’ve leveled out at a state of low-grade (but perpetual) bewilderment. I have no impulse to step into a church or to pick up a bible, but I also don’t much feel like proselytizing, Richard Dawkins-like, on the folly of belief. Sometimes in the middle of the night, with the anxiety demons bearing down on me, I have tiptoed into the living room and dropped to my knees and prayed for help beneath the dead-eyed gaze of assorted stuffed bears.
Recently my wife and I were asked if we shared the same value system. I answered that, insofar as nihilism is a value, yes, we do. Our idea of a good joke is to imagine the “sculpture” of crucified Christ sporting a jaunty-green Leprechaun hat on St. Patrick’s Day, or wearing fluffy bunny ears for Easter. But I don’t know if we’re really nihilists. It’s more that we’re completely overwhelmed by the sheer awesome fact of existence, in the face of which the world’s religions seem laughably quaint and inadequate.
Maybe this is why God-talk has been offered around here under the same limitations as a Pentagon document–on a need-to-know basis. And Percy hasn’t needed to know much. One day she and I were walking home from school with one of her school pals in tow. The girls were ranking themselves according to age. Percy said, “Sara is the oldest, then I’m the second oldest and Lily”–Percy’s younger sister–“is the youngest.” Sara, who attends bible camp and seems to worry a lot for a first grader, responded with grave seriousness: “No, God is the oldest.” Percy paused for a long moment, then said, “God? Is that the guy who runs the Frozen Berry?”
On a more recent occasion, Percy and I were walking past Our Lady of Loretto on an atomically bright November afternoon in the run-up to the great turkey-slaughter of the Thanksgiving holiday. The church had put a sandwich-board type endorsement at the base of its stone steps, featuring a pair of crudely-drawn hands joined in prayer beneath the entreaty, Give Thanks To God. Percy asked, “What does that mean?” I replied, “I’m not sure. Who do you think God is?” Percy thought about it for a second and mumbled, “I know who God is.” Then after another, much longer pause, she said, “Let’s talk about something else.”
I like talking about something else. I like being at this point with her, where there is no such thing as death, and where the future is an endless thing that will take forever to arrive. So what will I tell her about God, when I have to tell her something? I won’t tell her that we humans are the unhappy accident of a hostile and unforgiving universe. I won’t tell her that no God would permit suffering such as this, or that I would rather live without God then accept this suffering as the price of admission. Instead I’ll tell her what I really believe, and what she probably already knows I believe. God is love. I see God every time Percy looks at me and smiles.
David Hollander is the author of the novel L.I.E., a finalist for the NYPL Young Lions Award. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous print and online forums. His work has been adapted for film and frequently anthologized, most recently in Best American Fantasy. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife, the writer Margaret Hundley Parker, and their two children.
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