God Thoughts

I used to be a prolific letter writer. Alas, no more. Emails are not the same thing. This piece — never published, of course — started as a letter to a friend after we had started talking about God.

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Copyright © 2024 William McKeen

Dear Mara,

Hope you are dealing well with the absence of the dog. I saw my former dog briefly today and felt that tug. I also saw a sweet thing this morning: photos of rescue dogs at the moment they realize they’re being adopted. It’s just clickbait, but not as bad as most of that genre. If it gets people into animal shelters, then that’s OK.

Boy, what a letter you wrote! There’s nothing like asking an inconsequential question: What about God? 

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam [detail] , 1508–12

Well. what about God?

I grew up without religion. Odd, since my parents both came from religious and midwestern backgrounds. But we never observed.

One Sunday, when we were stationed in Florida, I got up one morning, dressed in my best clothes (including a clip-on tie; I was only 8), and went to the non-denominational church on the Air Force base. It didn’t surprise my parents at all.

My father was conversant with the Bible but he admired it more for its language than any statement of Holy Writ. He came from the realm of science, after all. I inherited The Bible As Literature from him, which presents the book as if it’s a collection of fables. No notations about chapter and verse. It’s mostly a celebration of the language.

I wrote a short story about my early religious life if you want to know more. It’s in one of my books and I think it’s also on my web site. It’s called “Why Chuck Wouldn’t Get Out of the Car.” It has to do with my baptism (as a Methodist) and some other stuff, from the point of view of an 8-year-old.

By the time I was in my late teens, I wanted something. I think because of my transitory life, I always sought permanence and tradition was part of that. A college friend invited me to see Fiddler on the Roof with him and after that, I desperately wanted to be Jewish.

These days, seems that all my friends are Jewish, so that might’ve worked out well for me.

But I married a Catholic woman and started going to church with her. I didn’t convert, ironically, until we separated. I’d been attending Catholic church for 12 years or so by then.

This puzzled my friends. I told them I’d always been tortured by guilt, so conversion to Catholicism was a mere formality.

I was 35 when I converted and, as part of the process, I had to make a first confession. That was kind of funny at that age. The priest who heard my confession was a dead ringer for Greg Louganis. Attendance was higher when he did the homily.

One of my female friends called him “Father What-a-Waste.”

I’d always been curious about this ritual and had to do my first confession before the actual conversion ceremony. Turns out that Father What-a-Waste and I spent most of the confession convulsed in laughter.

Cima da Conegliano, God the Father, 1654

“What would you like to confess?”

“Well, Father,” I said. “Is lust still a sin?”

“Depends,” he said. “Do you deal with a lot of lust?”

“Well, Father, I teach at the University of Florida.”

He smiled. “You know, I’m plagued by lust too. I look at a beautiful human being and I say, ‘Thanks, God, for making that perfect ass.’ But if I were to start thinking, ‘I’m going to take her back to the rectory and . . . .” He trailed off here. “Well, when it starts to become action, then that’s a sin.”

I had 35 years worth of sins to confess. Everything I thought was a sin he explained away as just being part of our humanity. I wondered what was the point of confession. But still, I had a good time.

As I said, I didn’t convert because of any great commitment to the church in Rome. I’d always had respect for the front-line church: the nuns and priests in the various parishes I’d known over the years. Since all those parishes were in liberal college towns, they tended to be activist parishes. The church in Florida did a great deal to help the homeless in the community and for sister villages in Central America.

It was hard to defend being Catholic considering the church’s stance on gender and reproductive issues. The horrific sexual abuse is beyond words.

Still, the front-line church did a lot to contradict the statements from Rome. 

When I moved here, I realized that my loyalty was to the parish and not the church. 

So now, I suppose, I’m nothing. When I have to supply demographic information, I check the box next to “Catholic” because that’s what I am officially. I watch Pope Francis from afar and admire many of the things he said. I have a dark thought though: I fear some far-gone conservative Catholic will assassinate him. I don’t want to be right.

William Blake, Angel of the Revelation, 1803-5

Church of any denomination is a human construct, hence its flaws. John Lennon said, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” All these religions were constructed by humans, usually with warfare as part of the birthing process. I had some friends who were Bahai when I was in school. I recently read the autobiography of a Bahai celebrity and he had a bonus chapter all about Bahai Faith. The message, simply put, is: “You’re all right! Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists … you’re all right.” It’s kind of the Rodney King of religions.

When I think about all of this, I think of the opening line of that song “Fallen Angel,” which is about Richard Manuel. He was one of my favorite musicians and he committed suicide in 1983. The song begins, “I can’t believe it’s all for nothing.”

This is where I get into the mystic. I died once — I know because I was looking at my eldest daughter as I was dying. Sarah began crying because she knew I was dying. She saw it happening. I remember a negotiation I carried on with some other entity to stay. It was a female entity, by the way. People think I’m crazy when I tell them this, but I swear I died and talked my way back into living.

It’s a strange little story, but I’m convinced I died and negotiated more time. I wrote about this, too, as part of the proposal for my cancer memoir. I wasn’t satisfied, though, that I conveyed the true weirdness of that little silent conversation.

Karen Tarlton, Angel with Red flowers, date unknown

I have never clarified some of these feelings. My attitude has been thus:

What I think doesn’t really matter. It’s what I do and say that matters.

Too many people focus on rewards for their behavior or pray for something tangible to happen. To me, a prayer should take the form of gratitude.

Certainty about God and religion would seem to be a trap and probably remove all the joy and mystery from life.  I have always wanted to believe in something more but I’m not sure how devout I am. 

I’ve always believed that the only real hell is what we do to others, but if there is a God, then God is — as Blake said — in a daisy. Along those lines, Bob Dylan said, he could see the hand of God “in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.” Somedays, when I’m so overwhelmed by beauty and love — children being the best vessels of this love — I feel God. John Kennedy, that silver-tongued rascal, put it so eloquently: “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” I believe in the God we find in each other.

On those days when I’m struck speechless (trust me, it happens) by the beauty of the world and the beauty of my fellow inhabitants of said world, I do find that a song from our old parish hymnal finds its way into my melon: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.” Whether it was made or whether it just happened as the result of a random assemblage of molecules — well, that’s the real question, isn’t it?

Hope you are doing well. Don’t worry, that dog will come back for a visit.

Take care.