Writers write for a variety of reasons, but most writers start on that long literary road because they have a story to tell. About twenty years ago I had an overwhelming desire to write my memoir after being on a religious journey that ended at a major roadblock. I was thirty-three at the time and had always written, but never dared believe I was a writer. For me, writers were inaccessible beings on the highest of food chains. Yet, after I put my youngest of three children on the bus for her first full day of kindergarten, I went back into the house and sat down at my electric Smith & Corona and attempted to pound out my experience as a member of a Bible-believing fundamentalist church. Since I had never written much more than reams of poetry, most of it doggerel tripe, I had many false starts.
A few days later, I realized that as powerful as my experience was to me, the story wasn’t strong enough to be a memoir. When I look back, I realize that I was too young to write a memoir. Besides, not enough time passed from when I divorced myself from the life that had had an uncompromising hold on me. That’s when Laura Sumner showed herself. She began to become the voice for the questions I had regarding god, faith and religion. Suddenly, she introduced me to Eric, her brother, who was a pastor, but one struggling with his own faith due to unanswered prayers in his life. I shoved the pages of my memoir aside and began to type, letting Laura tell her story, one that involved Beth, a sister who mirrored their deceased mother in almost every way. Beth was the strict, unsmiling fundamentalist who treated Laura as a heathen. It didn’t escape me that there was a part of me in each of these siblings and I found that fiction allowed me to be more honest with a topic that my memoir couldn’t fully address—at least at that time. So began my first novel Of Little Faith.
Now it is years later. My published multi-award-winning novel, Without Grace, which, in spite of its title, is not about religion or spirituality, but about a missing woman named, well, Grace. My next book, The Author’s Guide to Planning Book Events, received awards, as well. Of Little Faith remains unpublished, but I still have hope that it will find the right editor, even though I don’t pray for it to happen. The thing is I haven’t prayed in years. However, I do sometimes find myself sitting in a pew at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan when I have some time to kill between meetings. I enjoy the quiet, the stillness, but I also allow myself to relive one particular scene from Of Little Faith, which actually takes place in that grand house of worship. The only church Laura has ever been in is the fundamental Bible-believing church in which she was forced to attend as a child. Years later, as a single woman who is pregnant by choice, but extremely ill, she has a taxi cab driver stop at the cathedral before bringing her to the hospital. She’s looking for comfort and answers. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share a portion from that particular scene, one I envision whenever I am sitting in St. Patrick’s.
The driver pulled into a No Standing Zone and I told him to keep the meter running and climbed out. I followed a stream of people in through the doors and soon stood in a center aisle, miles from the majestic altar. I was surrounded by people gazing in awe at the lofty craftsmanship. I walked past the statues while refracted light poured in from the stained-glass windows, bathing everything in a golden haze. There were attitudes of reverence, no one speaking above a whisper. Column after column was adorned with a wreath for the holiday. I walked until I reached a roped off section, the intention appearing to keep the public from close proximity to the altar. Approaching God here was not simply a matter of bowing one’s head and petitioning Him. No. Here it was obvious one must be prepared before entering the realm of His glory. I gazed up, wishing for the face of God to appear, the bombastic voice to summon me forward in order to account for my presence. I wasn’t familiar with the God who dwelled here and I turned to observe those around me.
One shriveled woman was scrunched down in the pew and on her knees, her face hidden in her folded arms. A low whisper came from her as her crooked fingers moved along a string of beads draped over spotted hands.
Next to a stand of votive candles, the flames flickering in the dim light, stood a man who looked to be about sixty. Garbed in a suit, he was holding a hat in his hands and rotating it by the rim. I moved closer to get a better view, perhaps to hear what he was saying to the statue set back in the vaulted wall. Its marble face was gazing down on him with pity. The man stopped and turned, his brown eyes sweeping over me with cool reserve. I backed away and walked further down the aisle until I noticed a life-size nativity tucked in the corner. No one was supplicating the Christ child just then, so I dropped down to my knees and leaned on the railing that corralled the manger. There was a bed of musty straw that created an earthy tableau. I paid little heed that Mary’s eyes were a painter’s handiwork and tried to find something in them as they gazed beatifically at the ceramic infant.
I never prayed to anything but empty space before and that had been years ago. Now, I pressed my eyes closed and worked myself up to dare approach whomever was listening. It took a moment to visualize Jesus, mentally focusing on his face, not that of the babe in the manger, but the benign, radiant savior’s face of an artist’s rendering. I pleaded for his help.
Then I recalled the statue—graven image as it was—and prayed it would listen to me.
Now, the flickering votive candles, willing the flames to reach the heavens and demand His attention.
And those prayer beads. I’d get myself some and chant, if it meant delivering me from this horrid nightmare. It’s not death I fear. No, I’d welcome it for the answers alone. My grief is from having to leave behind what I had purposely conceived, desperately yearned.
Just then there was a stirring inside me. I placed a hand on my swollen belly. I was ready to go on in prayer when something told me to be quiet. And believe.
I was quiet.
I waited for a miracle.
My eyes closed, I remained still, wondering how I’d know when it happens. I rested my head on the railing.
Or was I just expected to go in faith?
How much time passed, I couldn’t be sure, but at some point I lifted my head. Mary’s stony face came into focus, looking complacently down at the baby with the outstretched arms. I turned to see the sunlight stream through the stained-glass windows. The old woman was gone, as was the man with the hat.
It was time for me to go, too.
I pushed myself up from the kneeler and took the long, slow walk back to the waiting taxi with the meter ticking.
As I stated at the beginning, most writers start on that long literary road because they have a story to tell. I’m still on that road with Laura because we both have a story to tell. As a writer, one knows what is fiction and what isn’t, but when it comes to faith, it’s more difficult to discern. Maybe, though, it’s not a matter of telling a story but asking the questions, no matter if there are no answers.