Some people have a faith journey that actually takes them somewhere--they go to Lourdes or Mecca or maybe even to one of those massive gatherings in some dusty overseas village to hear the Dalai Lama. Mine took me to Cleveland, which would be fine if I didn't already live there.
In fact, I didn't really even know I was on a faith journey at first. It wasn't until after I had started writing my book, Stalking the Divine, and told a semi-famous writer what I was working on. She nodded with a kind of practiced boredom and said, "Oh yeah--a faith journey book." She had already settled on its marketing category.
"Not really," I replied, a bit alarmed. "It's just that I'm fascinated by these cloistered contemplative nuns I stumbled upon a few miles from my house. The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration! Doesn't that sound like a Saturday Night Live skit?"
"Religious titles are selling well these days," she continued.
I recoiled. "I'm not writing a religious book! These women are fascinating to me because they're so different--they're in a little world, a tiny subculture of their own. Like all those people who were so passionate about orchids in The Orchid Thief."
And so I danced around the possibility that I was writing this book as anything other than a journalist--as someone who was merely curious about these women who had chosen to stay behind walls and devote themselves to prayer. It took me some months--and gentle prodding from a friend--to see that the book was as much about me as it was about the Poor Clares. About my fascination, yes, but also about my own yearning for faith.
It was hard to admit this yearning. I had gone to Catholic school through sixth grade, and by the time I convinced my parents to let me go to public school, I was as eager to ditch faith as I was to burn the saddle shoes that were part of my uniform back at St. Thomas. Faith was a non-issue to me as I drifted through high school; still a non-issue when I dropped out of college in the early 1970s to immerse myself in radical politics. Once in a while, I would pause to admire the actions of people with faith on the political left--for instance, the deeply religious lawyer here in Cleveland who was helping a group of poor families living in ratty public housing stage a rent strike. But even as I admired people like him--maybe especially because I admired these people--their faith baffled me. I just couldn't understand how they could believe in something that seemed as fey to me as belief in the Easter Bunny. But now it was years later: I kept writing my book, kept returning to the cloistered nuns week after week to ask them the same basic question over and over again: How is belief possible? My old atheist self had a hard time with this--it felt thrilling but still shameful to be writing about belief in God and to admit its attraction for me. Given my particular friends, given my background, given my world, the desire for faith seemed an embarrassing anachronism. Fashionistas had been draping crosses on models' necks for a few years, but they never expected anyone to believe in that stuff! When I told one of my oldest and dearest friends that I was writing a book about the Poor Clares, he threw up his hands in exasperation and snapped, "Who's going to want to read about a bunch of old women who don't have sex?"
Despite reactions like that, I had an idea that there were other people like me: people whose lives were full of the arts and politics and family and friends and gardening and sea kayaking and yoga (okay, my life is only partly full of those things), but who yearned for something bigger. Who wondered if there was a divine pulse behind it all and wanted to touch it. One of these people, a friend who's active in the arts and local feminism and runs a big nonprofit--no one would suspect her of any untoward yearning for faith!--was fascinated by my discussions with the Poor Clares. She had been feeling some of the same longings as I--and the same reservations, too. She confessed that she had been driving along in her car one day and was listening with interest to some sort of commentary on the radio, but when the announcer identified it as a religious station, she quickly changed the channel. I could sense her panic: how alarming to have found herself listening to such people!
So what changes people like us? I now think of myself as a person of faith--small faith, tremulous faith, even forgetful faith--but it's an opening. I still find myself despairing about one thing or another: my freelance work will pile up (or worse, it won't), my retarded adult son pines for romantic love and I don't know how to help him, beloved friends struggle with illness or death--then I remember that I now have faith and thump myself on the forehead with the sudden realization that I might try prayer.
So I changed, and I'm still not sure why. It seems logical to think that I changed through the process of writing the book--that I was so immersed in thought about all these spiritual matters that gradually, an intellectual switch was tripped. I don't know if I believe that, though: this change seems more organic than intellectual (as I say in the book, it's as if all the molecules in my body have reoriented themselves). One of the priests at the Poor Clares' church told me that faith is a gift, but it's a gift you have to ask for. I asked for it, over and over--but what made me start to want it in the first place, after I'd spurned it all those years?
Maybe the longing was always there, despite resistance from my will. Given the reaction of many people who have read my book, especially people who would never voluntarily read a book about faith--sometimes these are friends and relatives and colleagues who read it only as a courtesy to me--I'm starting to realize that there are even more people than I thought who share this longing and don't know what to do about it. They sometimes imagine a tiny spark in the darkness, but they don't know how to approach it. So the image of it fades away, at least for a while.
For me, the spark flared when I stumbled upon the Poor Clares and walked down their shadowy halls. More than one person has suggested that the title of my book could have been Stalked by the Divine. Maybe the divine lies waiting in those moments where events seem to conspire to take you into its embrace, against what you think of as your will.