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I hear the word, of course.
I go to church some Sundays, play Al Green's Greatest Gospel Hits on repeat in my car, and have spent a good portion of recent years in or near the Bible Belt. Still, the word God has never quite fitted itself to my ears. When I'm called upon to say it I get all shifty-eyed and spastic. I smile hard and mutter other words — spirit, goodness, love — anything but the word God, which sits like a fistful of rubber bands in my mouth.
God Bless you, people say, and unless I've sneezed
I'm at a loss. My friend Mary just moved into a nursing home and showed me around when I visited — the cafeteria, the sunroom with wicker plant stands and floral-padded chairs, the chapel with statues of the Blessed Mother and Jesus flanking the altar. At ninety-six years old and adorned with more medals of the saints than I can count, Mary has been my ardent and unlikely guide — and the one person who doesn't seem stunned — as I've made my way back to church.
"Go up and say hello," she said to me while nodding to the statues. The chapel was small with nowhere to hide, and my attempt to change the subject did not work. "Go on up and touch them," Mary said. "Show them that you're here and you care."
Well, I was there and I did care, but setting my hands against their cool plaster robes embarrassed me somehow; made me feel exposed and inauthentic. Which is how I feel when I attempt to use the word God. Like I'm touching Our Lady's pink painted feet while my friend Mary nods and looks on.
This is not a major problem in and of itself. We have great freedom when it comes to language. If we don't like a word we generally don't have to use it. Writers can be especially persnickety about such matters and keep running tallies of objectionable words in their heads. For years I simply lumped God in with words like cerulean and staccato and moved on.
The trouble began when I returned to Corpus Christi. What on earth am I doing? I'd ask anyone who'd listen, but stumbled even as I tried to formulate the question. Clearly, I needed to explore language itself — because how to delve into the matter of church attendance when I couldn't even bring myself to use the word God?
Devout Jews do not utter the God of Israel's name. In conversation they say Holy One, or HaShem (literally, the Name), while Adonai (Lord) is substituted in prayer. Even in writing the Name must be handled with great care. Hyphens are inserted (G-d), or the tetragrammaton (the four Hebrew letters transliterated as yhwh, which many Christians pronounce Yahweh).
But even among Christians there's an awareness of the limitations of language where God is concerned.
St. Anselm said: God is that, the greater than which cannot be conceived.
St. Augustine said: If you comprehend it, it is not God.
Theologian Karl Rahner preferred Absolute Mystery to the word God, saying: God's silence, the eerie stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by Him who is above all names.
It's possible my problem is sociocultural. I grew up among people who did not like to reveal our tenderness. We went to Mass, yes. We fell in love and exercised the soft tissue of our hearts as best as we could — but to leave ourselves so open as to enthusiastically believe? This was madness.
But that doesn't entirely explain it. I have, despite it all, a proclivity toward softness. I've learned to say words like honey and sweetness, to enjoy the sounds of them, and to mostly mean them. The larger problem is that even as a child I never expected words to be even exchanges for the truth. It wasn't just God. Other words troubled me. Salvation. Purgatory. The word Christianity itself. Beyond their basic definitions, what did they really mean? That the world was wondrous I could almost let myself believe, but religious language seemed to trap wonder into card- board boxes. I still remember the day I quizzed parishioners after Mass about virgin motherhood. People stuck to the official account no matter how I battered them with facts gleaned from the sex education unit in fifth grade.
"Do you really believe," I asked, "that Mary became pregnant without a man?"
No one admitted doubt. No one suggested different ways of knowing or contemplation of words like faith and skepticism — or even virginity itself. Instead they clung to the story's literal hinges. The next day they'd return to their factories and typewriters and bus driving seats and needed this day of rest, I suppose, and, even more so, the magnificence of virgin birth. I almost understood. But how disappointed I was to learn that, while we shared the same cache of words, we knew so little of each other. How alone I suddenly felt. Bad enough to be a kid from the family that got food baskets every Christmas — now it seemed I was the only one at Corpus Christi who adored the Blessed Mother whether her virginity was figurative or not.
My misgivings did not keep me from church. I went eagerly and as often as I could. I thrived on what I found there, even if I could not name it, so I learned to make do. For as far back as I can remember, whenever anyone said God I simply added an o in my head, converting it to the word good.
God is good, someone will say after an unexpected triumph or to praise an especially brilliant day, and it's the one time I can nod and smile and not feel false. But the word good is not the word god. They appear to have entirely different origins. Good comes from the old English (god), is cousin to gather and -gether, and derives from the Proto-Germanic (godaz) and the Proto Indo-European (ghedh), which means to unite, be associated, to suit, or to fit.
No one agrees on the origin of the word god. Used as both a proper noun for the supreme being and more generally to designate a deity-at-large, god, according to some theories, is rooted in the Old English word from the Proto-Germanic (guthan) for to invoke or to pour out.
God is perhaps uttered most effortlessly as a secular exclamation. God damn it, a driver yells as his truck slides into a muddy ditch. God no, the husband says as the surgeon emerges from the operating room with a frozen look on his face. My god, the lover murmurs while grazing the inside of her lip with a tooth. omg, the student says, and we all lol.
The word God springs from the gut in such cases, bypassing our ordinary filters. It's the last sound we make as we move toward speechlessness, the drop-off point to the vast ocean where language has no jurisdiction.
What we feel most, the poet Jack Gilbert wrote, has no name.
In the meantime the word God falls millions of times a day from our collective mouths, though there's no agreement on what we're talking about. To some God is an omnipotent guardian with a heap of white curls riding shotgun in the clouds. To many he's a young man strung up and suffering open wounds beyond the city walls. To others she's the fog of early morning; the green breath of trees.
Do you believe in God?
The question used to come regularly at day camp and public school — along with its theological cousin: Have you been saved? Most kids in the neighborhood wore cheap sneakers and hailed from one-parent households so that, other than categories of ethnicity and race, religion was one of the few distinctions between us. Do you believe in God? Some kid would ask and I'd still be spinning my wheels, caught up in an inarticulate loop long after he'd moved on.
These are a young person's questions, perhaps. The topic is too thorny for adults. As a culture we've grown more cautious about such matters, and with good cause. When they come at all these days, such questions are lobbed by radio preachers, sidewalk prophets, and brochure-wielding strangers who arrive in pairs at the front door. We talk openly of love and sex, politics and personal aspirations, family trouble and addiction — but on this topic we are uncharacteristically shy. Or justifiably wary. Either way, I had not been asked what I believed for years. Which is why I was so shocked when the question came from an acquaintance who learned I'd returned to church.
Do you believe in God?
Her voice was cool and clean, as though she were asking if I'd like soup with my salad. It seemed a bold question, maybe even rude — though, in retrospect, an obvious one too. But an impossible question just the same.
The word God is broken shorthand, a one-syllable exchange that tricks us into thinking we understand something of each other and how we see the world. She may as well have asked if I believed in the scent of gardenias wafting around Richmond on August evenings, the slow groan of their petals, or the word belief itself.
God is closer to us than our bodies, according to the Qur'an, closer than the jugular vein.
So near we approach the place where words have no business. Or have important business if only we learn to use them in new ways.
Some words get closer than others. Verbs do better than nouns. Metaphor occasionally pulls back the curtain to reveal glimpses of light. But even then we are only children tossing pebbles at the sky.
Still, we humans broker the world in words, so what else can we do but try?
Every semester I share the quote attributed to Chekhov: Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. I talk with my writing students about the necessity for concrete language. No ideas but in things, I quote William Carlos Williams, then ask them to translate a series of ideas (beauty, greed, poverty) into seeable, touchable things (a black feather landed on snow, a two-timing ex-boyfriend, the woman begging on West Franklin Street). I sometimes add God to the list because God seems to me the ultimate abstraction. And yet isn't the work of the artist — whether she identifies as believer or atheist — not only to show the light on broken glass but to try and touch the source of luminosity itself ? What an impossible and lovely proposition — to attempt to build bridges with words to the mysterious expanse where language cannot join us.
That name — my conception of Him, Teresa of Ávila wrote, extended to me a hand that led to a place where even His divine name could not exist.
"I believe in goodness," I eventually replied to the woman who'd asked me about God, and who was waiting for a yes or no answer. I confessed my trick of adding an o to the word, and though I meant it, I heard only the clumsiness of my reply, how slippery I sounded, and — between question and answer — how little we'd actually managed to say.
I should have told her about the sheep sprawling on the Scottish isle of Iona. Surrounded by moss and stone and the blue of the sea, they sink into the grasses there — lambs, overgrown ewes, and a few lucky cows — any doubt they're cradled by the earth itself never once entering their woolly heads.
I should have told her about the old men in Seville. The way they sat beside each other in a café where anyone foolish enough to be caught in the midday heat had taken refuge. One sat in his wheelchair, the other in a dining chair. They leaned in so close that their birdlike heads nearly touched. Outside, the sun blinded and scorched. Inside, the men ate ice cream. One lifted a spoon and brought it to his friend's mouth. The other looked up and opened wide. Their laughter filled the café. They glowed, those men, and radiated pure delight — one for the taste of ice cream, the other for the pleasure of sharing it.
I should have told her about the fireflies my husband led me to this summer. We hiked along a dark trail to get to a small clearing in the park. I imagined spiders as we walked, worried about twisting my ankle, and grumbled about having to do without my phone and my flashlight, but kept on until we reached a spot where the darkness was broken by tiny bursts of light. Flashes erupted in the grass, in the low-hanging branches, and in the crowns of trees. Like Christmas and New Year's rolled into one. Like the Fourth of July and every birthday candle ever lit. But quieter, truer somehow. When my friend asked if I believed in God, I should have told her about that hollow filled with light — the way we stood and stared and did not speak.CHAPTER 2
The Heart Is a First-Class Relic
These are the things you cannot plan for:
That one day you will return to Corpus Christi. That you'll find between the stoup of holy water and statue of the Risen Christ an advertisement for a trip to the shrines of Quebec. That you'll roll your eyes, make exaggerated noises of derision, then promptly send in your check. That you'll emerge months later from a bus parked along the Chemin Frère André in Montreal. That the driver will bend a long leg against the hull and settle in for a smoke while you and a pack of fellow pilgrims bypass a gift shop glinting with rosaries, head toward the basilica, through the votive chapel, and up the stairs, where you'll eventually come to rest before an enshrined human heart.
The convert is the first one to her knees. From Southern Baptist, she'd whispered on the bus, but did not stop talking about Mother Angelica and Ewtn, so there was no time to ask the reason for the change. Beside her at the kneeler a man with a red face crosses himself as a squeamish family scuttles past. Most look on with a mix of curiosity and reverent nonchalance. We're Catholics, after all, and there's some pressure to appear unflustered as we shoehorn ourselves around the large panel of glass. A bouquet of yellow roses lies before the display along with flowers from someone's garden — lilies of the valley and forget-me-nots.
I look into the reliquary and remember the time I paid a dollar to get into the sideshow at the state fair in Syracuse, the concoctions floating in jars, the lowered lights and musty air. The shame and thrill of the memory rises and flits away or is tempered by the fact of growing up with the Sacred Heart of Jesus hung on our living room wall. Years of looking into that print prepared me, as did the life-size crucifix hauled out for Good Friday Mass, the bloodied feet the old ladies lined up to kiss. Now all these years later, I look through a panel of glass reinforced with iron lattice and flanked by a pair of brass doors onto which words have been engraved:
Ici repose dans la paix de Dieu le cur du frère André. Here rests in the peace of God the heart of Brother André.
If my husband had come to Montreal, this is where we'd have to part ways. Gory, he'd think but not say. Primitive. And I'd have to agree with him here. A human heart floating in formaldehyde is gruesome. Bowing before it does seem primitive. Why then does my body lock in place as I run my eyes over the slick bends of Brother André's heart?
My tour group has moved on. The last streamers of English are swallowed by French and Hindi as other groups wind past, but I do not join them.
I am, in most things, a thoughtful person, an admirer of southern trees and leggy shorebirds, a lover of wide rivers and singsong Irish novels. I'm prone to bouts of anger and flights of fancy and have never quite figured out my iPhone but am otherwise rational — an occasionally late but dependable payer of parking tickets and taxes; a woman who submits to annual physicals and frequent doses of oatmeal to manage her cholesterol; a teacher given more easily to skepticism than faith. How to explain, then, the way I wedge myself between women clicking their rosaries and lean in for a better look? Add it to the pile of cryptic instincts I've indulged over the past few months.
Such are my thoughts as my body comes undone from the tether of its head and lowers itself onto the kneeler before Brother André's long-dead heart.
Biology sees the organ before me as a muscle designed to circulate blood through the human body. Engineering calls it a highly efficient pump. Physics focuses on the pacemaker cells that generate electrical activity, the relaxation and contraction of valves, their assorted echoes and pulses. Chemistry might isolate the elements, noting oxygen and carbon and traces of copper and tin. Anatomy describes the organ as a hollow compartment divided into four chambers residing in the chest. Medicine encourages the consumption of leafy greens and daily walks, reminding us that diseases of the heart account for the majority of human deaths.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Virgin of Prince Street"
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Table of Contents
Author’s Note Search for the Virgin, Part I: Rochester 1. Absolute Mystery 2. The Heart Is a First-Class Relic Search for the Virgin, Part II: Rochester 3. Real Presence 4. Feast of Corpus Christi Search for the Virgin, Part III: Rochester 5. Altar Girl 6. Miracle of the Eyes Search for the Virgin, Part IV: Pittsburgh 7. Litany for a Dying Church 8. Feast of Saint Blaise 9. Devil’s Advocate Search for the Virgin, Part V: Buffalo 10. Act of Contrition 11. In Persona Christi Search for the Virgin, Part VI: Buffalo 12. Holy Water 13. The Marigold Parade Search for the Virgin, Part VII: Buffalo 14. A Brief History of Prayer 15. Feast of the Epiphany Search for the Virgin, Part VIII: Rochester Acknowledgments Sources