My old college roommate Annie is a poet now. She sends me batches of poems from time to time, bound in little booklets. They are snapshots of her life, drawn from the past thirty years, illuminating who she has become and how.
Annie is also an atheist now. I find out she’s an atheist in one of her poems. This is a woman who once considered becoming a nun. It disturbs me to learn she no longer believes, to read her declare, so plainly on the page, that she has consigned the whole business to the realm of ancient myth and tribalism. A lovely myth, but a myth nonetheless.
Her loss of faith has been process, she writes, a slow and growing realization.
Annie is a sensitive, intelligent woman. She’s a musician, a violinist, a teacher and performer. I introduced her to Bruce Springsteen. She introduced me to Beethoven. We have kept in touch sporadically over the years—holidays and birthdays, marriages and babies. Her poetry is filling in some connective tissue.
When we were 20-year-olds walking our college campus in Boston, we both believed. Both raised Catholic, Annie was more conservative. A raft of liberal theologians had already turned my head, but Annie’s Catholicism carried the familiar echoes of childhood.
I spent a few Easter weekends at her family’s house outside Boston. Her father bought corsages for the women to wear to Mass. We watched the classic Easter-time movies: Charlton Heston racing his chariot in Ben Hur or leading the Israelites out of Egypt in The Ten Commandments.
After learning of Annie’s loss of faith, I thought of discussing it with her, of suggesting that she pray, alone, in whatever way feels real to her, of suggesting that she maintain an open mind. That she give it time.
After learning of Annie’s loss of faith, I thought of discussing it with her.
But something stopped me. In Annie’s poem she expresses no alarm, no regret. She has simply reached this conclusion. I’ve heard her reasoning before, of course, from former believers and from lifelong atheists, some of whom I’ve respected and some of whom I haven’t. And I realized, all at once, that I do not need to address this with Annie unless she wants to address it with me.
A good friend of mine is an agnostic teetering on the brink of Christian faith. I’ve watched his exploration, answered his questions as best I can, brought him to my church. He feels the pull, yet he hesitates. He is earnest and honest. I respect his journey.
“Do you believe?” I asked him recently.
“I want to.” That was his answer. He is still seeking.
Yet another friend, a woman who has endured multiple and cruel blows in the last few years, has persevered and now entered a period of great and growing faith. And peace.
Re-reading Annie’s poem, I think maybe she is in a season of disbelief, or it’s possible she has departed from her faith permanently. I don’t know. My friends’ journeys make me think about the forces that shape faith, and the processes—sometimes unknown, invisible to us—that draw us along.
My friends’ journeys make me think about the forces that shape faith.
Like my friend Annie, my young son is a musician. He’s been studying piano for four years. Last summer, his playing really started coming together after what seemed like an endless trudge of stops-and-goes. My son’s teacher, a true artist who composes and teaches at the college level, explained that learning to play piano is not a step-by-step thing with kids. It’s more like osmosis.
The musical elements tend to swirl around in kids’ heads—tempo, rhythm, dynamics, not to mention the notes and fingering. It’s too much to take in all at once. Somehow, though, they sift through and make sense of them over time. They grow in their craft, practicing and adding more difficult elements.
I don’t know exactly when my son’s breakthrough occurred. The process was imperceptible. Then something clicked, and he was in a new place. Will he progress further? Stay in this place permanently, or quit altogether one day? I don’t know. I hope he never loses his love for playing.
Maybe the faith journey is similar. It’s not linear. There are detours and dead ends and stuff that just doesn’t make sense. This light we reach for sometimes isn’t bright enough. But then we squint, we reach again, and there’s a click. Something breaks open. A whispery reassurance leaks in around the edges and fills the cracks. And we have come to a different place. Maybe for just a while. Maybe to stay. Regardless of our journey, God’s love for us remains.