Sunday, December 31, 2006

Marshwiggle of the Year

Yesterday I talked to my mother on the phone, and she said -- I think as a result of reading the chapel sonnet -- "Your blog's getting awfully religious."

Mind you, I think most readers would concede that it's been fairly religious all along. (Hi, Mom! Check out the blog's subtitle! Check out the "about me" description!) But this brought us back to a recurring theme, namely the "How in the world did you ever start believing that stuff?" subject.

I didn't go to church as a child. My father loathes religion; my mother simply finds it incomprehensible. I hadn't started going to church yet when I met Gary, and one of the measures of his love for me, or else simply of his general tolerance, is that he puts up with my church activities (and edits my homilies), even though he wouldn't be caught dead at any worship service himself. My sister's Quaker, and thus somewhat more sympathetic, although Episcopal liturgy makes her want to run screaming out of the room. (That's okay, since silent Quaker worship does the same to me.) Of my pre-church friends, a few -- generally either Jewish or Buddhist -- have well-developed faiths of their own (hi, Claire!), but most of the others are dyed-in-the-wool secular humanists. When I started going to church, one of my closest friends from college called in alarm from Europe to make sure I wasn't having a midlife crisis. And although several people in the English Department at UNR are religious themselves, work does tend to be a very secular environment. I've told the story here before of a grad student who summed up her own perception of the academy's take on religion with the memorable phrase, "Smart people don't go to church."

That's nonsense, of course. Plenty of profoundly smart people go to church. But that general attitude means that many of my nearest and dearest find my faith both bewildering and embarrassing: if smart people do go to church, they shouldn't talk about it, any more than they'd tell people about their preferred brand of underwear. (Hanes men's cotton briefs, because they're more comfortable and better made than women's. Gary, bless him, gave me a bunch of these for Christmas so I'd stop stealing his. Yes, I'm now at the pathetic age where I like getting underwear for Christmas, and you now have official proof that I have no shame.)

My nearest and dearest do approve of my various ministries. Since they're all compassionate people, they find my hospital and nursing-home work perfectly acceptable, even admirable. Visiting sick or lonely people is a Good Thing, although talking about the ways in which those public activities are informed by private faith lands us squarely back in "How can you believe that nonsense?" territory.

My mother and I got into this conversation yesterday because I was telling her about one of my recent hospital shifts, where I wound up seeing two people I know from other contexts: one from UNR, one from the health club. Both of these individuals were there with sick parents, and were understandably worried and distracted, but both also seemed really uncomfortable with my being there, even though one had already known I did the work. These were very awkward "when worlds collide" moments. My impression -- which may very well have been completely wrong -- is that they were embarrassed by the idea of any sensible person praying out loud with patients in an emergency room, that they didn't quite get how a smart person could believe that nonsense.

"I'm with them," my mother said when I told her this story. "I mean, come on! The immaculate conception? The trinity? The resurrection? How can you believe all that stuff?"

"I don't believe all of it," I told her patiently. We've had this conversation before. "And what I do believe, I don't believe 100% all the time. But I've figured out that I don't have to believe every article of the Nicene Creed to be a Christian. What I do believe works for me."

"But how did you start believing it? It doesn't make any sense. You never went to church when you were a kid!"

I've had this conversation with both of my parents more times than I can count. I don't have a simple, coherent answer. (As one of our deacons is fond of saying about the Trinity, "It is a mystery, and should remain so.") My faith journey has been extremely long and meandering. But one of the factors, surely, is that I adored and devoured fantasy when I was a kid, and was especially moved by work by fantasists I now know to be Christian: Tolkien, Lewis, L'Engle. As a child, I was blissfully unaware of the sometimes heavy-handed Christian allegory in the Narnia books, which I now enjoy less than I do The Lord of the Rings. All I knew was that I loved Narnia and wanted to live there.

And for all his heavy-handedness, Lewis has given me what's still the best answer to the "How can you believe that nonsense?" question. This is the passage I turn to on the days when even I find my faith ridiculous, when I find myself agreeing with the friends and relatives who think I've bought into a bunch of hogwash. I have this passage typed out on a piece of paper that's taped to the filing cabinet in my study; I read it to my mother over the phone yesterday. She liked it.

It's from The Silver Chair. Puddleglum, the gloomy Marshwiggle, and the children have been captured by an evil witch who's holding them captive underground. She's hypnotized them into believing that their own belief in the world they came from is nonsense. She tells them that there is no sun, that they've simply extrapolated the idea of a sun from seeing lamps. She tells them that there is no Aslan, whom they've simply invented from seeing housecats. She tells them there is no Narnia.

Puddleglum, in a heroic act of resistance, shoves his foot into the fire so the pain will clear his head of her enchantments. Then he makes this speech:
"One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always likes to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things -- trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.


  1. Here, Here for Puddleglum!

  2. Patients here in Podunk love for their doctors or nurses to pray with them--a couple of older doctors pray with their patients at the end of office visits-- and I frequently ask my patients to "throw in a prayer for me, too" when we talk about religion. (I need all the prayers I can get...) And I find myself talking about "religion" on my blog, too, sometimes.

  3. That is one of my favourite parts in the entire Narnia series!! and Puddleglum is a spectacular character.

  4. Huh-- my copy of _Silver_Chair_ had that same illustration, but black and white. That's always been my favorite of the series (I re-read the whole thing after seeing the _Wardrobe_ movie, except _Horse_and_His_Boy_ which I can no longer stand at all).

    Strangely enough, my atheist parents haven't had any trouble with my conversion. I think they understand that religion and rational, "scientific" knowledge are different ways of apprehending the world, and each valid in their own spheres.

  5. jsd and Mama Mia: One reason I love Puddleglum is that, like Eeyore, he's a classic depressive, which is probably why he's the one who so stubbornly clings to optimism. (Rickety Contrivances, indeed!)

    BRN: I love it when patients tell me they'll pray for me. I need all the prayers I can get, too!

    Tiel: Yep, this is the Pauline Baynes illustration; she did the entire series. If you Google her, you'll find a lot of her stuff on the Web.

  6. The passage you quoted there is perfectly wonderful, Susan. It's a reach beyond the world we know, of course, and it's beautifully moving. I wish I wish I wish I could live in a way to make its message real for me, but too often I cannot and remain—in a word Tolkien used so eloquently—diminished. But I thank you for reminding me again of the majesty of the vision and of the hope it represents.

  7. Debbie4:44 PM

    I've used the same kind of reasoning to deal with my own secular crisis. I called it "willed optimism."

    About three days after my six-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia, I was driving home from the hospital, and I decided right then that I was going to live my life as if David were going to be all right. Because that was the only way I was going to be able to get through each day--and that was the only kind of life worth living. I decided that the optimistic view would best help me help David and my family get through all of this. If my faith was misplaced, if everything crashed and burned--well, then there would be plenty of time for pessimism. I wouldn't let it poison the life we had now.

    Optimism seemed unnatural, under the circumstances. Even though the cure rate for childhood leukemia had been getting better, after hearing that your kid has cancer you know that statistics are meaningless. Trusting that David had a future was an act of will.

    It took practice to set worry and fear aside, day after day, (it's still a struggle sometimes, in other contexts) but it was a decision that served me well. David, by the way, is now 16 and doing fine.

  8. That's a wonderful story, Debbie. Thank you for sharing it!

  9. Puddleglum's words to the witch are not only some of the best in all the Narnia series, but in all of literature. Peace.


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