Lately I’ve been think a lot about faith and belief — ‘tis the season, and all that. I’ve been wondering if there’s a difference between the two — for some reason it seems like there should be, even if it’s small and easily overlooked. I’ve also been wondering what faith feels like; I want to know the texture and weight of it, as if it was a sort fabric I could run my fingertips over. I want to know what it would be like to put it on, as a dress or a coat or even just wrapped around my shoulders like a fur stole. I’d like to feel the soft scrape of it against my skin, the warmth of it reflected on my face. As secular as I am, there’s something oddly tantalizing about faith — like a big cowl-necked sweater or bandage dress, I don’t know if I could pull it off, but it looks so good on other people. I’m envious of people who can work faith.
I’m less dazzled by belief, mostly because I believe in a lot of things. I believe in the theory of evolution. I believe that matter is made up of tiny particles called atoms. I believe that gravity keeps us stuck to this fuzzy little ball of dirt and water as it whizzes through space on its yearly circuit around the sun. I believe in climate change. Much like the early-2000s British band The Darkness, I believe in a thing called love. I believe that in a few months’ time this winter will end and the soft, green spring will come again.
I believe in all of these things because I have adequate proof that they are all true and real. But it seems to me that having faith in something requires a leap beyond requiring incontrovertible evidence; you don’t have faith because of facts or figures, you just do because you do. As a concept, it’s both terrifying and liberating, and so completely foreign to how I live my life that it feels almost exotic. A few months ago a friend took me to see Hiss Golden Messenger, an alt-country band from North Carolina whose lyrics have a strong religious undercurrent, and at one point during the show I turned to my buddy and said with a sort of bemused glee, “These guys all believe in God.” “I know,” he replied, “It’s wild, eh?” Wild seemed like exactly the right word for it; faith — real faith, not the performative I-go-to-church-every-Sunday kind you see so often — is untamed and rowdy. It’s like a jolting live wire deep in your belly, too bright to look at and full of the possibility of violence, but undeniably beautiful. Undeniably powerful.
I saw real religious faith, once, which puts me in a tricky sort of position — having been given proof that this faith exists, I believe in faith, I just don’t have the faith itself. I saw it in Prince Edward Island of all places, in All Souls’ Chapel, a tiny grotto attached to Charlottetown’s St. Peter’s Cathedral. My husband and I were visiting the island for a long weekend, and I wanted to see the chapel because its walls were covered in 19th century murals painted by a local artist. The chapel was only open during evensong, which meant that in order to see the art we would have to attend a service.
After a busy morning of sight-seeing, we napped that afternoon, overslept and wound up being late for evensong. Still, we figured it would be fine if we slipped in at the back; hopefully we would be able to melt into the crowd, and the priest wouldn’t notice our tardiness. Except that when we arrived, we discovered that there was no crowd. In fact, there was no one there other than the priest. Even so, he wasn’t upset by our arrival. In fact, he didn’t notice it. He was too busy chanting his way through the evensong prayers.
I wish I could articulate for you exactly what this moment was like; it was the sort of thing that gives you this holy, tingling feeling up your spine and into the base of your skull. It’s like dread and wonder and marvel and fear all mixed up together; your mouth goes dry and it’s hard to breathe, but still you don’t want the feeling to end. It’s like the original definition of awful — terrible, but full of awe.
The night we went to the chapel was wet and blustery, of a kind very specific to late autumn on the North Atlantic coast. The wind was groaning and howling of the wind, sometimes to the point of drowning out the priest’s voice. The sky was dark and grim, too cloud-ridden for stars, and the chapel was brightened only by the moody flickering of candles. Watching that man lean over his book of prayers, hands braced hard on the lectern, it seemed like he was the only thing standing between us and chaos. As if, were he let go or stop speaking or otherwise give up, then the whole universe would fall apart and it would be nothing but that bone-rattling wind and bleak starless skies forever.
The moment was powerful because it seemed to require something extra of the priest, something I don’t know if I’d be prepared to give. It would have been so easy for him to leave when he realized that no one would be attending his service. Instead of chanting into the darkness of that drafty old chapel, he could have shrugged and gone home to curl up with a mug of tea and a good book (or, more likely, The Good Book). He could have made a little bargain with his god, like, I’ll skip this service but I’ll pray extra hard later, I promise. That’s what I probably would have done. But this guy stayed, for reasons that I don’t really understand and probably never will. He might have doubted what he was doing, might have questioned whether there was any real point in going through the motions of the service without anyone there to see him, but he stayed.
I can’t help but think that having faith means staying and doing what you’re supposed to do even when no one is looking — maybe especially when no one is looking. Not because you believe that some god-spirit is hovering out there at the edge of the universe, waiting to smite you with thunderbolts if you step out of line, but out of love. You pray because you love something, and you want it to be better; you don’t pray out of spite or anger. Regardless of the efficacy of prayer, regardless of whether or not you believe that it actually does something, at its core it’s an act of loving other people. If it’s not, then I’d wager you’re doing something wrong.
I like to think that this priest stood there and prayed in the dark because he loved the world. And really, I guess loving is a form of faith — a way of believing in something without concrete proof, an illogical emotion whispering to you that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, it’s worth being vulnerable enough to put your bruised and cynical old heart out there. Of course, in an ideal situation, whatever it is loves you back — but the initial act of loving is an act of hope and faith. You build a bridge halfway to someone or something else, then jump and have faith that you won’t fall this time — even though you’ve fallen before.
So I guess that if I love people, and I do, then I do participate in a type of faith. And at this time of year — when the world is cold, miserable, cranky and just plain stressed the fuck out — love is probably the best type of faith you can have. Of course you can use some of that love for the Baby Jesus or Moses or whatever it is you might believe in, but the best part of that love should be spent on other people. Love your family — either the family you grew up with or else the family you’ve chosen, or both. Love the retail workers putting in all those extra hours so that you can get that perfect present even at the lastest of moments. Love the kid slinging coffee and donuts between classes, even if his attitude doesn’t make him seem very loveable. And love yourself, whatever that means to you. Take care of yourself. Don’t let yourself burn out, because your light is just as important and needed as everyone else’s.