My first year at St. Gregory's would begin, and end, with questions. Now I understand that questions are at the heart of faith, and that certainties about God can flicker on and off, no matter what you think you know. But back then, I thought "believers" were people who knew exactly what they believed and had nailed all the answers.
My first set of questions was very basic. I covertly studied the faces of people at St. Gregory's when they took the bread, trying to guess what they were feeling, but I was too proud and too timid to ask either priests or congregants the beginner's queries: Why do you cross yourselves? What are the candles for? How do you pray? And, more seriously: Do you really believe this stuff?
My next question was not about God or church; it was nakedly about me, and my fears. What would my friends think?
In America, I knew exactly one person who was a Christian. It turned out that my friend Mark Pritchard, an introverted writer with a tongue piercing, attended a Lutheran church with wooden pews where he sang old-fashioned hymns every Sunday. So I took some walks with Mark, trying to draw him out, but despite his orange Mohawk and wild sexual politics, he was a fairly Lutheran guy, not much given to discussing his emotions or spiritual life. "Sure, well, I believe in first principles," Mark said to me, cautiously, when I probed him about his beliefs. He might as well have been speaking Greek. "Oh," I said. I didn't know anyone else who went to church.
Poor people certainly believed in God. San Francisco might be the least churchgoing city in the nation, but there were still plenty of churches within the run-down blocks around my house -- the left-wing Chicano Catholic parish with its gorgeous altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe; the "Temple of the Lyre of the Valley," an evangelical Salvadoran storefront; the black Pentecostal dive, the Santeria chapel, the cruddy white-trash Assembly of God building with its dirty curtains. Poor people said "God bless you" and crossed themselves and stood on street corners singing loud, bad hymns; they bought their little girls frothy first communion dresses; they buried their dead gangbanger brothers with incense and Scripture.
Nationally, middle-class Christians -- even though many seemed to enjoy portraying themselves as a picked-on, oppressed minority, ceaselessly battling secular humanist regimes -- weren't exactly an endangered species either. People who called themselves Christians comprised 85 percent of the population. Christian rock music alone was a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise; there were more than 150 million Christian websites, and there had never been a non-Christian United States president.
But my own friends weren't poor urban believers or smug God-talking suburbanites. My friends, at the most, read about Buddhism or practiced yoga. They tended to be cynical, hilarious, and overeducated, with years of therapy and contemporary literature behind them, and I was afraid to mention that I was slipping off to church and singing about Jesus on Sundays instead of sleeping late, cooking brunch, and reading the New York Times Book Review as I'd been raised to do. I couldn't tell them about communion, or that I had started to read the Bible I'd bought, furtively, at a used-book store. It would be years before I'd meet Paul Fromberg -- a funny, profane priest who would become my closest friend. He believed that "the craziest thing about Jesus is that church life never gets in the way of feeling close to him" and would teach me about the ironies of religion. At the time, though, I had no idea that I could be pals with anyone who described himself, unabashedly, as both "a big fag" and "Jesus's man."
My social circle was shocked when I first shyly broached the subject of church. An activist lawyer I knew sputtered. "Are you kidding?" he said. He launched a litany of complaints about the church that I'd come to hear over and over: It was the most reactionary force in the world, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic ... the Vatican ... the Crusades ... Jerry Falwell ... child-molesting priests ... Ralph Reed ... I'd hated, during the 1980s, being expected to defend left movements or revolutionary parties, even when they were screwed up. I had no interest in defending another more fabulously corrupt institution. "It's not about the church," I said. "It's about -- "
"Good deeds?" the lawyer asked incredulously. My desire for religion just didn't make sense to him. He worked harder than anyone I'd ever met, spending fourteen hours a day defending Haitian refugees and Muslim political detainees and the victims of war and empire. He'd listened to prisoners at Guantánamo sob as they described Christian jailers destroying the Koran; he had represented a Nicaraguan woman raped by evangelical soldiers who sang hymns as they took turns with her on a dirt floor. Whatever faith drove him forward in his vocation, it had nothing to do with the Almighty God so readily invoked at prayer breakfasts in Washington.
But the Christianity that called to me, through the stories I read in the Bible, scattered the proud and rebuked the powerful. It was a religion in which divinity was revealed by scars on flesh. It was an upside-down world in which treasure, as the prophet said, was found in darkness; in which the hungry were filled with good things, and the rich sent out empty; in which new life was manifested through a humiliated, hungry woman and an empty, tortured man.
It was a picture that my friend Jose Suarez, who'd left his Cuban Baptist family in Texas to become a psychiatrist, had also glimpsed -- but only briefly. Devout as a child, saved as a teenager at a Billy Graham rally, Jose made it through a year at a conservative Christian college before he began to feel "betrayed" by the inauthenticity of religion. "I'd go to services," he said, "and it was all very social, unexamined, class-bound. I mean, didn't they read the words of Jesus?"
But the hypocrisy and insincerity of church, what had driven my own parents away, was only part of it. "I was actively listening," Jose said. "I really wanted to hear God. Ping -- nothing. Ping -- nothing. I couldn't find it. I'd drive out this highway into the country at night, lie back on the hood of my car and look at the stars, and have these arguments with God. It was like: Say something, show me, give me a sign, some sort of experience. I'd watch the stars move across the sky, but I couldn't find it inside. The container didn't contain anymore."
And so Jose had been wary, though curious, when I told him I was going to church: I was the first friend he'd had since high school who was anything close to a believer. It was in talking with him that I was able to articulate, for the first time, something about what prayer meant to me: what I was searching for, beyond the psychological, with all my questions about faith.
Jose and I met for lunch at a small cafe with outdoor tables one afternoon, when he was in the middle of an excruciating breakup. We sat on the patio and talked, picking at some complicated California sourdough-and-vegetable sandwiches while the fog came in.
Jose was in analysis then, and seeing a dozen patients, and serving as the medical director at a community mental health clinic, and writing scholarly papers on Freud, and doing energetic yoga for hours every morning, and generally overachieving, but he couldn't fill every minute, and whenever he paused, the heartbreak would pour in. "Maybe I should go sit at the Zen center again," Jose said. He was a small, handsome man with wiry hair and little glasses and perfect posture. His eyes were wet. "I'm not sleeping so well anyway; I might as well get up at five, what the hell."
We finished lunch, and I took Jose's hand. "Jose," I said, "you should pray."
As soon as I said it, I felt like an idiot -- worse, like a proselytizing busybody who knows, without ambiguity, what's right for everyone else. Jose looked genuinely surprised. Then he put on his analyst face. "Hmm," he said. "What do you mean?"
What did I mean by prayer? I didn't mean asking an omnipotent being to do favors; the idea of "answered prayers" was untenable for me, since millions of people prayed fervently for things they never received. I didn't mean reciting a formula: I loved the language of some of the old prayers that were chanted at St. Gregory's, but I didn't think the words had magical power to change things. I didn't mean kneeling and looking pious, or trying to make a deal with God, or even praying "for" something. What was I telling him?
"Um, well," I said. I was embarrassed. Then I looked at Jose again, and the word tender filled my mind -- tender as in sore to the touch and compassionate, at the same time. After my father had died, Jose had listened to me cry with the deepest empathy and patience, not trying to "comfort" me but just being present. As tenderly as I could, I said to him, "I really don't know. I don't know what I believe or who I'm talking to. Sometimes I just try to stay open, sort of. Especially when it hurts. And I try to -- I know this is corny -- but I try to summon up thankfulness."
"When you told me to pray," Jose would remember later, "it was incredibly earnest. You said prayer was like having this intense, profound longing that you just had to be with. That you put the longing in the hands of God, in a certain way. That it was important to be receptive to the unfulfilled, and not fill it or deny it."
I had to be receptive or go crazy -- because even as I kept going to church, the questions raised by the experience only multiplied. Conversion was turning out to be quite far from the greeting-card moment promised by televangelists, when Jesus steps into your life, personally saves you, and becomes your lucky charm forever. Instead, it was socially and politically awkward, as well as profoundly confusing. I wasn't struck with any sudden conviction that I now understood the "truth." If anything, I was just crabbier, lonelier, and more destabilized.
All that grounded me were those pieces of bread. I was feeling my way toward a theology, beginning with what I had taken in my mouth and working out from there. I couldn't start by conceptualizing God as an abstract "Trinity" or trying to "prove" a divine existence philosophically. It was the materiality of Christianity that fascinated me, the compelling story of incarnation in its grungiest details, the promise that words and flesh were deeply, deeply connected. I reflected, for example, about [my daughter] Katie, and about what it was like to be both a mother and a mother's child. The entire process of human reproduction was, if I considered it for a minute, about as "intolerable" as the apostles said communion was. It sounded just as weird as the claim that God was in a piece of bread you could eat. And yet it was true.
I grew inside my mother, the way Katie grew inside me. I came out of her and ate her, just as Katie ate my body, literally, to live. I became my mother in ways that still felt, sometimes, as elemental and violent as the moment when I'd been pushed out from between her legs in a great rush of blood. And it was the same with my father: He had helped make me, in ways that were wildly mysterious and absolutely powerful. Like Jesus, he had gone inside somebody else's body and then become a part of me. The shape of my hands, the way I cleared my throat, the color of my eyes: My parents lived in me -- body and soul, DNA and spirit. That was like the bread becoming God becoming me, in ways seen and unseen.
I tried to remember my own passionate spiritual feelings as a child, when I had no religion and no language to understand them. There had been one early spring afternoon, raw and chilly, when I lay by myself in the muddy backyard in my snowsuit examining a fallen log, looking and looking and looking. There were patches of snow on the wet wood and, around it, spears of onion grass just beginning to poke up, and I sat up after half an hour contemplating the log. The cloudy sky above me was so huge, and I was so small. The phrase "the whole universe" occurred to me. I must have been in third grade, and no amount of papier-mâché solar system models had prepared me for the vast, heart-beating calm I felt, or for the inarticulate desire to just stay there, suspended, looking and breathing my tiny puffs of the whole universe's air, until I had to pee and went inside, shedding my wet mittens.
I remembered how I used to pray -- there really was no other word for it -- when I was six or seven. I'd been reaching for something solemn, obligatory, ritual: wanting God and not even knowing what that was. In an upstairs bedroom in my parents' home, I'd once been taught, by a girl who went to Catholic school, the vaguely sexual language of the Hail Mary. It remained a mysterious, private poem to recite, the way I recited, as I walked home from school, lines from other poems: "The breaking waves dashed high/ On a stern and rock-bound coast." But I had no framework to understand it as prayer, linked to the same longing I'd feel alone, at night, when I looked at the ceiling and made up words.
What would religious instruction have done for me then? What would have sustained me more as a child than my own atheist parents' love, my father's soft voice at bedtime as he invented stories for me, my mother's hand on my back? What would have fed me more than cooking and eating with them, or given me more courage?
Food was a lot of what had grounded me before, shaping my family, my work, my relationships. It had meant a five-gallon plastic bucket full of broken eggs. It had meant a generously offered bowl of rice porridge in the jungle. It had meant the thin blue milk leaking from my own breasts. Now food, in the form of communion, was collecting all of those experiences in one place and adding a new layer of meaning -- not on my time but on God's.
The child I was, protected from religion by her parents, at some point had become the woman crying at the communion table. Those tears weren't a conclusion, or a happy ending, just part of a motion toward something. It was still continuing. God didn't work in people according to a convenient schedule, by explaining everything or tying up the loose plot lines of every story. Sometimes nothing was settled.
So I sat by myself a lot and mused about God, and my mother, and flesh and blood. I read the Bible. I prayed; I tried to stay open to the questions that flooded me. I didn't tell anyone I was becoming a religious nut.
Excerpted from "Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion" by Sara Miles. Copyright © 2007 by Sara Miles. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group, www.randomhouse.com.