When I was growing up, without fail and especially on the two holy days they showed up, our Lutheran pastor would castigate people who only attended services on Christmas and Easter. Hypocrites, blasphemers. He didn’t like them. And I never liked him. But this Easter, when we did what we always do and tried out another church, we were met at the door by a motley, smiling-from-ear-to-ear bunch of white-robed people at the Guerneville, California Odd Fellows Club and the next thing I knew I was smiling back. I was immersed in an honest-to-God Easter celebration with 40 to 50 Metropolitan Community Church members and fellow-travelers. I loved every minute of it.
I’m one of the millions of people who doesn’t know quite what she believes, but has moments when the truth is illumined as it was this morning, and everything makes sense. Or doesn’t need to, which is even better. When I thought about writing an Easter post, I thought about the Einstein quote I stuck in another recent post: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” I don’t know how old Einstein was when he said that – he seems always to have been old – but I know he was a spiritual man who believed the universe with all its mystery meant that there was something beyond what we can know, and that we might as well call it the Sacred as not. But the Christian thing is more particular than that, of course.
It seems to me that old age must impress itself on the spiritual lives of writers, composers – artists of all kinds. I was under the impression that a number of American and British authors had turned to the church in their old age, but I couldn’t find any. The only converts I found had converted when they were still young.
Which finally led me to John Updike who never had to convert at all. A church-going Christian all his life, he’d been raised a Lutheran just as I had. He’d explained many times how his theological beliefs inform his books, and I pretty much get it and even find some of it compelling. The problem has always been that I’ve never wanted to read his books. I liked him as a person on Charlie Rose, but what I’d heard about his suburban middle class hero with his tawdry sex life has always failed to inspire.
Nevertheless, in honor of Easter, I tried at least to read some interviews and get a sense of what Updike might have to say about old age and the spiritual.
I decided to mostly ignore what he said at St. Bartholomew’s Center for Religious Inquiry in New York City in November of 2004, a few years before his death in 2009. He was asked whether his theology’s invocation to accept God’s will ran counter to progressive politics, a question we might have expected from a Greenwich Village congregation. “Yes,” he answered, “I think to a certain degree it mitigates against trying to change the world, instead trying to find a peaceful, satisfactory place within the world that exists. It is consoling to think that if not every detail is the will of God, there is a kind of will bigger than your own. You can’t change everything. You have to accept the world as it is.”
How much of that was Lutheran pessimism about the human ability to do good, how much the influence of certain theologians and finally, of his own imminent end, I can’t say. The writer suggests that “at age 72, he [Updike] prefers to console himself in the ‘safe harbor’ of his faith.”
What I liked far better is another briefer comment in which he called “wonderment at one’s own existence and that of the world ‘one of the seeds of religious consciousness,’ and the fear of death the other.”
It is, as another writer suggests, the same as mystic Rudolf Otto’s “the Numinous”– an experience of the Sacred as simultaneously unbelievably beautiful and terrifying. It is also, I think, the same as what is discovered by art when it is most powerful.
The people at this morning’s Easter service seemed far removed from Updike’s middle class though, like me, some of them probably grew up in his neighborhood. But they were surprisingly musical and their language was fresh, not a common characteristic after hundreds of years of the same words, the same cadences. But what was most moving was their faith. They were like the elderly Indian woman I saw praying in a Mexico City cathedral years ago, who I knew without question was utterly in love with the Sacred, the Divine, the Numinous, whatever we choose to call it. Or the woman in the Jamaican church who emitted light. I forgot, which I seldom do in a Christian service, to translate everything into language I can accept. I just marveled at it, participated in it, loved it.
Enough for now, but I’ll undoubtedly write more about it next time: Updike, the Sacred, believers. All of that.
P.S. Thanks to the people who visited my site in larger numbers over the weekend and especially those who encouraged me to keep writing. And thank you, Amy, for thinking of that particular church.