My boarding school kept a piano in the chapel. The designated practice rooms were a ten-minute walk from my dorm—too far on cold nights. So I’d head down to the basement chapel, open the lid to the Yamaha upright, and watch my fingers at work in its glossy black reflection. I was never very good at the piano. But I could shut my eyes, let time collapse, and when the chords finally resolved (or didn’t), I’d unsqueeze my eyelids and find a white patch of light hanging in my field of vision—a blind spot whose brightness stung. It once took a full five minutes to go away.
When I first saw the trace of light hanging beside me, I wondered whether it was God, come to keep me company. I was old enough to know that my eyes, held shut for a minute or so, could have produced that patch of light all by themselves. I was old enough to doubt that the prayer-book prayers I was learning to say in that chapel held any effective power beyond the aesthetic. I was old enough to find friends’ rejection of religion more persuasive than any endorsement of it I’d encountered. And yet the thought—never a certainty—that I’d just glimpsed God, stays with me, even more than the memory of the light itself.
Of course, I shouldn’t credit that piano for my being a Christian. Demographics must have played a more significant role. Had I been born in Morocco (99.8 percent Muslim) or Bangladesh (0.03 percent Christian), I doubt I’d spend much time thinking about Jesus. Nor, presumably, would the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer have lured me into becoming an Episcopalian. It’s far more likely that a Bangladeshi me would have lived and died without knowing, or caring, that this ever-shrinking denomination even existed. Why should he?
The New York City of my childhood was not exactly a hotbed of faith. But my mother was the superintendent of our church’s Sunday school, and when she told me that I could fold my hands, bow my head, and speak to God, I believed her. Most days, I still do.
“If you think so much of your religion is bullshit,” she asks, “why are you studying to become a priest?” We’d gone around the table, making the usual wedding-reception introductions, and my answer to “And what do you do?” had caused the biochemist and her husband, an environmental lawyer, to perk up. I’d explained that I was in divinity school with a year to go before I’d be ordained in the Episcopal Church. Polite follow-up questions let me add that I’d been a teacher for eight years before going to seminary, that I missed the classroom and wanted to work in schools again, that I might be too irreverent to be an effective priest: “A high tolerance for bullshit seems to be a prerequisite for a life in the church.” Church folks, at least the ones I hang out with, aren’t offended when I complain about all the bullshit you find in religion. They confront it every Sunday and so know its peculiar stench: the noxiousness of smug certainty, the obsession with the niceties of ritual. No, it’s the atheists that my blasphemy outrages.
“I mean, do you even believe in God?” the biochemist asks.
I reply, to no one’s satisfaction, that it depends on what she means by God.