Is there a God?
The Beachside Resident - September 2009
I suppose I should begin by telling you that I am a Jew. That is, I was born one… I had no choice in the matter. I would apologize for my heatheness, but in the near 6,000-year history of my silly, guilt-ridden people, not a single Jew has ever apologized for his ancestry… it is one of 18,000 time-honored traditions purveyed by the keepers of the religion. Ridiculous? Perhaps, but I refuse to tamper with such a remarkable streak.
The fact is, most American Jews have relegated God to some high, dusty shelf in one of their spacious closets. They invoke His name infrequently, mostly at dinner time, in a language that makes no sense to anyone at the table. Suffice to say, God is not at the forefront of most Jewish children’s minds. I did attend synagogue while growing up, but the holy vision of the girl sitting in front of me distracted me from the ceremonies. I was kept awake only by the endless sitting and standing, the girl herself, and the wistful anticipation of the cookies we would be eating at the end of the service. I hear it is not much different with children of other faiths.
It wasn’t until my teenage years that I first embarked upon my quest to find God. I was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway one foggy afternoon when I had the sudden realization that I was lost… completely lost in this world. It was such a simple truth, yet so devastating to a young man of eighteen. Minutes later, the sun broke through the clouds and shed a surreal glow upon a nearby hilltop. There, written in glorious letters, were these words:
“JESUS LOVES YOU.”
My heart raced… it was providence, blowing down from the skies upon me! I felt myself lifted from the depths of despair… a spiritual joy coursed through my veins. Yes, yes… I could feel His love! I was found!
My salvation took the form of a massive, newly-constructed house of worship, a church with a congregation of ten thousand – clean, honest, well-living people – who saw it fit to welcome this heathen with open hearts. I got a haircut, took a steady job, and showed up every Sunday morning with my khakis pressed. I was lost no more. Jesus was the way, and He was the answer.
But curiosity drove me deeper into my faith. I took it upon myself to read the New Testament, a hobby only a small percentage of churchgoers ever attempt, and which can prove dangerous without adequate supervision. I was a mere ten minutes into the Good Book when my eyes fell upon this curious passage (from Matthew 6:5):
“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men…”
The Savior goes on to explain, with reasonable clarity, how one should pray inside the confines of one’s own closet, and to be very sure to keep the door shut, and never, ever to use ‘vain repetitions.’ Strangely enough, Jesus follows this wisdom up with none other than the Lord’s Prayer… “Our Father which art in heaven, etc. etc.”
I closed the Book. I suppose some might call it an epiphany. Others, a relapse. But my path was clear. I would leave the church. I would abide by Jesus’ Word, and find the Lord inside my closet.
It was a pitiable attempt. Without the lights, the orchestral music, the gilded words of the pastor, and the giant flat-screened TVs, the Good Lord saw it unfit to attend my private service.
A Catholic friend of mine suggested it was not the church’s fault, but my own skepticism that prevented God from showing Himself. He convinced me to travel with him to Tuscany, where on a cold, rainy night, he introduced me to the Virgin Mary. After consuming two bottles of sacred wine, we fell to our knees before the statue of the Madonna in the town square. We prayed and wept until daybreak. Oh, Holy Mother of God, how can I ever thank you? I would surely be dead or worse if you hadn’t cured me of the pneumonia I contracted that night!
I lay bedridden for two months, coughing and sweating, my feverish dreams haunted by your sad, porcelain face… sometimes even Saint Joseph, Saint Michael, and Saint Peter would appear before me… saints, angels, archangels… I saw them all! My dreams were all rapture and confusion! But when my sickness passed, for all that I remained a poor unbeliever. Where among these faces was God? He had yet to show up to the party.
My search did not end there. Satisfied that Western religion could not summon Him up, I decided to seek out God in the East. I moved to Marakesh, where I befriended the humble, honest man Fakhir al Hajid. In a few short weeks, this fellow had converted me to Islam. Yes, it was bad timing (only months after the September 11 attacks), but when I heard God was hiding out in a mosque, I could not, by rights, do without taking a peek inside. I gave Islam my all for a few months, faithfully learning the Salah, praying five times a day to Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful… there was something about this vigorous ritual that elevated me into an altered state… at times, I thought I discerned the glow of holy light inside my eyelids… but the rugs in the mosque were musty, and held the vinegary odor of feet. Bringing my face to these floors over and over again only sowed the seeds of doubt once more.
Desperate to escape the confinement of the more structured religions, I turned to the Far East, and Japan. For one year, I studied under the tutelage of a Zen monk, who, though he never quite satisfied my thirst for God, taught me to envision myself as a leaf floating along a river. He was a madman, to be sure. Eventually, I became disenchanted with his riddles, and took to wandering the woods outside Kamakura, where I fell unkowingly into the ancient Shinto religion, ruminating on the spirit-essences of the trees, the wind, and the skies.
One day, while taking a drink from a limpid stream, I saw my own bearded reflection in the water. I was thirty years old, on the brink of insanity, and still completely lost. Perhaps God didn’t exist after all. Hadn’t I been everywhere, hadn’t I tried everything to find him? I resolved to move back to Florida, to start my life anew, without the bindings of religion to steer my way.
For a short while, I lived a life of blissful ignorance. I married, took a job in biological research, converted to the Democratic party, and enjoyed a pleasant, Godless life. Then it happened. I tell you truly, it happened. Perhaps you think I have stretched the truth a bit… I insist I will give everything back if you just believe this:
I was paddling out last Saturday morning, during the Hurricane Bill swell. It was before sunrise, and I was alone at 11th street. Just as I pushed over the last set wave, there He was… standing before me on the water!
Why should God appear to me then, at the very time I was learning to accept a life without Him? I don’t know. What I do know is that I felt His power, and understood Him in that moment… He is the connection between all things, like blood which courses to all extremities of the body… no, no… He is more like wind, who touches everything yet remains invisible to all…
Then again, it is possible I had a grain of sand in my eye. But no matter, no matter at all. I have known people who have been saved by far less.