How I really found my faith
- Posted on Nov 2, 2008
The other night I was sitting alone in my room at Wellesley College trying to write on the subject, "Why I Believe in God."
After hours of walking in circles—both mentally and physically—I decided to try out my ideas on some of the other students in the dorm. A lively argument began. I sensed in those girls the same confusion which I've felt so often. Yes, and the same need for answers.
Perhaps it's different in the adult world. But it seemed to me last year in high school—and now in college too—that when we young people set out to find God with our reason, we reach a dead-end every time. For me, truth is like a parakeet let out of its cage. I chase it around my room, across the campus, into the chapel itself, but it flies farther away all the time.
And then when I've stopped racing after it, perhaps when I'm not even thinking about it, it will come gently and light on my shoulder.
I had one of these inexpressible nudges from something outside myself the day before the Junior Miss Pageant began in March 1963. I was driving into Louisville late that afternoon on some last minute errands. Suddenly a rabbit was under the wheels of the car—before I could even begin to use the brakes. I knew I had hit the animal although there was no impact. I drove on.
Then, inexplicably, I was blinded by tears. An impulse that was not my own said, "Stop. Go back. Don't leave the rabbit on the road."
"That's silly," my rational self replied. "You just don't stop to pick up a rabbit. Besides, it wasn't my fault."
But the tears blinded me so that I hardly could see ahead. "I won't turn around," I repeated. Everything human in me said "drive on."
Yet that something stronger kept insisting. And finally I obeyed. I turned the car around and drove back to the spot where the rabbit had streaked from the underbrush. There it was, lying beside the pavement. It was dead. Gently I picked it up and laid it beneath a bush, well back from the road.
And with that act the tears stopped just as suddenly as they had started.
What was the truth that had touched me so compellingly? Was it a message about the oneness and importance of all God's creation? At a moment when my own plans and affairs loomed very large, hadn't a whisper come to me from the love that included rabbits—and even the two sparrows which were sold for a farthing?
After the exciting experience of winning the pageant in Mobile, there was a lot of travel. One Sunday in a large city, my chaperone and I slipped into a church near our hotel. The sanctuary was almost full—not quite. When it came time for the announcements, the pastor solemnly stood up and here is what he said as best as I can remember:
"I have witnessed the disunity resulting from recent attempts of Negroes to worship in a nearby church. In order to avoid what happened down the street, I called a special meeting of the board of directors. We have informed the ushers to tell any of these Negro agitators who come and try to attend our worship service, that we haven't room enough for our own members."
That was all. Just a simple announcement. I looked around at the people. Theirs was a routine reaction. Again, I know that the emotion I felt was larger than my own.
I am no crusader. I think I understand some of the complexity of this problem. But suddenly I knew that I could no longer take up this pew space that was so valuable.
The minister was reading some more announcements, but the words that crashed in my ears were different: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass....*
It was that other voice impelling me to action once again. With my astonished chaperone gathering gloves and pocketbook, I got up and walked from the church—wondering if I ever would be able to explain it to her, or to myself.
Back in the hotel room I tried to describe it. It was as though something more concerned and more dedicated than I had reached down and made a decision for me that I might not have reached by myself. For I often had wrestled in my own mind with this question of integration without reaching a very clear-cut conclusion.
A friend to whom I told this experience said he had no doubt that it was the Holy Spirit. He believes that the Spirit daily tries to reach each one of us with his perfect counsel. "The key," he said, "is our obedience. As long as we obey that subtle prompting, it will come ever clearer and more frequently. But if ever we begin to stop our ears, it will grow faint and then disappear."
That made sense to me, because nine or 10 months before there had come a moment when I was sure the Holy Spirit had revealed a new truth to me. It was during a period in my life when I had pulled away from the religious training I'd received as a child.
I think most teenagers go through a time like this, and when adults ask why, the nearest I can come is the word embarrassment. Teenagers are terribly self-conscious. And Jesus represents a kind of simplicity and humility that is not at all attractive if you're primarily concerned with what people think of you.
Furthermore, I'd use the word vulnerability. There is something about Christ's life of sacrifice and service that made him totally vulnerable to people. Whether we admit it or not, young people pull away from situations where we can be hurt. And so we pull away from identifying with Christ who was hurt.
I hadn't realized how far it had gone in my own case until one of the boys in high school said some things that bothered me. He, too, was reared in a Christian home, yet he had become a doubter.
"I could step on a Bible right now and not feel a thing," he said. Then he scoffed at church ritual and the idea of a divine Christ.
I tried to talk to him, but inside I was more upset than I showed. What bothered me was not as much his attitude as mine. For I'd realized suddenly as he talked that I could not counter his disbelief with a really strong faith of my own.
That night I could not sleep. A feeling of despair surrounded me. Why must I be so confused? It was nearly 4 a.m. before I dropped off to sleep.
The next night it was the same...a great feeling of depression...inability to sleep. I was tortured by questions about Christ. Was he a myth? Was he God? Did he really perform those miracles?
My thoughts seemed to start off in one direction and end up back at the starting point. There the big question was always waiting: was Jesus who he said he was?
I've wondered since why I did not turn to my parents for answers when I needed them so badly. Mother and Dad are the kind of Christians who live their faith and had tried to teach my sister and me to live it too. Perhaps that was just the trouble. What faith I had had been given to me, with no effort on my part. Perhaps it was time to earn a faith of my own.
For five nights the torment lasted...sleeplessness...emptiness...straining to know...reaching out for something. On the fifth night it happened. I can't describe it in any other way than to say that a cloud about me seemed to lift, the answer of faith formed a pathway to light: He was! He is!
I got up and began to read the New Testament. I had read the entire Bible through twice before, but never like this. Once I'd read it as a lover of literature, once for its history. Now I read as a seeker. Words leapt at me from the page, thrilling and true. I read on and on, excited, with a feeling of great joy.
When I arose the next morning—to the same breakfast of eggs, the familiar school routine—the feeling of elation and belief was still there. But I had no idea as to how to share it or use it.
There have been other whispers from God, not as loud nor as clear as that night's revelation, but enough to keep me remembering that he seeks us even more fervently than we seek him. Sometimes in my search for truth I feel as if I'm climbing a ladder up the side of the Empire State Building. At the 100th floor there is great vision and wisdom for the climber. Right now I'm up to the fifth floor and sometimes when I look up and see the distance to go, my heart sinks.
Then a bird lights on my shoulder and I remember that it's really not like this at all. It's not a long climb that we must accomplish alone. The distance was overcome when Truth came down to our level. Now he stands outside each separate heart, and we must only be ready to fling wide the door when we hear his gentle knock.
*1 Corinthians 13:1