Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Lesson Learned, and a Goodbye


In high school, I had to take a religion class. Most people don't have to take religion classes, but this is one of the benefits of private school. Of course I didn't see it as a benefit at the time. Ugh, religion, waste of my time, was probably about where my thoughts were. But the subject grew on me. It wasn't a class prostheletizing any particular belief or anything. Mostly, it was about what faith means. What role religion plays in people's lives, and why.

At the time, I would have considered myself an agnostic. I was too literal, too skeptical, too scientific to take the Bible or any other religious document at face value. I would have said that whole-hearted belief was for the naive, or for those who had never bothered to really examine the issue and just swallowed whatever faith they were fed. But at the same time, I felt that there was something... that something happened to me when I was sitting in the cathedral and hearing the choir's voices ringing through the nave. That some beauty beyond that of man was shining through those stained glass windows. But organized religion was akin to superstition to me.

Mrs. Eliot's class changed all that.

We had to read Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith. (To this day, I am in awe of the faculty and administration who thought us capable of such a book, at age sixteen. If it was folly, I am grateful for it.) At first, it was like reading a foreign language. It was the kind of reading you come up against as a teenager, after you've read enough "grown-up books" to get a little arrogant, that takes the wind right out of your sails and makes you feel hopelessly small and dumb.

But then Mrs. Eliot brought it within reach. She explained, she revealed, and the book and all its wisdom opened up for me. Left to my own devices, I would have struggled with this book and ended up throwing it against the wall and going back to my happy ignorance. But she wouldn't let that happen. She gently removed the veil of my small-mindedness, and helped me to see the world around me in a new light. Faith isn't about believing the truth as laid out in some ancient documents. Faith isn't about belief at all. Faith is an action. Faith is a state of being.

Faith is the leap between what is known and what is unknown. It is the very space between. There is no scientific formula that can tell me that my husband loves me and will not forsake me. There is a point where I must leave behind what I know for certain to be true, and fall into empty space... and trust that I will be caught. It is not the belief that I will be caught that matters, it is the act of falling. The willingness to take that leap, without scientific certainty, without a safety net... that willingness changes you. This is the root of faith. Not the ancient myths, but the willingness to leave certainty behind and fall into empty space... and trust that it is not empty.

Thank you, Mrs. Eliot. Thank you for the gift of your wisdom and patience. Rest in peace.


  1. Ahh faith! I read Tillich in my a Philosophy course in Under grad. I liked him. Without faith where would we be? Great post!

  2. Amazing the lasting impact of others on our lives, isn't it? What a beautiful tribute to a woman whom I am sure was quite amazing.

  3. Lovely. Thank you!