For the past year I have been learning French. Once a week I travel twenty-one miles to study with a woman named Claude. During class the two other students and I must speak only French. “Nous n’avons pas de choix. C’est la règle.” (We have no choice. It is the rule.) Somehow, though our vocabulary is not large, we find a way to converse. For an hour and a half, we are immersed in the language of France — or, more accurately, of the French-speaking part of Switzerland where Claude grew up.
The Divine, too, must be studied this way. It is like a non-native language. We must immerse ourselves in God to learn to “speak” God.
Today I found the following message on my answering machine: “Hello, this is God. Please pick up. I need to know: why are you ignoring Me?”
This really happened.
My neighbor is a truck driver and sometimes leaves his truck running in our shared driveway for an hour or more. Today is one of those days, and for some reason I find the noise particularly annoying — perhaps because the sky is overcast, magnifying the sound, and the truck is revving longer than usual.
Then I tell myself, Imagine this sound as mystical music; imagine it as the growling of God.
I am able to do this, and for a few moments I can hear God growling.
Years ago I realized I despise nearly everything about Christmas. I hate the shopping-mall decorations and the R & B versions of Christmas carols on the radio. I hate the false friendliness and the cookies. I even hate Santa Claus.
The only thing I like about Christmas is the religion. So I’ve begun attending midnight Mass at Saint Francis DeSales Church.
Tonight was my third Christmas Eve service. My friend Diana was playing the organ and invited me into the choir loft with her. I sat looking down at the pews, which were two-thirds full. These people had braved the midnight cold of the Catskills to praise the birth of a king in a barn.
A Bavarian-born man named Claus sang the first verse of “Silent Night” in the original German. After Mass Claus and I discussed the story of the song’s origin: In 1818, in the Austrian town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, the church organ broke just before Christmas, and the minister, Joseph Franz Mohr, wrote this hymn and sang it in the hushed church.
The organ was broken because mice had chewed the bellows. So mice helped write “Silent Night.”
God is never completely present in our lives. That is, we don’t see Her, or Him, or Them. But God is never completely absent, either. Even militant atheists, if a car lurches toward them, may find a prayer on their lips.
Something in us wants God. Humans are a God-desiring race.
Last Saturday at synagogue, I complained to my friend Rachel, “I hate those prayers about ‘God’s people, Israel.’ ”
“Think of the ‘people Israel’ as everyone who wrestles with God,” Rachel suggested.
This is completely logical, according to this passage in the Bible:
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him . . .
he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.
And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince has thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.
And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.
(Genesis 32:24–25, 27–30)
In this journal, I am wrestling with God. As in the Bible passage, it is unclear who this God I am wrestling with is. Is he a man? An angel? Am I somehow wrestling with myself?
Last night I dreamed I saw Jay Leno interview God on a stage that was empty except for scenery resembling a blue sky. (I have long wanted to interview God myself, which perhaps explains the dream.)
“So, what’s it like running the universe?” Leno inquired.
A deep voice from above answered, “Well, Jay, there are many details. . . .” The voice was intended to be God’s, though clearly an actor was speaking.
The audience — which consisted of aging, shiftless men — began to heckle God:
“Go back to Heaven!”
“Thanks for those tornadoes!”
A chorus of boos rose from the crowd, and Leno began to look nervous. This was not in the script.
I have few beliefs, but one of them is that a watched pot never boils. Then, last week, my daughter forced me to watch a pot of water until it boiled.
“I don’t think it’s going to boil,” I opined, but she said, “Keep watching!”
Bubbles began to form.
“But those are small bubbles,” I observed. “It’s not going to boil vigorously while we’re here.”
“Keep watching!” my daughter said.
Eventually the water was boiling. I could not deny it.
This is why God gives us children.
People often say, “God isn’t a man with a white beard living in the sky.” I used to agree with this, but I have begun to reconsider. Why? Because I am now a man with a white beard.
It’s strange to glance in the mirror and think, I look like God.
Why do we have this image of God as an older bearded man? Probably because of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, on which Michelangelo painted God reaching his finger out to Adam’s finger. Today I realized why this painting is so compelling: Michelangelo was gay. His men are always beautiful, and his women are lumpy and dull — like misshapen men. That moment of the old man God reaching out to the young man Adam is full of sexual thrill. And Michelangelo was right to paint it this way. I believe there is a sexual attraction between humans and God.
When I was twelve, I visited the United Nations building. The tour guide pointed to a Persian carpet on the floor and explained that the carpet makers had inserted an imperfection in the weave, because Muslims believe that God alone can achieve perfection. I never forgot this, and today I wrote a poem:
I chose the letter Y for my error because it resembles a person with arms spread upward.
Yesterday it began to trouble me that God doesn’t have a last name. So I chose ten names at random from the Ulster County phone book and wrote the following poem:
Possible Last Names for God
Does anyone worship trolls? This is a serious question. If there are people who worship Satan, couldn’t someone, somewhere worship trolls?
My question is inspired by a remark I heard George Carlin make in one of his comedy concerts. He was discussing the fact that 78 percent of Americans believe in angels: “What the fuck is the matter with you people?” he asked the audience. “How about goblins? How many of you believe in goblins?”
Today, after numerous requests and negotiations with God’s publicist, God agreed to speak with me, briefly.
Sparrow: Why is there evil?
God: Evil emerges from the imaginations of men — and I use the word men advisedly. Only about one in eight hundred thousand women is evil.
Sparrow: How can a person become closer to you?
God: The possibilities are endless, but I recommend singing. After all, I invented song. If you go to the jungles of Peru, do you see churches? No. But you do hear joyous singing.
Sparrow: You mean the birds?
God: Yes, birds are my greatest achievement. They fly and sing.
Sparrow: What about humans?
God: A bit disappointing. I had no idea you would invent television. But I do approve of electric lights.
God: They are gorgeous at night when seen from the sky.
Sparrow: Do you really live above the clouds?
God: Of course not.
Sparrow: Where do you live, then?
God: In the hearts of pious interviewers like yourself! [Laughs.]
[God’s publicist indicates that I have time for one last question.]
Sparrow: What is the meaning of life?
Sparrow: What did you say?
God: Forget it. You wouldn’t understand anyway.
[Here God’s publicist signals that the interview is over.]