I wonder if anyone every deliberately sets out on a journey of faith, or if it is simply a condition of life. Because life is
a journey. Those who travel minus faith are frequently stunned by what they judge to be the randomness of events; no armor can protect them, no rainbow can uplift them. I know this is so, because for a time I traveled among them.
Not too many people know about my second daughter. Yet this silent, secret child is a pivotal point in my life. She was never baptized. Her death certificate identifies her as Baby Girl Irsfeld. In my mind, I call her Rose. Her ashes, barely a teaspoonful, rest in a tin in a dark, dusty corner somewhere in my house. The memory of her tiny, still body resting on my lap, though, is far heavier than that, and far more enduring. May 1 is her birth, and death, day.
I lost so much that day. A life. A dream. A prayer. And God. Rather than accept a God who could allow such things to happen, I embraced the Great Nothingness, where nothing is hoped, so nothing can be lost. Where nothing is expected, so nothing can disappoint. Where there is no one to blame when things go wrong.
The moments of brightness that pierced my grief were not enough to lift me out of it. Every happiness was swiftly swallowed by yet another disaster, and I told myself I was satisfied with my numbed state of being. For five years, I concentrated my energy on bracing for whatever might come next. Still, each spring I'd sink into an emotional abyss. I never saw it coming, but as sure as April gave way to May, the depression would seep in. Robins, tulips—not for me. I mourned a Rose, and respite was not an option.
I envy people whose lives, whose childhoods, have always been rich in prayer and church and faith. They have spiritual reserves to tap into. If they forget where these are stored, someone is always close to remind them. Growing up, I felt my faith as something instinctive rather than taught. My religious instruction was haphazard. I absorbed it through the mysticism of the Latin services and the candles and statues and incense in the church where my grandmother went regularly to pray, me tagging along beside her. I drank it up in the rituals of the Sabbath and High Holiday preparations of my best friend in high school, who was Jewish. I inhaled it in the Sunday school rooms and the sanctuary of the large Methodist church where for years my grandfather was sexton. I loved Jesus—I sought him in vacation bible schools in my hometown, riding my little bike from church to church each summer to sign up for sessions. At 8, I found him in the Episcopal church where a friend's father was minister. Apart from my own searching, prayer and church and religion weren't part of my family's daily life. They were something that happened for a couple of hours on Sunday. Now I wonder why, because when I eventually stumbled back into God's arms, no one was more overjoyed than my mom, whose own Catholic foundation had never crumbled beneath her.
My mother, my anchor in so many ways, never relinquished hope that I might eventually rediscover joy, if not my banished faith. She prayed. God listened. Both knew that sooner or later I'd need to put my burden down. Then, after bouncing from coast to coast for job reasons, my husband, children, and I moved to Northport, New York. There, I'd stop at the traffic light at Ocean and Main and be captivated by the little white church twinkling at me on the corner. I drove by. And drove by. And drove by. Soon, though, the pull was too strong to ignore. Not really knowing why, one Sunday I went in.
True to form, I expected nothing. Wanted nothing. Felt slightly embarrassed to be there. "Hypocrite!" I hissed at myself. I slipped into the back pew. And felt God's love enfold me. His forgiveness poured over me. His grace filled me up; I'd never known what grace was before God delivered this message of absolution to me through the eloquence of the pastor in that quaint Presbyterian church. I wept. In the next few weeks, I tried to stay away— I did not deserve this tenderness. My life was littered with sin and misery. Truly, I was not worthy. I would not go back.
I went back. I'd sit in the last row, quietly weeping, hearing over and over again that I was forgiven, that God's grace was shining on me. Finally I accepted that; now I had to forgive myself. Let go. Let God. I was not alone anymore.
Faith is a mystery; it is a journey without a map. It unfolds like a rose, sometimes tightly budded, sometimes in full bloom. When you think it has withered, it sprouts somewhere else. When you think you've got it figured out, you discover a deeper layer of petals or a path you never knew existed. I once was lost but now am found.
Sue Irsfeld sings in the choir and is on the board of deacons at the First Presbyterian Church of Northport, New York.
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From the May 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine