Half-Full of Grace

Thanks to church, I have a much stronger sense of the sort of person I would like to be, and I am forced to confront all the ways in which I fail, daily. Even without full knowledge or understanding of how the prayer will be received, it is comforting to offer up one’s wishes for the world. JUNE 8, 2017

Originally published in the LARB Quarterly Journal: No. I do not find religion to be comforting in the way that I think nonreligious people mean it. Who knows! Our words are identical. I do not impress anyone at church. Whether I actually believe all the stuff about Jesus and Mary and Light from Light, true God from true God varies. It is comforting, for instance, to sing songs in a group. That’s how prayer works.”
– Pope Francis (at least, according to Pinterest)
I like being Catholic because long ago, people who were smarter than me and thought about it much longer than I have time to figured out what I’m supposed to believe. It is comforting to loudly sing something that has little to no redeeming aesthetic value. Or calculating just how much I will put in the collection basket. ¤
“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality. I would tell you, I suppose, that God has some sort of triage system that I can’t figure out, but also that anyone who wants to should pray for anything they want — why not? And one of the reasons that I go to church is that church is the opposite of that. I have not come to teach or volunteer or try a new (to me) cuisine or inhabit a new (to me) neighborhood. I wish that they experience peace in their lives. If anyone is able to structure His time efficiently, it ought to be God. ¤
“You pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That dead people stayed dead and prayer was useless and Jesus was nothing more than a really great teacher. Maybe it’s the job that leads to a series. Every Sunday, we go. Most of the time, I do, I think. I am a screenwriter. I wish I could have that certainty. When I pray about them in church, I feel like I am doing a tiny bit to help. It’s like the DMV. Church is a group of broken individuals united only by our brokenness traveling together to ask to be fixed. Sometimes I feel like I believe almost everything the church teaches and sometimes I feel like I believe almost nothing, but if I’m anywhere from one to 99 percent on the belief scale, my response is the same. I believe that whatever kind of God exists is the kind of God who can’t or won’t interfere every time humans decide to do horrible things to each other, because humans are clearly doing terrible things to each other every day and show very few signs of stopping. I do not say anything surprising or charming, because the things I say are rote responses that someone else decided on centuries ago. In a city that’s an oxymoronic 70 percent minority, that shouldn’t be a special occurrence, but it is. I am very, very happy being a screenwriter in Los Angeles, particularly in the current age of Peak TV. Sometimes I don’t. The things that I feel proud of can’t help me here, and the things that I feel embarrassed by are beside the point. (And I know — I know — that the problem with this metaphor is that, in The Wizard of Oz, there wasn’t actually anyone with magical powers behind the curtain. Being a screenwriter in Los Angeles is like being on a perpetual second date with everyone you know. Maybe you’ll get career-married and make career-babies. None of this is particularly comforting. Halfway through church, I turn to the congregants next to me and share the peace. It seems presumptuous to self-censor our prayers for fear they are not worthy of His time. It’s a continuation of it. It’s like The Wizard of Oz: we are each missing something, and there is a man in a flowing robe whom we trust to hand that something over. I get it.)
But church is not just about how I feel or whom I’m surrounded by. It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands. They wish the same for me. When I think about any of these things outside of church, my blood pressure skyrockets and I go into a mild panic attack. But I believe too much, at least sometimes, to be certain about that. 12,   Los Angeles Issue
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“You don’t have to like it. It’s a marvelous gig that I am grateful for. But being on a perpetual second date can get exhausting. In a time of stress and anxiety and distrust, it is comforting to be direct about what a possible alternative would look like. You strive to be your most charming, delightful, quirky-but-not-damaged self because you never know what will come of the encounter. Singing alongside other people is a basic human pleasure that extends back across time and culture, and it’s a shame to me that many adult Americans only experience it before baseball games. The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed.  
Dorothy Fortenberry is a playwright and screenwriter, currently working on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Or avoiding shifts at the food bank. Even though our religion — like all religions — has been responsible for terrible things. Nothing promotes self-awareness like turning down an opportunity to bring children to visit their incarcerated parents. ¤
“We say
pinhole. Which is not to say there aren’t parts of church that are comforting. It’s like a subway car. It’s about faith. Every Sunday, even though she would prefer to stare at my smartphone, I make her go anyway. This part is harder for me to explain. I am not special at church, and this is the point. We to go to look so hard at the light that our eyes water. Constantly feeling that you should be meeting people, impressing people, shocking people (just the right amount) is a strange way to live your life. I would also tell you that, when facing a medical difficulty in one of my pregnancies to which doctors responded, “wait and see,” I asked the priest at church to put his hands on my belly and pray. You just have to go,” I tell my five-year-old kid every Sunday when she complains about going to church. If it’s more than zero, I should go to church. This is not such a bad life. Even though my smartphone is extremely wonderful. Even though I often find the whole thing nutty and tacky, like a theme restaurant or the kind of museum you visit on a road trip. Even more special is that I have come with no particular agenda. I wish I could be positive that there was no God and that Sundays were for brunch. I do not believe that everything in my life will necessarily be all right and I certainly do not believe that everything happens for a reason. Our need for peace is infinite. If you asked me point blank what I believe about how God picks and chooses among petitions ranging from new sneakers to the stopping of genocide, I would stammer incoherently. It almost
isn’t fair,
poked this,
with such
a small act
to vanquish
– Kay Ryan, “Pinhole”
Church isn’t an escape from the world. Maybe it’s the coffee that leads to a job. Maybe it’s just a coffee. It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. My family and I don’t go to church to deny the existence of the darkness. All I have to do is show up and recite a long list that starts with “I believe” and ends with the title of a Mountain Goats album. I have not even come to act as an “ally.” I have come to sit next to people, well aware of all we don’t have in common, and face together in the same direction. I would tell you that my best friend asked her church in Indiana to pray for my pregnancy, too, and the thought of a bunch of people sending their wishes for my potential child into the air still moves me more than I know what to do with. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
I live in Los Angeles. It is comforting to pray. We are all exactly the same amount of special. It just seems so comforting never to doubt things.”
Well, sometimes I wish I had the certainty of an atheist. This is my attempt to explain why. We
can’t imagine
how bright
more of it
could be,
the way
this much
defeats night. Another thing that I value: When I go to church in Los Angeles, I am a white person in a majority nonwhite space. Thought about with even a smidgen of rationality, prayer makes no sense. A pin hole
of light. The songs that we sing in church are many of the same post-Vatican II songs I grew up singing. Even though, when I was a kid and was similarly dragged by my mom, I was convinced — convinced — that I would never go again of my own free will. That’s it. Because (according to the ridiculous, generous, imperfectly applied rules of my religion) we are all equally beloved children of God. I do know that I want it to be. Someone leads the prayers every week at church and the kinds of things we pray for are both straightforward (an end to the death penalty; a living wage for all workers; safe homes for refugees; care for the planet and its climate) and very difficult to achieve, which makes them ideal subjects for prayer. They sound like they should be on Sesame Street circa 1970, and I unabashedly adore them. Compared to other lives that I have lived, it is, frankly, an awesome one. So, you wear flattering jeans and an expensive, casual shirt, and you smile. I don’t know if the feeling I get when I think about this is God. Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it to be of merely small-to-medium size.