… When Granny was dying of blood cancer, I remember Mum (her daughter-in-law) telling a story to Dad over dinner one night. Mum was angry because Granny had said to her earlier that day, from her bed, ‘It would be terrible not to believe in anything.’ I don’t know why Mum was angry. Maybe she thought it was a slight against her, her being an atheist. Maybe it touched on some deeper mortal fear.
Regardless, this story speaks to what has always fascinated me about faith, particularly as an anxious child. Granny knew that faith was an escape. In Ancient Greek tragedies, a deus ex machina—god from the machine—was a contraption that would lift actors playing gods onto the stage, usually to save a character from a hopeless situation. In the same way, Granny saw her God as an escape from the corporeal horrors of dying, and the looming oblivion of death.
I can only assume that Granny’s faith worked for her. (One aunt said she smiled before she took her last breath; another said it was a grimace.) But despite my efforts, for me, faith never exceeded superstition. It was just a series of rituals designed to reap reward or ward off disaster. I couldn’t take the next step. I couldn’t believe. As I grew older and found other, more destructive, means of escape, I gave up on my pursuit of faith. But then, a few years ago, something happened that brought it all back.
I am twenty-seven years old and working as an associate to a judge. Court is in recess. I throw my robes and jabot over the back of the chair and run downstairs for a cigarette. I walk along the street towards my smoking alley, the large sandstone wall of the court on my left. It is a still, warm morning and the sunlight pierces the canopy of plane trees above, dappling the footpath. A woman, young and weak-chinned, walks towards me and smiles.
And then I have an Experience. It is an immense, overwhelming joy. And it isn’t mine. It comes from somewhere else, and washes over me. As in orgasm or terror, I lose my sense of time and space. I lose my sense of self. I see and feel an infinite number of things: the smiling woman, mountains and rivers, the sea, my family, nameless faces. I am connected to them, and I have the strongest sense that everything is just as it should be. I am grateful, and tears come to my eyes.
The Experience lasted only for a moment. It felt familiar, but I don’t remember ever having had it before. Afterwards, I tried to brush it off: misfiring neurons, maybe. I met an old school friend that night at a bar in the city. We hadn’t seen each other for a while. After a few drinks, I asked him whether he was miserable. It was my favourite topic of conversation at the time, having recently discovered that dull misery of adulthood, a misery at its most poignant in those moments when you reach inside yourself, only to find that there is nothing there.
My friend told me that he wasn’t miserable—he had found God. I wasn’t shocked by his confession; I went to a Catholic school, and this particular friend always gave the impression that he lived a different life to the one he shared with us, a life within himself. But I was unsteadied. This was, and remains, the only time in my adult life that a peer or friend has told me they believe in God.
I found myself telling him about the Experience I had that morning. It seemed relevant. He listened attentively, and then told me that the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard called that Experience ‘resting transparently’. I was thrilled it had a name. Though my interest in faith was, by this stage, cold, academic and aesthetic, I decided in that moment that maybe this was the path to faith that had eluded me in childhood. Maybe it wasn’t beyond me. Maybe I could escape, too.
Sam is a writer based in Melbourne. His work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Swampland, Archer Magazine, Right Now and Going Postal, a recent publication by Brow Books.