On Faith

By James B. Frost

Essay

My mother is the most appropriate religious person I know. She prays daily, goes to church whenever she can, volunteers at a local homeless shelter, gives money to charity, reads book after book about religion, and never once talks about it to the faithless, unless of course they ask. It hurts her, deeply, that of her seven children only one remains religious, and yet as she’s aged, she’s learned to keep her hurt to herself as best she can. Every once in a while she slips up and mails me a news clipping—something about the evils of the latest Harry Potter book—but I’ve reached an age where, given the depth of her beliefs, I see this as restraint rather than proselytizing.

Six months ago, my mother was diagnosed with leukemia. She was seventy, and the prognosis wasn’t good. Upon hearing the news, there was a flurry of phone calls from siblings about what should be done—surely this was the beginning of the end, and we all needed to visit and have as much contact with our mother as possible in these waning months and years.

This was not the first diagnosis of leukemia in our family. Thirty years ago, my father was also diagnosed. It was right after the birth of the seventh child. I was the oldest, at eleven, so you can imagine the devastation my mother must have felt at the diagnosis—how would she raise seven children by herself? At the time, leukemia was a very deadly cancer, with a mere 5% remission rate; my father’s odds were not good.

Rather than despair her likely lot, though, my mother turned her attention to that 5% hope. How to increase it? Her first response was to arrange, through the Veterans Administration, for my father to receive treatment at M.D. Anderson in Houston, one of the world’s premier cancer care institutions. Her second response was a heavy dose of prayer.

My parents were proud and respected members of St. Luke’s Catholic Church. We were the large, unruly family who sat in the front row every Sunday at 9:30 A.M—the occasional child making a dash for the altar during Pastor Dan’s sermon. News of my father’s illness spread quickly, and the community’s response was overwhelming: there were prayer vigils, rosaries, an anointing of the sick with hundreds in attendance, all done with my mother there—feverishly praying, her seven children in tow.

My father would receive treatment for four months at M.D. Anderson and would eventually go into remission, prayers answered. He is still alive to this day.

Of course, in the thirty years since my father’s recovery, I have seen the dark side of my parents’ church. Father Rudy Kos, the assistant pastor of St. Luke’s during my youth, was convicted in 1998 on three counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. And there are whispers of other sins—sins which my parents, and other members of St. Luke’s parish have long kept their silences about. The Catholic Church has a longstanding history of secrecy around its sexual misdeeds, and I, long ago, renounced that faith for a firm humanism. It was not an easy loss.

As I hear my siblings speak about visitations and travel plans, and as I know that in the chaos of my current life I won’t be able to visit myself, I think about my mother: about what she wants most but would never ask for.

It is a Sunday morning. An agnostic walks past coffee shops and bars, along the waste-strewn streets of his fellow sinners. Near the end of a bustling commercial district is an old brownstone church—St. Andrew’s Catholic Church—he walks through its oversized doors. There is a table in the foyer, which has on it the Sunday bulletin. He flips through it, finds his mother’s name listed, then walks through another set of doors into the nave.

This man, this agnostic, sits in a folding chair in the back corner. The service has long since started—he’s arrived late purposefully. His timing surprises him; he’s arrived at the perfect moment, the moment when the congregation prays the Prayers of the Faithful. The priest lists the names of the parish’s sick, his mother’s included—he’s phoned in and asked them to pray. He watches the hundreds of heads bowed, hears the silence of their mental words, feels the force of their faithful wills.

And then, choking up, he gets up from his folding chair and leaves. He knows what happens next in the Catholic Litany: the Kiss of Peace, the moment when the parishioners reach out to the person next to them and wish them well.

He owes them a hand shake of gratitude. But it is not a cross that he can bear.

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JAMES BERNARD FROST is the author of the novel A Very Minor Prophet, published by indie wonder-press Hawthorne Books, reviewed here by The Oregonian, recently optioned by Rocking Stone Media, and available wherever books are sold. He is also the award-winning author of the novel World Leader Pretend, published by St. Martin's Press, and the travel guide, The Artichoke Trail. His fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in venues as diverse as Wired, SF Weekly, the San Francisco Examiner, The Official Magazine of World of Warcraft, Trachodon Magazine, and the Farallon Review. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his two children, the rain, and the trees.

17 responses to “On Faith”

  1. jmblaine says:

    A Rabbi friend told me
    maybe Faith
    isn’t what you are sure
    of but rather
    but you are desperate for
    That helps the agnostic
    in me

    Lovely piece, sir.
    Gospel to me
    is whatever is honest
    & true and real
    about the human condition.
    This was that.

  2. Jude says:

    This is a powerful piece of writing – given its very sad topic. I particularly like this line “I think about my mother: about what she wants most but would never ask for.” Your love for your mother shines through in these few words. Your act of phoning your mother’s name in, and then going to the church to participate in the prayers, speaks volumes. Just doing these simple things are a prayer in themselves.

    I wish you and your mother well in the days ahead, and hope and pray that the outcome will be good.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Lovely piece.
    Despite we what feel about religion -faith is a wonderful thing. I am sometimes envious of the faith that people have. I can see the comfort that is derived from it.
    I have a friend who is Catholic and whenever I am going through a tough time she offers prayers for me and strangely enough – it always makes me feel better. I think for me it’s just enough to know that someone is taking even a slow minute to think good things for me.
    I wish your mother the very best and will think kind thoughts for her and you.

  4. I’m a staunch atheist but I believe in good thoughts and good vibes. I think prayers often capture these and it can make a little impact upon the world. Knowing – for example – that you have the support and love of so many people can influence a person’s mind into gaining the strength to to help cure the body. I think. I hope.

    • James Bernard Frost says:

      This is the strength of religion. In our urban lives, it’s too easy to lose touch with that sense of community all humans crave. We were all born to live in tribes and we feel lost without them. Religion gives people the chance to feel tribal warmth–we agnostics and atheists have to work harder to gain that sense of community.

  5. D.R. Haney says:

    Leukemia, as well as lymphoma, runs in my family. Last week, in fact, I heard updates about a couple of cousins who are suffering with leukemia, just as their parents both died from it.

    Meanwhile, my mother, who’s had her share of health problems in recent years, though never any that turned out to be life-threatening, is religious, as, in the conventional sense at least, I’m not. That’s also true for my siblings, which I know has been of concern to her.

    But I’m rambling. I add my voice in wishing your mother the best — and you as well.

  6. Lorna says:

    What a beautiful gift and testament of love to your Mother this act was. My thoughts and prayers go out to mother for healing. You are a good son.

  7. Cheryl Strayed says:

    Beautiful piece, Jim. Blessings to you and your mom.

    • James Bernard Frost says:

      Glad to see you here, Cheryl. Welcome back from your Internet hiatus. How soon until we see Wild on the shelves?

  8. Matt says:

    Damn, man. What a heavy load. Great piece on a terrible subject. Like David, I’m a staunch atheist, but I’ll be thinking good thoughts for your mother. Despite what certain fundamentalists might like to tell us, one doesn’t need to believe in a god to feel compassion for others.

  9. Cheryl Strayed says:

    Thanks, Jim. Wild won’t be out until early 2012, I’m sorry to say. It feels like forever away, but everyone tells me it’ll fly by. (Sort of like what people tell you when you’re pregnant. You know. People who *aren’t* pregnant.) Anyway, fabulous piece. I really love it. Has your mother read it?

    • James Bernard Frost says:

      No. My mother stays safely away from the Internet, and sending it to her would just be another form of proselytizing. We know we’re different; we know we love each other–it’s a good arrangement.

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