Tell us, Poet, what it is you do? —I praise.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
It is a hot, murky, green-skied summer morning in the heart of the Midwest. The streets are wet, the trees toss restlessly in the wind of the oncoming storm. Tornados have been ripping their way through this part of the country for weeks. During one that tore up the northeast side of town last week, I happened to be in a Twelve Step meeting, meditating. As we sat there, the sky lit up with a sudden burst of white-gold clouds that bloomed across the blue, the kind of clouds that always make you think of heaven—and just as suddenly, the sky turned black, the trees began to bend, the tornado sirens started wailing, and hail began to pour. It seemed an apropos time for prayer, so I prayed.
Note: my grandmother would have called these “foxhole prayers.” The prayers of the unbeliever who turns to God under duress, as for example when in a foxhole or during tornados.
But in truth, I no more believe in God during tornados than at any other time. I am a full-time heathen. I do not pray for salvation or comfort or safety. I do not call upon a deity to stop the storm. I do not expect my prayers to have direct effect, or to be answered in any kind of personal way. I just—pray.
But the nameless, the anonymous,
How do you, Poet, call upon it? —I praise.
One evening I was having coffee with some students, and we stumbled on the topic of God—did such a being exist, was it a being per se or more of a force, and, if there was no God, where could humans find comfort, and meaning, and hope, that sort of lightweight chat—and one young man said thoughtfully, “I don’t know. I just find it more logical that we were created by God than that we all came from some sort of octopus.”
“Perhaps,” I ventured, “you mean ‘amoeba’?”
“Yes!” he said, delighted. “That’s exactly what I meant.”
Octopus, amoeba—both weird and marvelous things, really, though neither seems like the logical origin of sensate life. Of course, my believer friends would say, “But God isn’t a matter of logic. God is a matter of faith. You have to have faith.”
I do have faith. I don’t have faith that a God exists, nor do I have faith that one does not; I have absolute faith that I do not know, cannot know, am only human, am an infinitesimal creature packed onto a cramped planet crowded with seven billion bodies, and as many yearning hearts, and as many questioning minds.
When people say to me, “So you think we’re just all alone?” I always laugh. I think we are never alone. I have unshakeable faith in that.
I have heard it said that atheism—or any term for a non-belief in God—is an arrogant faith in the human intellect, or an absurdist faith in the divinity of math. I can’t agree. Math has its elegance, and the intellect has its place. But I do not search for spiritual sustenance in the realm of the abstract. I seek, and find, my spiritual answers here. On the ground. In this bewildering, struggling, beautiful, world.
But the deadly and the monstrous,
How do you bear them, how do you accept them? —I praise.
Believers ask me: What gives you comfort? What gives you hope? What explains suffering? What explains love?
But I don’t have answers; that’s the point. I cannot explain, I do not know; and therefore I have wonder. I have awe. And given all that I do not know, all I cannot answer or explain, the most pressing spiritual question becomes not What do I believe? but How do I live?
What do I choose, how do I act, here and now, in this crush of seven billion bodies, on this spinning sphere? What can I give?
Last week, I sat in my Twelve Step meeting and watched as the heavy green sky lifted and late-day light poured into the room. I thought of what Martin Luther wrote: that the only necessary prayer was ‘thank you.’ So I prayed.
And how is it that both calm and violent things,
Like star and storm, know you so well? —Because I praise.
Marya Hornbacher is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated national bestseller Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. Her new book, WAITING: A Nonbelievers Higher Power was just published. Marya is an award-winning journalist, who lectures nationally on writing and mental health and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.