• Aarik Danielsen

A Statement of Faith?

CW: Brief mention of suicidal ideation

Maybe the Lord works in mysterious ways. Maybe not.


On an early-November afternoon, I shape this year’s Christmas playlist, taking the care of a potter. After all, arranging songs “is a very subtle art,” as John Cusack says in High Fidelity. “... You’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.”


 
See, I am the sort of person who appreciates warm holiday lights because they exist against darkness; who feels Advent pangs through whiskey-soaked dirges; who calls both Mariah Carey and The Pogues to Christmas dinner, then revels in their exchange of awkward glances.
 


Something in me presses play on “Chasing Empty Mangers,” the sixth track from Derek Webb’s very un-Christmas album “Fingers Crossed.” The song is desperately sad, and a perfect fit between Stevie Wonder’s “Ave Maria” and the merry gentlemen in Jars of Clay.


See, I am the sort of person who appreciates warm holiday lights because they exist against darkness; who feels Advent pangs through whiskey-soaked dirges; who calls both Mariah Carey and The Pogues to Christmas dinner, then revels in their exchange of awkward glances.


With a cleft in his voice, letting all the fret noise bleed through, Webb takes up the monologue of a forlorn father, drinking away his Christmas Eve to the faint lights of “a tiny Christmas tree,” a Charlie Brown special keeping watch from a distant, staticky TV.


His voice reverberates through an empty house, counting up absences, not presents—the family he fractured, the faith he wasted. For him, the Bethlehem star leads only to dead ends.


“Oh God, what have I done,” Webb croons, his voice softer than a shaken fist, more defiant than a cry for help. “Without your great permission / Knowing fully of the end at the start / Like a dirty goddamn trick / I either sin as I resist you / Or I do it as I’m doing my part.”


Webb agitates his glass, conjuring up the swirling Technicolor of a Paul Thomas Anderson credits sequence before quieting again, raising a toast to friends who keep a faith with no object. I exit my playlist, unusually aware of sound fading into silence. Barely breathing after absorbing a series of stomach punches, I murmur a prayer. There but for the grace of God, go I.


Grace, a word so used to soaring and somersaulting, struggles with the dismount. Does grace keep me believing? Or is it stubbornness? Mine, maybe God’s. Perhaps unlikely synonyms take turns speaking the same piece.


So long ago I internalized a future sense, of being doomed to spiritual bankruptcy. Predestined in the same way as Webb’s Christmas Eve lonely heart. The last three years feel like that failure dream.


Three forsaken years, answers pressing against my lips but no one asking questions. Three years, broken up by nights spent praying to fall asleep and wake as nothing. Three years of clutching Sunday bread crumbs for dear life, numb and empty hands rubbing life into each other as the sacrament slides into my stomach.


 
What happens to an already old soul that absorbs others’ stories, the days and weeks of someone else’s suffering under the sign of the cross? God, my soul must be pushing 100.
 

My eyes strain as I try to see myself in deconstruction stories; maybe several sentences per chapter match my experience. But the stories weather me still. I belong to an unfortunate club, adult children once set apart as “old souls.” If I might speak for us all, our common blessing and curse lies in a sort of spiritual X-ray vision. Seeing through bone to what’s beautiful about life; all the more aware of when, where, and why beauty withers.


What happens to an already old soul that absorbs others’ stories, the days and weeks of someone else’s suffering under the sign of the cross? God, my soul must be pushing 100.


In all this, I am keenly aware that angels or devils sit on my shoulder no longer. Forever, the shape of Christ at my back, wrapping threads of faith around my shivering frame. Less a blanket, more a threadbare coat worn by three winters.


Another seven days of noise follow the last seven, and I wonder: If the world lent me a quiet house, for even 20 minutes, would I deny knowing him?


Without time or circumstance enough to find out, I can’t muster faith to doubt harder. I know who I am, my patterns and penchants, and know I won’t upend life to ask tougher questions. This is the coward’s way, you say, and I can’t disagree. Maybe I’m dishonest all the way down—or maybe grace is stubbornness pushing its way through the eye of a needle.


If, at 41, the hourglass is already turned over, and I’m tethered to faith till death does its part, at least I can broker peace with the sort of religion I want to maintain.


Not a faith that coaches men to be men and women to be women, but rather teaches people to be gentle. Not a faith that claims authority over psychology and political science, but knows what it isn’t meant to know.


A faith that spends far more time cleaning its own house than dusting the world for fingerprints; a faith that repairs the heart a crust of bread and swallow of wine at a time; a faith that softens the edges for my son, never stringing millstone jewelry around his neck; a faith that slips between each soul and its dying, speaking consolation.


Dona nobis pacem.


Every time I send words to an editor, I assume this essay will be the one to break my brother or sister’s back. The one prompting a call, someone asking if I need directions. The words that lead a friend to judge me the only one of my wandering kind, not one in 99.


 
Because I love you, I need to warn you now: I envision my certainty shrinking to scale, matching the size of a mustard-seed faith tucked away somewhere.
 

I worry, worry, worry about what people think, and interpret the silences as some sort of secret knowing. But here we are.


If the God I keep writing about persists and is gracious, maybe you’ll still read me in 30 years. Because I love you, I need to warn you now: I envision my certainty shrinking to scale, matching the size of a mustard-seed faith tucked away somewhere.


If the God I can’t shake keeps wrapping moth-eaten coats around me, I pray my softness and sympathy—my ability to grieve and rejoice at even the slightest provocation—grows. Not like an old soul but something timeless, more worn and more rare.


By my count, Christmas Eve waits less than six weeks away. I will hold my traditional vigil within a darkened room, giving warm, white Christmas-tree lights their due attention.


The almost-silent night knows two sounds: my playlist and slight motion within a glass. Maybe gin and soda; maybe a stout beer bottled in St. Louis. The drink is not a means to forgetting, but stilling my soul, preparing it for the coming king. And somewhere around midnight, I will climb the stairs, already missing the hours before my son wakes the whole house.


I’ll take with me a statement of faith scribbled in my poor cursive; some words erased, others gashed through from where I tried to end them. But I’ll give a moment’s thanks for what stays legible—amazing grace, amazing stubbornness—knowing Advent begins again.



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