I wrote seven non-fiction books before my religious memoir was published last year, and altogether used the letter “I” for myself perhaps a dozen times. Not so, of course, in this case. You recast yourself as a writer and as a person when you write a memoir. It may not be the point of doing it but it surely is the outcome. Friends of decades tell you they learned things about you they never knew. Even your spouse will register surprise, if not about information then about the context you’ve given it. My friends, anyway, did that after they read Faith, Interrupted, and so did my wife. With her, it was the degree to which I miss the faith that dominated my life (happily, for me) until I went away to college and for more than a decade after. She never met my father but knew he was an Episcopal priest, that the rectory was next to the church and shared the same phone number. And she knew that in some ways, an only child, I was almost my father’s assistant, serving as an acolyte at one and often two services a Sunday and helping with other parish matters such as printing the weekly bulletin and folding fronds into crosses for Palm Sunday. Reading the book, though, gave her a new insight into me, even 28 years into our marriage. This surprised me and made me realize that we tell our stories in bits and pieces, and so often they don’t coalesce into a whole narrative.
The remarks from my friends were virtually all nice, but then friends have a rooting interest and emphasize the positive. There was, however, a subset of friends—those from my childhood and 20’s who I saw in the context of shared belief and now see infrequently—for whom I had great trepidation that in describing my loss of faith, I’d engender disappointment or even hostility. I had led an actively faithful life with regular church attendance until I was well into my thirties. I was granted status as a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War on the basis of religious training and belief, and was so affirmed by what I drew from my faith that I was willing to go to prison had it not been granted and I refused induction.
My faith was precious, I miss it. I miss the peace and the comfort and the community it gave me.
I have many friends and acquaintances who are not only life-long regular church goers, but also priests and bishops, including my college roommate, who was a highly-decorated soldier in Vietnam and eventually became the Episcopal bishop to the U.S. armed forces, and whose story is a large part of my book. Those were who I worried about: The widow of the bishop who married Karen and me, and who with him was like a second parent; the clergy friends of my parents, especially the widow of my father’s dear priest friend, with whom he founded a camp in the mountains outside San Diego for children from the diocese, where I went as a camper, counselor, and staff member from the ages of 8 to 19; my fellow board members of the camp, many of them clergy, all of them deeply religious. For many years I kept secret from them that I had slipped one of our strongest bonds.
An astute psychotherapist would quickly suggest this was a thinly veiled effort not to break the connection with a father long dead, and there will be no denying it from me. Why else would a card-carrying member of AARP and a full beneficiary of Medicare worry like a teenager concealing lost virginity from his family? I was too well known in my religious circle, and our memory of my father was so exemplary, that long after I had lost my faith, I feigned it when with those people rather than acknowledge a truth—the definition of hypocrisy.
Yet when finally I revealed my apostasy in print, instead of opprobrium, those wily Christians greeted me with…understanding and compassion! Though some said nothing, one priest wrote to say that he spent “hours everyday in a spiritual place you would recognize.” Other friends confided their own doubts and the accommodations they had made.
Except one. She was a great buddy when we were teenage campers and counselors. I was the lifeguard for several years and I often wore the brimless bowl-shaped red hat she had long favored but gave me the summer the four guys on the permanent staff shaved our heads. (This was 1960. Very daring stuff! My mother commented that I looked like a convict.) Decades passed and then the two of us ended up on the camp board together. I had lost her hat by then (but not forgotten it) and so to one meeting she brought me another, a madeleine of the mountains. Immediately I saw us as kids, hiking among the pine and oak, hanging around at the pool, doing skits by the campfire for the amusement of our charges, and attending services in the outdoor chapel. We both loved those services, sitting on fallen logs among the Manzanita and tall sheltering trees with a view to a high peak through the open A-frame over the plain and unadorned altar. We never really spoke of faith in those days, we simply led lives guided by it.
When we came together again in our late fifties, her faith had adjusted and grown. I didn’t tell her that mine had done neither. We saw each other only once or twice a year and I let the happy past be the pleasant present and thus offered myself as someone I wasn’t. Then a couple of months ago, we gathered at the camp for a weekend meeting. She gave me a big hug in greeting and said she had bought my book after reading a nice review in the Los Angeles Times, which she cut out and put in her copy. The next day, she asked me to sign it.
“It’s beautifully written,” she said. “It brought back so much.” She paused for quite a long time and her face grew sad. “But it was hard to read. Very hard to read.”
A mark of friendship is our ability to adjust to change, in ourselves and in our friends. My loss of faith made her grieve something mutually precious that had kept us close and now was gone. My faith was precious, I miss it. I miss the peace and the comfort and the community it gave me, and sometimes wish that I could return to the camp with my friends and we could be the adult versions of who we were as kids. But my friend—and of course she is still my friend—and I are more complicated by age, and all we can do is acknowledge our past and integrate it as best we can with our present, holding one dear while living the other the best we can.
Things of the past may be out of reach, in that we no longer hold them, but that does not mean they have to be out of touch. My parents’ ashes are scattered down a hillside behind the chapel. In many ways, those of my faith are, too. Every time I go to the camp, I visit them, not to mourn but simply to remember.