In the 'City of Churches,' local Brooklynite Michael Milton reflects on his beliefs and experiences with religion and spirituality.
By Michael Milton
I sometimes stroll about Brooklyn and come across houses of worship almost every other block, churches reflecting dozens of denominations, synagogues, and mosques, each dedicated to a different vision of the Divine. I find this division of faith somewhat disconcerting.
For the past several years, my mother has been telling me stories from her past. At age 97, her mind shows none of the diminishment we have come to expect of folks at her age. She is perhaps utilizing my mind as a repository for her memories, stored against whatever mental slowing might lie ahead.
One of the stories she shared with me was about when she spoke to God.
The maternal side of my family seems not to have claimed allegiance to any single religion in the past two or three generations. Any place of worship back in Czechoslovakia is unknown to us. In any event, once settled in San Diego, there was never any mention of Sunday morning churchgoing. Perhaps they believed that an enforced morality took them away from the opportunity to have their own personal relationships with God. There was certainly much love in our home which might lend proof to that possibility.
Someone asked me recently, "Do you believe in God?" to which I replied, "Yes." And that question was quickly followed by another; "What religion are you?"
To me, commingling the words "God" and "religion" seems almost blasphemous.
God is God, be it the God of Christians, Jews, Native Americans, Muslims, Hindus. On the other hand, religion is bureaucracy, a structure of rules and dictates, organized to support someone else—priests, synagogues or parishes—to teach us in the ways of a particular but separate Divine Head. History has shown those assigned with the job of interlocutor were (and perhaps in some cases still are) less concerned with the original word of the prophets and Gods they represent and more interested in securing themselves and their sect power, money and lands. I imagine the He (or She) worshipped in those block-and-mortar temples have taken a silent position in regard to all our human squabbling about Their true nature.
My mom and I have, over the years, found ourselves well-matched in the questioning of a great many things. She has, in fact, sometimes adopted whatever new ideas I might have laid hold of at school or out in life; the benefits of organic eating, the significance of historical events and where I stand in regard to the Divine.
After my mother and adoptive father married, it seemed quite natural for us to assume his family's Catholicism. Not that my Dad was much of a Catholic. Probably he held onto his faith most resolutely during the two years he was in a prisoner-of-war camp. Since then, his beliefs seemed to have been gutted. In his later life, he stuck with the pragmatic. What he could prove deserved his consideration. What he could not was left by the wayside.
Thus, we were only nominally Catholic and practiced only when my grandparents were around out of respect for their deep beliefs. I wasn't baptized, nor did I take communion. We did have an illustrated Bible at home, which I loved. The Christian God pictured in that book was a white man in a white robe with a flowing white beard and wild white hair, usually emerging from out of a white cloud.
So much white; the absence of all color, perhaps the absence of the imagination needed to include an equitably colored rainbow of other God heads. The pictorial representations I stared at — Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac on orders from God — God holding high a golden sword after the Israelites' triumph at the tumbled walls of Jericho, Lot's wife turned by God into a statue of salt outside of Sodom, the unpleasant plagues God had inflicted upon the Egyptians — all left a bad taste in my mouth. God seemed to be quite human, jealous, angry and near impossible to hard to talk with. He was irrational, conceited and insistent.
Why bother at all with any God, I already was wondering, if His actions were simply human at mankind's worst?
When I left home for university, I no longer answered the question "What is your religion?" with Catholicism. It was the era of the New Age — bell bottoms, marijuana, free love — and many books proliferated during its zenith. I read many of them and noticed little mention of God. Instead, these new-thinking authors spoke in their treatises most often of "the Spirit within" or of "The Universe."
I liked this depersonalization of the Divine. Those writers encouraged us toward a kind of Darwinian self-reliance; what you wanted from life could be had through the repetition of mantras, meditation and well-detailed vision boards.
I shared all of these new ideas with my mom, who also easily shed her barely worn Catholicness and traded it in enthusiastically for Maryanne Williamson, Louise Hay and Deepak Chopra, and Ekhart Tolle.
Then, about twenty years ago, I experienced a series of epileptic-type seizures. It was quickly discovered that I had a slow bleed in my brain. I would need surgery which promised to be a lengthy and somewhat risky operation. And I would need to go under the knife almost immediately. I related all of this to my parents in California from my home in New York.
And this is really where my mom's story began.
She reported to me as soon as I had delivered my unsettling news, she began to pray. And pray.
She had no church, no priest to guide her. She prayed wildly, desperately, fully open to any God who might be within listening reach.
I am her only child. Losing me, she told me, was out of the question. Along with her prayers for my restored health, she begged for a sign that her entreaties were being heard.
The day before my surgery she flew to New York. And that night (as her story went), she had a dream.
In it, she heard the doorbell ring in the home she and my father were currently living in near San Diego. When she opened the front door, she was greeted by her brother Ed who, by this time, had already passed away. He looked hale and happy. Behind him, she could make out the faces of other passed friends and relatives. The crowd stretched out down the steps and out into the street. Though she couldn't make out details of all those faces, she sensed all were friends and family.
The whole scene, appropriately Biblical, was bathed in an intense light.
My uncle said, "We are all here. Mike is going to be just fine. You don't have to worry. He will make it through. That is what we are here to tell you." Everyone nodded in agreement.
And then she woke up.
That was her message from God.
Clearly, I lived; because of my mother's prayers, or the skill of the surgeons remains unclear to me. But not for my mom. She now believes in God. In her God. She never associated this heavenly visitation with any religion or creed, no particular house of worship. Her prayer had been answered. She had summoned Him, the God who is God.
This was enough for her.
When she related her dream to me, I thought of all the prayers through the millennia pouring out into the universe from desperate folks. Some of those prayers were answered. Many were not.
Did my mom's dream in any way put a stamp of certainty for the rest of us that some God really exists? Had the sheer fervor of her prayers edged her request to the front of the line at some heavenly P.O. Box labeled "Answered Prayers?"
Was my mother particularly blessed because she had abandoned both a Catholic version of God and the even more opaque New Age "Universe" for a divinity of her personal construct?
Does it matter?
We have only so many hours in a day. There are only so many prayers we can squeeze into those hours. And I believe there is power in prayer. And really, come on, no matter how we dress Them up, doesn't it make sense there is only one God?
What if we all believed in a single God, a beneficent God, an all-loving God, a God Who asks us only to seek Him on our own (in or out of a house of worship), a God free of the symbolism and sometimes divisive rules (mostly manmade) of religions? What if our prayers included a vision of a world that is equally good for everyone who inhabits the planet?
I don't believe anyone can fully grasp God's vision for us. Did my mom's prayers convince God ( who I doubt requires convincing of anything) that I needed to live? And if I had died, would that have alienated my mother from this nameless God she had prayed so fervently to?
I hope not.
I am reminded of the story "Footprints in the Sand." In that story, someone is looking back over their lives, and they see often there are two sets of footprints in the sand, their own and God's. They also notice that during their lowest and most challenging times, there is only one set of footprints. And they ask God why He abandoned them during those troubled times, and God answers, "My precious child, during your trials and tribulations, you only saw one set of footprints because I was carrying you."
If I had passed on and if she could acquiesce to the Higher Power she had prayed to, even without her desired outcome, I like that for a while, at least, her path along her beach would have been a single set of footsteps. She would, no doubt, have needed His help most then.
I believe in a God. I endeavour to surrender my will and my life to a Higher Power. Whether in a temple or not, I don't tend to take anyone else's word for God or His desires for us. I'd rather work at creating more of a direct line, a relationship He and I can live with. I surrender to my God daily in order to leave enough room in my little head for receiving His Infinite Wisdom, His answers, directions, urgings.
Life or death, powerful or weak, serene or anxious, what if we all relied on that single Entity — whatever name we gave Him — and prayed for a great coming together, whichever place of worship we might choose to gather?
With such a singular outpouring, with a release of our personal wills, with an erasure of the idea that one vision of God is better or stronger or more real than another, then I believe a good and healing path for all of us would appear. It would be a path upon which we all could be guided, knowing we are all equal and beloved in the Heavens and also here on earth.
In the foxhole, I believe it is important to remember that the fighting is NOT God's war. Anyone's God. Pray to your politicians to make wise and compassionate choices, pray to your governments to work towards some form of worldly unification with compassion for all, pray to the people who told you it was a 'just' war.
Ask them if a God of love can also be a God of war?
God is God.
"No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother what he desires for himself."'
Sound familiar? This is a quote from the prophet Mohammed. The Hebrew Yaweh says something very similar in the tablets He hands down to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Let's finally agree that God is God. A God for us all.