I didn't go to the Festival of Faith and Writing in 2012 to meet people. I don't generally talk to strangers. But when I sat next to Christie Purifoy, she introduced herself, and in short time we discovered that we had attended the same school, studied in the same department, and worshipped at the same church, just a few years apart.
Here she's written her story of coming into adult faith, and I find that the story she has told is mine, as well. Substitute infertility for whatever your first encounter with suffering was, and maybe it's your story, too. Read this! And absolutely add her blog to your reader.
This I Know
Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so. I imagine I’ve sung those words a thousand times. They were a constant refrain in the Baptist churches of my childhood. They echoed down the tall, open staircase of our Sunday School building. I was so afraid of that staircase, I refused to use it or look at it. I looked instead at the white, lacy socks in my buckled Mary Janes. I looked at the shifting sea of legs, all clad, at least in recollection, in the same shade of brown polyester. The color of time-worn photographs and faded memories.
My grandmother’s church in rural west Texas did not have a fancy education building. It had low ceilings, brown paneled walls, and a view of brown fields through every window. Fields for cotton and cattle. Peanuts and watermelon. I carried pennies for the offering plate in the tattered remnants of my baby pillow. Emptied of its stuffing, I used it as a purse, but the zipper was faulty, and my precious pennies were scattered beneath the pews.
Though my memories of these churches are small and strange, I know that something precious accrued during the years I spent in them. Years of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. Years of Wednesday nights and Sunday nights. In those churches, I was given the gift of a faith to lose. Like scattered coins. Like the diminishing echo of a familiar song. I was given a beautiful old wineskin, and, eventually, I would discover a great thirst for new wine.
Perhaps pain is easier to recall than pleasure. This may be why I remember so much about the year I was twenty-five. I had traveled far from west Texas. Skyscrapers, rather than water towers, were the highest structures in the landscape. Yet, some things remained unchanged. I still spent a fair portion of my week singing songs in church.
In the dingy gymnasium of our neighborhood’s community center, I sang the words of some now-forgotten praise chorus. The lyrics spoke of God’s love for me, but I stopped singing along, my mouth sealed shut by a devastating epiphany. I realized that while I had always believed in this love in theory, I did not know this love. I did not feel it. It seemed to make no tangible difference in my life at all.
At twenty-five, I was a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Chicago. Every day I passed through a graffiti-splattered viaduct to emerge within the quiet shelter of neo-Gothic quadrangles. Yet my sudden skepticism was not an intellectual crisis of faith. I was not overly worried by the distance between the religion I practiced on one side of the viaduct and the theories I studied within university buildings that looked, ironically, a great deal like cathedrals.
Instead of the Bible-belt’s easy assimilation of religious faith and everyday life, there was the university’s determined emphasis on “the life of the mind.” In this place, I recognized how much my faith in the love of God had always been restricted to my mind. And a book. Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so. It was another theory (a lovely theory), but theories, I discovered, cannot see you, they cannot hear you, nor can they wipe your tears away.
At twenty-five, I wanted to be a mom, but I could not get pregnant. Infertility would be my constant companion even as our family grew. For ten years, from diagnosis to the birth of my fourth child, I could never quite escape the label or the heartache. But over those ten years, the thing that had been a wound and a weakness became the means by which I encountered the overwhelming, life-altering love of God.
I’ve never been able to capture those encounters in words. As much as I desire you to know this love that I have begun to know, I accept that you will not find it, at least not completely, through any written word. What we need is the Word who comes to us in our sickness and in our pain. In our doubt and in our suffering. The Word who sees us, and who catches each sparrow tear. The Word Hagar found in the desert, prompting her to exclaim, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
Job is another who saw: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” Because that is what suffering does. It makes words, books, and theories inadequate. It makes you desperate enough to consider every option, even to accept that you may have been fed a lie, a story of no real worth. Because you can study and you can learn and you can sing without ever truly seeing what it is that you know.
The setting of my Christian faith has changed as dramatically as the geography I inhabit. I have not seen a field of cotton in years. And I imagine my Southern Baptist grandmother would have been troubled to know that I would one day stand in an Episcopal church while my four babies were sprinkled in baptism and anointed with oil. Even some of those I worshipped with as a twenty-five-year-old in that run-down gymnasium might wonder to see me rising and kneeling to the rhythms of the Rite II liturgy.
Yet these outward forms, while significant, are not the sum of my faith journey. The truth of my story is not found in rupture or disagreement. It isn’t found in some fine point of theology at all. Instead, I find my own story in the words Julian of Norwich heard so many years ago. Asking God for the meaning of the visions she had received over fifteen years, she heard him say:
What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.
The truth that matters most – the truth that we are, each of us, intimately known and loved by the maker of the universe – is my story’s before and my story’s after. All that has changed is the substance of my knowing.
Today, I sing that old song to my babies. Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so. Partly, this is because my repertoire of lullabies is limited. Partly, this is because I still love that old song. Singing it, I hope to fill the hearts of my children with a truth they will one day lose. Oh God, I pray, meet them there in the losing.
Christie Purifoy lives in southeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and four young children. After earning a PhD in English literature, she traded the university classroom for an old farmhouse and a garden. You can find more of her stories at www.christiepurifoy.com and www.deeperstory.com. Her first book is forthcoming from Revell.