Today a reader sent me the following excerpt, which is much funnier and thoughtful than our dinnertime discussion:
“Do you believe in God, Mr. Fulghum?” (The journalist interviewing me has shifted scale suddenly from the details of dailiness to the definition of the Divine.)
“No, but I do believe in Howard.”
“Howard? You believe in Howard?”
“It all has to do with my mother’s maiden name.”
“Your mother’s maiden name . . .”
“Was Howard. She came from a big Memphis clan that was pretty close and was referred to as the Howard Family. As a small child, I thought of myself as a member of the Howard Family because it was often an item of conversation as in ‘The Howard Family is getting together,” and ‘The Howard Family thinks people should write letters to their grandmother.’ The matriarch, my grandmother, was referred to as Mother Howard.”
“And you thought . . . she . . . was . . . God?”
“No, no. I just wanted you to first know how it was that Howard was a name that was important to me from early on in my life.
What happened was that I got packed off to Sunday School at around age four and the first thing I learned was the Lord’s Prayer, which begins ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.’ And what I heard was, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, HOWARD be Thy name.’ And since little kids tend to mutter prayers anyhow, nobody realized what I was saying, so I went right on believing that God’s name was Howard. And believing I was a member of His family—the Howards. Since I was told that my grandfather had died and gone to heaven, God and my grandfather got all mixed up in my mind as one and the same. Which meant that I had a pretty comfy notion about God. When I knelt beside my bed each night and prayed, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, Howard be Thy name,’ I thought about my grandfather and what a big shot he was because, of course, the prayer ends with ‘For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen.’ I went to bed feeling pretty well connected to the universe for a long, long time. It was a Howard Family Enterprise.”
“You’re not putting me on, are you?”
“Not at all. All human images of the ultimate ground of being are metaphors, and as metaphors go, this is a pretty homey one. And I thought it for so long that even when I passed through all those growing-up stages of skepticism, disbelief, revision, and confusion—somewhere in my mind I still believed in Howard. Because at the heart of that childhood image there is no alienation. I belonged to the whole big scheme of things, I lived and worked and had my being in the family store.”
“So. Do you still believe in . . . Howard?”
“I’ll give you what may seem to be an enigmatic evasion, but it’s truly the only answer I have to your question. It’s a line from the writings of a thirteen-century Christian mystic. Meister Eckhart. ‘The eye with which I see God is the very same eye with which God sees me.’ That’s what I believe.”
“Does that mean that you are God?”
“Yes and no. It depends. In some cultures if a man says, ‘I am God,’ he will get shunned or even locked up as crazy. In some other cultures if a man says, ‘I am God,’ people will say, ‘What took you so long to find out?’ If you pray and talk to God, we will think of you as religious. If you say God talks to you, we will think of you as loony.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Consider it this way. It makes a big difference if you think of God as transcendent or immanent; as up there somewhere or present here.”
“Howard is a transcendent image of God. The God of childhood. The man in the long white beard on the throne in heaven—up there, somewhere else, separate from us. . . transcendent. On the other hand, if God is immanent, then there is no place God is not, and I am not separate from God. Hence, ‘The eye with which I see God is the very same eye with which God sees me.’ No boundaries between God and me.”
There was a long silence between us. The journalist smiled. I smiled. She changed the subject. None of this discussion about Howard appeared in her article. I understand. Some things are hard to write about . . . hard to think about . . . hard to sort out. Maybe when she asked the first question, I should have just said, “Yes.” As a favor to her. But the truth is I haven’t finished thinking about God, and the God of my childhood and the God of my middle age are mixed in with the God of the wisdom that may yet come to me in my later years. Howard would understand.
* * *
On a long flight from Melbourne to Athens, an Australian carpenter, an Indian college professor in hydrology, and I had a memorable late-night theological discussion. The three of us were seated in one row, and the subject of God came up because our meals were accompanied by a little card on which was printed a short prayer of thanksgiving.
The professor made some remarks about not being thankful to any of the gods for this particular food. The carpenter composed a prayer of complaint. And the discussion was off and running.
The carpenter declared his theology had a lot to do with fleas and a dog.
Arguing whether of not a God exists is like fleas arguing whether or not the dog exists. Arguing over the correct name of God is like fleas arguing over the name of the dog. And arguing over whose notion of God is correct is like fleas arguing over who owns the dog.
We three ate our meal in silence for a while—digesting the godforsaken meal and the Australian version of theological Truth.
* * *
Later on, the Indian professor and I stood in the forward alcove of the 747 where the galley and rest rooms are, comparing the route map with what we could see out the porthole in the door.
Across Australia, Indonesia, to Singapore; across Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and into Athens. Much of what we crossed was ocean.
Theology again. The Indian professor of hydrology this time. Hydrology is “the scientific study of the properties, distribution, and effects of water in the atmosphere, on earth’s surface, and in soil and rocks.” He had this printed on his business card since he always had to explain about hydrology. In sum, a water expert.
He noted that we had just left a country where people worshiped the sun—on the beach with most or all of their clothes removed. And we were flying over countries whose people believed it was the will of Allah that women should be completely covered, even on beaches. The name of God varied from country to country; the holy book was not the same; the rituals and dogmas and routes to heaven were not the same. And so certain were the followers of the different religions of their rectitude, they would gladly war with one another—kill each other—to have their beliefs and metaphors prevail. Yet in this same plane, flying peacefully along, are these same people.
Clearly this troubled the professor—grieved him.
He shook his head and asked why this must be so.
The professor pointed out the Indian Ocean beneath us at the moment.
He spoke of water, his specialty.
“Water is everywhere and in all living things—we cannot be separated from water. No water, no life. Period. Water comes in many forms—liquid, vapor, ice, snow, fog, rain, hail. But no matter the form, it’s still water.
“Human beings give this stuff many names in many languages, in all its forms. It’s crazy to argue over what its true name is. Call it what you will, there is no difference to the water. It is what it is.
“Human beings drink water from many vessels—cups, glasses, jugs, skins, their own hands, whatever. To argue about which container is proper for the water is crazy. The container doesn’t change the water.
“Some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it ices, some fizzy, some with stuff mixed in with it—alcohol, coffee, whatever. No matter. It does not change the nature of the water.
“Never mind the name or the cup or the mix. These are not important.
“What we have in common is thirst. Thirst!
“Thirst for the water of Life!”
As it is with water, so is it with God.
“I don’t know much about God,” said the professor of hydrology. “All I know is water. And that we are momentary waves in some great everlasting ocean, and the waves and the water are one.”
He poured us each a paper cup full of water and we drank.
* * *
Emily, six, has become a grace fanatic. Or, in her own terms, “a great amener.”
Though her family is not particularly religious and has not previously had a tradition of prayer before meals, Emily is now committed to the custom. Her father, my friend Willy, isn’t sure where she got the idea, but the family doesn’t want to squash rectitude in their youngest child. So they dutifully hold hands and bow heads at dinnertime while Emily, the high priestess of her own sacred mystery cult, holds forth in prayer;
“Hello. This is Emily. I’m fine, how are you?
Thanks for the sky and birds and stuff.
Actually, I’m having a pretty good week.
And thanks for the mashed potatoes, but not for
the lima beans.
I thank you really much for the meatloaf.
And thanks for the chairs, and the tables, and the walls and the roof and the bed and the bathroom and the towels and the grass and the clouds and the street and . . .”
(By now her eight-year old brother, who says his prayers in private, is beginning to grit his teeth and roll his eyes into the back of his head as he endures what he thinks is a shameless shuck on Emily’s part—and Emily knows she’d better shut up now or she will suffer later, so she ends.)
“Take care. Amen, from Emily.”
Her parents think of this daily vesper as the Emily Report. She’s found a way to get her family to sit still and listen to her—something that doesn’t happen too much during the daily traffic of family life.
As she prays, her father peeks at his six-year-old. He wants to be sure he sees her. He wants to remember his youngest child like this—as she heads out the door of innocence into the world-as-it-is. He wants to be there as she makes her announcement of self to the mystery of existence.
These times of quiet grace calm his spirit. Unlike Emily’s brother, her father is in no hurry to have the prayer end. These times go by once and all too quickly.
“Hello. This is Emily. It’s a good day here, after all.
I’m really sorry for what I did and I won’t ever do it again.
Please help Poppy. Thanks for dogs and cats.
Thanks again for the mashed potatoes.
Please try to do something about lima beans.
I really want to thank you especially for my birthday which is coming soon.
Thanks for friends. But not for people who are jerks [looking at her brother].
Take care and keep in touch. Amen. From Emily.”
Sometime soon I should tell Emily about Howard. Howard is Emily’s kind of guy. And vice versa.
* * *
In my childhood I was told that God was all-powerful and lived far, far away. And that I could not see Him until after I died. When I asked why, if God was so powerful, there were children starving in Mexico, I was told it was the will of God and that I should not worry about it. Instead, I should be concerned about making sure I didn’t attend the upcoming high school prom, because dancing was a sin and I should try not to sin.
Now I am older. And I know that God is everywhere and in all things. There is nowhere that God is not, even in me. I also know that starving comes from not having enough food, and that is a human problem about which something can be done.
I know now that dancing comes from having much joy.
And when everyone has enough to eat, everyone will dance, especially Howard.
Excerpt from UH-OH