I don’t believe I have anything against religion, and yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.
Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.
But the more I struggle to free myself from the mesh, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.
“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair in the coffee shop as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!
The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.
The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.
“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.
I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”
The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”
I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey suit and shirt with a clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to. At least the shirt matched his suit, though. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.
I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”
His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”
I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “…We were talking about God.”
Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”
I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”
“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.
I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”
I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.
I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then he feels he’s obliged to support them like a father defending his kids.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.
Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”
I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of Greg’s eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”
His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competing ones…?”
I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”
I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.
His face dissolved into a mischievous grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”
I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”
“Do you think he’s ever read Pascal’s Wager?” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century polymath. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of betting that one exists far outweighs those of any disbelief… especially if you find out there actually is a god after you die,” he added with a little wink.
A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And Edward is just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”
Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a destination to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”
His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.
He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”