1. Opinion

Perspective: What personal hardship did to my faith

A week before my daughter was born, my husband lost his job. It was unexpected. I don't remember much about what happened then, other than that at some point I pulled so hard on the medal I was wearing — a miraculous medal, imprinted with an image of the Virgin Mary — that the clasp broke.

When I gave birth a few days later, the pain was unmistakable. My husband and I came home from the hospital and looked for jobs for him. Sometimes when a job seemed especially promising I would go to church and light a candle and pray, although I still hadn't fixed the clasp on my medal and didn't wear it. It laid on the surface of my dresser and was buried in short order under towels and rags and baby clothes.

Prayers, unanswered

I had felt, maybe because of all my prayers, that things would soon look up. It made sense that things would get better quickly.

In late June, while my husband was out shopping for a suit for interviews, he received a phone call from his father in Texas. My husband's sister, he said, had been murdered. She was 29 years old.

A man had attacked Heather in the trailer she shared with two other women — a mother and her adult daughter who had previously lived out of their car. Heather was engaged and looking forward to her impending marriage. She had sporadically studied accounting after high school but spent most of her time working as a waitress at Cracker Barrel and Red Lobster. She had always been poor; she had never known anything other than being poor.

Red Lobster helped pay for her funeral. Dimly I thought of God's love for the poor. Where could it have gone? Where was God now?

A medal of Mary

I should tell you the story of my medal.

In 2014, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery, and my mother visited her in the hospital often. It was a long recovery.

One evening my mother came home from the hospital and showed me something.

"I spotted this in the parking lot," she said. There was a dull, nickel-colored oval in her hand. On one side I could make out the image of the Blessed Virgin, but the other side was coated with chewed gum and dirt.

I am a convert. My mother, a Methodist, wasn't sure what this pendant could be. Neither was I.

I cleaned it up with dish soap and tweezers. It had been scraped on the asphalt, but I could read the words: O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

The next time I was out, I took the medal with me in a plastic bag. I brought it to a jewelry shop and had it put on a simple black cord with a lobster clasp, and from then on I wore it very often.

For a while during the long, hot summer I entertained the superstitious idea that things would not look up for my family until I had the clasp of my medal repaired.

I had days of greater and lesser certainty. Mostly I thought God was listening. That was the fact that made me feel so restless: Why are you listening so quietly? I know you're there. A whisper of doubt sometimes passed through my thoughts.

Confession of no faith

After an OB-GYN checkup, I detoured on the way home to the cavernous darkness of a church. It wasn't time for confession, but there was a priest in the sacristy who I asked, when he emerged, if he would hear my confession. He led me by the shoulder to the confessional where I knelt down and rested my forehead on my folded knuckles.

I don't have any more faith, I told him.

But you're here, he said. He was patient. It took a long time for me to say anything. Slowly I recounted everything that had happened over the past few months, though I didn't tell him about my medal — somehow even then I was still too cowardly to tell him about my medal.

He listened. He said, at last, that while faith can be a comfort, it can also torture you. It can tear at you in times like these, he said, with his hand fixed like a claw. Because you know everything could be made better. But it isn't.

The line between religion and magic, I learned in school, isn't clear. But many scholars of religion agree that one important division is that while magic is private and crisis-oriented, religion is public and its rituals have no specific, short-term, earthly goals.

Christianity has no magic, and that may be just as well.

Wounds heal

Eventually a job came along. The way that it happened was very prosaic, the way most jobs are. Nothing about it felt miraculous. I couldn't discern any sign in it, but I know there must be one. It isn't always important, I now think, to feel moved. Sometimes faith is an act of will. Maybe it mostly is.

What can I say: That my faith wasn't injured? It was wounded. But wounded things heal.

I happened upon my medal, still looped on its broken cord. I slipped it from the cord and onto an unbroken silver chain I'd bought someplace a long time ago. It looked different, but wore just the same.

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