What is the place of faith in a woman’s life or a man’s? In what should we have faith and when is it best to withhold it?
As a small child, it’s been reported that I was standing on the living room table, saw my mother a few feet away and rushed toward her – off the table! – unaware that faith in things unseen was contra-indicated at that point.
In my teens, I spent a summer at a Quaker work camp on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina and returned a devoted follower of Mahatma Gandhi. That lasted till, one afternoon on the Isle St Louis, I found myself encircled by a small band of ill-wishing, young Frenchmen to whom I protested, “Voulez-vous que j’appelle la police?” I have no idea why that worked, since police were nowhere in sight, but I did note that, when police do answer a call for help, they generally arrive armed. Ergo I was not a pacifist.
During my pacifist years I did, however, spend a meaningful hour walking a picket line with Ammon Hennacy of The Catholic Worker movement. He was the lifelong companion of Dorothy Day, who is considered an urban saint, though she would have shrugged off such a title impatiently. The Catholic Worker people were pacifists, anarchists, embraced voluntary poverty and, in those days, some of them ran a round-the-clock soup kitchen and refuge on Christie Street in Lower Manhattan. One time, when they were all out of funds, Dorothy Day filled a pot of water and set it on the stove to boil. Presently a knock was heard and there was W. H. Auden, the poet, standing at the door with a chicken.
I wanted to talk to Hennacy. He seemed to know something. He took my arm, as we walked back and forth, and told me how he’d talked his way out of a confrontation with a threatening adversary. He said, “I’ve been perfect. I’ve had to be.” He meant, he’d seen the center of the action and known how to aim at it, in a situation that had heated up suddenly. I did not know if that was faith, or some kind of intuitive knowledge. Whatever it was, it took courage and seemed very worth having.
My grandfather once walked through a pogrom in a Russian town and was stopped on the street by some thugs.
“Where are you going, Jew?” they said to him.
“To the Governor, to stop the pogrom,” my grandfather replied.
“We will shoot you,” they said.
“Go right ahead,” he retorted and opened his coat wide.
Instinctively they froze, long enough to let him pass, and then fired after him, leaving bullet holes in the long coat he wore.
About that incident, I wrote (in the Spring 2009 issue of Midstream) that this was “the case of a man wholly absorbed in his place and time, being present just where he has to be. Here the line between faith in the unseen worlds and solid conviction about who one is, oneself, seems not worth trying to draw.”
But what about God? Is there a God in the sort of action that’s part faith and part knowledge, and if so, what kind of a God?