Grace Without God
By Katherine Ozment
Author’s Note: Several years ago, my son asked me what religion we were and I blurted out, “We’re nothing.” I’d long ago left the Christianity I’d grown up in and my husband had left his Jewish faith. We weren’t religious anymore, but what were we? I knew instantly that I needed a better answer for my son, his two sisters, my husband, and myself. So I began to explore how we could create a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging outside the traditional framework of organized religion, a journey that resulted in my first book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. For three years I traveled the country to bring back stories of secular pioneers who were creating new communities, forming meaningful rituals, and voicing clear answers their kids’ big questions. From hundreds of interviews and many hours of travels, I started to stitch together a new way to live in the world for myself and my family, which I explain in this, the concluding chapter of my book.
Make Your Own Sunday
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
—Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”
From my many trips to learn about people who’d left religion and were creating new secular communities, one couple in particular stays in my mind. I met Allen and Brenda Glendenning, a couple in their fifties, at the American Atheists National Convention. Allen and Brenda live in Great Bend, Kansas, and were once active members of the Church of the Nazarene. They were sitting a few seats down from me in a session on secular grief when Allen raised his hand and shared that he was starting to worry about what he and Brenda would do when one of them died now that they didn’t have a religious community to fall back on. It was something I thought about, too, and after the session I asked him if he’d tell me his story.
We sat in upholstered chairs on the balcony overlooking the hotel lobby. Allen wore a crisp suit and square-framed glasses, and Brenda kept her hair in neat waves. They had met in third grade and were both raised in the church. Allen’s father was a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, and Allen attended a Nazarene university. He and Brenda said that their upbringings were very strict, with their parents training their thoughts on not upsetting God through evils such as social dancing. But Brenda said that her family had always been a bit more open-minded, more welcoming, and less judgmental compared to their very conservative religion.
After losing their faith, Allen and Brenda left the church and began to find fellowship on the road, at conventions like the one where I met them. They remained friends with another couple who had also left the church when they did, and they all got together on weekends and sometimes even took trips together. But they said they missed the larger community bonds they’d grown up with, and the music at the church. For a moment as Allen described how much he enjoyed singing in the choir, I sensed a touch of nostalgia. But then he looked me directly in the eye and said something I’ll never forget: “I wish I had been raised the way you’re raising your kids,” he said. “And I wish I could have raised my kids that way.”
He said that if he had it to do all over again, he would spend his Sundays differently. Instead of going to church, where the kids went into one room for Sunday school and the parents went into another for the main services, and instead of obeying the strict religious culture all around him, he would spend that time with his kids one-on-one, pursuing the things he and his family really enjoyed, not what they were told they had to do. At the end of our interview, before getting up to go, he added, “I wish I could have all those Sundays back.”
It has been four years since my son asked me what we were, and I’d come up short. We have not gone out and joined a church or a synagogue. We haven’t prayed to the four directions or donned Buddhist robes. I didn’t make my kids meditate or prostrate themselves on prayer rugs or study the Torah. Nevertheless, everything in our lives had changed in ways both imperceptible and profound.
In our new neighborhood in Chicago, where we moved a year ago, we are connected to our past in a way that gives us a true sense of belonging. We live a block away from where my husband, Michael, grew up, and our children attend the school he and his brother went to. Our son plays basketball at the same Neighborhood Club where Michael and his brother once played, and our daughters take gymnastics there. The older two kids walk home from school each day past the brick apartment building where their great-grandparents lived after coming to the United States from Germany in the 1930s to escape the Holocaust. They also see their cousins regularly for sleepovers and the kind of hearty family meals I envied in my Catholic friends’ homes growing up. Even here, in a new place, our son has never said that he feels homesick.
Our children continue to try to find their places in the world, both real and imagined. Our youngest has a clutch of invisible friends who keep her company wherever she goes. When I ask her where they are, she looks as me as if I’m blind and says, “Can’t you see them?” Our older daughter recently told me that she has three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and gymnastics. Our son finds the Greek gods and goddesses fascinating, plays basketball, and loves math. This year he joined the school choir, and sometimes I hear him singing the religious songs he’s learned in class. The sweet notes remind me of the boys choir at the Episcopal church on the New Haven Green that I loved so much as a child. Detached from religion, yet somehow still connected to it, they waft through our house and are even more beautiful to me now.
At night when I tuck the kids into bed, we share two things from the day that we are thankful for and one story they want to hear about my childhood—or Michael’s when he tucks them in. They love these stories of their parents as kids, of our families, of who we were and what we did.
This year I joined the board of the Neighborhood Club, and I work to raise money so kids and their families can benefit from the club’s many programs. Our kids like to give, too. On warm weekends they often run a lemonade stand and donate the money they earn to an animal shelter, the Ronald McDonald House, or another worthy cause. We participate in school-led volunteer activities as well, recently packing hundreds of bag lunches for a homeless shelter and cleaning up a community center in an underserved area of our city. Our children seem to be soaking up the values modeled in our tight-knit community, where service, diversity, and giving are prized.
Occasionally, I take myself to church. There’s a United Church of Christ a block from our house, and on the first Friday of each month it holds a Taizé service, based on a form of worship created in a French monastery during World War II as a way to bring Catholics and Protestants together. The ecumenical service lasts an hour and consists of singing simple, repetitive hymns while holding lit candles in the dimmed light of the cavernous church. There are usually only about fifteen of us there, and we sit scattered as pairs and singles through the pews. Beneath the vaulted ceiling, only the sound of our voices lifting up, I feel at once infinitesimal and valuable beyond measure.
We continue to celebrate the Jewish and Christian holidays in our secular way, but with renewed interest in the history of the traditions. This year, on the final night of Hanukkah, Michael’s brother and his family, along with old friends of Michael’s parents and a dear high school friend of his, joined us for brisket, latkes, and kugel. Surrounded by our loved ones, the children took turns lighting the candles and later opened Hanukkah gifts around the Christmas tree.
Though our lives bear all the traces of the modern American family’s trademark busyness—work and school, errands and activities—we create pockets of togetherness, in nature, at home, in our neighborhood. As we make our way forward without religion, I still don’t have answers to all the big questions. But I’m starting to see that becoming more comfortable holding the questions is the only way that makes sense to me. I turn the questions over and over again until they are like smooth, solid stones.
The novelist Marilynne Robinson speaks of grace as a form of reverence for life. Her understanding of grace is based in Christian theology, but I believe I can find that same sort of grace, too. I know that’s what I found one morning when our younger daughter, then four, had risen before dawn and wrangled herself into her glittering blue-and-white princess outfit. The dress had a satiny bodice and a gauzy skirt that puffed out from her waist. A size too big, it hung to her ankles. She wanted to go out to the driveway and get the newspaper, her favorite errand. It was 5:30 AM, and, though I was in my rumpled pajamas and my head was still in its pre-coffee fog, I opened the front door and stood at the top of the steps as she floated down them. With her feet hidden beneath the fabric of her skirt, her movements gave the impression of a fairy-tale figure descending on air, her blond tangle of hair bouncing slightly as she went down the steps. There was no sound in the neighborhood except for a bird chirping in a nearby neighbor’s yard. I froze, suddenly awake. She was a shiny blue jewel rendered all the more brilliant because of the green and brown tones of the trees and yard surrounding her.
As I watched her bend to pick up the newspaper and turn back to face me, the flash of her crystal-blue eyes showing her pride and excitement, I didn’t need her to mean anything more than she was before me. I didn’t need our lives to be part of a divine, unfolding plan. I didn’t need to believe that God’s hand would guide us through that morning and ever after. Meaning came from the intense awareness of the moment itself, from my reverence for her, for this life we were joined in as family. I simply needed to remain still enough to notice.
This is an excerpt from Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. More of her writing can be found at katherineozment.com.
Katherine Ozment is an award-winning journalist whose essays and articles have been widely published. Grace Without God is her first book. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three children.
Illustration: Linda Willis