Taking a Leap of Faith
When we were living in Atlanta, my wife and I were fast friends with a couple from Iran. We had been brought together by our children, a circumstance that means more to me in retrospect. Our daughter and their daughter were classmates, first-graders who cared more about sleepovers than cultural differences or religious imperatives.
For a while, the parents spent as much time together as their two daughters. We made festive dinners at each other’s homes, we talked about our children, we went to a favorite pub and drank pints of ale.
And one Christmas Eve we all went to midnight Mass.
I had grown up Catholic but had darkened the vestibule of few churches in the years before my wife and I married. I went now for my children’s sake but also for the sake of domestic tranquillity. My wife, whose prospects in the hereafter outshine mine, believed that parents should set an example by attending church, and was only too willing to share that firmly held opinion with me.
Rahim and Golpar were another story. Rahim had grown up a Muslim in Tehran but had drifted away from his religion. He was always vague about this, and I sensed it wasn’t a subject he cared to talk about -- any more than he wanted to talk about the taking of American hostages in Iran a generation before.
Golpar had no hesitation whatever. She would tell you quickly that Islam was not for her. But neither was any other religion. Her father had been a Communist years earlier in Tehran, and she was somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. On the matter of religion, the two wives stood at opposite poles, with their two husbands vacillating in the middle, neither of us committed, both of us wanting to think about it a bit longer.
If religion gives lives meaning -- and for billions it does -- it does not always bring us peace and mutual understanding. In France, President Jacques Chirac wants no large crucifixes, no skullcaps and, especially, no head scarves on Muslim girls in the schools. He’d also like to ban such religious displays in the workplace. A few miles from where I live, in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, a graduate student protested the presence of two menorahs near a Christmas display at a public park.
My religion but not yours. Tolerance but not accommodation.
The mutual suspicion between Roman Catholics and Protestants -- a factor when John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, ran successfully for president in 1960 -- has largely dissolved. Catholics and Protestants are Christians. Even suspicion between Christian and Jew has largely abated -- provided the Jew keeps his menorah away from the nativity scene.
The deeper suspicion today is between Muslim and non-Muslim, each still knowing little of the other, neither caring to know more.
All of which is why, one starlit Christmas Eve, I was surprised that our invitation to attend midnight Mass was quickly accepted. Granted, Golpar had strayed in the eyes of Muslim and Christian alike. But both -- he more than she -- had been shaped by a Muslim culture. He was a literary man, a translator of Shakespeare and Raymond Chandler into Persian, but he deeply resented Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.” The faith of our childhood is not easily broken.
But why should they be interested in attending midnight Mass? I had been to many as a child, and I remembered the smell of incense, the intimation of sanctity, the easy willingness on at least one night of the year to wish peace to all. They came and they went, like Christmas itself.
Our Iranian friends were hardly new to Western ideas or Western ways. But the inside of a Catholic Church had to be another matter. If they did not look out of place, they must have felt it. Yet no one could have been more respectful. They took interest in every aspect of the liturgy. They were courteous and respectful people to begin with, and I think something in their cultural upbringing told them that a guest defers to his host.
The stereotypical post-9/11 view of someone raised a Muslim is that he would be vengeful, even brutal. Yet Rahim was the kindest, gentlest man I’ve ever known, and some part of him, I suspect, was a Muslim still. And Golpar, however dismissive of Islam, was proud to call herself Iranian. Both wanted to be American citizens. But neither was ever going to become a Christian, much less a Roman Catholic. And yet, for one brief hour, they wanted to share an experience that had once meant something to me.
In their quiet observance of a Mass, I sensed what I did not always sense in myself -- a regard for what transcends our daily lives. As Westernized as they were, they had not bought in completely to the Western idea of success. They might admire a BMW, but it was brains and decency they admired more. They had come to the United States because they wanted a freer life for their daughter, not because they were so enamored of American culture.
Who knows what they took away from a midnight Mass. The varieties of religious experience, to borrow the title of William James’ great book, are individual and infinite. We all went home and went to bed, and on Christmas morning the sun’s light seeped over the trees, bright as a welder’s torch. As the sun rose, even the weak of faith could harbor the faint hope that religion might one day bring concord rather than discord. It might even bring about a willingness to let others believe what they are impelled to believe. It would be expecting a lot, of course. But what is Christmas for?