When I imagine childhood, that crescent of time when we’re somehow more human than we’ll ever be again, I picture strips of asphalt and living room windows. For the first seven years of my life, my father pastored a church an hour’s drive away from home. Since the small group my family attended always met in the houses of its more proximate members, it sometimes felt like we were eternally making our way home. Sitting in the backseat, drifting in and out of our parents’ conversation, my twin sister and I would gaze out our car seat windows in that hazy twilight between waking and sleeping.
By the time we turned off the freeway and into our quiet neighborhood, the world outside was a dark blur of shadows broken only by the occasional lights left on in people’s houses. Drowsy, wrapped in my own tangle of arms and legs, the warm air from the vents billowing out the Chicago cold, I’d stare out the window into strangers’ homes. With the infection of night, they seemed infused with mystery—esoteric spaces that opened an ache inside my chest, bright squares of hallways and curtains that coaxed whole worlds from their calyxes. Though I knew in my head that they were made of walls, ceilings and floors just like any other house, they seemed illuminated into mystery, a grain of belief I did not have to fight to hold.
Some fifteen years later, a diploma under my belt and the awning of adulthood now situated firmly above my head, I am envious of a time when anything—particularly faith—could be held with the gentle grace of childhood. These days, it seems there is nothing that does not require inordinate strength to believe. Living rooms, it turns out, are just living rooms; draw close enough, and the world beyond the sill shrinks back into the mere luminescence of your longing, a reality language can contain.
Once, sitting in the back of a different car making its way home from a different church, my sister and I asked our father why he believed in God. I remember his momentary quiet, how it fell like snow upon the dashboard, and then his simple answer: “Because of beauty.” I remember expecting a more dogmatic answer from a professor of philosophy.
At 23 years old, I don’t know much. About the only thing I know with certainty is that I don’t know as much as I thought I did a few years ago. Sometimes, oftentimes, it feels like life got confusing far before I got courageous, if I’ve ever gotten courageous, and this philosoher's daughter who grew up exposed to more theology than the average adult, can never quite seem to summon enough faith.
Yet if you were to return my question back to me and wait for my own snowfall silence to melt into words, then like so many times before I would quote my father: I believe because of beauty. I believe—because of beauty. Because of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry and the feel of nylon guitar strings; because of the miracle of friends and the paradox of the gospel; because of the strange amalgamation of darkness and childhood that takes strangers’ homes and flowers them into grace, and the insatiable ache for God that remains our deepest proof of him. If I had to venture a guess on any truth, it might be this: longing, like beauty, is inherently apologetic.
Rilke puts it another way, in a prayer that seems to float out an old window and into the surrounding night: “You, the Great Homesickness we could never shake off.”