icon_stgeoSometimes I am overwhelmed, as I stand with my sons in the cathedral, by the feeling of safety. It’s not something I ever felt in church as a child. In those days I felt out of place. I thought I was pitied or judged because my parents weren’t there. I felt condemned by an angry god who demanded something I could not give.

Only later did I realize that I was pitying myself for not having a functional family, that most people cared more about what went on up front than they did about the comings and goings of an awkward boy. Still later I realized the hateful god of my childhood was the creation of dead men who had long ago come unmoored from the Church.

Church was never, however, a sanctuary. Not like this.

The world is filled up to groaning with untruths. They hook themselves into our flesh and hearts, tugging us in wrong directions, distorting us. We learn hunger for what does not fill, thirst for what does not slake, longing for what brings no comfort. We are taught that none of us is beautiful. We come to feel we do not belong. We come to believe that home is a house, and love a feeling.

The world overflows with untruth, and our children are tempted to drink from this arid fountain every day. All that protects them are the adults with eyes to see and hearts that love, the fierce and present Spirit of God, and the intransigent Church.

I am a parent with clouded eyes and a scorched heart, which means that every day I battle not just the world but myself, and it is for them, has always been for them; without them I would likely founder. The rooms where they sleep have crosses and icons and they are prayed in more than any other rooms I traverse, and this more in desperation than confidence, a sense that I am not enough, can never be enough, that one more whispered prayer, a cross over the bed, a blessing muttered over their sleeping heads can fill the gap, fill their hearts with what is good, so there is no room left for the great black empty of not God.

All of this is an admission that I haven’t enough confidence in the intellect, in theirs or mine, that with enough verses memorized and catechisms embraced they can reason their ways to heaven. They know more verses by heart, these children, than I, but it’s the heart we must protect, the heart that too often can be overcome even as we stand vigilant at the doorway to the mind.

There are days I think my heart is too far gone, but not theirs, not theirs. In the cathedral filled with word and prayer and song, where they are surrounded by a cloud of heaven-bound witnesses, I can rest. This is the feeling. Sanctuary from the world, from myself. For these two hours they are safe.


  1. Jim

    Truly said! I think this knowledge is something we have to come to as we age and have children of our own…as I find myself, at 47, at the same place you appear to be.

  2. Trudy


    Thanks for this eloquent post.

    It is very true that as parents, we will fail our children. It is also true that God has promised that, if we ask Him to, he will provide all that we lack.

    So we do our best, giving all to God, and trudting that in His great love for our children, He will indeed provide them with everything that we can not.

    So far, 7 children, 4 married, 13 grandchildren, we have much evidence of God’s faithfulness.

    This is not to say that there won’t be difficulties. After all, God’s work in us is not finished. However, there is great peace in our trust in God, in His love, and in His overwhelming goodness.

    All things can bring us closer to God. Difficulties awaken our awareness of our need for His help. Sorrow to turn to Him for consolation, Joy is cause for praise & thanksgiving. Temptations to dependence on His grace, transgressions to repentance and seeking for forgiveness.

  3. Beth

    How do you always nail the unspoken agonies and fears and inadequacies of parents? You get me every time. Your words sliced through my heart like a dagger. In a good way, if that makes any sense at all.

  4. Itwasntme

    I hang the same kinds of things up in my children’s rooms, except in my case, it’s a leather bag full of feathers and newt’s eyes. It gives me such comfort because I am so scared. I know that I can never face with clear eyes that the world is a hard and dangerous place, so I believe that these icons I hang, and the chants I sing over them will make it less dangerous.

  5. William Carlton

    Or you could just admit to yourself and your children that you just don’t know if there is a God or an afterlife or any of those things. Perhaps you underestimate them. I have three, and all have done well not be coddled by the smoke and mirrors of religious behavior such as that you describe. Religion is all around them, of course, there is no helping that. But their eyes are wide open, and what hope is REAL that they can cling to is in full view.

    Honestly, your post makes me feel a bit sorry for your kids. I’m sure they’ll be all right, but we’re headed for the middle of the 21st Century, my friend. Chances are that by the time they are adults, they will be either secular and at the very least agnostic, or else a beleaguered and blinkered member of a fast-shrinking and marginal group of the religious that remain after the information revolution has run its course (with respect to traditional, religious beliefs that hinge on “faith”).

    What breaks my heart is the notion that a child raised in theism as the only hope will encounter a bitter disillusionment that just is not necessary if one only takes care not to press upon them things that can not be known.

  6. Mike Cagle

    “The great black empty of not God” — you mean, um, reality.
    Your poor kids might grow up to be kind of messed up because of your intense obsession with an imaginary deity.

  7. Flying Spaghetti Monster

    My father studied Christian theology and briefly owned a Christian book store when I was born. When I was 9 years old, I begged him to please just let me stay home on Sunday mornings. I wasn’t getting any stirrings from all the bizarre stories of ancient sheep herders and their quaint superstitious beliefs which the others around me seemed so enraptured with. Thankfully he consented. I have since read too many stories of talented young people scarred by overly religious parents. So for their sake, lighten up on the bleeding crucifixes and try just a little bit of common sense and reason.

  8. Dan Riley

    As someone who haunted churches for the first 20 years of his life, attended a seminary for four years, home-schooled a daughter, and now runs a “religious” blog, I’d say the source of your fears is this: “I haven’t enough confidence in the intellect, in theirs or mine, that with enough verses memorized and catechisms embraced they can reason their ways to heaven.” Is the goal to get your kids to memorize verses and embrace catechisms, or is the goal for them to learn as much as they can about the world they live in? Is it your goal for them to “reason” their way to heaven, or to critically examine and question the world they live in? A little more faith in the intellect (yours and the kids) and a little less anxiety over that black, empty not god would do both you and the kids well.

  9. James Finn Garner

    Thank you for your honest, probing blog posts. For the atheists and agnostics who comment, I think Mr. Woodlieff is not writing to convince anyone to believe in God. I think he’s writing for those of us who struggle with faith in our lives, who often feel that faith might not be enough and God often feels absent from our lives. Those of us with weak faith (which any believer who is honest will admit to being), but who still would not want to live our lives without it because (despite some appearances and some ranting hateful “Christian” loonies) it brings us large amounts of joy, connectedness and peace.

    You can cluck your tongue and trumpet rationality and demographic trends all you want. Hell, most of us been through all THAT already. We’re not answering your questions, we’re trying to answer our own.

  10. FredE

    Now THERE’S an ooga-booga christian!

    Please make an adult effort to begin living in the real world before you do serious and lasting damage your kids. If it’s not too late.

  11. Hugo de Toronja

    WHY would any self-professed Christian think he might protect his children from the “great black empty of not God”?

    Neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament holds out much hope for successful, or even vaguely pleasant, parenting:

    * Cain — the first rattle out of the box, you might say — is pretty much a big red flag, warning all comers of what the Judeo-Christian tradition has in store in terms of inspirational stories about child-rearing and the joys of parenthood.

    * Joseph’s brothers plot to murder him and throw him into a cistern to die before deciding to sell him into slavery.

    * Samson gives his parents as much cause for grief as insomnia, slaughtering countless Philistines and burning their crops before finally bringing the Temple of Dagon down upon his head, and leaving his family to pull his dead body from the wreckage.

    * Amnon rapes his own half-sister, Tamar.

    * Absalom plots to overthrow his own father, King David, and dies as result of the worst “bad hair day” in recorded human history.

    * Judas Iscariot was likely something of a disappointment to his mom and dad.

    * The Prodigal Son was a hot-head who squandered his inheritance and nearly died of hunger.

    There are more “bad seeds” to be found in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

    But I won’t worry them out because I don’t want to snatch away whatever hope God-fearing parents might have that all their tears and sleepless nights and hard work and hugs and kisses and bed-time stories and church attendance might not ultimately prove to have been in vain.

    If there’s one clear unmistakable message that the Judeo-Christian tradition has sent over the past 2000+ years, it’s that parenting is a thankless, if not tragic, task, and that the piety of one’s children is, at best, a dice roll.

  12. William Carlton

    @James Finn Gardner:

    Your comment is exactly right. The part about the intended audience for this post and so on. Really very well said. Straight to the point and correct.

    But notice these two things.

    The vulnerability of religious messages like this to skeptical scrutiny is something quite new. I mean just think: there is a very good chance these kids are going to READ this comment thread at some point in their young lives. There is certainly nothing, presumably, to stop them. I imagine a young, say, adolescent, struggling to make sense of the religious propositions floating around in his or her head would read a great deal into the fact that the person who put much of it there could barely hold on to credulity himself, and after a lifetime of effort.

    So the demographics matter, if the goal is to prepare a child for the world they will truly inhabit.

    The second thing is this: please place yourselves in my shoes and imagine how obvious it is to someone like me why it sometimes feels that God isn’t “there”. Re-read your post from that perspective. Try not to blush. God bless.

  13. James Finn Garner

    There have been plenty of times in my life when it felt like God wasn’t there. And there have been plenty of times when it feels like “He” IS there. Which should I hold to be true?

    I’ve been in your shoes (as far as I’d like to presume), and I’ve been in mine. I only blush when my clumsy efforts at explaining faith fall so very short of what I’m really trying to say. I don’t judge atheists or agnostics in any way. I may be COMPLETELY WRONG about the existence of God, and I only ask not to be tarred with a brush of absolutism.

    Well, Maybe I’d also like not to be accused of ruining my children by raising them in my faith. Civilized strangers can at least extend that courtesy, can’t we?

    And long before the internet, children have witnessed and been told of crises of faith in their parents. It might crush that child’s faith, it might increase it, it might turn them agnostic or fundamentalist–who knows? It’s all individual.

  14. Itwasntme

    @R. Kevin Hill: Nothing keeps everyone safe from harm, but being a rational person who knows that praying has never kept illness or evil from one’s door will keep you safer. It is more rational to get an inoculation against smallpox than to pray you don’t get it. Prayers are the same as curses, and neither of them work.

  15. Scott

    My heart aches for those of you who have run from jewel-encrusted but empty churches. And for your offspring. My boys grew up in our church, which is a warts-and-all, “life is hard and might actually get harder if you really follow Jesus” kind of church. Now they are in their late teens, with growing, vibrant, grounded faith.

    Not all who say Lord Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven. Glad to see this thoughtful discussion going on, since there’s so much fluff and bile elsewhere when talking matters of faith.

  16. Pat Byrnes

    When I was little, I would hide under the covers with the faith that monsters/burglars/things that go bump in the night would not be able to see me. I have outgrown that faith, in large part through reason. Taking a good look at physics (which I had to as an aerospace engineer) and holding that up to the Bible led me to dismiss a lot of that Old Testament thinking (there is some good human wisdom there, but also a lot of bad theology, sorry).

    Now, as for that physics, I discovered a marvelous universe, an entirely rational universe. In fact, the unification of physics necessitates it being rational. This is something more theologians should be made aware of. We see consciousness as bound by matter, but it is the opposite. Matter is bound by consciousness. God is not in the universe, the universe is in God. Hiding under the covers won’t work, because the covers themselves are constructed of God’s very fabric.

    When I read the New Testament with an informed eye, I see that many of the characters there were still bound by their magical thinking. But not Jesus. His words practically foretell the universe we are discovering. No surprise, really, if he is who he says he is.

    Mr. Garner is right about most of what he says. Most. I don’t consider my faith to be weak. At least not the intellectual aspect of it. The practice? Well, maybe he’s got me the.

  17. William Carlton

    Stream of consciouness:

    Comments are moderated here and it is to the blog owner’s credit that pointed replies are published. Some semblance of honesty emerges from this picture. I GET the sense of honesty and sincerity from the gentle Christians who have replied. Compared to it I get a sense of abrasiveness from people like me who have come in here to “cluck our tongues” and roll our collective eyes. And yet we are tolerated. In view of this, the pious manage to bootstrap themselves onto some higher moral ground. It might be worth examining who comes out ahead here.

    @James Finn Garner

    re: ‘it’s all individual”. Very well, and every flip of the coin is individual. And there are only two outcomes. Each flip is fifty/fifty. Populations of millions of people don’t carry the same odds. And due to any number of ambient factors, some outcomes are more likely than others. At any given time, some “trend” more strongly than others. And there are zero-sum games, where one side’s advantage is the another’s loss—and religions go into a death spiral. How many Druids do you know?

    So demographics matter. A TON.

    @R Kevin Hill:

    I do believe I missed where anyone said “rationality and secularism” will “keep them from harm”. But while we’re on the subject, I encourage you to explore the compelling correlation between the most secular countries in the world and the ones with the lowest rates of violent crime.

    This is not to say that RELIGION MUST GO AND THE INSTANT IT DOES EVERYTHING IMPROVES! Some edifying thing has to fill the void when formal contemplation of the supernatural goes out the window. For evolutionary reasons that are quite well documented, we are wired for “sprituality” and all of the behaviors that spring from it.

    Also the claim that you’re an atheist adds nothing to your comments.

  18. William Carlton

    @ R. Kevin Hill:

    I think I sorta kinda see what you’re getting at. I’m diminishing you’re experience by talking about it in terms of statistics.

    I’ll take you at your word that you don’t wish to be engaged along the lines of sympathy as it relates to what happened with your son.

    In fact I didn’t click the link describing that ordeal until you redirected attention to it. Having read it, however, I don’t find any special reason why I would have addressed you differently. In fact, I will go on addressing the issue in precisely the same manner.

    When, despite our efforts, we find ourselves victims of tragic circumstances, it is common to lament the seemingly random, arbritary nature of those events. But of course, that is a rather narrow view. A great deal more than intution would have us believe can be predicted about natural disasters, workplace hazards, and even the complex social behavior connected to violent crime, etc.

    When a utility worker is electrocuted to death atop a power line, is it really all that mysterious why HIM? It is because he has a much greater chance than most anybody of being electrocuted atop a power line, for obvious reasons. A look at most of the violent offenders in our prisons reveal that all the predeterminants for a life of violent crime were present before they could wipe their own rear ends. Hypothetically, one could attned to these factors at the critical stage in a child’s life and intervene to see that he or she is raised in such a way as to compensate—but that does not often happen and so it is no surprise when most of them end up members of a criminal underclass.

    The point is that with enough information, one can do more and more all the time to avoid all kinds of bad stuff and that this actually works in all practicality better than anything else we’ve ever tried. Certainly better than folded hands.

    Parents who read your account may be encouraged to peruse the literature about “signs” that their teens may be at risk of becoming suicidal. The reason there are such “signs” is because some people, under a given set of circumstances, are more likely than others to end their own lives. It is not the least bit arbitrary, however it may seem.

    This is not to say that you, as a parent, “missed” something that had you taken heed could have prevented tragedy. Perhaps you didn’t know what “signs” to be looking for. Does anyone in your family have a history of depression? Has anyone else in your family or that of the child’s mother ever committed suicide as well? Does the child share any traits with that individual that prompt concern? It needn’t be an indictment of any parent to say that they never imagined their child was capable of x, y, or z.

    But to bring this post back around to the critical reply the author’s post has merited: when it comes to my kids, I can say that I feel much greater assurance knowing that I have taken my own, often uncomfortable steps to consider a whole range of possibilities—accounting for as many indicators of potential difficulty as I can apprehend—rather than settle for the muttering of maudlin prayers to a very silent deity I maybe half believe in if I really try.

    It’s certainly going to be true that this cannot necessarily be “enough”, but it is, if fact, the very extent of what I can do (and still be doing something). I would feel rather silly if I tried to pretend that enlisting magical wish-thinking would do any good (you know, just to be on the safe side).

  19. Tony

    Hi all,

    I appreciate your comments, including those of you who perhaps conflate reason and science with a priori materialism.

    Per one reader’s request, I’ve removed his comments. If I can carve out some time to respond to some of your comments, I’ll do so, though I hope you won’t take my silence as a retreat or a snub.

  20. Lenise

    I really appreciate Mr. Carlton’s appreciation of the responses he’s received. That really speaks to your integrity. To Bill, I would say it’s got a lot to do with having a sense of my place, a.k.a. humility. You can’t equalize God and man. There’s a huge gulf there, the breadth and depth of which we can’t comprehend.

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