Letting go of God | Julia Sweeney

On September 10, the morning
of my seventh birthday, I came downstairs to the kitchen,
where my mother was washing the dishes and my father was reading
the paper or something, and I sort of presented myself to them
in the doorway, and they said, “Hey, happy birthday!”
And I said, “I’m seven.” And my father smiled and said, “Well, you know
what that means, don’t you?” And I said, “Yeah,
that I’m going to have a party and a cake and get a lot of presents?” And my dad said, “Well, yes. But more importantly, being seven means that
you’ve reached the age of reason, and you’re now capable of committing
any and all sins against God and man.” (Laughter) Now, I had heard this phrase,
“age of reason,” before. Sister Mary Kevin
had been bandying it about my second-grade class at school. But when she said it, the phrase seemed all caught up
in the excitement of preparations for our first communion
and our first confession, and everybody knew that was really
all about the white dress and the white veil. And anyway, I hadn’t really paid
all that much attention to that phrase, “age of reason.” So, I said, “Yeah, yeah, age of reason.
What does that mean again?” And my dad said, “Well, we believe,
in the Catholic Church, that God knows that little kids don’t know
the difference between right and wrong, but when you’re seven,
you’re old enough to know better. So, you’ve grown up
and reached the age of reason, and now God will start
keeping notes on you, and begin your permanent record.” (Laughter) And I said, “Oh … Wait a minute. You mean all that time, up till today, all that time I was so good,
God didn’t notice it?” And my mom said, “Well, I noticed it.” (Laughter) And I thought, “How could
I not have known this before? How could it not have sunk in
when they’d been telling me? All that being good
and no real credit for it. And worst of all,
how could I not have realized this very important information until the very day
that it was basically useless to me?” So I said, “Well, Mom and Dad,
what about Santa Claus? I mean, Santa Claus knows
if you’re naughty or nice, right?” And my dad said, “Yeah, but, honey, I think that’s technically just
between Thanksgiving and Christmas.” And my mother said, “Oh, Bob, stop it.
Let’s just tell her. I mean, she’s seven. Julie, there is no Santa Claus.” (Laughter) Now, this was actually
not that upsetting to me. My parents had this whole
elaborate story about Santa Claus: how they had talked to Santa Claus
himself and agreed that instead of Santa
delivering our presents over the night of Christmas Eve, like he did for every other family
who got to open their surprises first thing Christmas morning, our family would give Santa more time. Santa would come to our house
while we were at nine o’clock high mass on Christmas morning, but only
if all of us kids did not make a fuss. Which made me very suspicious. It was pretty obvious that it was really
our parents giving us the presents. I mean, my dad had a very
distinctive wrapping style, and my mother’s handwriting
was so close to Santa’s. (Laughter) Plus, why would Santa save time
by having to loop back to our house after he’d gone
to everybody else’s? There was only one obvious conclusion
to reach from this mountain of evidence: our family was too strange and weird
for even Santa Claus to come visit, and my poor parents were trying
to protect us from the embarrassment, this humiliation of rejection
by Santa, who was jolly — but let’s face it,
he was also very judgmental. So to find out that there was
no Santa Claus at all was actually sort of a relief. I left the kitchen not really
in shock about Santa, but rather, I was just dumbfounded about how I could have missed
this whole age of reason thing. It was too late for me,
but maybe I could help someone else, someone who could use the information. They had to fit two criteria: they had to be old enough
to be able to understand the whole concept of the age
of reason, and not yet seven. The answer was clear:
my brother Bill. He was six. Well, I finally found Bill about a block away from our house
at this public school playground. It was a Saturday,
and he was all by himself, just kicking a ball
against the side of a wall. I ran up to him and said, “Bill! I just realized that the age of reason
starts when you turn seven, and then you’re capable
of committing any and all sins against God and man.” And Bill said, “So?” And I said, “So, you’re six. You have a whole year to do anything
you want to and God won’t notice it.” And he said, “So?” And I said, “So? So everything!” And I turned to run.
I was so angry with him. But when I got to the top of the steps, I turned around dramatically and said, “Oh, by the way, Bill —
there is no Santa Claus.” (Laughter) Now, I didn’t know it at the time, but I really wasn’t turning seven
on September 10th. For my 13th birthday, I planned a slumber party
with all of my girlfriends, but a couple of weeks beforehand
my mother took me aside and said, “I need to speak to you privately. September 10th is not your birthday.
It’s October 10th.” And I said, “What?” (Laughter) And she said … (Laughter) “Listen. The cut-off date to start
kindergarten was September 15th.” (Laughter) “So I told them that your birthday
was September 10th, and then I wasn’t sure that you weren’t just going to go
blab it all over the place, so I started to tell you
your birthday was September 10th. But, Julie, you were so ready to start
school, honey. You were so ready.” I thought about it, and when I was four, I was already the oldest of four children, and my mother even had
another child to come, so what I think she —
understandably — really meant was that she was so ready,
she was so ready. Then she said, “Don’t worry, Julie. Every year on October 10th, when it was your birthday
but you didn’t realize it, I made sure that you ate
a piece of cake that day.” (Laughter) Which was comforting, but troubling. My mother had been celebrating
my birthday with me, without me. (Laughter) What was so upsetting
about this new piece of information was not that I had to change
the date of my slumber party with all of my girlfriends. What was most upsetting
was that this meant I was not a Virgo. I had a huge Virgo poster in my bedroom. And I read my horoscope every single day, and it was so totally me. (Laughter) And this meant that I was a Libra? So, I took the bus downtown
to get the new Libra poster. The Virgo poster is a picture
of a beautiful woman with long hair, sort of lounging by some water, but the Libra poster is just a huge scale. This was around the time
that I started filling out physically, and I was filling out a lot more
than a lot of the other girls, and frankly, the whole idea
that my astrological sign was a scale just seemed ominous and depressing. (Laughter) But I got the new Libra poster, and I started to read
my new Libra horoscope, and I was astonished to find
that it was also totally me. (Laughter) It wasn’t until years later, looking back on this whole age-of-reason,
change-of-birthday thing, that it dawned on me: I wasn’t turning seven
when I thought I turned seven. I had a whole other month to do anything I wanted to
before God started keeping tabs on me. Oh, life can be so cruel. One day, two Mormon
missionaries came to my door. Now, I just live off a main
thoroughfare in Los Angeles, and my block is — well,
it’s a natural beginning for people who are peddling
things door to door. Sometimes I get little old ladies
from the Seventh Day Adventist Church showing me these cartoon
pictures of heaven. And sometimes I get
teenagers who promise me that they won’t join a gang
and just start robbing people, if I only buy some
magazine subscriptions from them. So normally, I just ignore the doorbell,
but on this day, I answered. And there stood two boys, each about 19,
in white, starched short-sleeved shirts, and they had little name tags that identified them
as official representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints, and they said they had
a message for me, from God. I said, “A message for me? From God?”
And they said, “Yes.” Now, I was raised
in the Pacific Northwest, around a lot of Church of Latter-day
Saints people and, you know, I’ve worked with them and even dated them, but I never really knew the doctrine, or what they said to people
when they were out on a mission, and I guess I was sort of curious,
so I said, “Well, please, come in.” And they looked really happy, because I don’t think this happens
to them all that often. (Laughter) And I sat them down,
and I got them glasses of water — Ok, I got it, I got it. I got them glasses of water. Don’t touch my hair, that’s the thing. (Laughter) You can’t put a video
of myself in front of me and expect me not to fix my hair. Ok. (Laughter) So I sat them down
and I got them glasses of water, and after niceties, they said, “Do you believe that God loves you
with all his heart?” And I thought, “Well,
of course I believe in God, but you know, I don’t like
that word ‘heart,’ because it anthropomorphizes God, and I don’t like the word, ‘his,’
either, because that sexualizes God.” But I didn’t want to argue
semantics with these boys, so after a very long,
uncomfortable pause, I said, “Yes, yes, I do. I feel very loved.” And they looked at each other and smiled, like that was the right answer. And then they said, “Do you believe that we’re all brothers
and sisters on this planet?” And I said, “Yes, I do.” And I was so relieved that it was
a question I could answer so quickly. And they said, “Well, then
we have a story to tell you.” And they told me this story
all about this guy named Lehi, who lived in Jerusalem in 600 BC. Now, apparently in Jerusalem in 600 BC,
everyone was completely bad and evil. Every single one of them:
man, woman, child, infant, fetus. And God came to Lehi and said to him, “Put your family on a boat
and I will lead you out of here.” And God did lead them. He led them to America. I said, “America? (Laughter) From Jerusalem to America
by boat in 600 BC?” And they said, “Yes.” (Laughter) Then they told me
how Lehi and his descendants reproduced and reproduced,
and over the course of 600 years, there were two great races of them,
the Nephites and the Lamanites, and the Nephites were totally good —
each and every one of them — and the Lamanites
were totally bad and evil — every single one of them
just bad to the bone. Then, after Jesus died
on the cross for our sins, on his way up to heaven, he stopped by America
and visited the Nephites. (Laughter) And he told them that if they all remained
totally, totally good — each and every one of them — they would win the war
against the evil Lamanites. But apparently somebody blew it, because the Lamanites
were able to kill all the Nephites. All but one guy, this guy named Mormon, who managed to survive
by hiding in the woods. And he made sure
this whole story was written down in reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics
chiseled onto gold plates, which he then buried
near Palmyra, New York. (Laughter) Well, I was just on the edge of my seat. (Laughter) I said, “What happened to the Lamanites?” And they said, “Well, they became
our Native Americans, here in the U.S.” And I said, “So, you believe
the Native Americans are descended from a people who were totally evil?” And they said, “Yes.” Then they told me
how this guy named Joseph Smith found those buried gold plates
right in his backyard, and he also found this magic stone
back there that he put into his hat and then buried his face into, and this allowed him
to translate the gold plates from the reformed Egyptian into English. Well, at this point I just wanted to give
these two boys some advice about their pitch. (Laughter) I wanted to say — (Applause) “Ok, don’t start with this story.” (Laughter) I mean, even the Scientologists know to start with a personality test
before they start — (Applause) telling people all about Xenu,
the evil intergalactic overlord. Then, they said, “Do you believe
that God speaks to us through his righteous prophets?” And I said, “No, I don’t,” because I was sort of upset
about this Lamanite story and this crazy gold plate story, but the truth was,
I hadn’t really thought this through, so I backpedaled a little and I said, “Well, what exactly
do you mean by ‘righteous’? And what do you mean by prophets?
Like, could the prophets be women?” And they said, “No.” And I said, “Why?” And they said, “Well, it’s because
God gave women a gift that is so spectacular, it is so wonderful, that the only gift
he had left over to give men was the gift of prophecy.” What is this wonderful gift
God gave women, I wondered? Maybe their greater ability
to cooperate and adapt? (Laughter) Women’s longer lifespan? The fact that women tend to be
much less violent than men? But no — it wasn’t any of these gifts. They said, “Well, it’s her ability
to bear children.” I said, “Oh, come on. I mean, even if women
tried to have a baby every single year from the time they were 15
to the time they were 45, assuming they didn’t die from exhaustion, it still seems like some women
would have some time left over to hear the word of God.” And they said, “No.” (Laughter) Well, then they didn’t look so
fresh-faced and cute to me any more, but they had more to say. They said, “Well, we also believe
that if you’re a Mormon, and if you’re in good standing
with the church, when you die, you get to go to heaven and be with your family for all eternity.” And I said, “Oh, dear. (Laughter) That wouldn’t be
such a good incentive for me.” (Laughter) And they said, “Oh. (Laughter) Hey! Well, we also believe
that when you go to heaven, you get your body restored to you
in its best original state. Like, if you’d lost a leg,
well, you get it back. Or, if you’d gone blind, you could see.” I said, “Oh. Now, I don’t have a uterus, because I had cancer a few years ago. So does this mean
that if I went to heaven, I would get my old uterus back?” And they said, “Sure.” And I said, “I don’t want it back.
I’m happy without it.” Gosh. What if you had a nose job
and you liked it? (Laughter) Would God force you
to get your old nose back? Then they gave me this Book of Mormon, told me to read
this chapter and that chapter, and said they’d come back
and check in on me, and I think I said something
like, “Please don’t hurry,” or maybe just, “Please don’t,”
and they were gone. Ok, so I initially felt
really superior to these boys, and smug in my more conventional faith. But then the more I thought about it,
the more I had to be honest with myself. If someone came to my door and I was hearing Catholic theology
and dogma for the very first time, and they said, “We believe that God
impregnated a very young girl without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin
is maniacally important to us.” (Laughter) “And she had a baby,
and that’s the son of God,” I mean, I would think
that’s equally ridiculous. I’m just so used to that story. (Laughter) So, I couldn’t let myself feel
condescending towards these boys. But the question they asked me
when they first arrived really stuck in my head: Did I believe that God
loved me with all his heart? Because I wasn’t exactly sure
how I felt about that question. Now, if they had asked me, “Do you feel that God loves
you with all his heart?” Well, that would have been much different,
I think I would have instantly answered, “Yes, yes, I feel it all the time. I feel God’s love
when I’m hurt and confused, and I feel consoled and cared for. I take shelter in God’s love when
I don’t understand why tragedy hits, and I feel God’s love when I look
with gratitude at all the beauty I see.” But since they asked me that question
with the word “believe” in it, somehow it was all different, because I wasn’t exactly sure
if I believed what I so clearly felt.

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