I become an insomniac shortly after I memorized the Nicene Creed.
At that time, the Catholic mass in our town was still in Latin. Religion is hard enough to understand in one’s own language, much less some dusty medieval dialect. So reciting the Nicene Creed aloud in English was one of the few opportunities I had to figure out this thing called religion.
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We recited the creed as a congregation. It came after responsive readings and was usually followed by the discordant warbling of a gaunt white-haired priest named Father Vincent. He was a crotchety old man whose face was stitched into a perpetual scowl. If God was anything like Father Vincent, I recall thinking, we were in deep shit.
At the time, the congregation consisted of rag-tag immigrants from Italy to Mexico who’d ventured to the Golden State in search of the American Dream, only to, whether by default or intention, become chicken ranchers or steel workers. A hard-working lot they were, most of whom, I was sure, did not understand half of what they were actually reciting.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
“We believe. We believe.”
At that time, I didn’t believe in much of anything. I believed in reptiles. Toads, mainly. I believed in the field of poppies next to our house, thrumming with bees every spring where I would sprawl and dream. I believed in toy army men and the bunker my brother and I had built for ours in the back yard. I was maybe seven or eight years old. But my brain was already working overtime.
Nowadays, they have medical names for this condition. OCD, ADD, ADHD. Things like that. Back then, no such labels existed. We called it hyperactivity or an active imagination. At worst, stupidity. The only remedy for it was corporal punishment. At least, according to my parents.
In the case of the Nicene Creed, however, my only punishment was insomnia.
The Nicene Creed is one of the earliest Christian creeds, an apologetic borne in answer to heresy. Written in 325 AD by a council of bishops and revised in 381, some have described the creed as a yardstick of orthodoxy. Apparently, a Libyan presbyter in Alexandria named Arius was stirring it up, declaring that even though the Son was divine, he was still a created being. This wasn’t the first or last time Christological mystery would cause someone to blow a fuse. Nevertheless, it posed a serious challenge for the fledgling church and the braintrust set about codifying the nuances of the maturing apostolic faith. What emerged was a document that condenses the canon of Christian mystery into pithy lyric, and resoundingly affirms Christ’s deity and eternality. He was, the bishops declared,
God from God
of one Being with the Father
For someone already prone to over-thinking, this was dangerous stuff. Even so, the phrases seemed to spill nonchalantly out of the mouths of my fellow congregants. Did they realize what they were reciting?
But it was one specific line that settled in my brainpan:
begotten, not made
That phrase nagged at me. How could anything be “not made,” I wondered.
I tried to walk that idea back. Past myself. Past my parents. Past the present age. Past the dinosaurs, the molten earth, and the Big Bang. Out into cold black primordial space. And beyond. To a Person who was uncreated, “not made.” So what came before him? If he made all things, nothing could have come before him! But if nothing came before him, where did he come from? Something can’t come from nothing, especially if that something was as complex and inscrutable as this eternal God.
It turned bedtime into a terrible affair.
I would lay awake at night thinking about the one who was “begotten, not made,” thinking about why I was even here to think such things. Was this great Unmade One aware of me lying on my bed staring at the ceiling? Even if I was just a microscopic particle of “all that is, seen and unseen,” he was its Maker, so he had to know about me. But if he knew about me, he also had to know about my neighbors, their parents and grandparents, and every child under every thatched hut on every savanna who was slowly dying of malnutrition. Perhaps he had lost track of us all amidst the stars and plankton. That would explain a lot. Including why we needed to awaken him from his cosmic slumber with the smell of burning incense and the singsong Latin incantations of a grouchy old man.
Anyway, it resulted in full-blown insomnia.
Long after those days, my older son, Christopher, has reminded me of a conversation we had in my truck when he was about six or seven years old. I had simply asked Chris what the last letter in the alphabet was. Impromptu quizzes were a regular teaching tool when my wife and I were child rearing. I believed that asking random questions, unexpectedly, about miscellaneous subjects kept my kids on their toes and developed their critical thinking skills. So in response to my question, Chris promptly began reciting the alphabet. When he arrived at Z, he happily shouted the answer. “Okay,” I said. “So what’s the last number?” His excitement slowly gave way to befuddlement. The cogs in his brain appeared to be grinding. I wondered where this was going. He said, unconvincingly, “one hundred?” Then his appearance grew grim. “One hundred one,” he muttered. “One hundred two.” I came to his rescue. “There is no last number,” I told him. “Once you think you’ve found the last number, you can add one more to it. And another. And another.”
He confessed to me later how much that realization troubled him; it introduced a new paradigm—the possibility that something could have no end. In that case, numbers.
I must confess, it’s somewhat comforting knowing that other people brood over such nebulous ideas. They lose sleep over theories, abstractions, and big concepts. That was encouraging. I mean, nowadays the average person doesn’t seem especially bothered by mathematical or scientific conundrums. We insulate ourselves with concerns about other important things, like designer sunglasses, automobile rims, celebrity rehab, daytime television, and the next iPhone incarnation. But the last number in the world? Who cares?
Chris would go on to become a high school math teacher, writing his thesis on Poincare Duality, a theorem involving numeric sequences. Knowing this now makes it easier to appreciate his youthful anguish.
In my case, however, it wasn’t math problems that kept me up at night.
It was theology.
Looking back, it is fitting that God disrupted my world through paradox. But what does one do with a child who is burdened with the concept of God’s eternality? I’m not sure most parents know how to answer that question. Nor am I certain there is anything you can do, anything that works—at least in the sense that drain cleaner works or a frontal lobotomy works. Perhaps the fact that some children wrestle with such metaphysical questions should give us hope. Maybe we aren’t all wired to the concrete and comprehensible.
My parents offered no intellectual assistance for my theological narcosis, just a myriad of homespun cures for insomnia. We tried tea, warm milk, cold showers. But nothing worked. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t shut my brain off. The great Unmade One had found me and would not relent!
This would be my first, but by no means last, encounter with biblical paradox. At that age, however, I did not possess the capacity to process such complexity.
Two things happened then to save me from sheer madness.
First, I was forced to let it go, to concede that some things were beyond my ability to comprehend. God had to be one of them. How could God or the Universe be understood completely anyway? That would be like asking an aphid to understand Einsteinian space-time theory. Besides, I couldn’t waste my childhood searching for an answer that might not even exist! If I didn’t want to become a babbling half-wit and get trapped inside my own head, I needed to resign God to another category.
It was a surrender, a crucial resignation to something much bigger than me. Amazingly, that same form of surrender has since helped me grapple with many a mystery. It’s become a template for mental rest.
Odd, isn’t it, that a concession to finiteness and incomprehension may be the gateway to eternity.
I heard a story once about a young student who approached an old rabbi and asked, “Rabbi, in the old days, there were people who saw God. Why is it that no one sees God anymore?” The rabbi responded, “Nowadays, no one can stoop that low.”
I wonder that part of the hubris of us humans is the belief that, not only can we know everything there is to know, but that we are entitled to know it. Perhaps this is an unintended fruit of our scientific age, the belief that everything is a material or chemical process that can be measured, quantified, and adjusted. Maybe it’s faith in ourselves, a misguided belief that our mental faculties can rise above the processes that produced them. I don’t know. Perhaps we are missing God not because we can’t reach high enough, but because we can’t stoop low enough.
Either way, I grew to realize that no amount of fretting or contemplation could make the mystery of God more understandable. I was spinning my youthful wheels. Call it Providence. Maybe it was just maturation. Whatever it was, I came to realize that the only answer was surrender.
Then there was Daisy.
Daisy was my first dog. A terrier mix. A mutt, really. She was made to sleep with me and did this faithfully for years, curling at the foot of my bed, providing companionship until my weary mind finally succumbed to sleep. This is probably how I became so fond of dogs. They don’t seem to worry about how God could be uncreated. It is more important to them that they remain loyal and occupy the foot of their master’s bed. Long after I’d come to grips with the Nicene Creed, Daisy developed cataracts, went blind, and had to be put to sleep.
Her friendship was invaluable.
It’s hardly a formula, but conceding mystery and the companionship of a dog has since helped me survive many theological conundrums and sleepless night. It’s also caused me to wonder how many other very ordinary, simple things, are bestowed for our own peace of mind.
And for theological resolution.