God Haunted: Joe Mackall

The number of places of worship nationwide is decreasing, but faith remains. What role does faith play in the modern world? We asked five Ohioans to share what it means in their daily lives.

Joe Mackall is the author of The Last Street Before Cleveland, Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish and Yesterday’s Noise. He’s an emeritus professor of English and creative writing at Ashland University, and he is co-founder and co-editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. He lives in West Salem, Ohio.

Not long ago I was outside chopping wood just after dusk, knowing that with a forecast of heavy snow and single-digit temperatures, I’d be feeding the fire for hours. In the middle of lifting logs to my chest to carry inside, I glanced in the front window of our house, and I saw my wife smiling. In the next instant I felt a chill up my neck, and it wasn’t caused by the weather. I nearly sank to my knees in gratitude for the life I have lived, for the gift of love that has been given to me by this exceptional woman, who gravitates to her faith the way water seeks its level. And then, inexplicably, I looked away.

I’d like to say that I heard a sound, or I dropped a log, but nothing distracted me. When my gaze returned to the inside of my house on an ordinary winter evening, my wife was gone, nothing left but the yellow light of an empty kitchen. Snow still covered the ground and the roof; smoke rose from the chimney. Although my wife was no farther away than another room, I felt a bit of sadness for a moment that was. I had turned away from the moment of joy, and then the moment had passed. And yet faith helps me understand that the moment of joy that I experienced then, and many times since, did not spring from fallowness. The moment contained a world of living. C.S. Lewis believed these moments occur when eternity pierces time.

That moment alone contained within it nothing less than love, marriage, a joyful wife’s smile, wood smoke, snow, fire and light—all gifts, all worthy of my attention—and yet I turned away.

I’m not known as an upbeat, glass-is-half-full-kind of guy. I’m more of the glass-is-shattered-and-flecks of-skin-and-spots-of-blood-cover-the-shards-of-glass-kind of guy. For me it’s far easier dwelling in the darkness than living in the light. Perhaps it’s my upbringing or my disposition. I’ve always subscribed to what Robert Duvall’s character says at the end of the movie Tender Mercies: “I never did trust happiness.” However, I don’t trust myself without my faith. I just run too dark for that.

I wish I could give testimony to inspire nations, but instead I’m left with nothing more than a longing for some stillness at my aching center.

I’ve always been what the writer John Updike called “God-haunted.” I’ve been haunted by his existence and his nonexistence. I’ve lived haunted by the need to believe and the penchant to doubt. Although I grew up a cradle Catholic and attended Catholic schools until college, the faith never took. I let dogma beat me down. For years after eschewing the faith of my youth, I gave myself to literature, whose stories served as secular scripture. I worshipped in its riotous quietude. And yet my devotion to literature failed to remedy the roiling alchemy of fear and sadness, the twin pillars of my existence.

I don’t get through a day without moments of doubt. I turn to Christ all the time, and it’s not because I want to. I need to. I need the help. I need the story. I need it to be true.

As each morning breaks heavy with beginning, I wake up and remind myself that I have chosen to believe. Updike said he wrote to give the “mundane its beautiful due.” I begin the day by clawing my way up and through layers of dark matter, igneous rocks of remorse, sedimentary stones of sin and guilt to rise up and pay heed to what is ordinary and holy.

I seek whatever is true and noble and lovely. I strive to live out these feelings, but I fail way too often. I ask for help. I come in need and wonder and awe. I often leave sated, which forces me to remain alert for shoots of joy, tendrils of grace.

I need to welcome and witness these time-piercing moments and give them their due. Not even I can deny the beauty and truth of it.