I have always wanted to capture God and put God in a bottle and close the cap tight. I was seventeen when I first said this to a priest. The priest’s name was Chinedu and he repeated, “You want to capture God in a bottle?” and began to laugh. He laughed in the most undignified and unpriestly way, his whole body shaking, his head thrown back. Then he stopped and asked, “What kind of bottle? A Coke bottle? Or one of those Lucozade bottles? You think it will be big enough?”
At first I was not sure whether to be amused by his amusement. If I could close that bottle, I told him, then I would no longer have to search for God or doubt God’s existence as I had for so long. He looked at me and said that if I ever captured God, then God would no longer be God. “To seek God is to find God,” he said.
Father Chinedu was dark-skinned, young, with a muscular build that was close to but not quite stocky. He was the first priest I knew to have an Igbo name. All the others were called Damian or Austin or Francis. He encouraged people to ask him questions during his sermon and sometimes he lost his temper and told them off for being complacent. It was not enough that they came to Mass every Sunday, he said; they also had to care about the people who were being arrested by the government—this was Nigeria under the Abacha regime.
His irreverence was entirely unselfconscious. In private conversations he called his bishop a joker who was more interested in church collections than in justice. When he was moved to a small parish in the countryside, partly as punishment for speaking out, he changed the standing rule of most Nigerian parishes: You no longer had to pay your dues before you could receive the sacrament.
I was raised a Catholic in a moderate Catholic family. I loved Mass. Kneeling in an incense-scented church at benediction, singing “Tantum ergo sacramentum” often brought me to tears. I loved the drama, the ritual. But for as long as I can remember I have struggled with faith. I have wanted to believe more than I do, longed for the kind of certainty that I saw in people who did not ever think to question the illogicalities of religious teaching. When I first met Father Chinedu—shortly before that conversation about capturing God in a bottle—I was questioning the idea of faith with the intensity of a teenager who had read books about the history of the Catholic Church, and I was close to despair. I did not have the courage or the distance or whatever it took simply to settle for disbelief, and yet I could not convince myself of belief.
Father Chinedu would stop by our house after he’d been to play tennis, and we would sit at the dining table. At first I wanted to scandalize him. I said it was ridiculous that the Pope could wake up one morning and decide that the Blessed Virgin Mary had been taken up into heaven, almost two thousand years after her death, and we were all supposed to meekly agree with this. I said the idea of somebody having to die to save me was silly. Many times Father Chinedu laughed, as if my poking fun at the Church, an institution to which his life was dedicated, was the funniest and most welcome thing. “You know the problem with you?” he asked me once. “You think you have to accept everything. You don’t.”
I was raised to believe in a God, a white man, whose son, the long-haired image hanging on a wooden cross, had died for me and who had made a place called Purgatory where souls were punished for a while. I changed my idea of God from a blue-eyed white man to a colorless spirit. I found Purgatory childish. Father Chinedu said it did not matter, that I could believe in God and disregard Purgatory, that there were some for whom Purgatory worked and others for whom it didn’t, but that was no reason to discount God. “You know what they say about two different routes to the same stream?” he asked. “The stream is still there no matter the path you take.” When I pointed out inconsistencies in the New Testament, he didn’t try to justify them, he simply said that Saint Paul was an ordinary man and often got caught up in his own ideas of how brilliant he was. I quarreled with the numbingly mechanical repetitions of Confession and he said, “If it doesn’t do anything for you, then you shouldn’t go.”
When I told him that I was uncomfortable with the insincerity at the heart of the idea of faith for reward, doing good so as to receive a reward in heaven, he said, “You have to think of those missionaries who were keen to spread their faith. They understood human nature. They knew that they had to make it worthwhile to the people they were trying to convert. But when you do come to know God, you don’t need anybody to tell you that it isn’t about reward, it’s about love.” In other words, it was not about striving for heaven, it was about here and now.
I envied Father Chinedu’s faith, the resilience of it; his willingness to laugh at the contradictions of it; his confidence in admitting that he did not know; his humility in accepting that he did not need to know; and his ability, despite all this, to say his rosary, recite his psalms, and say, “I look to that man Jesus.” Sometimes I asked, “Did that man Jesus even exist?” And he would nod and say, “I think so.”