the god factor

Requiescat In Pace, Dear Hef: Hugh Hefner, The God Factor Interview

EDITOR’S NOTE 9/27/17:

Some of you have heard me tell, in person or in an auditorium somewhere, the story of my friendship with Hugh Hefner, who went on to his eternal reward today.

My experiences with Hef back in 2004 were among the most memorable and aperture-expanding of my professional life. He is the reason I try my damnedest to leave preconceptions at the door whenever I meet someone I think I know something about, or whenever I meet anyone. Full stop.

I learned so much more about faith and God and even myself from my conversations with Hef than I did about him. He was incredibly warm and kind and generous of spirit. And he was vulnerable, wounded, and there was a certain sadness that dwelt around the edges of his enormous smile and sparkly eyes.

Ninety-one is a respectable number of years. He didn’t out-do his mother, but he got close. And I’d like to think that wherever he is right now, he knows. Now he knows. All the answers to all the questions from a mind that was endlessly curious about the world, love, and yes, God.

Now you know, Hef. Bless your huge tender heart.

What follows below is the chapter about Hef, based on those conversations back in 2004, from my first book, The God Factor.

May we all have our expectations exceeded and our preconceived notions dismantled more often than not.


Photo of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner from a Stage 67 presentation “Sex in the Sixties.” Photo: Public Domain via Wikipedia.

When I decided to make my living as a religion writer, I never expected the job to entail giving my name and credentials to a “talking rock” outside the imposing gates of California’s Playboy Mansion on my way to have a conversation with Hugh Hefner about God.

What am I getting myself into? I thought, maneuvering my rental car past the rock, which kindly opened the gates for me, and up the winding wooded driveway where cutesy painted “Playmates at Play” signs mark the way toward the infamous mock-Tudor mansion. I crane my neck, looking both ways, fully expecting to see flocks of naked, pneumatic blondes skipping across the manicured lawns.

But there are no naked girls in sight—only a handful of fully clothed male gardeners and a small flock of flamingos—and what I find inside the Playboy Mansion during the visit with the man everyone calls Hef thoroughly surprises me. Almost as much, he will tell me eventually, as I surprise him.

“I have strong feelings about the way organized religion—with the codification of all the rules related to sexuality—became law and played havoc with people’s lives. And I think that—dare I say it?—is very un-Christian,” Hef says at the beginning of our conversation. We are sitting next to each other on a comfy couch in the mansion’s library, not far from where an original Matisse, with a burn mark where a tipsy John Lennon once left a lit cigarette, hangs. Behind the couch is a life-size bust of a topless woman. (Someone later tells me it is Hef’s former girlfriend Barbi Benton—the bust, not the Matisse.) “I think that there are great unanswered questions that I don’t have the answers for, and I think it is presumptuous for some people not only to suggest that they do have the answers but to codify them and establish them as a set of rules, some of which are wonderful and some of which are hurtful, in the name of the Almighty.”

That Hef would chafe at the confines of organized religion is hardly a shock. Much of what he says initially about religion and religious people appears to be well-rehearsed material, thoughtful sound bites that he’s delivered during innumerable interviews throughout his fifty-plus-year career as publisher of Playboy magazine. “Religion was a very important part of my upbringing. I saw in it a quality, in terms of ideals and morality, that I embraced. I also saw part of it, the part related to human sexuality and other things, that I thought was hypocritical and hurtful. And I think that is the origin of who I am. The heart of who I am is a result of trying to make some sense of all of that.

“Sex is there for procreation and a good deal more,” Hef continues. “I was raised in a setting in which it was for procreation only and the rest was sin, and that included not only a whole lot of behavior but also a whole lot of people. That’s abominable.”

Hef, who is dressed in his usual uniform—red-and-black satin smoking jacket, pajamas, and slippers—is charming, disarmingly so for a man in his late seventies. He is also incredibly literate, introspective, and kind in a grandfatherly way. But there is a certain tension at the beginning of our conversation, as if he’s worried that I’m going to judge him or, worse, try to convert him, as another interviewer apparently had a few weeks before me.

“I was saved a long time ago,” Hef says, not quite sarcastically. “I think I am a spiritual person, but I don’t mean that I believe in the supernatural. I believe in the creation, and therefore I believe there has to be a creator of some kind, and that is my God. I do not believe in the biblical God, not in the sense that he doesn’t exist, just in the sense that I know rationally that man created the Bible and that we invented our perception of what we do not know.

“I would believe in a god who created this world and also some more rational insights to make it better, and would indeed give us an afterlife. An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah, I would vote in favor of that,” he says, chuckling. “But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife and to do it in a moral way that makes it better for you and for those around you, and that leaves this world a little better place than when you found it.”

Is that how he defines morality, then? Living in a way that makes life better for those around you and trying to make the world a better place? He looks a little concerned about the question, like I’m going to stand up, point my finger at him, and yell “shame on you!” or something.

“Yes,” he says tensely.

Don’t hurt anyone. Try to do the right thing. Make the world a better place. The Hefner moral code.

Hef believes he has lived up to the code, although he’s keenly aware there are people—many of them deeply religious—who would insist he has done exactly the opposite by building an empire based on unfettered sexuality and, some say, the objectification of women. To them, the image of the man is simple: Hugh Hefner, sinner extraordinaire.

Sin is a religious term for immoral behavior, but it’s a religious term,” Hef says, adding that his definition of sin is “things that are hurtful to people.”

Has he sinned?

“Oh, sure,” Hef says, “but I haven’t pursued very much immoral behavior. I’m a pretty moral guy. Now, it’s morality as I perceive it. Morality is what is perceived as good for people. I try to do what’s right, to do what I believe to be truly humanistic and rational and loving.”

So, how did he learn his definition of morality?

“First and foremost from my parents and secondly, in a very real way, from the movies. I think the movies were my mentors, my other parents. It’s where I escaped into dreams and fantasies, and it also provided me with a set of values that were immigrant dreams—what we call the American dream, dreams of democracy. I was a big fan of Frank Capra before I knew who Frank Capra was. I was born in 1926, so I grew up with the films of the 1930s. Very romantic, during the Great Depression. And those dreams came from Jewish immigrants, by and large, and that is what we think of as the American dream. It has become a universal dream, a dream of democracy, of personal and political freedom for everybody, a right to live your life on your own terms as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

What films have you learned the most from spiritually? I ask, and appear to have stumped him.

“One of the difficulties in the context of what you’re asking is that spirituality has different meanings for different people and suggests for most people a supernatural phenomenon,” he says, tentatively. “And you know … most of the movies that have had the most impact on me in terms of what I would call spiritual were romantic films, but they are … you know … I don’t know if I can use the word spiritual in its proper sense—”

“Let me tell you mine,” I interrupt. “It’s Harold and Maude.”

“Oh,” Hef says, his face folding into a big grin and the tension seeming to evaporate between us. “Oh, I love Harold and Maude. Well, now you’re broadening the definition of spiritual in a really wonderful way. Harold and Maude is one of my favorite films, and Bud Cort [Harold] is a friend and [is] here for parties all the time. And of course, Ruth Gordon [Maude] is wonderful. We show classic films here every Friday night,” he says, motioning toward the screening room (complete with a full-size pipe organ) adjacent to his library. “It’s called Casablanca Night. Last Friday we ran a film written by Ruth Gordon’s husband. Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday’s first film. And that’s a very spiritual film, too.

“It’s about a woman who is a kept mistress of a corrupt guy, played by Broderick Crawford, who is trying to make a deal in Washington. And in her rather Pygmalion relationship with the teacher, William Holden, she sees the world in a whole new way and she is reborn in the real sense. It’s a very spiritual film,” he says.

Another movie he finds spiritually inspiring is the 1942 film The Male Animal, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Fonda plays the mildmannered midwestern university professor Tommy Turner, whose job is threatened after he reads a controversial essay to his class that is perceived to be pro-communist. “It has to do with conviction of belief beyond what is popular, and it had a tremendously moving impact on me,” Hef says. “When I talk about spiritual, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Me, too, I tell him.

“How nice to have someone like you dealing with the subject of religion,” he says, looking relieved. “How did you ever get this gig? I didn’t expect you.”

Despite what he calls a “typical midwestern Puritan” upbringing—and Hefner, a tenth-generation direct descendant of the Mayflower passenger William Bradford, uses the term Puritan quite specifically—the Playboy baron’s own spirituality is decidedly unconventional.

Call it The Playboy Theology. Hef doesn’t believe in a “biblical God,” but he is fairly adamant about the existence of a “Creator.” He hasn’t been to a church service that wasn’t a wedding, funeral, or baptism since he was a student at the University of Illinois in the late 1940s, but he says he worships on a regular basis while walking the grounds of his own backyard. And he follows a system of morals, but not those gleaned from the Methodism of his childhood—at least not the ones that pertain to sexuality.

Hef grew up in Chicago, the elder of two sons born to Grace and Glenn Hefner. As a child he spent little time with his father, an accountant. “It was the Depression, and he was away before I got up and often not back before I went to sleep, so we only saw him on weekends,” he says. “Our family was Prohibitionist, Puritan in a very real sense. Never smoked, swore, drank, danced—all the good stuff. Never hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family.

“There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way I’d been raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, you couldn’t have done it any better. And because of the things you weren’t able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.’

“When I talk about the hurt and the hypocrisy in some of our values—our sexual values—it comes from the fact that I didn’t get hugged a lot as a kid, and I understand that.” While his mother was steadfastly Puritanical, Hefner says she wasn’t particularly dogmatic. “We had to go to church every Sunday, but she let us try other churches. We went to a Congregational church for a while, which is similar to Methodist. I went a couple of times to a Christian Science church because I had a crush on a girl in high school who was a Christian Scientist. I went to Catholic church on a number of occasions with my first wife because she was Catholic.”

He married his first wife, Millie Williams, in 1949 at a parish on Chicago’s blue-collar Northwest Side. He can’t recall the name of the parish, but he does remember—vividly—his brush with Catholicism. “Millie got very upset when she went to the doctor for birth control information and the doctor turned out to be Catholic and started singing ‘Rhythm is my business.’ She was so affronted,” Hefner says. That was the end of Hef’s connection, tenuous as it was, to the Catholic Church—or to any organized religion.

The couple, who divorced after ten years of marriage, raised their children, David and Christie (who is now CEO of Playboy Enterprises), without any formal religious tradition. His younger children, teenage sons Marston and Cooper, who live with their mother, Hefner’s second wife, Kimberly Conrad, on an estate adjacent to the Playboy Mansion, are also being reared religion free, he says. (Hefner and Conrad, Playboy’s 1989 Playmate of the Year, married in 1989 and have been separated amicably since 1998.)

Back in the 1960s, when Hefner and Playboy Enterprises were involved with the civil rights movement and Playboy was in its heyday, Hef spent time with various clergymen, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with whom he could knock around his ideas about theology and morality. In fact, Hef says, for a time Playboy magazine offered a special discount subscription rate for ministers. During this era, the Playboy founder also met the Episcopal priest and author Malcolm Boyd. The two men have remained close friends for more than forty years.

“Hef is a seeker,” says Boyd, an openly gay octogenarian who lived briefly at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago in the mid-1960s and is artist in residence at Los Angeles’s Cathedral Center of St. Paul. “He’s on an adventure in life, and it’s at a very deep level a spiritual adventure. He’s looking for meaning, for context, for answers. He tries to size people up in a kind of spiritual way.

“Hef is almost a fierce individualist, and I think a great many people have never really understood him,” Boyd says. “He doesn’t have a conformist image that people are invited to buy into. He’s himself.”

When Hef prays, which he admits is not with any regularity, he says his conversation with the Creator usually goes something like this: “Thank you, Lord.”

“I’m blessed. If life is a card game, I got the winning hand, and most people have only a small idea of how really good it is,” he says, grinning. “Usually, you know, our religious values suggest you have to pay the fiddler, that if you get a lot of good breaks, there has to be something wrong with it, and usually there is. Not to suggest that my life hasn’t been full of trials and tribulations. Of course, it has. It wouldn’t be a life without it. But I know how lucky I am.”

As we’re talking, a peacock rests on the low branch of a tree in the backyard of the Playboy Mansion, which he shares with his girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. All three women are in their twenties. Located in Los Angeles’s Holmby Hills, the 5.7-acre grounds of the mansion are elaborately landscaped. There are fifty coastal redwoods, a meandering pool with waterfalls, and, of course, the notorious “grotto,” a cavelike alcove off the main swimming pool that houses a series of hot tubs, all of different depths and temperatures. (Of the myriad intimate encounters that have reportedly occurred in the grotto over the years, the saying goes, “What happens in the grotto, stays in the grotto.”)

There’s also a zoo. Squirrel monkeys, parrots, toucans, and other exotic creatures live only a few dozen yards from Hef’s back door. “The animals we have here are a direct connection to my childhood and my love of animals and my belief that we should be somehow living in harmony with nature, as the animals do. The Tarzan myths fascinated me as a kid. It was man and his mate in harmony with nature, and the enemy was the white hunter—civilization.

“Some of my most spiritual moments, if I can call them that, come from walking through the forest, come from walking the backyard; feeling connected to the wonder of what this is all about,” he says, his eyes wandering out a picture window to the mansion’s rolling, bucolic grounds.

“I think it brings your emotions to the surface, to a level where you are just totally overwhelmed. Sometimes you know why and sometimes you don’t. It touches you in places that are hidden, that are from very early childhood, that are hurts, yearnings, and those are wonderful, magical, spiritual moments. And they can come sometimes from left field.” One of the regular stops on his backyard strolls is a Tabebuia, or trumpet tree, he planted near the tennis courts in honor of his mother, who died in 1997 at the age of 101. “A good walk in the woods is very revitalizing,” he says. “If you think you’ve got problems or something hurtful has happened, take a walk in the woods and think about how lucky you are just to be alive.”

So, why are we here? What’s the meaning of life, the highest moral value?

“Love,” he says, without hesitation. “Love. Why do we keep fucking it up? Love. It is the Golden Rule.”

Love is all we need?

“Well, John Lennon thought so, but we need a little reason to go along with it,” Hef says as he sees me out of the library before disappearing upstairs to his bedroom. “This has been a truly spiritual afternoon for me. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this.”

Me neither, Hef. Me neither.

 

AUGUST 2004

 

From The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People by Cathleen Falsani (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)

The Long-Lost ’06 Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” Interview (with Audio)

Original post published in March 2011. Updated on May 26, 2016:

In the spring of 2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, which was a collection of 32 “spiritual profiles” of well-known people (I won’t say “celebrities” as that label applies awkwardly to many folks in the book) who I had spent time with face-to-face talking about their spiritual lives. I then set out, as you do, promoting the book at various literary festivals and other public appearances. As part of that tour, we decided I should conduct a few of these “God Factor” interviews live before an audience. We invited Bruce Cockburn, long a favorite of mine and one of the first “celebrity” interviews I ever conducted way back when I was writing for my college newspaper. Bruce agreed to join me onstage at the Ann Arbor Book Festival in May 2006. I figured he’d fly in with his manager, do my little dog-and-pony show and fly back to Ontario. Instead, incredibly gracious and generous soul that he is, Bruce drove his van down from his home in Kingston, Ontario alone and spent a couple of days hanging out with me in the rain in Ann Arbor. Our conversation onstage was only a small part of the amazing conversations we had those few days in Michigan, but the only one for which I have an audio recording. (Our dinner at this fabulous Indian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor — I’ve never before or since had curried okra quite as good — not far from the theater where I’d interviewed him backstage 15 years earlier, will remain one of my favorite experiences of all time.)

As for our public “interview,” it too remains one of my favorite of all time. For years I’ve meant to take a couple of hours to transcribe it and post it so all of you could read (and hear) Bruce’s thoughtful responses to my questions about his faith. I’ve sat down many times to do so, never finishing until tonite. So with my apologies for taking many  years to share it with you in its fullness, I give you the Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview in its entirety. 

 

Transcript of my Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, May 13, 2006

C: Can everybody hear us ok?

I’ve done many of these interviews before but never with an audience before, and usually we’re sitting on a couch or talking across a dinner table, but I think we’re both game. And I’m gonna grill him.

B: Here I sit, ready for the skewer.

C: Ready? Ok. Here comes the first one.

How would you describe yourself spiritually?

B: As a seeker, I think. I think that’s the simplest way to put it.

I think I suppose in some way we’re all that, or those of who think we should be are. Not everybody cares enough, I guess, about spiritual matters to identify themselves that way. But I do. And that seeking has led me through a bunch of different stuff.

I started being interested in spirituality when I was in high school. I can remember – whether it was the influence of the Beat writers I was reading, it might have been that – or some other set of circumstances that conspired to kind of get me thinking that there’s more to life than just the physical and that whatever that ‘more’ was it was something we should be paying attention to.

And that was the beginning.

I flirted with Buddhism because of the influence of the Beat writers. I moved on when the 60s came along – I sort of moved on into the occult, studied the Tarot, read a lot of old musty books about the occult take on spirituality. Eventually became a Christian and tried for a minute or two to be a fundamentalist Christian because I thought they seemed to offer the clearest definition of what being a Christian was.

And then I realized that it was, that their definition left out a lot of things because really what fundamentalism seemed to be about was drawing lines around things that were uncomfortable when they didn’t have lines. And I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of comfort.

(laughter)

So it kind of went on from there. Since then I’ve fallen under the influence of Sufi writers of Hindu teachings through Yoga studies and various other things. And the search continues.

C: Were you raised with any kind of traditional religious upbringing?

B: I was raised going to Sunday school, with the obligation to wear grey flannels on Sunday mornings, which was horrible.

C: What flavor?

B: It was what is called the United Church in Canada, which is different from the one in the United States. Its’ an amalgam of Methodist and Presbyterian. Socially the United Church in Canada has a history of kind of a liberal, of social engagement. It’s one of the least attended churches in existence, although when I was a kid that wasn’t true. All of the churches had bigger attendance than they do now.

My parents are agnostics and the only reason we went to Sunday school was that, well, my great aunt would be unhappy and the neighbors would talk. This was the 50s. You don’t buck the system in the 50s. We did what we were supposed to do. And that basically was kind of clear from the beginning that that was what we were doing. Because my parents would go to church from time to time but we didn’t hear any talk of religion in the home at all.

We got a little bit in school. We had to say the Lord’s Prayer. I remember the first time I encountered that. For some reason, we moved half way through kindergarten, and in the first half of kindergarten they weren’t saying the Lord’s Prayer — I don’t really know what that was about because it was pretty normal, as I later learned. But the next kindergarten I went to, you said this prayer in the morning and I’d never heard it before.

So I’m mumbling away, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, HELL would by thy name,’ which I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Whoah. Weird. Psychedelic, if I had known that word back then. But anyway…

C: Do you recall what your first idea of God was?

B: Oh I think, I’m not sure how much this has been colored with hindsight, but I think it was probably sort of the charismatic old man with a big beard hanging out up in the sky. I think that’s probably the image I had of God as a kid.

But I also learned to love books really young and I learned that from my father who at that time, especially – he’s not that much of a reader as he was then – but he was a big reader and introduced me to Greek mythology, for instance, really early and it captivated me completely. Which I mixed up with Greek history – ancient history – as well so that my sense of the past was tied up with gods and heroes as much as it was with battles and modes of dress and stuff like that – buildings whose traces can still be found around. But there was a period when I was really young that I wanted to be an archeologist until I found out how much kind of boring work that involved.

So, my sense of God had to have also been affected by pictures in my mind of Zeus and Thor and the other ancient gods.

C: What do you think God is now?

B: Um…I like the Kabalistic view of God as ‘the boundless,’ which is basically a way of saying, I think, that there’s no image that applies at all and there’s no limits and every image that you could possibly think of is going to have limitations. Dealing with the boundless – I can kind of relate to that.

But I don’t know. It all remains to be seen.

If you think of psychology, if you think of Jung or Freud and the Jungian archetypes that exist in our beings in that worldview, those have a divine aspect or offer a connection to the divine. And those are clearly images – the animus, the anima, the principles that we, in my dreams anyway, they show up as people – sometimes really screwball people.

I remember – and this< I’m sure it was God – but a dream I had a few years ago: I opened the door of my house, which was in the country looking over nice fields – and there’s this old man in a suit, a yellow three-piece suit with a straw fedora and a cane and walking up my driveway. And he walks right up to my front door and I open the screen door and I’m excited to see him – he’s an old black man – and I said, ‘Hi! Welcome!’ and he looked and me and went, ‘Putain!’ which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with that, it’s the French word for ‘whore.’

(laughter)

Oh, OK. Clearly this man is telling me something.

I think he was kind of telling me stop fooling around with vague concepts and an intellectual kind of involvement and get down to trying to feel that kind of visceral contact.

So that’s what I currently work on.

C: Now, you said you became a Christian at some point. Can you talk about how that happened?

B: Yeah, I married a Christian. At the time we talked about spirituality but we really didn’t get down to religion too much. But over the first couple of years we were together, we talked a lot about that stuff.

She had grown up in a very freethinking household. Her father was a scientist. They were spiritually aware people but very disinclined to kind of attach any kind of imagery to things. And by way of adolescent rebellion, she had sort of run off and become a Baptist.

(laughter)

Kids have to separate themselves from their parents in some way and that was hers.

So we got into discussions about Christianity – she had abandoned that course after realizing that the people she had been with were very narrow-minded. They were glad to sign her up but they weren’t so good at dealing with being human.

We’re not married any more and we haven’t been for a very long time, but she remains a friend and she is a very psychic person with a lot of insight and she would have experiences that she couldn’t talk about with these people because it sounded demonic to them. So she left that.

But what she persuaded in getting me to do was to look at the Bible as something other than the chronicle of horrors that I had previously seen it as. We used to look in the Bible for the juicy bits, ya know? The guy stabbing his dagger into the king’s belly until the fat closed over his fist – that was a good one. And bits of the woman who was killed because she saved her husband’s life by grabbing his antagonist’s genitals. But because she’d touched a guy’s genitals, she had to be killed.

Ya know you find this – this is what I knew about the Bible as a teenager.

But, Kitty showed me St. Paul’s – whichever one of Paul’s letters that talks about loves – and one of the great things about the letters of St. Paul is that the guy – there is such a clear sense of him as a person in those letters. I don’t think I would have liked him very much.

C: I know I wouldn’t have…

B: But I really liked what he had to say about love. About the tongues of men and angels and that whole passage is a beautiful invitation to think more about that stuff. And that’s what Kitty offered me in terms of the Bible. So between that and reading CS Lewis and Tolkein and Charles Williams – who was another one of their cronies who wrote another amazing series of novels – almost impenetrable from a writing point of view – he was a terrible writer, but he was dealing with concepts that he seemed to have a really clear picture of – the bigger cosmos that we all inhabit and the way in which we interface with that cosmos, that are described in this series of seven novels dealing with kind of with the occult. Some of the people who are coming into these novels from the occult side are evil or represent evil and some do not. And his background seemed to, in some ways, parallel my own, some of the stuff that I’d studied before I got interested in Christianity came through in these novels clearly, and that attracted me to him.

So I came under the influence of these people and eventually I realized that I was in fact a Christian in every way except getting down on my knees and saying, identifying myself with Jesus as a person. And I did that. And then I was a Christian.

C: And here you are.

B: And here I am.

C: When we talked about spirituality once before, I don’t recall whether I asked you if you’d still call yourself a Christian, and I can’t recall what you might have answered. But would you?

B: Um, I guess I’m reluctant to not call myself a Christian because it’s been such a big part of my life. But I know that there are Christians out there who would not consider me a Christian and would probably be offended at me using that word about myself.

C: You’re in good company, Bruce.

B: I think so, actually.

But, um, so… In a certain way I do think of myself as a Christian, but I’ve learned so much from so many other sources that … and now we’re reading this very interesting book by a Canadian theologian called ‘The Pagan Christ,’ in which he deals with his own shock and dismay when he realizes that basically all of the elements of the story of Jesus as handed down to us in the Bible are present 2,000 years earlier than that in the Egyptian story of Horus, who is born of a virgin, has 12 followers, is murdered by the state in a horrible fashion and rises from the dead.

You think well…does that mean Jesus was there then as Horus? Or does that mean that it’s all metaphoric? Or something between the two? I don’t know the answer. For this particular guy, Tim Harper I think his name is, he comes to the conclusion that it is metaphoric and that’s how we should approach it and as that, for him, the stories are a source of inspiration and a model for us to approach God through. But it’s not that easy for me to make that leap if I believe his take on things.

I don’t know the answer.

I went to Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about this last night – Jerusalem seemed to me to be sort of a maelstrom of human spiritual hunger. It’s just this vortex. It seemed to me that there will never be peace in the vicinity of Jerusalem, partly for that reason. And it seemed, when you saw the distinctions that people went to such lengths to make between themselves as Franciscans or Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholic or different sects of Judaism or of Islam – they’re all there and they’re all representing themselves in their various uniforms and with their various rituals and they are terribly suspicious of each other. And you think, ‘This is as good as we get? This is a close as we get?’ Everyone has their sense of it. The thing, in a way and this is off the top of my head, but the thing that that illustrates is more than anything else the subjective nature of our relationship with the Divine.

And how important it is to remember how subjective it is and not to require other people to approach the divine in the same way. And humanity being the sort of tribal creatures that we are, we want to make these divisions. There is something instinctive in us that requires us to create tribes and to have somebody to oppose us in order to make us valid, or something. And when you see that so clearly illustrated in the confined setting of the old city of Jerusalem, it’s just – I don’t know. It was interesting. I’m still thinking. I don’t know where that’s going to take me yet.

C: There’s a debate going on in the States, and I don’t know what the conversation is like in Canada, but and I think what it boils down to is in a political construct here mostly. But what I think it really boils down to is people debating over what it really means to be a Christian. And if you are a Christian what that should mean for your politics – and  I mean that in a social-justice kind of way. What do you think that means? How has that played a role in your activism?

B: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s pretty simple – until you try to practice it.

(laughter)

B: But it remains simple as a concept even if the neighbor is kind of smelly or whatever. It remains possible. And of course it also, in order to love your neighbor as yourself you have to start out first loving yourself, which is a big difficulty for a lot of people. We do the opposite. We project our self-hatred onto the neighbor and pretend that that, because it’s outside of us, we don’t have the problem. But it’s our problem.

So how do we translate that into the political arena? Well, it gets complicated when you’re dealing with issues like immigration, which is obviously a big one right now here, and a lesser issue in Canada but we kind of argue about all the same things that you guys do a year later.

(laughter)

B: …And with much less at stake, normally. But um, hah hah, ya know if you look at it – there are people somewhere in the world who are starving or who are victims of war and they’re victims of a situation that they didn’t create themselves – you go, well, that’s simple. I need to help those people. How can I help those people? Well, there are all kinds of nonprofit organizations and all kinds of avenues for helping people when it’s that obvious and it’s important to take advantage of those things because there are people who are our more immediate neighbors at those nonprofits who devote their lives to making the lives of other people in the world a little better. And they deserve our support. Ok? So that’s a simple take on it.

But when it comes down to whom you vote for, it gets very dicey. I didn’t vote in the last federal election in Canada because I couldn’t stomach any of the candidates. They all looked like cheap liars to me and they still do. After the elections, we have a government that wants to be Bush-like but doesn’t have America to work with.

(laughter)

So we’re saved from the worst excesses by virtue of being a country that doesn’t have any real power in the world. But the tendencies are there all the same.

C: What are you doing when you feel the most centered, or spiritually alive or something like that? Or the most authentically you?

B: Hmmm.

C: It’s a pop quiz.

B: Hahahah. I don’t know if I trust feeling authentically me. Hahahah. I’m not sure what that means. There probably is a good answer to that but…

C: I can phrase it a different way: What are you doing when you feel closest to God?

B: It’s an accident and I can be doing anything.

But most often it’s in the presence of some – it can be a dream when I wake up and feel like there was something important about God in the dream, or it can be standing under a starry sky and feeling – that’s probably the most dramatic moment – or standing on a seashore at night hearing the waves, feeling the rhythm of it, feeling a part of this enormous fluid clockwork mechanism (I’m mixing metaphors horribly) but that’s how it strikes me. There’s this jigsaw thing that’s going on that’s always in motion, that’s always sparkling and once in a while I get the feeling that I’m a part of that in a conscious way. I think we’re all part of it, obviously, but most of the time I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about something that I think I’m supposed to think.

But when I forget what I’m supposed to be thinking, and it’s usually as I said in the presence of some kind of natural grandeur, I kind of whoah! Forget little me. This is the voice of the Real talking.

C: What about your music? If I don’t ask you about your music they’re going to …

B: In your book, Melissa Etheridge says she finds God in her music, which I really suspect. Nothing against Melissa – she’s very good – but if I were to say I find God in my music I would think, ‘You arrogant prick!’ right after.

(laughter)

But, um, I don’t know. Music for me is a way of sharing experience among people. I wrote one song for God, on purpose, and that was ‘Lord of the Starfields.’ I attempted to write a biblical psalm, and it’s kind of written in the style of the psalms and it’s addressed to God, in a way, and it’s … ya know, I mean, I don’t know if God’s impressed by things like that. I suspect not really.

What impresses God, if that word can even be applied, is the raw emotion, the raw feeling behind the creation of a song like that, which was there in that case. It’s not always there in the songwriting process. The songs come out better when there is something raw and visceral going on, but sometimes that’s a little harder to access. And sometimes you feel the feelings and there are no words to frame it in, so there is no song.

C: Unless it’s in “Speechless”…

D: Well, instrumental pieces offer a different kind of thing. I hadn’t even really thought of about this – I had with other people’s music. This harks back to the previous question about where God turns up and God can turn up in the incredible harmonies, the mathematical symmetry of Bach or the more kind of strenuous outside harmonies of Bartok. I mean, there is something sublime that comes through that music sometimes. And it comes through in a non-verbal way. You can listen to Bach chorales where there are lyrics, but the lyrics are not very important to me, and as a songwriter that’s a kind of sacrilegious thing to say. But when I listen to a Bach chorale I’m listening to the music and the sublimity – if that’s a word – that comes through the music, not through my understanding of the music. That’s something I should remember with my own songs.

I had never applied that notion to my own work, but we put together a compilation of instrumental pieces that came out last fall (2005) and with a few new pieces on it, and hearing a whole album of instrumental stuff put it in a very different light for me. I realized that these pieces have something to say that’s going to be very subjective. I don’t know what another person will take from hearing those pieces. Hopefully they’ll think that some of it is beautiful and be touched in some way. But I found that whatever was happening there is something very different from what those same instrumental pieces have done on the albums that they originally came out on where they function more like counter point to a bunch of words, or relief from a bunch of words, as they case may be. Cuz I do tend to be a little word-heavy in the songs.

I’m accused of that.

C: They’re always great stories.

Do you worship? And if so, how?

B: I don’t go to church. I did. In the ‘70s I did go to church pretty regularly, for the second half of the ‘70s, I guess. But then I moved from Ottawa to Toronto and I never found a church that I really felt as comfortable with and I started touring more, farther afield in the world, and ya know, I’d wind up at a Catholic church service in Italy, which is the only kind you can find there – or the only kind I could find there – and couldn’t take Communion because I’m not a Catholic and I didn’t want to compromise the priest.

I could follow the service because it was close enough to what I was familiar with – I went to an Anglican church. But anyway, I drifted away from it and I haven’t ever gone back.

But I pray from time to time. I meditate a little bit, from time to time. Which I think of as a kind of prayer, because it involves opening myself to whatever might come in. And I feel like I don’t’ think I really am able to execute this very well, but I feel like my whole life is supposed to be a prayer, that everything I do is in some way supposed to be in tune with the will of God – if the Boundless can be said to have ‘will.’

But I think it does.

C: How do you figure it out, though?

B: Well, I don’t think you figure it out. I think that trying to figure it out is what gets us into trouble all the time. But feeling it in some genuine way – and that I realize is a very loaded notion – but feeling it in some genuine way is a truer way to deal with it.

I find – something will tell me, ‘Don’t go in that store; go in that other store.’ And I’ll go in the other store and there will be someone in there that I’ll end up having an encounter with that was meaningful, whereas if I had gone in the other story it wouldn’t have been. Tiny little things like this happen all the time, if you listen. If I listen to that little voice that says, ‘Go here and not there,’ which I’m not very good at doing. But once in a while I do and it produces surprising results, frequently.

C: I have one last question I’d like to ask, and I’m sure folks here would probably like to ask you a few things themselves … I’m thinking back to something you said at the beginning when I asked you how you would describe yourself spiritually and then later you saying that you wouldn’t not call yourself a Christian but that you continue – you are a seeker and you find truth other places, at least that’s how I’m interpreting what you said. At the beginning of my book [The God Factor], it starts with a quote from my philosophy professor at Wheaton College – the only thing I remember from his 8 o’clock Introduction to Philosophy class, when he said, ‘All truth is God’s truth,’ which to me means, if it’s true – it doesn’t matter who it’s coming from – it’s really coming from God. And I was wondering if you could share with these folks a story you told me last night about Nepal and the fellow you met coming down the mountain.

B: Oh, man, yeah.

C: It’s a great story.

B: Well, I don’t know…

C: I think it’s a great story.

B: Well, I went to Nepal in 1987 on behalf of a Canadian nonprofit that does work there among other places in the Third World. I was there for five weeks traveling around and traveling almost entirely on foot, because that’s how you do it in Nepal. The last week or so we were there, on the pretext of going to the Everest region to look at Sir Edmund Hillary’s projects with the sherpa people, we went trekking, basically, in the general direction of Mt. Everest. We didn’t get there because of time considerations. But we’re going up and up and up and up these incredible mountains in this incredibly scenery in this landscape where every time you turn a corner there’s what’s called a chorten – a pile of rocks, basically, with ‘Hail to the Jewel and the lotus’ written on every rock that people have put there for centuries. They’re always at a little crossroads and the little roads or pathways are not, of course, what we think of as roads.

So we came over a mountain into a village at one point and the villagers were all away at the local market, but we could hear this bizarre music – Tibetan style music – and it was a funeral. And we kind of crashed the funeral and hung around for a while. The funeral was going on for days. This wasn’t part of the story but I’m telling it anyway: the people whose relative was being honored at the funeral had spent a year scraping up enough money to hire all of these monks and nuns to come and conduct the funeral, which was lasting three or four days of constant music and constant chanting and prayer and whatever. So this is the kind of landscape that we’re in.

We’re walking up this beautiful trail, and a party of people that became very quickly were Americans were coming down the other way. There was this old gentleman, a guy in his – older than me (I was a little younger in ’87 of course), this guy I would guess was in his maybe late 70s and he had spent his entire life in Nepal, or at least he had spent 25 or there abouts years in Nepal after he had left his job as a teacher at a seminary here, some kind of evangelical college here in the States. He boasted to me that he had taught Robert Schuller, the guy who has the Crystal Cathedral. But he was bitter. He was about to leave Nepal. He had gone on this trek up to see the Everest base camp as kind of the last thing he was doing in Nepal before leaving for good.

And he said he was so disappointed because he had spent all of this time trying to bring God to the people of Nepal. He said, ‘These people don’t want to know God.’ Well, they didn’t want to know his God. They didn’t get his God. And he didn’t get them, at all. I felt so bad for this guy. I felt sort of judgmental, I have to say, but I also felt like what a tragedy this was. This guy had been there all of these years and he hadn’t got that this whole place is steeped in Spirit and to me it was just so obvious. I don’t know what that means in the day-to-day and of course when you live in a place you become sucked in in a way that a casual observer might not be, so ya know, it’s not fair for me to judge him. But it just seemed like such a waste of that energy. Ya know?

C: Maybe it’s just not seeing God in other people?

B: Well, I think it’s the tribalism thing. I think it’s the conviction that your version of God is the only real one and  – I mean, this is what we’re taught in church – everybody that doesn’t believe the way we do is condemned to a hereafter of torment. And he’s out there trying to save these people from that hereafter of torment and they’re going, ‘Well, I don’t think so. We’ve got our way of looking at these things and maybe you should take a look at it.’

The thing, too, and it’s part of the picture when you talk about Nepal and I’m sure it’s probably true in other places, proselytizing is illegal in Nepal for anyone on behalf of any faith. But it works fine for the Buddhists and the Hindus because they’re not into proselytizing anyway. And the Christians and the Muslims have a harder time in Nepal. A Catholic priest was jailed while I was there because he was caught proselytizing. That was part of the landscape that this guy had to face, too, which, of course, I didn’t have to deal with because I wasn’t there for that.

But I think it was a clear illustration, as clear as any that I’ve come across, of the problem when we try to identify God, when God becomes some kind of extension of a human construct, which the God that we grow up with – the same God with the long hair and the beard – is probably the same God that guy believed in, that God is not trustworthy. Ya know?

C: Thank you for answering my questions, Bruce, I appreciate it. If anyone has a few questions for Bruce Cockburn or for myself, I’m sure we’d be happy to answer.

 

 

AUDIENCE 1: I do. You mentioned some classical writers who are all dead – Lewis and Tolkien – are there any contemporary writers, Christian writers in particular, that you have found useful or influential for you?

B: There’s a guy named Bob Ekblad who’s a Presbyterian minister who put out his first book recently, which is called Reading the Bible with the Damned. Which is about his experience as a kind of aid worker in Central America and in his current practice of a prison ministry in Washington State, where he’s dealing with a lot of people from Central America, too. And it’s a pretty interesting take. I think he would probably consider himself an evangelical, but he’s one of the good ones.

(laughter)

This book, The Pagan Christ, I found very interesting. It’s a disturbing book and not a terribly great piece of literature, but definitely worth reading, I think, too.

AUDIENCE 2: I wonder how you balance being, apparently, the sincere, seeking Bruce Cockburn that everybody thinks is so cool and the public Bruce Cockburn that has to schlep his way to Ann Arbor to do a gig like this.

B: I came because I wanted to. The answer to the question is I try to keep there from being too much of a gap between those two things. I actually don’t do very much that doesn’t fit with who I think I am. Over the years I’ve learned to accommodate the music business to a greater degree than I did in the beginning. But I see that in human terms. I mean, I go to a radio station and the radio guys have their jobs that they’re doing and if I relate to them as human beings, we’re not really – it stops being the business game. As long as I’m able to do that, I don’t feel like I have to do too much of the other stuff.

It gets weird – my first taste of high-level politics, when I actually started meeting heads of state in connection with issue-related stuff of one type or another, there was kind of a heady intoxication that went with that. I thought, ‘Oh, I have power!’ The lure of power was out there. I didn’t feel like I really had it but I could get it if I played my cards right. But thank God I got over that. I realized, well, what liars these guys were and that I’d never be as good a liar as they were. So not to hold myself up as any paragon of virtue, but there are people who have skills and talents and mine isn’t that one.

(laughter)

AUDIENCE 3: I wonder how you relate to reincarnation and whether that has any resonance for you.

B: ‘In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.’ Uh, it was suggested to me years and years ago that that was a reference by Jesus to reincarnation. I don’t know one way or the other, but I feel like one lifetime isn’t enough and I kind of … I guess my … I’m not sure that I hold onto this assumption the way that I would hold onto a Teddy Bear when I was a kid or something, but I kind of assume that we have more than one life. At this point in my life, I feel like death is some kind of graduation ceremony and we’re on to the next level of education after that, whatever it is. I’m not sure if we can come back in human form or whether the bundle of energy that is in us goes somewhere else, but I do feel like I have a sense that I’ve been here before and that I might be here again.

AUDIENCE 4: Cathleen I have a question for you. Would you consider yourself a seeker of the truth? You hear that term a lot. And if so, what is the truth that people are seeking?

C: Wow. I wish you’d asked Bruce that. It’s a tough one.

(Bruce laughs)

Am I a seeker of truth? I certainly hope so. I’m a Christian. I use that term begrudgingly only because I suck at it.

(laughter)

I’m trying to be a Christian, in the true sense of what that word means. And I guess… what is truth? Dang, with three minutes left in the hour. God, I guess? I think when people are seeking truth, I think the ultimate truth is God and so what they’re really looking for is God. And I suppose that leads to the question, ‘Well, what is God?’ And I don’t think I’m going to try to box that in. I don’t think you can box that in.

So, am I a seeker after truth? Am I a seeker after God? Yes. And that’s why I wrote the book [The God Factor]. And that’s why I do what I do for a living, which I enjoy a great deal. And that’s the way I try to live my life, and in my best moments, I think I’m kind of heading in that direction.

B: C.S. Lewis said that all it takes to be a Christian is a belief in the reality of Christ. So you can’t really suck at it.

C: Are you sure?

B: Well, he was sure, and I’m taking his word for it.

See the thing is …

Before I went on CNN live this afternoon to talk about the current debate about President Obama’s faith, one of my best friends handed me a cool bottle of water and a copy of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, which she had marked with a post-it note on the chapter titled, “Faith.”

I had hoped (alas) that the anchor would ask good questions and that I could, at some point, make reference to the following quotes:

First of all, faith is not an emotion, not a feeling. It is not a blind subconscious urge toward something vaguely supernatural. It is not simply an elemental need in man’s spirit. It is not a feeling that God exists. It is not a conviction that one is somehow saved or ‘justified’ for not special reason except that one happens to feel that way. It is not something entirely interior and subjective, with no reference to any external motive. It is not just ‘soul force.’ It is not something that bubbles up out of the recesses of your soul and fills you with an indefinable ‘sense’ that everything is all right. It is not something so purely yours that its content is incommunicable. It is not some personal myth of your own that you cannot share with anyone else, and the objective validity of which does not matter either to your or God or anybody else.

But also it is not an opinion. It is not a conviction based on rational analysis. It is not the fruit of scientific evidence. You can only believe what you do not know. As soon as you know it, you no longer believe it, at least not in the same way as you know it.

AND

Too often our notion of faith is falsified by our emphasis on the statements about God which faith believes, and by our forgetfulness of the fact that faith is a communion with God’s own light and truth. Actually, the statements, the propositions which faith accepts on the divine authority are simply media through which one passes in order to reach the divine Truth. Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God.

THE WITTENBURG DOOR RINGS GOD GIRL’S BELL

OMG, WE’RE TOTALLY PLOTZING.

The Wittenburg Door, the world’s pretty much only religious satire magazine, has run a ridiculously nifty six-page-long spread on God Girl in its November/December issue, on sale now.

We (heart) The Door. So hard.

Let us pause for a reverential singing of the Doxology . . .

Speaking of wise men . . .

Dear St. Yaconelli (Venerable Patron of Silly People),
Thanks for the assist and please give our love to The Dude.

HAM OF GOD:
ANNIE LAMOTT AND HER P-POPPERY IN OAK PARK

This is a clip from when Annie was in my village (Oak Park) a few months back to read from her latest, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. I missed her when she was here as I was out of town flogging my own book (which you can still buy everywhere, including AMAZON — and please do, because every copy I sell is one step closer to the kids at Chisomo in Malawi getting more dough from me, which, frankly, apart from the generous people who have written to tell me how they’ve been touched by something someone said in The God Factor, has been the best part of this whole book-writing experience.)

Also, the “Annie Is My Pastor: Just Jesusy” t-shirts (the small percentage of the proceeds from the sale of which I receive go straight to Chisomo) are still available HERE

But anywhoo, back to Annie:
Oh, this woman. She has a gift. And I’d still like to be her when I grow up — some dayyyyyyyy.
In the meantime, I read and reread, listen and watch when I can, and give thanks.
Happy Sunday, kids.

GG

Cardinal Francis George: The God Factor Interview

‘THOUGH I DON’T ALWAYS SEE CLEARLY, I DO BELIEVE’
By Cathleen Falsani
Chicago Sun-Times, April 17, 2002

Cardinal-Francis-Bielawski headshot

FRANCIS EUGENE GEORGE
Age: 68
Raised: Roman Catholic
Now: Roman Catholic
Attends: Holy Name Cathedral most often when he’s not celebrating mass elsewhere
Words to live by: “Feelings are feelings. They’re important. They’re facts. Don’t ignore them, or you’ll suffer. But they’re never the last word.”

VATICAN CITY — Prayerfully, mindfully and with not a small amount of trepidation, Cardinal Francis George is stepping ever closer to one of the most important decisions of his life.

He never expected to be in this position, to be one of the few people in the world to decide who will lead a billion Roman Catholics. To sit in the Sistine Chapel, to cast his vote. To witness, perhaps, as one churchman put it, “the Holy Spirit flying around the room.”

For a man whose inner life takes place mostly between his ears — “I think that’s fair enough,” George said of such an assessment of his intellectualism — the weight of the decision has taken its toll mentally, spiritually.

And, quite naturally for someone given to frequent bouts of self-examination, it has spurred him to evaluate his own life, to look back on the spiritual hallmarks that have led him to this historic moment.

“At each turning, there’s a call,” George said in a long interview before the College of Cardinals’ self-imposed pre-conclave media blackout went into effect last week. “You may not always see it as a call. Sometimes it’s ‘Why am I doing this now, and what am I doing here?’ But it’s a call. You have to see it as a call, and with God’s grace, you do. And I have to say, I have. But I still have the question of why this call and not another.

“Nonetheless, each time there is a response to a call, you see a different dimension of Christ.”

George is 68, and by all accounts he has been a good Catholic his whole life. By the book. Card-carrying. Gold standard, even.

With typical self-deprecation, he’d say such estimations are unmerited, that he’s doing the best he can, that he fails often, and that he sometimes has doubts — about the faith, about his call.

“Who hasn’t?” Chicago’s cardinal-archbishop since 1998 said, chuckling to himself. “I can’t imagine being married sometimes and not wondering, ‘Did I marry the right woman? This is it?’ It’s the same thing. Especially doing philosophy where you are trained to be extremely critical.”

*Savors time spent in academia*

The younger of Francis J. and Julia George’s two children — he has an older sister, Margaret Mary — Francis Eugene George was born in Chicago and reared on the city’s Northwest Side, where he attended St. Pascal’s School.

A stint at the diocesan Quigley Preparatory Seminary ended quickly because of what he describes as his disability. He suffered a bout of polio at age 13 that has left him with a limp and requires him to wear a metal brace on his right leg. Post-Quigley, he enrolled in St. Henry Preparatory Seminary in Downstate Belleville.

In 1957, George entered the religious order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate; he studied theology at the University of Ottawa, Ontario, and was ordained a priest in 1963. Two years later, he earned a master’s degree in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and in 1970, he completed his first doctorate — also in philosophy — from Tulane University in New Orleans. (He holds a second doctorate, in ecclesiology, from the Pontifical Urban University in Rome.)

He taught philosophy at Tulane, Creighton and Gonzaga universities, and his time in academia is one he looks back on with great fondness, as if, perhaps, he would have been perfectly content to remain a simple professor.

But he did not. Eventually, George became vicar general — the international head — of his religious order, traveling the world to visit Oblate missionaries.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II ordained him a bishop, installed him as an archbishop in 1996, and in 1998 elevated him to the College of Cardinals — the princes of the church.

It was during his years studying philosophy that George said he faced down some of the greatest intellectual challenges to his faith.

“You have to work through Hume and Hobbes and people like that who absolutely denied everything I’m living,” he said. “So, if you don’t take them seriously, you’re not studying them. And if you do, it has personal [repercussions]. And I saw that. Some guys would go through that and not come out the other end.

“To go back and forth between those two worlds, one of which sometimes leads to agnosticism or even atheism, the other that is firmly planted in living with God, that too was another moment in [my] development that could have gone either way,” he said quietly. “In some ways you can imagine yourself living a life without faith if you do philosophy seriously, at least modern philosophy. So that was another moment when I had to reassert for myself that yes, I do believe.

“Even though I don’t always see clearly, I do believe.”

*Once just Frannie George*

As he’s describing his intellectual and spiritual journey, George is a prince of the church seated in the parlor of the Pontifical North American College up Gianiculum Hill from the Vatican.

Fluent in Italian and several other languages, as well as the curious ways of Vatican politics, he is clearly one of the most well-regarded members of the College of Cardinals. One Vatican watcher has called him the “intellectual head” of the American church.

In fact, were he not an American, Vatican watchers say, he’d be a strong candidate for the papacy.

But he didn’t start out that way.

Once upon a time, he was just Frannie George, a studious, 8-year-old Cubs fan about to make his first communion.

“I remember clearly that was the first time I thought of being a priest,” he said. “People ask me, ‘When did you choose?’ I prayed for the gift at a certain point. And then hopefully Christ chose me because, while I went along, I can’t say that it’s my choice.”

*Parents’ approaches differed*

The Catholic Church has been a part of his life since he took his first breath at St. Francis Hospital on Jan. 16, 1937.

His parents, both devout Catholics, had their own, different, approaches to faith and practice.

“I think for my father, who was a very responsible man, it was bound up with duty. Duty to God, duty to religion,” George said. “With my mother, it was more a sense of accompaniment. She had friends among the saints and the people she prayed to and the people she didn’t.

“But my dad didn’t get into that at all. It was pretty much bare bones. He was not into churchy things at all, really. He got into it more as I went on to priesthood and things, just because my friends were priests, and he got to know priests,” he said.The cardinal says he believes his parents’ divergent takes on Catholicism complemented his own spiritual formation.

“My introduction to Jesus was as a loving savior whose own suffering rescues me from my sinfulness and therefore enables me to live with him and the Father and the Spirit forever, and all of his friends,” he said. “Without saying it, that was the Jesus presented to me. I remember it vividly; it was presented at the end of grade school. . . . I still remember the seventh-grade textbook.”

*Writings will help him focus*

In fact, when asked whether there were people he turned to for spiritual guidance or as examples of how to live a life of faith, George couldn’t readily come up with any names, apart from his first-grade teacher, Sister Rita McCabe, whom he still visits regularly.

“It was less a person as often as it was a text or a book,” he said of where he found and continues to find spiritual guidance.

He seems to resonate most deeply with ideas.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I’ve always had an inclination there. But Christ is not an idea. Christ is a person. But ideas about him are very important. If you have a wrong idea, that stops your growth in God.”

In the modest carry-on bag of belongings George brought with him to Rome — he can pack light because he keeps an extra set of all of his elaborate liturgical robes and other cardinal-wear stored in Rome — is a slim collection of the works of the late Cardinal John Henry Newman.

George, who Sunday afternoon moves into Domus Sanctae Marthae, the 130-room “hotel” John Paul II built to house the voting cardinals during the conclave, said Newman’s writings would help focus his prayer and meditation as he prepared to choose the next pope.

Newman, a 19th century English convert to Roman Catholicism, wrote extensively about the challenge of secularism to faith in Western Europe.

“He stayed steadfast, but he kept raising the questions of one who had once known what it meant not to believe. He raised all of the questions of agnosticism and of the social role of the church,” he said. “Newman was a very creative thinker. . . . He was a first-rate mind, no question about it. He raised the questions 100 years before anybody else that we have to answer today.”

*’Francis the Corrector’*

Tolerance for what he calls wrong ideas about God is not exactly George’s strong suit. (It is this trait that early in his tenure in Chicago earned him the unfortunate nickname of “Francis the Corrector.”)

“That’s one of the biggest difficulties. I get impatient at times. I try not to, but when you’re faced with something that you know just isn’t so, and you say, ‘Well, that’s not so!’ You try to be polite, but people should know better.”

And he’s not just talking about the sometimes-ignorant questions reporters ask him about this or that, to which, more often than not, he responds with a caustic retort.

“Reporters have a lot to worry about, so I don’t worry about reporters. That’s their job. But people within the church should know better and just are ignorant of the facts, no matter what you think about them. That puzzles me,” he said.

*Focuses on prayer*

Still, he knows he doesn’t always get it right, either.

Which is why, as he looked toward the conclave that begins Monday, he was so focused on prayer.

His own prayers and those of others who would pray for him.

“I know how inadequate my own prayers are at times like this. Somebody better be praying for me because –” he said, his voice trailing off rather somberly for a moment. “But I believe they can do that. And that makes a difference, that I’m not left to my own devices.”

Can he feel people praying for him?

“I’m not sure how much I’ve permitted myself to feel it,” he said. “You know, the feelings, you better be in touch with them, but don’t trust them. They can lead you astray. You have to check feelings either with others or with your own judgment, etc. Feelings are feelings.

“They’re important. They’re facts. Don’t ignore them, or you’ll suffer. But they’re never the last word.”