I never make fun of those people who claim to see Jesus on a piece of toast or in the folds of some funky kind of summer squash. When they post photos of the holy breakfast item preserved on a make-shift altar above their TVs or kitchens inks, I say, more power to you. Likewise, you notice an image of the Virgin Mary in the rust on your Chevy Impala, what a marvel, I say. Though I have always wondered why it’s the Christian folk that pop up in these unlikely places and not, for instance, smiling Buddha winking at you from the foam on your latte. I suppose you’re in the spotlight for a few thousand years and you get use to grabbing headlines. But I don’t discount these happenings because I think faith and belief are two sides of the same coin. That’s money I want in my pocket.
A few months ago FOX gifted a generation of fans with a six-episode return of the X-Files. Getting to watch Scully and Mulder reignite their screen chemistry poking around in shadowy, underground missile silos and chasing down people with bizarre, supernatural powers in the name of uncovering THE TRUTH nearly sent me into a massive coronary of nerd happiness. Besides mooning over David Duchovony’s pouty lips and boyish everything, what I always really enjoyed was the existential push-pull between Mulder’s faith in the extraordinary and Scully’s stalwart insistence on scientific certainty. He saw the messiah in the toast; she saw the defective technology that produced irregular patterns in the bread. But it was more than just a plot or character device, it was a real crisis of soul, which as the series evolved tested both agents, breaking down their limitations, and throwing these questions back out at viewers—where does truth end and faith begin? Can’t they be one and the same?
“I want to believe,” Mulder intoned again and again, his own personal mantra. But what he really meant, I think, was “I want you to believe with me.” And I think that’s what a lot of us want, to feel less alone, to know that when what we can see and touch and count on fails us there is another set of hands to grasp in our own.
There’s summer property that has belonged to my family for several generations, a beautiful piece of land that rests on a small lake. The lake is only about a mile long. A dam squats at one end while the other end branches out into marsh to form reedy fingers of estuary where Loons nest and people trawl quietly in kyaks and canoes. Every fall the town lowers the lake so that the shoreline around our waterfront becomes a sprawling network of sandbars, ice, and water.
This place is more than just a return-to-nature-get-away with the lake, the surrounding woods, the night sky immune to the smudge of light pollution—it’s also a personal touchstone. My father spent most of his boyhood and adulthood here; it was where he got to visit the best parts of himself, the ones he squirreled away from the rest of us, it was where he could actually be himself. When he passed we scattered his ashes in the lake. He was as complicated as the rest of us and a mystery I’m still trying to solve after all these years.
I visit often, but I search even more frequently for something to move me, for that charge that comes when you cross paths with the nearly imperceptible. Mulder, I want to believe.
The air was cold, but laced with early spring sweetness when I went for a walk on those sand flats. The sky was the color of faded blue gingham. One of the dogs had followed me down and raced around through the streams of frigid water coursing through the mud. From a distance I could see that someone had piled a bunch of stones like the cairns hikers use to mark trails. Our place is surrounded by thick conservation land and not accessible when the lake is full, but it’s possible that someone might have hiked the neighboring trail that runs parallel to our place and continued walking out onto the lake bed.
I walked closer. The sand was undisturbed save for a couple of tracks made by the dog. I came within three feet of the stones and saw that someone had drawn an “S” in the sand. That was it. No hearts, no smiley faces or stick figure families a child might draw. Just the one letter. No footprints except the few I had made shuffling around the etching.
Belief is risky business. It is a white-knuckle ride on a half-finished roller coaster. It’s easy to mock the Jesus toast because that requires barely anything of us and gives us permission to remain unchanged. What struck me most about the X-Files reboot was the way that Scully, despite her staunch allegiance to science, seemed to embrace uncertainty, to stand closer with Mulder on the common ground that there is more than just the truth “out there.” There is a lot more, in fact, if you’re open to knowing it.