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For Not Knowing

Almighty LORD, incline Thine ear to hear this day a confession: we sometimes do not feel real. That is, when we take the time to reflect upon our existence, we grow fearful, in part because we are unable to sum it up, to define what we are in terms that we find—due to the fractured nature of our lives—acceptable. For instance, LORD, we don’t know where our selves are located, or if, individually, we could be said to “have” or “possess” a self, at least in the way that our ancestors thought of their selves as having “souls.” We don’t know what the word “soul” means, really, can’t fathom it, can’t really understand the word “spirit,” either, can only imagine a gaseous dissolute form, a transparent ether-like substance that plays some magical part in animating our bodies, can’t understand how a brain stores and maintains its memories or how it perceives sensations, or how awareness works, or where it goes when the body that has housed it dies. And indeed, we get more than a little weirded out that this primary mode of being cannot not be explained, because of course we’ve taken science and biology classes, both in religious and public institutions, and we’ve argued in our heads with our astronomy professor, who claimed to believe only in things he could see and claimed all humans were made of star stuff, and we then later reconciled this with the idea that You had maybe used this to form people and trees and animals and water and air and everything else and that this idea was just no less incredible or as a giant man in space reaching down for a handful of clay and shaping and then animating it with his magical breath, but neither of these explanations for how humans and other animals came into being shed any light whatsoever on what, exactly, consciousness is, much less life itself, since, when it comes right down to it, everything that happens to us happens to us on the inside, and is not, as it turns out, locatable or transferable or viewable to anyone else but the “we” who experience our own mental functions. There is, then, so much that we do not know, so much that we cannot know. And so we ask that we might learn not to fear this unknowingness. Remind us that not knowing, sometimes, is a good thing, and that You wouldn’t be You if we could sum you up, if we could know the mystery of Thy ways. And maybe what we mean to say right now, oh LORD, is: forgive those of us who say you don’t exist, just as you forgive those of us who do.


Matthew Vollmer is the author of Future Missionaries of America and the forthcoming Gateway to Paradise (both story collections), as well as inscriptions for headstones (a collection of essays). With David Shields, he is the co-editor of Fakes. He is assembling a multi-authored manuscript titled A Book of Uncommon Prayer.