Like his earlier essay collection, Witness (reviewed for Prime Number by Jessica Handler), Curtis Smith’s latest book, Communion, is a graceful meditation on fatherhood. Whereas Witness focused on the very survival of Smith’s infant son when a heart problem is discovered, the new book takes on questions of spirituality and faith.
Smith’s child is now older, eight or nine in most of the collection’s 21 short essays. He’s a precocious, serious boy, curious, with diverse interests. He’s into karate and hockey, enjoys hiking in the woods with his father, and is fascinated by ancient Rome, Vesuvius, and the natural world. What makes the book so charming is the obvious pleasure Smith takes in facilitating his son’s interests, even when he doesn’t particularly share them. Smith’s approach to fatherhood is taking great care to open as many doors for his son as possible, letting his son choose which ones to enter, which to forego.
The title essay, “Communion,” opens the book. Having finished his catechism classes, Smith’s son receives his first communion under the watchful eye of his parents. Smith himself is not a believer, but he tells us he’s glad that his son is “starting his spiritual journey with a God who loves, a God who teaches.” The spiritual journey is a recurring theme. In “Prayer, a Personal Evolution,” we see Smith in a summer job during college, finding his own spirituality among a seminarian, a preacher, and a born-again girlfriend. After graduation, he teaches in a school that begins each day with the Pledge of Allegiance followed by a moment of silence, clearly an invitation to prayer. Smith takes the opportunity to experiment with what sort of prayer works for him. And now, with his son, he practices a bedtime prayer ritual, despite being a non-believer, giving thanks for “the gifts of health and home and love so easy to take for granted.”
The question of belief surfaces again in “On Not Believing” but this time it is the boy who raises the issue. “I don’t believe in Santa Claus,” he says. “Do you?” (Later, in “Left Behind,” he will admit that he also doesn’t believe in angels, devils, goblins, or elves, although he does believe in ghosts because he’s seen one.) Smith says, “Although my heart remains open, I can’t deny the peace that has accompanied the abandonment of my struggle to justify God.” Here we also learn that Smith has been reading the Bible, despite not being religious, because he desires “to better understand what is important to so many.” It’s not hard to see where Smith’s son gets his curiosity and open-mindedness.
He’s a sensitive boy, too, aware of his parents’ feelings. Smith and his wife discover by reading a school essay that their son longs for a “brother or two,” although he doesn’t share this with them because he doesn’t want to upset them. “On Longing” also deals with the couple’s difficulties conceiving, so the discovery of their son’s wish is particularly poignant. At the same time, the boy doesn’t seem to want much in the way of material possessions, making him all the more unusual among modern boys (although at one point, to cheer him up in a down moment, Smith offers to take him to the toy aisle at K-Mart).
Father and son are also fond of hiking and of exploring the outdoors and serious questions at the same time. “My son thrives on the exercise. . . . The boy also loves to chat, and he employs the woods’ hush to delve back into his questions about the world and his place in it.” Among other things, Smith tells us, the natural world teaches them both about “perception and reaction,” the differential that “divides the survivor from the victim.” He is aware that humans, unlike most animals, are free to rise above instinct and “dream of what may be.”
Smith’s writing never disappoints. His language is sharp, the ideas fluid and seamless. Regardless of whether one has children or not, this is an edifying read. But especially if you have children, especially if you struggle with how to instill in your child a spiritual consciousness even though you are not religious yourself, this book offers a potential guide. There’s no preaching here. Just a bit of communion.