Cry Star-Lord, Amen

How Two Lapsed Catholics Explained God To Their Kid

A mother grapples with how to explain religion to her son.

This past Christmas, my husband and son and I jammed our car with Hello Fresh bags stuffed with presents and drove, as we always do, from Brooklyn to Indiana to spend the holiday with my family. And as we also always do, my husband and son and I lounged on my mother’s sofa on Christmas Eve, popping red- and green-foiled Hershey kisses into our mouths, while various relatives bustled around getting ready for Mass.

My son, who is 11, carefully peeled the wrapper off a kiss and watched as his cousin pulled on his dress shoes. He was used to seeing everyone head off to church while we hung behind, so I was surprised when I heard him ask, “So… what exactly do you do in church?”

His cousin, who is 9, gave a shrug. “You know. Pray. Sing songs. We do lots of kneeling.” My son popped the candy into his mouth. “Why?” he asked, his voice thick with waxy chocolate.

My husband and I were both raised Catholic. Me as in I have six brothers and a sister and wore stiff, navy uniform pants until my freshman year of college Catholic. My husband was Catholic as in he grew up in Northern Ireland during the 1980s Catholic. These are both very strong brands of Catholic. But while Catholicism is a huge part of our personal histories, neither of us are religious now, and we’ve chosen not to raise our child in an organized religion either.

My son has autism, which means he processes information differently than other children and has a tendency to take things literally. The concept of an omnipotent, all-powerful being who controls the universe wasn’t really a topic we were champing at the bit to explain.

But hearing my son ask those questions — those whats and whys in all their simple curiosity —I felt a twinge of parental panic. I realized it was time (perhaps well past time) for us to have a real sit-down chat about God.

I am often in a state of quiet watchfulness with my son, fretting over the right time to introduce certain ideas. He has autism, which means he processes information a bit differently than other children and has a tendency to take things quite literally. (The first time he heard me say I had a song “stuck in my head,” he walked over, examined my skull, and asked, “Where?”)

With some of life’s trickier subjects, we employ a watch-and-wait policy, hoping things will unfold organically instead of automatically overloading him with too much information. But there is always the fear of waiting too long and his peers (or Roblox) filling in the gaps with garbage.

The concept of an omnipotent, all-powerful being who controls the universe wasn’t really a topic we were champing at the bit to try and explain, though it was not surprising he finally had some specific questions on the subject. Really, it was a wonder he hadn’t grilled us sooner, considering that my mom’s house looks like a mini El Greco exhibit with its plentiful paintings of Christ.

He’d asked little things before, sure. When we’d briefly lived with my mom during the pandemic, we’d joined her every night in saying grace at dinner. My son was 7 at the time, and he really dug grace, seeming to view it as a kind of pre-dinner, closed-eyed open mic, where everyone got to share some gratitude in a tight five. But after many weeks of this, one night he looked up from his chicken tenders, and asked: “Mommy, why was the Star-Lord crying?”

“Huh?” I asked. “Who’s the Star-Lord?” I wondered if this was a reference to Guardians of the Galaxy or perhaps The Dark Crystal, as the Skeksis had been on heavy rotation.

“You know. Cry, Star-Lord! Amen.’”

My husband and I almost choked on our Shake ’n Bake. At the time, I gave what I felt was an honest, if minimalist answer. I explained the correct words — “Christ, our Lord” — and that they were part of a prayer, then waited to see if there would be follow-up questions. But he only asked for more ketchup.

But now it was clearly time for a more in-depth discussion. As I always do when I want to explain something complex to my kid, I turned to books. It’s a tactic I have used since he was very small, and the concept of a “social story” was introduced to me by one of his therapists. Social stories are little homemade books that are often employed by parents and teachers of autistic children. They’re used to help take the confusion out of new places or experiences, to help learn a new skill, or to explain a life transition. (Some autism-friendly museums and amusement parks even offer downloadable social stories on their websites.)

While I do not share in my mom’s fervor for organized religion, her faith is one of things I have always admired the most about her.

Over the years I’ve made countless social stories, and my son has a library containing a wide variety of thrilling page-turners, such as Losing Baby Teeth Might Cause Big Feelings!; Wow, We Will Fly on an Airplane!; and Using the Potty Can Be Easy! For years now, I’ve dragged photos into Word docs, typed up the text, and then printed, stapled, and offered these mini-presentations to my son. For more important books that might warrant multiple reads, I actually have them printed and bound. (The book explaining his autism diagnosis is a hardcover.)

As a writer, and someone who also makes sense of the world with words, I love this exercise. I love trying to distill something complex into simple, easily understandable terms. I sometimes find myself wishing someone would make some social stories for me. (Perimenopause Can Be Easy! or The 2024 Election Might Cause Big Feelings!)

I don’t always make the books myself. Depending on the subject, I might first do a bit of Googling to see if a publication that already exists might work. When it came time to explain death, we read I Miss You by Pat Thomas. And more recently, I was both delighted and relieved to discover a book on puberty written specifically for children with autism, called What’s Happening to Tom. It also has a companion book that covers sexuality and masturbation, called What Tom Likes. Once I stopped giggling over the titles, I was pleased to discover that both books were exactly what I was looking for: simple, positive, and to the point.

So when it came time for God, I did actually poke around the house of another all-powerful being (Jeff Bezos) in search of something that might work. But everything I saw seemed either loudly evangelical, quietly evangelical, or too abstractly woo-woo. There were lots of books that delved into different religions, but these all seemed much more complex than was necessary. One such book was jammed with tiny symbols and drawings for each world religion and had a strong Where’s Waldo vibe. A sort of Where’s the Deity, if you will, as if Buddha might be smiling somewhere on the page in a red-and-white-striped sweater.

The more I pondered the types of questions that might come up with my son, I realized it perhaps made more sense to make the book myself, tailoring it specifically to him. Which is how I found myself sitting in front of a Word doc, anxiously eating Pringles and typing: “Jesus was a really neat guy!”

I stared at the sentence, then slowly tapped at the delete button. Was I perhaps underselling things a bit? As I stared at the blinking cursor, I realized that it had been quite a while since I’d really interrogated my own belief system. Aside from stoner musings in college (“What if God was one of us?”) and the occasional cocktail-party debate on the merits of Christopher Hitchens, I hadn’t really needed to articulate my beliefs in quite some time. Outside of watching horrific wars rage on the news, my life did not regularly require me to think about religion. I’d had a secular wedding; we’d been married by my good friend Liz. She’d been one of the people I’d mused about God with in college while eating Nutter Butters. Unlike me, whose spiritual quest ended with the cookie container sliding into the trash, she went on to become an interfaith minister.

The last time my husband and I did anything overtly religious was when we baptized our son. Perhaps I should start there? Scanning iPhoto, I quickly found a photo of the day and dragged it into the book. Though I got stuck trying to write the caption. “This is your baptism! We did this because your father is from Northern Ireland and being Catholic is a cultural touchstone steeped in history and trauma!”

No. My son did not need a biography of Michael Collins in his book on God. That was a book for another day. But the truth of his baptism really was that simple — it was done out of a sense of familial and cultural tradition. While some people might like to clutch their pearls (or rosaries) and tell themselves religious ceremonies should be performed strictly out of deep and abiding faith, the truth is that many of us frequently sidestep and fudge the lines for family. Especially when our mothers have already ordered an expensive marzipan cake in the shape of a cross.

Gazing at the photo of my son in his little white gown, I was reminded of the strangeness of that day. There was a mad rush through Dublin traffic, trying to make it to the church in Northern Ireland on time. How we tugged the gown, handmade by my mother, over his head in the parking lot, and how he laughed at the slick material on his skin. The priest was bizarrely rude to us, barking orders and rushing us through the ceremony, and in this particular photo, my son is gazing up at him, his eyes a blinding blue against the white of his dress. He is holding his tiny hand aloft, and his middle finger appears ever so slightly raised at the priest.

But our family has not been back to church in any meaningful way since his baptism. I have always been slightly amused by the expression “fell away from the church.” It conjures the image of someone snipping a cord and me sailing backward, spread eagle, off the side of a cliff. And I’m sure if I mentioned this phrase to my son, he’d want to know which step of the church I tripped over. But fall away I did. While there is much about Catholicism and its message of social justice that I still find incredibly beautiful, my brain simply can’t manage the mental whiplash of an organization that has over the years told its followers abortion/birth control/divorce is a sin, while being personally responsible for the abuse of millions of children.

Only a few weeks ago, a friend told me about attending Mass in Indiana and how the priest gave a sermon on the immorality of homosexuality, IVF, and masturbation. In 2024. (This priest clearly would have been aghast to know “what Tom likes.”) I was chopping vegetables when my friend told me, and when I thought of the parishioners sitting in the pews — a woman struggling to get pregnant or a young teenager struggling to come out — I felt so angry I thought my eyes might bug out of my head and be sliced in two right alongside the zucchini.

But no. Chopped eyeballs and systemic abuse also had no place in this book. I dragged over a photo of my mother deep in prayer. “Do you know anyone who is religious?” I type under her picture.

I was struck by what a precarious thing it is, the way we come to our beliefs.

I know there are many people who would find it terribly sad that we aren’t raising our son with religion. My mother, of course, is among them. But while I do not share in my mom’s fervor for organized religion, her faith is one of things I have always admired the most about her. She has always wielded it like a trusty flashlight, casting its beam around her as her steady guide. It’s always made me somewhat jealous, as I can’t say I feel as though I possess such a beam. I often feel more like I am fumbling in the dark with matchsticks, finding quick bursts of guidance just before the tips singe my thumbs. But I also know that our light overlaps in our steadfast sense of wonder — both for the world and for our fellow humans. That, and we both think “How Great Thou Art” is an absolute banger.

I dragged over a photo of a yarmulke and a picture of a dreidel, a game my son loves. I found a photo of a young girl in a hijab. There is a madrasa not far from where we live, and my son regularly sees groups of girls in hijabs, giggling together on the corner. I found a photo of a crucifix but instead decided to go with a more straightforward headshot of Jesus giving a pleasant but neutral smile. Like what he might have used for LinkedIn.

As I dragged over photos of both the Torah and the Bible, I was struck, as I always am when I really think about it, by what a precarious thing it is, the way we come to our beliefs. It all really comes down to the life into which we are born and then whatever strange left turns that life decides to take. But it still feels like its own little miracle, that at some point we all quietly (or not so quietly) decide what feels like the truth of how we ended up on a rock floating through space.

I blinked at the screen, realizing my book was still mainly pictures. But I knew the right words would come. I had also realized that I maybe didn’t need to overthink it so much. Yes, my son had some questions, but when we were walking back from swim class the other day, he also asked me if vampires could come out when it’s overcast. Like all children, his imagination and curiosity are as wide and expansive as the sky in which some believe God sits. And really, after all of my pondering, I knew there was only one message I wanted him to walk away with. “God,” I want to say to him, “is when I broke my toe on the kitchen island and you gave me a hug. God is when we hold hands on the Coney Island roller coasters. God is the glow that fills my chest when I see you smile. God,” I want to say, “is simply love.”

Cry, Star-Lord. Amen.