It was March 1964, months after the assassination of her husband, when Jacqueline Kennedy sat down with Arthur M. Schlesinger for a seven-part interview. The tapes of that interview had been sealed—until now. Reading an article in the newspaper, including excerpts from the interviews, I was taken by Jackie’s remarks on her husband’s religion, especially her charming description of JFK’s bedtime prayer ritual.
Asked if Mr. Kennedy was religious, the young widow says, “Oh, yes,” then appends a revealing qualification: “Well, I mean, he never missed church one Sunday that we were married or all that, but you could see partly — I often used to think whether it was superstition or not — I mean, he wasn’t quite sure, but if it was that way, he wanted to have that on his side.”
He would say his prayers kneeling on the edge of the bed, taking about three seconds and crossing himself. “It was just like a little childish mannerism, I suppose like brushing your teeth or something,” she says. Then she adds: “But I thought that was so sweet. It used to amuse me so, standing there.” (New York Times, Sept. 12, 2011)
There are two figures in this scene, one who stands watching and one who kneels. The First Lady was a nominal Catholic, but not a practicing one. She stands there watching her husband say his prayers and is moved to amusement. Perhaps, in fact, she had a deeper spirituality. I don’t know. But in this scene she stands as the aloof observer.
The other figure is kneeling, if only for three seconds. Part of me admires that Catholic religious sensibility, a powerful man who thinks nothing of kneeling by his bed, crossing himself, and whispering a prayer—while someone could see him! Mainline Protestants, WASPs, Episcopalians (whom I know best) would hardly attempt such a ritual in church, much less in their homes, with someone watching.
But I must admit another part of me stands with Jackie, seeing a man whose spiritual life is expressed in “childish mannerisms” (superstitious? as she wonders), whose prayer discipline is akin to “brushing your teeth or something.”
It’s easy to grow and mature in some ways—intellectually, professionally—and yet remain a child in your soul, to cling to juvenile beliefs, Sunday school superstitions long after their time is past. I guess that’s why we call it faith. We have to trust that God can and will meet us if we step out of this enchanted world of childhood faith, into the decidedly disenchanted world where adults live. If your “God” is a stick figure, you will not risk it. If your God is the One who encompasses all—darkness and light—and promises to meet you in the midst of it all, you just might.