One thing about living with cancer — and cancer treatment — for several months now, it’s jump-started my prayer life. But not in the way I might have expected.

For several years now, I’ve been meeting with a spiritual director, and I’ve read up on practices like lectio divina and Ignatian contemplation. Instead, I’m praying these days like the pre-teen title character in Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. A trailer for the upcoming movie has a fair sample (at 0:41) of what we both sound like:

[…] and please, do one thing for me, let me be normal and regular like everybody else, please please please please please.

Except in my case, it’s when I’m waiting for the results to come back from a biopsy or a PET scan. Please let them be normal.

And here’s something else I wouldn’t have expected: I’m OK with that.

In Blume’s novel, and now the movie scheduled for release next month, Margaret Simons, 11 (“going on 12”), navigates the swift currents of puberty, early adolescence and moving with her family from the upper West Side of Manhattan to suburban New Jersey, in part by checking in with God. She always begins her prayers, “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret.” Hence the title.

Last year I collected some of Margaret’s prayers. It was shortly after I’d committed as a lay associate of the Dominican sisters in Springfield and pledged to work on my prayer life, among other things (I blogged about it HERE and HERE). Seeking additional inspiration from secular sources, I found it in Margaret (along with George Burns’ character in the 1977 movie Oh, God!). Margaret’s prayers establish the tone of the book, from the setup just before she leaves the comfort of New York City:

Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. We’re moving today. I’m so scared God. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me God. Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you.

Some of her concerns are preadolescent (after all, she’s 11 going on 12). Like this:

Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else. You know God, my new friends all belong to the Y or the Jewish Community Center. Which way am I supposed to go? I don’t know what you want me to do about that. 

But they’re not all confined to 11- or 12-year-old girl stuff. An only child, Margaret is growing up in a militantly secular household. Her father is Jewish, and her mother has rejected the narrow Midwestern version of Christianity she grew up with. In the Jersey suburbs, teenage life centers on the YWCA or its Jewish equivalent. So, much to the dismay of her parents, she makes an ambitious school project of trying out different religious institutions. This struggle is deftly summed up when she prays:

Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. I’ve been looking for you, God. I looked in temple. I looked in church. And today I looked for you when I wanted to confess. But you weren’t there. I didn’t feel you at all. Not the way I do when I talk to you at night. Why, God? Why do I only feel you when I’m alone?

In the end she has her first period, on the final day of sixth grade. “Are you still there God? It’s me, Margaret. I know you’re there God. I know you wouldn’t have missed this for anything! Thank you God. Thanks an awful lot.” But she never connects with organized religion. In that regard, she’s like Judy Blume.

“Though my Judaism was a part of me, like having brown eyes, my relationship with God had almost nothing to do with organized religion,” Blume told Daniel M. Klein and Freke Vuijst, authors of the Half-Jewish Book about the children of interfaith marriages. “Like Margaret, God was my confidante, my everyday friend.”

Nice! But what does this have to do with an 80-year-old man undergoing treatment for cancer? Only this. Overall, says James Martin in a brief introduction to Ignatian contemplation, “prayer is a conscious conversation with God.” Key techniques of Jesuit, or Ignatian, spirituality are designed to promote a sense of closeness to God in everyday life.

Judy Blume’s Margaret has all of that. And I need more of it.

In a thoughtful profile of Blume in the April issue of The Atlantic, senior editor Amy Weiss-Meyer acknowledges she remembers Margaret as being mostly about adolescent issues. Most of us do, but it goes deeper than that. Says Weiss-Meyer:

I remembered Margaret as a book about puberty, and Margaret’s chats with God as being primarily on this subject. Some of them, of course, are. (“Please help me grow God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else.”) But reading the book again, I was reminded that it is also a thoughtful, at times profound meditation on what it means to define your own relationship to religious faith.

Margaret’s Christian mother and Jewish father are both proudly secular. She fears that if they found out about her private prayers, “they’d think I was some kind of religious fanatic or something.” Much to their chagrin, she attends synagogue with her grandmother and church with her friends. She’s trying to understand what her parents are so opposed to, and what, if anything, these institutions and rituals might have to offer.

Not much, suggests an online study guide written for the ed tech company Shmoop:

The cool thing about all this pressure to pick a side, though, is that it leads Margaret to embark on her yearlong religious exploration project. And while she experiences plenty of frustration along the way, she also spends time really thinking about the world and faith and religion, which is pretty serious stuff for a sixth grader to think about. It’s also, of course, stuff that helps us come into our own as people, so the work Margaret does isn’t just about religion—it’s about getting to know herself, too.

Importantly, we never know where Margaret lands. We never see her sign-up at the Y or the JCC, and though she tries church and temple, both leave her pretty unsatisfied. The only thing we know for certain is that she comes back to God after rejecting him for a bit (in a classic tween thanks-for-nothing huff), and because of this two key things emerge as important in this book: individuality and faith (instead of religion). Ultimately all Margaret needs to get by is to stick to what works for her, which in her case is talking to God in her bedroom.

Shmoop’s editorial staff are obviously writing for kids who have high school book reports to write, but they get to the heart of the matter: “Her friends might value religion because it syncs them up with the JCC or the Y, but Margaret’s got a pretty devoted and personal relationship with God.”

That’s as good a summary as I’ve seen of the distinction between religion and faith.

So as far as I’m concerned, the Shmoop study guide transcends its genre. And so does Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Links and Citations

Daniel M. Klein and Freke Vuijst, “Excerpt from The Half-Jewish Book” (2000), in Judy Blume on the Web

“Margaret Simon in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” Shmoop

James Martin, SJ, “An introduction to Ignatian contemplation,” interview with Sean Sali, America, Sept. 21, 2016

Amy Weiss-Meyer, “Judy Blume Goes All the Way,” The Atlantic, Feb. 27, 2023

Wikipedia Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Ignatian spirituality, lectio divina and Shmoop.

[Published March 26, 2023]

3 thoughts on “‘Are you there, God? It’s me …’: My prayer life at 80 and the 11-year-old title character in a Judy Blume novel

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