I knew my hair was slipping slowly and steadily out of my hair tie. I knew that I had forgotten all my pens in the cup on my desk. My socks didn’t match, my coat was way too heavy and I didn’t care. This morning I was supposed to have woken up with the alarm at 8:00 A.M. and taken a quick shower, gathered my things and trekked across campus to the library. I was supposed to have settled in the rows of stacks, gathered about ten books of critical analysis and to have pushed through them. I was supposed to have done four hours of work already. I was not supposed to be hurrying along to the library in the bright light of midday.
My essay was half formed in my head, scratched out notes in my binder, pieces of thoughts underlined and starred, I had a focus and I needed some serious research; I needed to have spent the morning digging into Russian Symbolist Theatre instead of drooling on my pillow.
Late late late late. Meyerhold’s relationship with the MAT and Stanislavski. Hungry. I would get something at the Fresher’s Café next to the library. I was bounding away from James College towards the bridge that crossed the duck-filled lake. Did I have my post-its? Distracted, I hunched over one of my bags, rooting around as I drew closer to my studious goal. Post-its in hand, I looked up just in time to not barge over the smiling girl planted in front of me. Jerking to a halt, I exhaled a stumbling apology. I squashed my instincts to compare my frazzled overloaded self with her perfect hair, clothes, composure and made to step around her. Her back-lit smile widened and she swiveled towards me, extending a hand to catch the bag that was slipping off my shoulder. Oh no, that wasn’t it, she was handing me a leaflet instead.
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”
I caught my shoulder strap on the way down and pulled it up while squaring myself against the empathetic and understanding eyes before me.
“Uh, no. Sorry, I’m on the way to the library.”
“Oh, perfect! We’re having a free lunch in the Alcuin JCR, we’d love to have you join us!”
She pressed her leaflet, my leaflet now, into my hand to accompany the Post its.
“Thanks, okay. See ya.”
“Great! See you there!”
On the other side of her there was more wind to meet my face, less perkiness. At this end of the bridge I saw a handsome boy with perfect hair facing the travelers heading towards the dorms, armed with leaflets and a wide grin. He was facing the other way so I slipped by his earnestness to continue on my secular quest for theatre analysis.
In the library twenty minutes later, before diving into my books on the commedia dell arte, I checked out my present from the Christian Union.
Who was Mary Magdalene? The truth behind the DaVinci Code
Join us for a Hot Potato Lunch! Free baked potato lunch after a quick presentation by a Church leader and some Q and A! Let Jesus into your heart!
The University of York had many clubs and societies available for more than thirteen thousand students roaming the campus. Two of the orientation meetings I skipped in my overwhelming first week at the college were the Overseas Student welcome and the Christian Chaplaincy welcome. As I would learn over my next three years at York, I had opted out of the introduction to the two most powerful groups on the campus. The Oversea Student Association was popular and intimidating with socially volatile cliques of warring Asian social groups whose catfights I heard about third-hand. The Chinese, Korean, and Singaporean cliques competed for control of the OSA’s biweekly cultural events where you could find the most amazing food, dancing and karaoke talent in the entire Yorkshire area. My capricious (automatic) membership in the OSA never caused any tension, it never bothered any of the top dogs that I showed up once a month, partaking in eggrolls and leaving the politics.
The Christian meeting I skipped because it never occurred to me not to skip it. I had no interest in finding a church. What I didn't realize was that they were interested in me. The Christian Union was a powerhouse of an organization. Huge, immensely enthusiastic and powerful, the CU permeated every realm of life on campus. And in my first year at York they were engaged in a revival of Evangelism. The new aim of the hundreds of devout Christians on campus was to find non-Christian souls to save. In Catholic school I was an outsider non-Christian (but at least not a Protestant) who got cut in the bathroom line and straight A’s in religion class. They wouldn’t let me join the kickball game, let alone their church. Later evangelism in Vermont had always taken the form of rampant anti-abortion protesters near the Planned Parenthood. In London I side stepped men and women perched on milk crates with grimy signs that proclaimed the coming Armageddon. But here in York in my freshman year of college it was my sparkly, nice, endlessly enthusiastic peers. It was hard to refuse salvation from the (dare I say) devilishly good-looking tall drink of water who rested a palm supportively on my shoulder to tell me about the comfort of Christ. It was harder to sidestep sincerity in women of like-mind who tried to gently point me toward the path of the Lord. Unlike the typical considered British politeness that I had to break through with all of my real friends, closed until you gave them a reason to open, and then open for good; these girls exuded friendliness, welcome and acceptance. Trade you salvation for a smile!
* * * * *
Katie and Beth were sitting in the kitchen discussing their Bible Studies in Flat Six. I was looking for Polly or Rachel, and, not finding either, I settled down with them. I was an honorary roommate in their flat even though I was supposed to live with the girls of Flat Five. Across the hall I bristled against the snide coldness of the public school girls I lived with. I could never feel comfortable with their girly cattiness, and always wary of veiled snideness, I rushed to Flat Six to escape their shrill, passive aggressive tones. Flat Six was where I could breath unencumbered and shrink off my self consciousness to become sometimes witty, smart and entertaining while supported by the seven lovely girls I could always laugh with and confide in. That Beth and Katie were active members in the Christian Union had nothing to do with their relationship with the rest of the flat. We all ate together, lived together and went out together. I remember when Beth and I had found some untapped reserve of courage to enter a dance competition, and came out the other side with four bottles of Champagne at the Fresher's Ball in the first week. Feigning to be strangers, we tied for first place and received two bottles each instead of the three the winner was promised. Beth was sweet, understanding, hopelessly in love with her boyfriend and a great person to giggle at terribly rom-coms with after a particularly grueling French session. But they would head to bible study daily after class, go salsa dancing with other Christians every other Thursday, and disappear from our world to many other times when the CU called. Even though their Christianity played such a large role in their daily lives it was nowhere in our friendships. The closest spiritual conflict were a few awkward words that Katie exchanged with Polly about her loud gentlemen visitor who woke the whole flat up one morning at around five.
Tonight they were discussing the meaning of a psalm when I came in. They stopped politely when I sat down to join them, and opened the conversation to a more palatable tract. Instead of fascinating them with tales of my seminar I decided to ask them about their understanding of Christianity.
"So what kind of Christian are you guys? Protestant, right? What specific denomination?
"We're both members of the Church of England. Anglican to you."
"Hm. I don't know much about the Anglican faith. I went to Catholic school as a kid and my mom's whole family is Catholic. How is that different than Catholicism?"
"Well, our church doesn't believe in… Ah, let’s say the mystical and excessive parts of Catholicism. We don't follow the Pope, obviously. So ornate churches, saints, miracles, all of that more magical stuff is not in our faith."
"Do you believe in the transubstantiation? Like when the priest-"
"Minister. We have Ministers. And they can get married, none of that crazy celibacy for life stuff."
"Oh, okay. So when the minister gives out the wine and the communion-"
"Yeah, that's just wine and wafers. It symbolizes the body and blood of Christ. But no, I don't believe that the priest says a few words and it magically turns into the actual body of Jesus."
Katie snickered and Beth smiled. It was surprising to me that they thought that this part of the faith I grew up around was ridiculous So I asked more, first on practice, and found they were no fair-weather Christians. Sex before marriage: never and no Lord’s name in vain. I already knew Beth was waiting on dancing tiptoes to marry her boyfriend just after college so that she could remain pure and still get to have him. We moved on to mysticism they could abide. Virgin birth yes. Earth created in seven days. Creationism. We had to go over that point a few times. No evolution, but maybe intelligent design that used evolution. So survival of the fittest was what happened, but not because of the science, because God wanted the fittest to survive. I swallowed it.
"Okay. Hm. So in your faith is there the kind of exclusivity that is so prominent in Catholicism? Like, what do you think about gay people?"
Beth hesitated and Katie turned to her, leaving the floor open for Beth’s answer.
"That- there are certain parts of my faith that I am trying to come to terms with. That's why I got to bible study; to discuss the place for the rules and the reasons and to read the Bible so closely. That's a part of the church I have trouble getting my head around.
"So what does the church say? The part you aren't sure about?"
"That homosexuality is a sin. The Bible says that it is wrong."
"And so practicing homosexuals…. you believe they go to hell?"
Biting her lip, Beth considered her next words.
"That's what I'm trying to come to terms with believing."
* * * * *
Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
The streets were dark and damp with the previous night’s melted slush and reflected the streetlights on either side of the round about. I was hunched over in my hoodie, my hands cold and plunged deep in my pockets and my feet flying at the fastest non-panicked-walk I could muster. I contemplated the dirty uneven sidewalk beneath my feet, rushing towards the darkness that I registered as the alley ahead. The other end of this alley would spit me out a block from my apartment. The usual press of frisky weekend bodies in Mission Hill had overwhelmed me and forced me out in the street before my friend’s birthday was even over. I knew that they were staying till closing, and that my headache would not abide by another 50 minutes of the bar. I was ten minutes into the return trip of my walk, nearly safe on this sloppy Sunday in Boston. I chose to leave early so I was stuck being out by myself in the middle of the night dressed for the club and armed with a single house key, a limp leather purse and less cash than a taxi ride costs. Typical of this busy road on a sloppy Saturday in the dark approaching three AM, I'd already been shouted at by a few groups of boys whose bulk was obscured by their puffy coats, and now I was steeling myself for the alley. Five minutes in that dark space and I will be home and safe. Five minutes in the dark tonight and I'll be back in the cheery light of my room.
Hail Mary, full of grace... my lips silently formed the words and I stepped down into the alley. I repeated the Ave Maria over and over again in an undertone as I darted through my foolhardy danger and felt just a little bit better about my chances. The words felt like a chant, like a summoning, and the rolling tones centered me. I was fine. This was fine. Step fast and feel fine. I turned and stepped out of the alley and saw the little blue door of my apartment just ahead.
* * * * *
"Is it really annoying that I’m drilling you guys about all this?”
“No, Deirdre, we like it. We are always open to talk about it. It’s better that you know what we believe, rather than not.”
“Hah, okay. No, I mean that makes sense. So, one other thing Catholicism believes in-that I'm wondering if you guys believe this too. They say that if you have heard of Jesus, heard the teaching of Jesus and choose not to follow him, not to worship, you go to hell."
"Yes, you must follow Jesus at least at the end of your life to get into heaven."
"So if there is a woman who is Muslim, who lives a good life, the whole do unto others thing, really is a good person and living christianly, you know, lowercase c, if she dies she goes to hell?
"Well, yeah. We believe that Jesus is our lord and savior and we, people are meant to follow him, and that's kind of why it's our job to spread the faith, so that everyone can have salvation. Jesus is the way and the light. He offers salvation to everyone, to all mankind. All we have to do is accept him in our hearts and we are saved. It’s kind of, it’s really easy. It’s a gift, salvation for acceptance."
"But this woman. She is a good woman, she follows similar teachings in terms of behavior. And she loves God. She worships God and she is pious and kind and humble and giving. But she calls God Allah. What is that? Why is that?”
“Those who have not heard the teachings of Jesus are not condemned to hell. If you are not familiar with the church there is another place for you. It’s not heaven, it’s not salvation, but we’re not saying that someone who hasn’t heard of Jesus burns.”
“But why would there be other religions? Why are there good people practicing good things that are religious but not Christian? Do you both think that they are like Moses’ people before he came down from the mountain. Do you think Islam is a false Idol- some golden calf?”
“We believe Jesus is the path. You don’t have to feel conflicted and confused because the word has found you.”
“Yeah, but- Okay, I have another question, on that same note. Me, Polly, Rachel, Laura, all of us, we are your friends. Even though we're not Christian."
"Of course! I love you guys!"
"I love you guys too. Of course! But I'm kind of confused because, I think you think we're good people, that we do good. I mean I know we sin, from what I know of sin we do."
"But so do we! Everyone sins, it's part of being human."
"Right, I agree. But you believe that we are going to hell? I mean if I died right now, aneurysm in 30 seconds, Boom, dead. You believe that I'd go to hell?"
"Well. Yes, you have to accept Jesus into your heart to be saved."
"Doesn't that make you sad? I mean I'm not trying to guilt you or anything. But doesn't it make you sad to think of us in hell?"
The next day Katie and Beth presented me with a Bible. The inscription inside said, "For Deirdre- Keep asking lots of questions!" They also started talking to me about religion much more. Beth wanted me to meet her Minister. We spent long hours discussing the things I couldn't accept in her faith, the reason why I couldn't join.
"I just can't ever think that being gay makes someone a bad person. I can't believe that someone would go to hell for it. And honestly, I have a problem with the whole heaven and hell concept. When I think about heaven, it sounds kind of boring. Perfection forever? I appreciate the offer, I'm sure your Minister is a very interesting and nice person, but why the sudden push for me to meet him?"
"Well, Katie and I were talking after you came to us with your questions. And we realized that it was a sign from God. Of course you are right that it makes me sad to think of you in hell. That's why I have to talk to you about the path towards Jesus. The other night, God was letting me know that it is my duty to not abandon you."
Was that God talking? I thought it was me.
* * * * *
When I was seventeen I decided I was going to try to be a Wiccan. An occult store had opened up in my town that May, and by July I was in The Queen of Pentacles every day. The Wiccan Supplies shop was explored by curious tourists and experienced Wiccans alike, who came in to consider between two types of ritual knives, athames and bolines to use in the power circle (or decorate their mantle). My friend Charis and I befriended the owner and would hang out in the back area flipping through the books, filling up notebooks with the wheel of the year, ritual practices, rune definitions, and the magical powers in our spell ingredients. We were fascinated by the unexplored world of knowledge promised by each book in that store. The idea of doing magick, of casting spells and manipulating the world as I please was an excited idea. To play an active role in my fate was so appealing. From here on out- I thought- I would not be at the mercy of the scary world around me. I could make my desires come true if sorcery exists and if I tried. After half a book I realized that Mickey Mouse in Fantasia has nothing to do with the Wiccan religion, and I would not be determining the world any more than any other religious follower is able. In the absence of these self-centered aims, my study of Wicca actually deepened. I was fascinated by the sense of ritual and the tradition in the prayers and invocations of guardians. Each step of the casting of the circle referenced centuries of belief, pagan values in the earth that felt rooted to the physical world in the most complete way. Calling out ancient names that were spoken to deities before history even began, mirroring the gestures and spiritual traditions that were performed millennia before I existed made me feel like a part of something larger than myself.
At some point I had to give up my Wiccan excursion, and go back to being a non-atheist non-agnostic termless believer in something I cannot pigeon-hole, no matter how long I search for the shelf where I fit. This day came when I stopped for a moment before opening my book of shadows to complete a morning Sun greeting and asked myself: Do I think spells work? In addition to the compelling connection to the earth, the rightness of their do unto others type creed, and an intoxicatingly independent relationship with my spirituality that had begun to feel familiar and comforting, there was the spells and the magic to contend with. I could not separate the witch from Wicca.
Did I think spells work?
No I did not.
All religions worship through ritual and place significance on inanimate objects. In Catholicism we stroked the plastic beads of a rosary. In Wicca we ask questions to the swinging pendulum. What did it matter if there is more than one name for God? God is in the natural world; I never once doubted his place in the earth and everything around me. I knew there was something in the human existence beyond deductive reasoning and social constructs. That there was something more and that God or Mother or Maiden or Old Crone or soul or balance exists was always a given for me. Maybe addressing him the way that people first did might be the means that I would finally find spiritual satisfaction. I was tired of my avenue-less faith. Is belief belief if you don’t find a way to affirm it, to practice it? Would someone who really believes in a higher being never address that fact in day to day life?
* * * * *
Hail Mary, full of grace, The Lord is with thee…
I call upon you Elemental Earth, to attend this rite and guard this circle…
The words still can bring me comfort, even though I raise an eyebrow at the meaning. The ritual of calling out for help, of summoning an other to protect me can wrap me up into a feeling of rightness that soothes my jittering body and quiets the endless contention of questions that keep my hands from being able to close around one single faith. My search for a religion to fit into has always left me with the same familiar feeling of internal resistance. When I briefly dated Tom, a Bah’ai boy, my curiosity flared again, and I explored the shape of this faith. Emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind, and accepting the religious messengers Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and most recently Bahá'u'lláh, their faith hopes for a unity of religion and gender equality. For a brief moment, that came too early in the relationship for me to share with Tom, I felt like a light had dawned on me. Here was a path I could follow. Here was a religious community that would support and enrich my life. I read further and found the rules. No sex before marriage. No drinking alcohol. No gambling. No gossiping. No homosexuality. And I let go as the cultural interfered again with the spiritual and felt the hope slip through my fingers again. I will always be a spiritual bubble, floating off alone with only God as company in my undefined faith. Deirdre’s church of no church: Come along, we are always looking for new members.