this is an essay I wrote for a class on Christianity back in 2015. It has been edited lightly and formatted to fit this blog and to fit me as I am, now.
Let me begin this essay with the claim that religion is a lot of nonsense, and that Christianity is only good for one thing: to study, dissect and then abandon as we saunter forward. If you believe past the age of fervent, pubescent worship, you’ve already tipped past the point where we can discuss anything. I take a look at you, and have already decided that we’re standing on opposite sides of a vast, gaping hole in the earth, and although one of us might cross over to join the other one, there is no force in this world that can close the bleeding chasm.
This is what I believe, and continued to believe until my heart opened up one day. And no, this essay is not going to be a conversion story. It’s personal rather than academic, granted, but I don’t want to write about my newfound faith in Jesus Christ, because I don’t have it.
But all I want is to explain to you what it feels like to have someone reach inside of your ribcage with smooth hands and unlock your chest with a dry snap and there is something so intense your spine curves in. You straighten your back and sit up. You’re listening now.
There are so many things that balance on the knife-edge between languagelessness and an immense desire to say something—anything—about it. Writings of this kind are usually bad, often incomprehensible, but once in a thousand year it makes all your razor sharp hairs stand up and whistle against one another. Great poets do this. It is done when Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to us as my lovely darling, you whom the most tempting joys have mutely leapt over. It is done when T.S. Eliot spreads us out against the sky like patients etherised upon a table, and when Bei Dao
speaks of the arrogance of strangers
that can send down March snow
When something of tremulous importance happens to us, we forget to breathe. Thrown down on the ground, we realize that our shoulders have hiked up our lengths with a lack, a loss, some cycle not completed as according to schedule. I take a look at my wristwatch: it’s time to breathe again. We look around embarrassed. Did anyone notice that our technique wasn’t perfect? That our meeting with the mat not so smooth because a glance was shot at you from across the room and every bone in your body threatened to break?
This year I have fallen deeply in love. My joints loose and muscles sore, I come home every night with bruises on my wrists ankles the lap dog joints in my spine that contract when your hand lingers on my arm, and it’s only a hair too long, but for me never enough.
This year I have fallen deeply in love, but not only with a person.
This year I have fallen deeply in love with a concept that will not let me go, that chases me into my dreams and hounds me as I wake and strokes the inside of my knees when I try to go to sleep, and please let me have some rest, will you?
This year I have fallen deeply in love with a sense of infinite expansion within myself that threatens to bring tears to my eyes and embarrass me in front of everyone. I’m flushed and warm and too uncomfortable but please never stop speaking and I’m enchanting my hand with those words hoping that something, something, something will be left on these pages when I hover over them later in this evening.
This year I have fallen deeply in love with Christianity, or something like it, or it’s Satanic but seductive twin-brother, or actually I’m just spiritual I think but I don’t know anymore.
This year I have felt tears filling the inside of my smiling face as I thought about a children’s book, and I wondered how something so simple could have such enormous significance and meaning and essence that I’m willing to risk failing a gradeless class with the simplest essay topic ever and also my dignity and also, and most eerily, my sanity.
I could never understand the mystical writings we were assigned in class, except for Saint Teresa of Ávila because it reminds me of other kinds of writing, and I always felt a lack or strange pull downward like sand coming out from under your feet, it was the ocean all along.
Milan Kundera fittingly enough writes about a young woman named Teresa in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. We read about her search for moments when her soul rises to the surface of her body like passengers to the deck of a ship, connected to some holiness she finds in literature and in Tomas, her future husband. This feeling, this soaring, upward movement of the spirit is recognizable to us all in lovers meeting at night, in learning something new, and thus, in union with God.
(and I didn’t even have to try at all to meet your eyes and then fall on my knees
and give up)
To reinstate the fact, or perhaps whisper it for the first time: I didn’t come to class to be converted, and I am, in fact, not. I lost my faith at 14 when I was going through the education for confirmation. The more questions I had the less the priest seemed to answer, and I can only recall one moment in which anything like a God seemed present. This fallibility in His messengers and human element disgusted me. Nothing made sense, and I let go of the faith that had been mine for borrowing: I felt like a liar and I still am.
one month ago: I’m skyping with my father, and he’s telling me about a tragic incident where a child died in the small town where I’m from. “Five hundred people showed up to the funeral,” he says, “and over a thousand came to the vigil. I think it’s in times like these that people need God.” I didn’t reply; I couldn’t. “Do you find it strange to hear me speaking like this?” he asked.
I never expected to be moved to tears when Rilke was cited in class; half-remembered and drowsily I shrugged sleep off and looked up with tightness in my tongue
for beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us.
and I never even gave a thought as to whether anybody else were having the same experience as I was. I am not religious and I never plan to be. Mass is ridiculous and hypocritical more often than not, and I laugh at our parish priest every Christmas when I join the mandatory trip to church. This might be cruel, but I might now be moved just a little bit to say that if there can be something as beautiful as this in Christian writings, then I will be there, and I will listen;
tickle me. amuse me.
and what if the most wonderful people I meet all embody the same thing and I see it everywhere and I cannot write coherently about it for fear of being mocked and driven out of town
What, then, does it feel like when there is no more room inside of you and you are filled up to the top, edge, rim and you don’t know if something is spilling over but it certainly feels like it?
and I’ve been looking for years: could this be it, then?
am I simply returning to naïve infantile gestures from a religiously secular childhood where Jesus was compulsion and there was a layer of dust over everything—rationality?
do you think that this is just a fling, a sort of one-night-stand with some immature system of thought? am I in raptures because this seems to have the capacity to contain everything that I love and humor and joy and something akin to holding your breath for hours, days, and finally letting go of it all.
does it seem to you that I’m empty? do I have more to say? does this emulate belief? have I been calling it something else all along?
Finally, my dear, I must speak directly to you, and I must speak through you, so that my words might end up on your dry bones fallen on the ground as the children stopped playing with them, dashing madly inside for sandwiches like it was the second coming
and I, in turn, hurtle after you as you grasp all my puerile fears and sense of loss and desire for
a life in which I am anxious no more: it is in sight
and could I please tell you that I’ve fallen deeply in love with something that’s more than an idea but sits in my flesh, right at the tender spot
between my first and second toe
Seize your fear, I’ll do the same. a hand smites down and my ribs are compressed like bad typeface
So, in turn, I do not know how to answer you any better than this, and it’s all I know. And if you will, then forgive me, I’ll attempt to do the same.
Dao, Bei. Unlock. trans. Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong. New York: New Directions Books, 2000.
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. edited by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. ed. Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1988.