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Name it to a God

I went to the service because I wanted to sing hymns. My sophomore fall had been a warm one. I spent it reading into texts from a girl I wanted to be with, drinking purple gin and minty tea, and not thinking about any higher power. I hadn’t been to church since I declared my atheism at thirteen. But then it was December. I was alone, and the afternoons were dark. I wanted music that sounded like light.

I dragged my friend Lucy to the Christmas service on campus. We sat on the balcony. Below us, poinsettias lined every aisle and window sill. Their symmetry pulled the music into a new sphere; the air seemed to purr. Before “Silent Night,” we watched the light unfurl candle by candle, each congregant passing their flame to the next. I let wax drip onto my fingertips. We pretended not to notice the shake in each other’s voices.

After the service, we ate takeout and Lucy read me a poem by Ada Limón:

And I think of that walk in the valley where
J said, You don’t believe in God? And I said,
No. I believe in this connection we all have
to nature, to each other, to the universe.
And she said, Yeah, God.

We pasted this into a document and named it “religion.” Today it is thirty-nine pages long, filled with prose and poems written by women we love. We add a piece of writing if it makes us feel this connection we all have: to nature, to each other, to the universe.

I grew up in a small country church, sharing hymnals and communion grape juice with adults who had been sitting in the same pew since childhood. Maybe, as we sang together, they were connected—to nature, each other, the universe. I certainly was not. Church taught me to remember grown-ups’ names, to speak in front of a crowd, to bake muffins for coffee hour. But I understood religion as something to memorize. I learned the Lord’s Prayer as soon as I could read, because a cross-stitched reproduction was the only thing hanging on the oatmeal-colored walls, and my eyes longed for an interesting place to rest. Each spring, at the end of the Sunday school year, we recited the titles of the books of the Bible before the congregation. I still remember the groupings of syllables, but I can’t keep track of the order of the clusters. Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. Joshua Judges Ruth. They didn’t mean anything to me then; they don’t mean anything to me now. Just sounds for my wandering mind to chew.

But the scriptures Lucy and I have compiled don’t feel like syllables to memorize—not the hollow words of the Lord’s Prayer or the repeated books of the Bible. Every entry rips my stomach open. 

In March, Lucy and I went to Paris, to feel grown up. I dragged her to the Sainte-Chapelle to see the stained glass. We marched up the shadowy spiral staircase, heaving closer and closer to the heavenly glow. But the sky was too cloudy. The glass did not glow. We tried to parse out the Bible stories told across the windows—maybe that, there, could be a crucifix?—but we could not orient ourselves. We spotted one woman in all of the thousands of window panes. I told Lucy that the space still felt sacred, but I was mostly trying to convince myself.

In the Musée D’Orsay, we looked for Berthe Morisot’s oil paintings—she’s our favorite. We turned a corner, and our breath caught in our throats. In the frame, a blonde girl placed flowers into the hair of her brunette friend sitting in front of her. It was called L’Hortensia and neither of us had seen it before. We did not speak. We did not need to say aloud that we were looking at a picture of us—that we were seeing, through Berthe’s paintbrush, the tenderness of our friendship. Sacred.

I lived near a Cape Cod beach for forty days when I was 19. Every afternoon, I stood in front of the water and waited for the ocean to make me feel small, to lull me into a sense of connection to the earth. Every afternoon, I thought about the people who had stood in front of this same water and felt the same smallness, the same connection. 19-year-old girls in fifteenth-century Spain, across the ocean, staring back—every afternoon, I felt connected to them.

Two years later, at 21, I spent a month in France with twelve other students who wanted to write. We were living in a town called Auvillar. Pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago pass through this town on their way to northwestern Spain. When they reach the coast and look out toward the Atlantic, they face, almost directly, where I stood on Cape Cod.

Église Saint-Pierre hosts a church service each night for anyone passing through Auvillar. I joined on a Wednesday, taking a moment away from trying to nail to the page places and people and purring air. The priest blesses the pilgrims, giving them strength for their next day of walking. How many have come before them, dirty feet on this same weathered ground? How many have walked, and walked, and walked, have given their body over to aching hips and raw skin to serve something greater? How many have doubted themselves and their God in the heat of midday? And then: how many have sat in these pews, where I sat one Wednesday in July, and had a priest tell them to keep walking, to keep going, that they are doing the right thing? That bodily relief—reassurance flooding out pain—that, I think, could feel like God.

When I stand in a church, I do not feel God. I do not feel a Father, or a Son, or a Holy Spirit. I feel the people who have stood there before me and looked for something beyond themselves. Who took meaning and comfort from these walls, and from the words and the music—and maybe from the God—that echoed in the vaulted marble ceilings. I am not interested in the Bible—until I think about the people who have turned to it for answers. These people: their existence moves me. It moves me to stand in this place where they stood, to read these words that they read, to let go of my body as they let go of theirs.

I have always been too sensitive, Ada Limón writes in a different poem. A weeper from a long line of weepers.

In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Lucy Snowe—fiercely Protestant—falls into a depression and stops eating. She confesses to a Catholic priest and then has a religious breakdown on the steps outside the church. Every time I read the scene, I wonder if she collapsed from low blood sugar. Feel it in the body, name it to a god.

I did think that I felt God one time in my childhood church. Our choir director, Sue, and her son had not spoken in many years. The son was coming for Christmas to mend things and to watch our yearly pageant. But there was a snowstorm, and his travel was disrupted, and he was stuck in New York. No public transportation could get him to town before Mary gave birth.

So a deacon named Don drove through the snow, three hours each way, to pick him up. In the middle of the pageant, when a little lamb was singing, the door exploded open. The music stopped. Every head in the room turned to the door, and then to Sue. She looked at her son, smiled, and kept conducting. And we all kept singing—faces a little brighter, eyes a little damper.

And maybe it was God. But now, all that I can remember is Don’s virtue, and Sue’s music, and the relief of a lot of people who wanted good things for each other.

Madeline Art is a junior in Trumbull College.

Illustration by Cate Roser.

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