Not that one should constantly meditate on who Jesus was. What can we, ordinary people, know of the Mystery?
—Czeslaw Milosz, “Either-Or”
On a transatlantic flight to London, the Orthodox Jew ate from his kosher meal only the cake. It put a crack in his seriousness. The icon with earlocks and black garb shrank to human size. We began to talk. It was the middle of August, not long after Princess Diana’s death in Paris. She was a real icon, up there with Napoleon and Jesus. Several of the British passengers shared conspiracy theories. Over the long hours these developed, grew limbs. Our magazines sat unread in our laps. For a while, no one spoke of anything else.
A feeling of camaraderie formed. We might always have been here, we might die together. You think this on planes, glancing at the person next to you. I thought of the Orthodox Jew and me, holding hands. Whether he would pray out loud if the jet went down. In his heavy clothes and hat he was disheveled and sweaty.
It couldn’t have been mere physics and paparazzi that killed Diana, he was saying. Icons weren’t just crushed in cars, in dirty commuter tunnels. Among the passengers who advanced hypotheses, there was a sense that the British people, in spite of the vast differences between them, of race and culture now, not just class, were drawing together. The Queen had killed their Princess. It was their newest myth. I compared it to ours—O. J. Simpson, Michael Jackson—and felt jealous. Their idol was exalted. I remembered the hearse on television, the hood loaded with flowers people had thrown. Would someone sweep them off so that the driver could see through the windshield? The procession kept on, the heap burgeoning. To sweep the offerings into the street would have been a kind of heresy.
His name was Henry Rothschild. Rich toffees and people who made the society pages. Though in this instance only the Jew who sat next to me and ate cake. He was heading home for Shabbat; he had been doing business in New York. A British Jew. Disorienting for me, as so much of being a Jew, when you’re from New York, is the accent, the inflections. Henry Rothschild had the clipped and proper enunciation I associated with my father’s British relatives, not with Jews.
When one party is wearing a tall black hat and earlocks, conversation inevitably turns to religion.
“On which side?”
“Then you are a Jew!”
He could have thrown up his hands in triumph. Maybe he did. As I think of him now I see the white cuffs of his shirt shoot out from under the sleeves of his jacket.
“I know, I know.”
There was a silence then, during which I looked at the seat back in front of me and sensed his eyes assessing. Something had shifted. Now he was allowing himself to see me.
He had a wife and seven children. We discovered he was not much older than I. He expressed contempt for reformed Judaism, but insisted that whether I practiced any religion or not, I was still a nice Yiddish girl. Maybe he touched my hand when he said this. As I recall that afternoon, there’s a sense of him advancing toward me. Hidden in the piety and rules, desire, like anyone else’s.
Nice Yiddish girl. I was astonished. I had been answering his questions about American universities, confirming that in some dorms men and women cohabited on the same floor and were allowed unsupervised access to each other.
“How do you know what I am?” I asked.
“No matter what. I can tell, because you’re modest.”
I must have snorted. I was not the least bit modest. At that time I was, however, a vegetarian. Through some mix-up, my meal arrived after the other passengers in my row had finished eating. The flight attendant placed a tray in front of me on which sat a stewed tomato, a stewed and not easily identifiable piece of fruit (a plum? a peach?), and some rice. Why is it important for me to note this? Perhaps it was the speed with which the inaccuracies were accumulating during that flight—the Queen had killed Diana, I was a nice Yiddish girl, vegetarians subsisted on whole stewed fruit.
If some troubling circumstance arose in my life, Rothschild wanted to know, how did I decide what to do about it? We had entered into the sort of conversation common to people who meet in a bar and have time on their hands. Rothschild and I, however, were sober. I was aware that we were wading into these waters without any way of escaping each other, should our exchange become unpleasant. How did I know what to do?
“I don’t know,” I said at last. A ticker tape of dilemmas ran through my head: assorted pregnancy scares over the years, my mother’s recent disclosure that she was a lesbian, the one anomalous night of gorgeous sex with the male friend with whom I shared an apartment. Just the once, never again. Well, never again was it gorgeous. I couldn’t have said why. “I guess I just deal with each thing as it occurs.”
Rothschild looked at me with not so much disbelief as dismay. “Doesn’t that take up all your time?” He seemed genuinely alarmed. I saw that we had entirely different notions of what a moral compass was. I had one, I could see he was willing to concede that. Yet to him it was as if I was a mechanic lacking a set of tools with which to do my work. Every time a task presented itself, I had to rush off and try to fashion a new implement, improvising with the materials at hand.
But it was the improvisation that made me feel alive. At the time, I didn’t know how to say this.
“I have to do it this way,” I said. “Otherwise it’s—cheating.” As I said it, I felt I might have substituted “boring.” This too was true.
Our conversation ebbed. We slept. At Heathrow we disembarked and then rode the Tube together until we parted ways.
My cousin James and I visited the spontaneous shrines erected to Diana outside Kensington Palace. Her name was spelled in flowers, in votive candles that had burned to nubs. There were sketches of her likeness, bad rhyming poems, notes from children (“I wish you didn’t die in a car carsh”). She was the new saint. Laminated photos of her swung from the summer trees.
As a child I believed I wouldn’t die because I had a perfectly round mole right in the center of my wrist. The logic of the young isn’t so different from the logic of the pious. At some point I decided the mole would protect me. It had come from the place before birth, or from death, from beyond life’s margins. One day I looked at my mother’s wrist and, not seeing a mark, panicked.
“Everyone dies,” she said. Offhandedly, maybe kissing my wrist. It would not have occurred to her to sugarcoat that.
I was raised agnostic by a disillusioned Episcopalian and a “cultural Jew,” meaning that my mother loves the food and many of the rituals and even the clichs of Judaism, but has no use for the religion itself. During Passover we had seders with our Christian neighbors. On Christmas we ate brunch at their house across the street. Reaching for a bagel or profiterole, I would be reminded by my mother, “Harry’s going to say grace.” We didn’t say grace at our house. “Dear Heavenly Father,” Harry began. “We thank you for the food before us, for our good friends . . .”
Dear and Heavenly and Father—the words meant nothing to me. But I knew where the bagels had come from. My father and I had driven to the deli early that morning to buy them. The small shop had condensation running down the windows and was hot and crammed inside, filled with Jews. It must have started as some kind of joke-bagels and lox for Christmas brunch. But the joke had stuck, become tradition. We ate them alongside profiteroles and ambrosia made by Ellen, Harry’s Catholic wife. Never at any other time of the year was there ambrosia. Food of the gods, from the Greek ambrotos, meaning immortality.
My parents’ agnosticism didn’t make me intolerant of religion so much as impatient with it. Perhaps these are the same thing. When I was nine or ten, I went through a phase of reading every book I could find about ghosts and poltergeists. A favorite, checked out from the library numerous times, had on its cover a photograph of a sort of blurry vertical cloud seeming to descend a staircase. This photo was proof to me. For years I was in its thrall. No one could have convinced me they didn’t exist.
Sundays in childhood, the Catholic Church seemed to swell, our town deflating around it, as if the church took up all the air. St. Gertrude’s stood on a hill beneath the giant green bulb of the water tower. I came to associate all churches with this height and remoteness. Walking to the deli to buy a Sunday paper, I paused at the foot of the two steep flights of stairs and watched the people exit, their heads bowed against the sun or rain, or maybe in deference.
Down at the end of the street where I lived, the paved road came to an abrupt end under a low canopy of trees. Beyond that, it turned to dirt, pocked with rocks and ruts. A learning disabled girl my age (retarded, we said) named Laura lived in a brick house just at the boundary of the asphalt, where the dirt road began and ran along the perimeter of our town’s only cemetery. Sometimes Laura stood on her back steps and lifted her shirt for passing boys. Once I saw her sitting in a cherry tree on a neighbor’s property. She was huge, unruly, unpredictable. The boys on our street sang, “Tell Laura I love her” in mock-operatic voices.
It was in the cemetery, as I picked my way among the gravestones on a Saturday afternoon, that I came to have my first inkling of God’s vast reach. Every stone made mention of him. When I died, what would my gravestone say? And if God was good and all-powerful, as the epitaphs seemed to imply, why had he made a person like Laura, full of defects? Or me, who couldn’t get my mind around the idea of him?
One day, closer to sunset than I liked, a group of us walked the dirt road to the cemetery.
My friends stood by a tall marker in the shape of a cross. I was shown some smears on its side.
I looked more closely. Indeed the smears were a deep red.
“It must be paint.” I like to think I said that.
“The blood of a nun.”
In bed at night the nun came for me. The calm wimple made the face at the center more abhorrent. In dreams her head was bowed at first. Then the features emerged, sharp as if carved in wood, though mobile, sneering. I had seen nuns in blue dresses and black shoes like bricks, looking benign and dowdy in polyester as they picked up their medication at Twin Harbor Drugs and walked down the street with their purchases in paper bags. Now, the mythic nun displaced the others. Unlike the women in the drugstore, this one knew I didn’t believe.
When you are raised without religion, all religions become occult. Everything shoulders its way in: St. Peter and the harps and angels smote the bad and raised the good to heaven (I would have had to guess at the meaning of “smote,” never having heard it in The Wizard of Oz or Harriet the Spy); Jesus was bloody and more famous than Prince Charles but had not been eaten in the ground by worms like a regular person. For not worshiping him and the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost I would suffocate like the Jews did in the fake showers at Auschwitz. None of it made sense. I couldn’t hold the story in my mind and couldn’t connect it to life or death or my fate.
I was invited to Mass with a friend. The red carpet and the vibrations from the organ imprinted on me the sense of being inside a body. Blood, a pulse. The service and its attendant gestures were incomprehensible. I did not know how to genuflect; I did not know the handshake of peace. I was afraid I’d get the word order wrong and had to rehearse it in my head again and again before I said it. “And also with you,” I managed once. The syntax of the sermon interested me, the formality, the wafer the priest put on the tongues of businessmen and mothers, people ordinarily in charge of things who were now kneeling and obedient. I suppose that as a child I was a sort of tourist of religion, gawking as one does at customs in foreign countries. That feeling stayed with me into adulthood.
In my thirties I moved to Alabama for a teaching job. Religion in the Deep South: the first question neighbors asked was which church I attended. Reeling, I dissembled, saying I worked for the university. Later I asked myself: Could I have said that I didn’t go to church? I could no more easily imagine it than I could imagine volunteering to my neighbors that I was a prostitute or a lesbian. One does not advertise one’s perversions.
That first sweltering August in Tuscaloosa, I went with a local man to his Baptist church. Bob was the town’s ersatz mayor—a guy who always seemed to be on his way somewhere, his car filled with stuff he was getting ready to drop off. He sold pecans wholesale as a side business; he apparently had scores of side businesses and no central one. He spat tobacco juice into a Coke can, was always on the phone. We had nothing in common except, perhaps, mutual astonishment. I had never eaten barbecue? Had never been to a Baptist church? Our sex was desultory. We got along only when the tone was incredulity, the mode sarcasm. Then we were having fun. “Taking the piss out of each other,” the British call it.
“So, are you signing up for my feminist criticism class?”
“I already know how to criticize those damn feminists.”
I was having what I suppose you could call an identity crisis. It seemed outlandish that I was living in Alabama, being taken seriously as a college professor. A weekend project: I got my degrees framed and hung them on my office wall. The license plate on my car said “Heart of Dixie.” By ten in the morning the temperature climbed to a hundred degrees. Giant flying roaches got into the apartment I rented in a collapsing Victorian; water the color of urine leaked through the kitchen ceiling.
It occurred to me during the church service that my life might be better, or easier, or at least I might not be having an identity crisis, if I had a religion. The choir performed, then a female soloist with an unsteady voice sang about being healed by the blood of Christ. I had a hangover; her vibrato irked me. Then the handshaking, in this instance with introductions. I met a Dixie, a Biddy McRae. Elderly people turned in their pews and told Bob they were happy to see him. When the woman in front of me took my hand, her eyes were glassy with tears. There’s no way to describe accurately the feeling I had then. Only to say that a towering sense of loss and emptiness drove through me, like an awl through wood. After the long service with its entreaties to pass on one’s passion for Christ, its warnings and reassurances, its earnest music, I was moved only by that woman’s eyes. I believed I was seeing the tears of the devout.
To be among them. To talk to Christ or whoever and believe that someone was listening. My own eyes filled with tears. I had never believed. Now, needing to, I saw I never would.
Only in Italy did religion seduce me. To be a Catholic! For the first time I thought I saw what made people devout. It wasn’t, as I’d thought, the fear of death or punishment. That was the Puritan iteration. I loved the opulence of Catholicism. The disinclination to distinguish between religious and sexual ecstasy, the spectacular mistakes. Michelangelo’s Moses, with horns on his head because “halo” had been mistranslated. Bernini’s St. Teresa being pierced by an angel, with accompanying text giving a first-person account of what amounts to an orgasm. The paintings depicting the Madonna with the face of the painter’s mistress. Jesus born in a manger, Jesus born in a cave. Attending Jesus, the indefinite number of kings: three, four, more. At the Uffizi, the tour guide was chubby and short, American, in white tennis shoes, the soles of which seemed almost to be outfitted with springs. When gesticulating toward the paintings she couldn’t help bouncing on tiptoe. She was well informed and spoke with unself-conscious sagacity: “The discrepancies in these depictions of Biblical scenes speak to our sense of the deep, riddled meaning of art, rather than art as that to which the faithful pray.” I tried to get all of it down in my notebook.
I looked for a long time at Caravaggio’s Incredulit di San Tommaso. In my notebook I wrote, “The composition strikes me because I have never seen a depiction of a man putting his finger into the body of another man that is not profane.” The painting depicts three men examining Christ’s wounds. One has inserted his finger into a big, dark, open wound just below Christ’s right breast. On first seeing the painting, I immediately thought of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of naked men. It is in fact just about impossible for me to view the painting in any but a sexual context. There’s a rip in one man’s jacket at the shoulder seam, a mark that looks like a scab on another man’s hand.
San Tommaso. Saint Thomas. “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Of course: Doubting Thomas. Only much later did I understand the most important reason for my attraction to the painting. For Thomas, only seeing is believing. Or not even just seeing: he must touch the wounds for himself. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Having never believed, I could only see in the painting the sufferings of all mortals and their, our , curiosity about our bodies. The dark wound in the man’s chest is terrifying, but it’s a bodily terror I feel. The body will be wounded, the body will perish. And I with it, ceasing to exist.
On a visit to the Colosseum in Rome, one of the students in the study abroad program hurried over to me. Jenna Johnson. She had several rosaries around her neck, one in her hand. “Only twenty thousand lire!” she exhorted. The Colosseum’s periphery was heavily patrolled by vendors, some dressed in togas or suits of armor. It seemed Jenna had gotten a deal for buying in volume.
“I didn’t know you were Catholic.”
She gave me a look of incomprehension and shook the rosary she was holding.
“They’re not just necklaces.” I told her what a rosary was, how they were used. She was briefly interested. Anyway, her niece would like them.
The first thing I learned about Jenna was so improbable that I dismissed it as apocryphal. Thirty years old, a returning adult student, she had never before been on a plane. Later she told me she had never taken a train or a taxi. To travel to Italy, she had brought a parachute aboard the flight, believing that she could use it in the event of a crash. Our first day in Rome, she had gotten separated from the group and hadn’t even been able to tell the policeman the name or address of the hotel where we were staying. Eventually one of our group leaders went back to the piazza and found her there, despondent, drinking a Coke.
I expected her to be a handful for the rest of the trip and mentioned this to someone as we toured an ancient aqueduct. A little while later, Jenna fell into step beside me. “I heard you,” she said. When I feigned ignorance, she repeated my remark about her being a handful.
I was too surprised to feel much embarrassment—I had checked to make sure she was well away from me before making the remark.
“I’m half Cherokee,” she told me. “When I was a little girl, my grandma took me out in the woods to train my hearing.” She claimed to be able to hear footsteps from very far away. A storm coming. Also she could make medicines from grass.
I apologized for my remark, but she seemed already to have forgotten. “I found the House of Cashmere,” she was saying. “You have to ring a bell to get in. Well, I was feeling the truth—I was broke yesterday.”
It took me a moment to get the phrase. Feeling the truth. The language of the pious. Jenna often lamented the shortage of funds that kept her from the fake Gucci handbags sold near the Spanish Steps and the leather coats and Pashmina shawls in the outdoor markets, the gold jewelry and now this new yearning for cashmere. “They got Absolut vodka. Nine dollars and eighty cents.” She could do the currency conversion more quickly than anyone. “You can’t buy that in Alabama that cheap. My uncle be like, yes, yes, send her some more places!”
She was reputed to have burned through five hundred dollars on our first three days in Rome, then asked the program director to spot her a hundred more. He had given it to her on the condition that she put aside some of it to buy the textbooks for the courses she was taking.
“I’m an adult woman,” she said.
Later that day, I went to see a Caravaggio exhibit at the Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia. Jenna had probably gone to look at the shops-she had limited patience for museums—but I walked around all day with the thought of her. Feeling the truth. The only paintings in the exhibit that didn’t depict religious themes were the ones of cardsharps and gypsies. The dirty toes, the playing card hidden behind the dealer’s back. I would have loved to see Caravaggio’s rendering of Jenna buying dozens of rosaries from a huckster in an armored breastplate outside the Colosseum—her dark skin burnished in the painter’s signature contrasts of dark and light, the startling white smile of a black woman with good teeth as she tucks the change from the money she has borrowed into her new knock-off Gucci purse. That’s the image of human greatness and frailty that moved me. I seemed to be incapable of admiring the pieties.
At the cottage in Michigan, my sister-in-law interrupted her daughter as she reached for her Fritos.
“Say your prayers, Madeline.”
Madeline glowered at her mother. “I am.”
“I didn’t hear them.”
A glance around the table. No one else was saying any prayers. “I’m saying them to myself.”
Sarah wasn’t sitting down to eat. She had her own handful of Fritos and a juice box. Her two younger children were in the next room—no time for the luxury of lunch or a debate with her eldest. Madeline was five.
“Talk to Jesus,” Sarah said as she walked away.
Madeline rolled her eyes before she closed them and folded her hands. “I am.”
The child wants to be a child. Jesus interests her. It would be false to claim he doesn’t. The crucifixion is a novelty. Did he come back to life? What is dead; is it like sleeping and you don’t wake up? Why are there thorns on his head? In the children’s books he is shown always with lambs and other young animals, his arms outstretched. He wears sandals, a robe.
From the living room, later in the day: “Sing for us, Lily. Sing ‘Jesus Tender.’”
“No.” The middle daughter, strawberry-blond hair, is prone to grinning and mischief. Already she has broken an arm. She’s two. Her favorite game is picking up a nearby object and pretending to be gobbling cookies.
Finally Lily capitulates, sort of. She sings a song that goes “BI- B-L-E,” followed by some garbled lyrics and ending in “what it means to me.”
The novelty wears off. Even Jesus. The girls have new questions. What are the little hairs I have on my thighs just at the edge of my bathing suit? What are the moon and stars on their uncle’s back?
He lets them touch it. “A tattoo.”
The word amuses them; they repeat it.
There’s just one piece of paper stuck to the refrigerator at this holiday cottage in Michigan. “God created mothers because he couldn’t be everywhere at once.” I don’t know whether the note was there when we arrived.
Madeline is told not to eat any more of the Skittles her mother bought her at Wal-Mart. She’s allowed to carry her candy around in a little clear-plastic purse. When I was a child, my mother took our candy and hid it in the flour and sugar canisters on the pantry’s top shelf. Out of sight, out of mind. Madeline walks from room to room with the purse, looking longingly at the contents.
“God sees everything, Maddie,” Sarah says. “Even if I don’t.”
The remark takes my breath away. To feel oneself always watched and judged. This seems worse than the anxiety of my own childhood, the sense of arbitrariness. The nun might be watching me. She might. But then it might be only Laura up in the cherry tree.
I remembered this difference between Madeline and me when she took an interest in my handbag one day at the beach.
“Do you take that to church?” she asked.
“I don’t go to church.”
I knew where I was headed, but I couldn’t stop myself. “Because I don’t believe in God.”
She stood saucer-eyed in the sand, speechless for a moment.
“Don’t you love him?”
I had gone too far. I deflected the question, digging in my bag for a brush and offering to let her braid my hair. Beyond us in her playpen Sarah’s youngest cried. The sun had moved and was in her eyes. I remembered my mother telling me that when my sister was five and they were driving somewhere in our old Volare station wagon, my sister got agitated with the sun in her eyes and demanded that my mother move it.
“I cannot move the sun,” my mother said. She was writing poetry then and aware of her exalted diction. The “cannot” instead of “can’t” was deliberate. She felt the monumental quality of the moment, though she had missed it back when I showed her the mole on my wrist.
“Who can?” my sister asked.
All my life it seems we have been mourning the God we never believed in.
In a magazine I come across a poem by Czeslaw Milosz. He has just died. Among the usual news of war and terrorism there are encomiums to him. Do we still live in a world where a poet’s death matters? It appears so. He is off in the other place now, the place so many here are busy imagining. Or he is decomposing with the rest of the great poets and lepers and slaves. Auden. Yeats. Of Yeats’s death Auden says, “For him it was his last afternoon as himself.” That gave me pause. Even if you do go to heaven, do you go as yourself?
And here is Milosz’s poem. I am in the kitchen, the end of a long day. I’m fighting with myself over whether or not to open the new bottle of vodka and make myself a drink. At such moments I think of Henry Rothschild. In London there is more chaos than there is here. But surely he is at peace.
I make the drink and sit and read the poem.
If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.
Madeline, I am sorry.
Wendy Rawlings is the author of a novel, The Agnostics, and a collection of short stories, Come Back Irish. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Atlantic Monthly, AGNI, Tin House, Passages North, and Fourth Genre. She’s a professor in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alabama. (updated 10/2012)