BARCELONA, SPAIN--This past spring break, when my family went to Spain, we spent Palm Sunday—a holiday I had to look the meaning up of on my iPhone as we perused through esplanades of braided palms on stands—at Monserrat, a mountain church where they sold strange, lemon-flavored merengue Everests and bread knit with fruit.
There was to be a service for the holiday, and my largely Catholic family decided to attend. At the Monterail, when they came to this decision, our irreligion must have first occurred to my mother because she, back among Catholics, turned to my sister and me and asked, “And what’ll the heathens be doing?”
“The heathens will be drinking coffee,” I replied. There was a brashness, a forced quality in my statement. Because five years earlier, as a child, I would have answered differently. Because as a child, I worshipped religion. Not God, but religion itself. Its concept.
Religion seemed to be one of those things I would come to understand with age. Like temporality. Like how to buy things with credit cards—seemingly worthless bits of plastic. Like drinking or driving or staying up past midnight or having Essie candy-apple nail polish applied to my nails in a bamboo and fake silk decorated storefront in Chappaqua.
I thought religion was an adult privilege, a group requiring an initiation, like the Yale Club, Vanderbilt Ave, of which I had seen the gray stone façade and blue banners but not the interior, to which I had no key, or like grown-up party conversations, in which I was paraded momentarily on Christmas or Thanksgiving, but not welcome to participate.
I didn’t understand the short passages of Scripture I heard others utter. I didn't know why there were plastic sheep dovetailed with fake straw outside in December. When my cousins went to Bible camp, I ate snickerdoodles in the annals of various churches in New Jersey, pretending to comprehend the paper references to Egypt around the basement. If asked, I would’ve named the holy trinity as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, and insisted that Jesus and God were a singular figure birthed by Eve. Religion remained to me as a mysterious and unfathomable theory, like NASA’s moon plans, or quantum physics, or the how the earth’s rock layers apply varying degrees of heats and pressures to spit out emeralds in a process together wondrous and, at the time being, over my head. But because I considered it an adult thing beyond my infantine powers of perception, I accepted it with great reverence and little question.
Tim Martin, in writing for the Times Standard, describes his childhood in the 1960’s as one where he “went to church and sat in the pew, amused and bewildered, thinking, ‘This guy believes he has a direct line to God? He wants us to accept that suffering is all part of the plan? And we can expect even more of it in the afterlife if we don't belong to this particular church?’” However disavowing Martin is—“None of it seemed rational to me, even as a child,” he writes—his rejection of religion was one luckily allowed earlier than my own. As I had no access to such in-pew experiences, no experiences with grape juice labeled as blood first hand, Christianity reached me only in spurts. My grandmother’s stories of khakis and plaid and parochial school rulers wherein the numbers were printed on metal. The one afternoon we visited a great aunt, who had chosen a life of solitude in 1960, not out of a love for God, but out of a then unacceptable love for other women, in a convent with a pink room as quiet as a field and a delivered barrage of hushed introductions and a box of Junior Mints.
Having grown up, or grown what fraction of “up” I’ve managed, I’ve come in enough contact with the church to have reached, with supporting evidence, Martin’s same conclusions. Though back there, the kids from CCD class meant no more and no less to me than blue Jolly Ranchers, which we never were allowed. Though in youth, my only acquaintance with paradise was in its representation in the paintings at the MET, and even to this day, I associate salvation with the smell of paint thinner and wonder how much Noah’s animals cost in the overpriced oil paint Jo-Ann sells in tubes, I have come to understand religion.
I’ve received Christmas cards from Catholic families with six children, all of which are strawberry blonde, all of which wear identical freckled faces and white for the photo, like those paper dolls you string out from one scissored mold. Families about which I’ve heard—of multiple drug problems and other such results of inattention that must arise in any household over five.
I’ve watched a gay friend try and fail to reconcile with the gold crucifix he wears on a chain everyday beneath his polo shirts with the pair of suede, block-heeled, very mod 60s Urban Outfitters pumps he wobbled happily in inside the hotel room at my seventeenth birthday party. I’ve seen God’s motives excuse personal failures.
I’ve seen a Christian homeschooler condescend my mother with a “God bless you” for approaching the California governor’s office with infertility legislation. I’ve seen photographs blown up the size of windshields featuring “murdered” fetuses in full color—that one, before such an experience, believed respective to cherry Jell-O—and male Evangelicals rail on CNN and NBC over how doctrine mandated against a woman’s autonomy over her own body.
I don’t know half as much about religion as the average American does, but I do know enough to know that Christianity, contrary to my childhood misconception, is absolutely nothing like the Yale Club, Vanderbilt Ave. I’m remembering going out to dinner, one night, as I think of that Spanish palm Sunday, and how then, those years back, over naan and curry, my father repeated that old adage that nobody is an atheist on their death bed. I think of this. That maybe he’s right, and I won’t be an atheist then. That maybe I am not even one now. I don’t know.
But what I do know? That I was content to sit in my baby blue, Yale-colored sweater at the Yale admissions meeting this past fall, my hair tucked behind my ears with a tortoise headband and my fears, given the old erroneous connection of the school to the religion I knew not, tucked behind a clean-looking navy blue information pamphlet preaching to me on nothing except liberal values. That I am quick, at seventeen, to disavow the false, because paradise has, as a child and now, in all forms except those captured by the Masters, been lost on me.
I won’t do penance for my past confusion. My embarrassment over such childish fascination with faith is one more than quelled by the fact that millions of other people, most of whom more experienced and better educated than my first-grade self, buy into such gimmicks now. I don’t regret thinking it’d be nice to remain in that quiet room a while, partaking in solemnity and contraband Junior mints. Neither do I regret thinking I’d like Catholic school, which was really a disguised desire to see long-legged Irish boys in khakis before I knew why I’d want long-legged Irish boys or before I knew that parochial education was divided along gender lines.
I don’t regret telling my mother I’d camp out away from holy words in the cafeteria at Monserrat, and I don’t regret now answering that when the world ends—mine alone, or humanity’s altogether—that his heathen will be in the same place, or some similar one, not waiting outside Heaven’s egg-white colored incandescence like club groupies, or holding my palms desperately close in some effort at a shield from mortality, but getting coffee, piping hot with too much milk and slice of cinnamon coffee cake on the side, wherever I may or may not be.