This is a meditative essay on the duality of organized religion.
A t hung on the wall.
It was a lowercase faded driftwood t nailed to the wall of my classroom, right in front, so no matter where you sat you always saw it.
The elegant, water-wrought lowercase t.
I knew what it meant. But I always savored the reactions of my classmates when I deliberately stated, “What does the t stand for?” Their reactions were always instantaneous – they never skipped a beat. There were baffled looks, fiery glares, and offended splutters of “T-That’s not a ‘t’ Ellie, that’s a crucifix!”
I’d look confused for a second, nod slowly, and walk off, as if four years of strictly Catholic education had not taught me what, exactly, the profound symbolic meaning of our Lord and Savior’s Holy Cross was. It was my main source of entertainment.
Drawing my attention away from the cross on the wall, I listened to what the teacher was saying. I hadn’t known Ms. Cole for long, but from what I gathered she was a genuinely nice woman. She stood at the front of the classroom, lecturing my freshman theological studies class about the fundamental idea of theology. More specifically: Catholicism.
The topic struck a chord. I narrowed my eyes, eying the big letters on the whiteboard: “CATHOLICISM – THE TRUTH.” I wanted to scoff. As if that one word was the end-all answer to life on this planet. As if it could answer questions humankind has never figured out. As if it were our salvation.
My question was about half-thought out before I felt it leave my mouth.
“Do atheists go to Hell?”
Ms. Cole paused her lecture to look at me. “Come again?”
“Do atheists really go to Hell?” I asked again, adding a forceful element to my tone. I thought for a moment before rewording my question. “If you’re an atheist and a good person, would you still get into Heaven, even if you don’t believe in God?”
Ms. Cole adjusted her cat-eye glasses in thought, brushing her stringy brown hair out of her eyes. Her lower lip puffed out; she looked baffled, almost offended at the prospect of the question. After a moment of silence, she laughed. “Of course not. If you don’t have faith in God, you don’t go to Heaven. Why would you go somewhere you don’t believe?”
The atmosphere of the class seemed to err on the side of agreement with her. I felt them staring at me, their glares like daggers slashing into my spine. I felt the heat of embarrassment rush through me and suddenly it felt hard to breathe.
To this day, four years later, that statement sticks with me. If you don’t believe in God, why would you go to Heaven? And of course that brings about the question, if you don’t believe in Hell, what then? Where do you go? Why would you go somewhere you don’t believe?
It was as if no matter who you were, what you’ve done, or how you’ve lived, as long as you could put on your résumé that you believed in this one rendition of a higher power, you were given access to the finest vacation spot the universe had to offer: Heaven. It was as if this conformity to a hierarchal social construct was the secret to a life of prosperity and a solid after-life. It was as if living by a thousands-year-old and heavily misinterpreted rulebook was the key to the living the complete human experience.
And if you didn’t follow the rules, if you questioned “THE TRUTH”, if you didn’t find some kind of deeper symbolic meaning behind the pale, washed-out t on the wall, you didn’t go to heaven. You went somewhere else - and where that was remains unanswered.
There was something about that idea, that close-minded exclusiveness and narrow vision of what the “human experience” really was, that continually leaves me baffled after years of developing and growing in my own unique spirituality. It reached a daily point when my mother turned on the news and I listened to a man in a crisp, clean suit tell me just how many people died from the day’s bombings, famines, diseases, and shootings, I felt a little piece of my faith in this merciful higher power tear off and drift away. It seemed as though the further my education developed and the more I saw of the world, the further I drew away from this idea of an all-forgiving, all-loving God. Ultimately, all that remained of my spirituality was an undirected sense of intellectually curious agnosticism – or rather, a genuine “I don’t know” paired with an open mind.
But to give this transition a timeline, my theological journey, or rather anti-theological journey, began when I was seven years old.
My dad took me into a room after a long phone call with my mom. I heard the yelling, but I didn’t think much of it. He got to his knees, grasped my shoulders, looked me dead in the eye, and stated in a tone so serious I had no idea what to make of it: “Ellie, I need you to remember something. You hear me?”
I nodded. I heard him just fine.
“Your mother Laurie and I… what we had, it was special. We were married. When you’re married, it’s forever. Okay? Forever. When you grow up and get married, remember that God views it as forever. Okay?”
It wasn’t until years later did I truly understood the irony of his words. Her name was Jessica, my dad’s first wife. Then her name was Laurie, and then Michelle. I half expected him to get cursed if some holy being really valued marriage as much as he claimed. But after years of prosperity and financial success on my father’s part, I started to question whether it meant anything at all. Whether the relationships I grew up with – Hermione and Ron, Cinderella and Prince Charming, Ariel and Eric – were expectations that I should have for both the people around me and myself. Was love something real to be sought after, or just a half-thought, idealized and fundamentally artificial dream? Where was God in these relationships? If he had as much value in them as my father seemed to believe, why did so many of them fall apart? What did that say about God?
I didn’t really know what I thought about this idea of a higher power growing up. I never gave it much of a second thought, preferring to deal with conflicts at hand rather than talking to forces I couldn’t see. Granted, I wasn’t against the idea of Catholicism; I just didn’t fully understand it until I was ten years old and forced to transfer to private school. I wasn’t opposed to the change – the year and a half I spent at my public school consisted of teasing, name-calling, and your average fourth-grade bullying. My mom insisted that the kids and teachers at Ave Maria would be much nicer. They had God in their lives, after all. Didn’t that make people nicer? More welcoming? More ethical?
And I believed her. At least until I received a detention slip for standing at Mass when we were supposed to kneel, sitting when we were supposed to stand, and for questioning why on earth it mattered in the first place. I believed her until my friend yelled at me for chewing the bland flatbread cracker I was given at Communion, as that was “disrespectful”. I believed her until I took home a C in Theology, because I wasn’t “believing” the right way – silent, obedient, and unyielding. I had an attitude, they said. I asked too many questions. They couldn’t understand why I refused to believe.
I couldn’t understand why, either. As I search through the furthest and deepest corners of my memory, I cannot think of a single time where I didn’t question why the “Our Father” wasn’t “Our Mother” or why the “Eucharist” sat in a box of solid gold on the altar while there were people in the world starving. I cannot think of a single time where I felt as though I were actually speaking to some higher “great, almighty Father” as I got to my knees and thrust my hands together in prayer. Eventually I came to the realization that I wasn’t outright refusing to follow this one way of life that I was raised around. Rather, it was my fundamental disagreement with the uniformity of organized religion and the corruption and lack of individuality it entailed that had me drawing away from it.
When I was fifteen years old, my father, brother and I visited our friends in Mazatlan, Mexico over spring break. Familial conflict had our small stepfamily spread across the continent – my stepmother and stepsister were somewhere in Florida visiting family of their own. The timing of this trip happened to fall right over my birthday, and although I was dejected over the fact that not everyone was there to celebrate, I also understood that with relationships came conflict. In the grand scheme of things, I really had nothing to complain about.
The sun was just beginning to set over the ocean, turning the water into a gigantic chasm of fiery reds and yellows. It shot beams of light across the sky and silhouetted the islands in a way that looked so picturesque it was as if God had taken his inspiration straight from an oversaturated postcard.
We had just come back to the hotel after an evening of exploring and cake-eating.
My father had been going on about a gift he had for me – he was excited to give it to me, and as anyone else would be, I was excited to receive it. His enthusiasm was contagious.
“Ellie,” he said, after practically sprinting into his separated bedroom and returning with his hands behind his back and a smile on his face. “It’s your sixteenth birthday. And I think the most important thing to do is make sure that we’re celebrating it with God.”
Already, my borrowed enthusiasm began to drain out of me, leaving behind a sour sense of dread and a bitter taste in my mouth. My father and I had differing views – he claimed himself to be a preacher while deep down I knew I was a heathen.
But I played along. It was better not to argue – not now, not in a way to spoil the mood. I nodded, plastering a smile onto my face.
He brought his hands out from behind his back and presented me with a small box. It fit perfectly into the palm of my hand, pure white as if to allude to what was inside.
I opened it.
It was a ring. A dainty, silver ring, encrusted with diamonds, reflecting the dim, artificial light of the hotel room and glittering attractively. It was beautiful.
“It’s white gold,” my dad said, carefully assessing my reaction with a certain air of elation. “Do you know what this means?”
I paused for a moment and shook my head slowly. “ – No, I don’t.”
“It’s a purity ring.” He said. “You wear it on your left hand as a symbol… a promise between you and God, saying you’ll stay pure until you get married. Only your future husband can take this ring off. You can replace it with your wedding ring.”
Suddenly, the jewelry in my hands seemed slightly less attractive. I felt as though the thin, beautiful ring weighed more than it should have. My dad’s words didn’t sit right with me; they left something rancorous and unpleasant in my mouth, stinging like a barb in an odd place right behind my eyes. I wasn’t bothered by the fact that he didn’t want me having sex – that was expected – but I felt as though some inherent freedom I had to do as I pleased with my own body had been taken away from me. I felt as though this ring was a symbol of being controlled by someone who wasn’t myself – watched continually by some Big Brother figure, only to be condemned when intimacy inevitably presented itself. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin, as if my privacy had been violated, as if my virginity somehow increased my value as a person in the eyes of God.
I smiled anyway and thanked my father for the gift, doing my best to ignore the nagging, grating feeling of forced submission under some invisible force that I suddenly felt.
I slipped the ring onto my right ring finger, as if that could somehow negate the meaning behind it. As if somehow, wearing it “wrong” could turn a symbol into an object, a proclaimed hard-standing yet fundamentally theoretical fact back into a mystical idea, a question - or a series of questions - nobody really knew the answers to.
I realize now that there is a sense of peace in knowing without a shadow of a doubt where I stand - in a state of comfortable uncertainty and acknowledgement that everyone can and will believe in what they feel most negates their fear of the unknown.
Whether those answers present themselves uniquely to an individual in the form of a holy cross or a lowercase t, is, in the purest and most fundamental sense of the word: Theology.