Jesus Christ, really?

I’m not a religious person.

I don’t believe in god.

I’m an atheist.

I’ve heard myself say all of those things in the past two weeks and it’s caused me to raise a skeptical eyebrow the same way I do when someone prefaces a statement with ‘Truthfully’ or ‘Honestly’. It’s bugging the shit out me.

I’ve been a devout non-believer for quite some time. When my god-leaning family and friends have offered or asked for prayers I’ve ignored them with zeal. It’s been a matter of principle not to pray or be prayed over. Normally I can ignore the whole religious thing the same way my parents can neglect their crippling health problems. It’s easy to avoid at a distance of 947 mile.

Religion and health and all of the shit I’d rather ostrich away from has come up again recently. A funeral – one of my aunts. The unexpected loss yanked my head firmly out of the sand and the 947-mile distance was erased with an overly expensive plane ticket. The circle of mortality is starting to tighten in my extended family. All of my grandparents and their siblings are dead. With my father-in-law and now aunt gone the ablative layer that separates me from the great unknown is beginning to flake away.

And although I know that it’s common to confront one’s own mortality and question one’s spiritual shortcomings during times of loss, it hit me hard nonetheless. The fact that it still troubles me weeks later is unsettling and I imagine that this rambling is an attempt to get it out of my head. Dealing with the pain is so much more difficult than pushing it away.

It’s not as if a blog post is going to inspire an epiphany and a return to god any more than it will allow a definitive refutation of all that is divine. So I guess this is just about exploring the pain. As a disclaimer, I was raised Catholic. Mrs. Blackwelder has pointed out to me on several occasions that in her Methodist upbringing, the church celebrated life. It was a revelation when Mrs. Blackwelder shared this truth. I ate it like a summer cherry- the tart sweetness of the understanding. I sucked it down to the seed and, alas, it didn’t grow the orchard that I was hoping for. I still roll the pit around in my mouth from time to time to help remember the ghost of that taste. 

Unlike Mrs. Blackwelder, my religious instruction was mostly about death. I don’t know if all Catholics have the same experience, but much of what I learned was about the avoidance and absolution of sin to prepare my soul for the afterlife. The afterlife was the goal–to get to heaven and be with those that you’ve lost. Unless they were particularly bad, in which case they will be slightly delayed by limbo contest.

My aunt’s wake was held in the house that my she and my uncle built. Someone filled the dining room and living room with folding tables and chairs and there were heaps of food in the kitchen. Pretty standard wake. Since it was winter, I threw my coat in the bedroom. As I turned to head back to the crowd, I was overcome by her domestic debris – perfume, hair dryer, slippers. Those things filled me with a sense of loss far greater than seeing her in the coffin. I could only imagine how lonely my uncle would be after everyone left and he was in the house with all of my aunt’s things as if she had just stepped out to pick up the dry cleaning.

So why? Why do I keep looking? Why does a devout atheist think and read and discuss religion? I’ve made my choice, right?

The thought of walking by myself through an echoey house and seeing the artifacts of Mrs. Blackwelder all around me – scuffed brown boots that hold the mold of her feet, lip balm turned down in the tube, the stone box on her nightstand filled with hair ties and scrunchies. That horror, as bad as it is to imagine, is nothing compared to the possibility of eternal, unending loneliness. Even the celestial oneness of the agnostics chills me.

So I hope.

But that hope, the thinnest of wishes, draws me back again and again. If all I want from eternity is the loving touch of one other, if I pray for that, where does it leave me? With religion or without? If I’m right and there is nothing on the other side, that means I don’t believe. Right? I have no faith and no religion. Right? I hope I can hold Mrs. Blackwelder’s hand in the blackest of rooms.  (Thank you, Benjamin Gibbard, for making me ugly cry). That hope may be the closest I’ll ever come to the divine .

If you know me IRL and I squeeze your hand overly tight, now you’ll know why.


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