To telescope, we start with a hunking 300 words and then slice it in half through each successive section. We stop when the numbers stop dividing evenly.
Pater noster, the priest declaims. Qui est in caelis, I mindlessly reply, the familiar words running out of my mouth.
Back at boarding school we were herded into the chapel three times a week. Even though I had been confirmed into the Anglican faith during my second year, I attended Catholic Mass around twice a month because of my obligations with the chapel choir. I still crossed my hand over my forehead, mouth, and chest as the holy gospel was announced.
I don’t know if I really believed in God, or in heaven. I don’t think I did—but I still prayed every night before going to bed.
I could have used those two and a half hours spent in chapel to watch some TV in Finds with my friends, or to kick around a football in the Yarder. Yet week after week I sat there, staring off into the stained-glass windows from the choir stalls as the chaplain droned on and on.
I think my faith was intertwined with sacred choral music. I believed not in the existence of an omnipotent God who was crucified for my sins; rather, I believed that we gathered in the stalls week after week because we felt real excitement as we recreated a vision of musical genius from centuries past.
I have never felt such a chilling sensation down my spine as when the whole congregation erupted into the triumphant last verse of Jerusalem. I have never felt such calm as when I listened to the ethereal organ interlude while the altar boys hurried around to prepare the holy sacrament.
I believed that our humanity was connected through the perfect cadence—we experienced the same feeling of resolve as the legendary composers before us did, when the fifth descended defiantly back to the tonic.
In my first year at boarding school, my roommate, Will, was chosen to serve as the altar boy for the year.
The subtle slink of the chain emitted the holy incense into the chapel. Once. Twice. Three times. It was always three—I think it symbolized the trinity.
The smell was soothing, and not too overpowering. It used to stay in my nose for the whole day afterwards, as if it wanted to remind the congregation of their religious obligations in daily life.
But perhaps that imposition was just too much for Will. As he was kneeling by the altar one bleak Sunday morning in March, preparing to receive the body of Christ in front of the whole congregation, his eyes rolled back into his head as he collapsed onto the ground amid the wafts of smoke.
It’s probably the closest any of us will ever get to experiencing rapture.
“Why do you want to be confirmed?” asked the school chaplain at our first confirmation meeting.
One by one, everyone went around telling a story about their faith in God, and how they wanted to strengthen that relationship with this next step.
I had never felt so much like an imposter. To be completely honest, I just wanted to be confirmed because all the cool kids in my boarding house were doing it as well.
I’m not sure why I cried the night my Buddhist grandfather passed away.
I had told him to squeeze my hand if he wanted to be baptized into the Christian faith and to enjoy a utopic afterlife. And he did.
Catholic. Cathartic, philosophic catch-all-aholic, sophisticated, so many fisted, heavy handed syndicate. Synchronized singing eyes look high to the sky. Why? Pie in the sky. Potential salvation, sinner saint differential, mental maze of sin again, dissonance, dissociation, and dissatisfaction.
Unwanted advances on thousands of countries and continents haunted with heathens, mouth breathers, needin’ YOUR help to hop into heaven, to heave open the pearly gates, forget one’s worldly fates, be fruitful and procreate. Multiply! The Apple in God’s eye. I, son of the Son of Man and God, and Mary, was a fourteen year old virgin, I swear!
Don’t swear. Don’t take God’s name in vain. Don’t masturbate, too late, the master ain’t gon’ be happy with you defiant fool, inadherent of Holy rules, not an actor just a tool of the Devil’s work here on Earth. Lustin’ thrustin’ rustin’ your brain with broken books, put that back, pick up the Bible punk!
Sundays sat sifting through empty thoughts Stand! Sing! Clap your hands, in time with the band. Shake their hands, be polite to the man. Clasp your hands, pay your life to the Man. It’s okay, really, if you don’t understand, it’s all part of the plan. Your life is a miracle, are you not a fan?
Light, flight, God’s might are miracles, what might be tricks of sight are miracles. It’s miraculous I haven’t picked a fight over the lyrical, empirical lies that lay in wait with every turning page published under the authorship of this carpenter-sage.
But maybe there’s something I’m missing, and I better be sure, because otherwise what awaits is a pain that’s pure, sadistically ridiculously static and raw. Grinding of bones, burning of being, perennial tears and tears of flesh. Intense. Thus, I think I’ll wait it out, my parents pay for this place anyway. “My house, my commandments,” as I understand it.
It turns out there’s all kinds of Jesi, Buddhi, Muhammi. Oh please, all these societies wouldn’t lie, would they? Why should they? Could they tell me otherwise, something other than a man in the skies? Other wise men have decided the Creator God is not just the greatest fraud Man has provided.
Provided I am alive, and I speak, and I “be” there must be an “I” for God’s sakes, a “me” that God makes that wasn’t a mistake on a rock in a void. That’s a thought I’ll avoid.
I’ll still pray a time or two, don’t know to who. It’s worked a few times, evidence? No clue, clearly this clandestine classified classically reified figure is a class act. Maybe it’s not a figure, it’s a function, it’s the spirit that moves what “be”!? Does that make it time? Fuck your rhymes I’m serious! I’m delirious, I’m furious, it’s fucked.
So it’s just me I see, a lone figure. Alone, go figure. Trained to live, trapped to die. Why? Same reason you breathe the skies, believe their lies, pile on protein-packed potato fries – to survive. Be fruitful and multiply.
Molten lava, molting larvae, Malta, Latvia, all of Earth for better or worse is unequivocally unanimously animated of equivalent stuff. It’s rough knowing you’re just sentient mush, sent to seek a tush, drop a load and stop for food.
God lurks in people’s heads – particularly placed, passed-on piles of atoms that organize societies.
People twerk while God’s dead – particularly placed, passed-on piles of atoms that organize parties.
God works in mysterious ways.
People search this delirious maze.
In Ancient Greek there is no word for religion. The first thing they teach you in school about Greece is the pantheon of gods and goddesses, calling them “myths.” The word “myth” in Greek comes from mythos, which only means “story.” The implication of calling something a myth today is calling it false.
My mother used to teach CCD at Our Lady Queen of Peace. She was instructed to tell her kids, all around seven years old, that they would go to Hell if they sinned. Fair enough, she thought. Sin is sin. But in no time, every other sentence out her mouth was a threat. If they were to disobey their parents, Hell. Leave their homework incomplete, Hell. She eventually quit.
I didn’t think to ask what Hell was, at the time. It was one of those words my father said all too frequently to mean anything. Perhaps it was a particle. A placeholder, an “um.”
The Greeks believed in an Underworld, ruled by Hades, difficult to enter and even more difficult to exit. In the eleventh book of the Odyssey, our titular hero wants to go to Hell. There, he has time to speak with late friends and loved ones, many of whom are quite unhappy in the afterlife. “I would rather live working as a serf for another man, one who had no land and barely made a living, than lord it over all the wasted dead,” Achilles reports.
I would rather live working as a land for another man, one who had no serfs and— I would rather die, wasted, as land than work as a lord for man— As a land for man— I would rather die filled with land than make a man— I, no living, lord over all dead— Barely. Would I rather—
For the last two semesters I have taught Latin to fourth-graders with other students from Princeton. The first thing they always want to learn are the “real” names of the Roman gods. Jupiter is a planet, not a god, they say. We fill out a chart together with the Roman names on one side and the Greek on the other. Strange translation.
What kind of god has two names?someone asks. God does! God has three names and one of them is Jesus, another replies.
When I ask them to draw a god, most of them draw Jesus without fail. One boy draws him on the cross, crowned in thorns, crying and bleeding out in chaotic scribbles. Blood drips from his hands onto names like Zeus and Poseidon. That’s beautiful, I say.
They want to know if I believe in Him. They ask how often I go to church.
In my hometown no one reads the Bible, though one could fall on your head at any moment. Some of my friends didn’t know they would start bleeding soon. At sleepovers I filled them in. But I did everything God wanted, one cried.
Humanity did not always include women, we know from Hesiod. He says Pandora is the first member of “the race of women.” There is a sense that she is another species altogether.
Certain things I can’t get out of my veins, like crying to Jesus music. Catharsis, Aristotle says, comes from pity and fear.
He that believeth. He that believeth in me. He. He shall never. He shall never di—
My great aunt Marge used to go to church nearly every day, and when she couldn’t do that anymore, she would watch Mass on the television and have someone from the church bring her communion. If God were speaking to the prophets today, it would probably be through the television. My parents both went to Catholic school at some point in their lives but they never took us to church on a regular basis, so most of my images of prayer and intense religiosity came from Aunt Marge and television programs about the Pope or Mother Teresa. Sometimes I would think about the X-Files and the “I want to believe” posters when I was sitting in church or letting the communion wafer dissolve on my tongue. When I was younger I used to pray each night, but it was all ritual, all muscle memory, my hand doing a quick sign of the cross and my mouth mumbling a few empty phrases. My prayers for health and happiness would mingle with the hum of the air conditioning and the sound of the Mets game in my parents’ bedroom. How did Joan of Arc know when she heard the voice of God? What if I can’t tell the difference between divinity and everyday sounds?
Before my Confirmation, I spent a few weekends at a retreat center in Kearny, New Jersey, with big green shrubs out front groomed to spell J-E-S-U-S. We sang church songs each morning and had to go to confession. On the last night of each retreat, we’d all lay on the floor with our eyes closed while the youth minister talked us through a guided meditation. Imagine yourself walking along the banks of a river. Hear the rushing water, feel the breeze… I was typically so exhausted by that point in the weekend that I’d start to drift off. In the distance, you see the outline of a man walking through the grass. The meditation would guide us along the river as we listened to the sounds of nature and eventually had a conversation with the man in the distance, though I’m not sure what about. I never made it that far in the story. I always fell asleep before we met Jesus.
If there is some transcendental realm, maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Recently I was writing a paper on depictions of witches in film, and as we were wrapping up our discussion in office hours, my professor asked me if I practiced witchcraft myself. I just laughed and packed up my books. A few weeks later, a friend told me that I “talk about Satan a lot.” I have been reading about demonology for fun lately, and I guess if all those things are real then the religious texts were right.
Martyrs were shot full of arrows, burned at the stake, decapitated, starved, made to suffer horribly for not renouncing their faith. When I read their stories, I can only imagine them as some fantastical representation of sublime beauty, not as real people. I don’t have anything I’m willing to die for.
Sarah Warman Hirschfield:
It’s just something you have to accept: I like my eggs sunny side up. It’s not supposed to be some figurative, monumental statement of my values—that I see the glass half-full, or whatever—it’s just a fact about me you have to accept. It’s part of the package.
You see, that’s why we didn’t work out. She didn’t get it. Well, she got it enough to make me them every morning, but I could tell she was doing it just so I didn’t complain. It’s like when someone tells you to have a nice day, but they really mean ‘go to hell.’ You know? That’s how she was with the eggs. It was a fuck-you formality for her.
I know she was a vegan. I guess it was a little hard for her to appreciate the egg, whether sunny side up or otherwise. That was another reason we didn’t work out, now that I think about it. Did I tell you about that time I threw a plate at her? Yeah. You know, that whole argument was about her stupid veganism. Because it is stupid, just fundamentally, when you think about it.
That’s the thing. I’ve realized I cannot date someone who is indoctrinated like that. She says she’s an atheist, but she has vegan gods. She idolizes those freaks. And their tofu. It’s gross. Kind of perverted, too.
I think she was sexually repressed. Had to be. No other explanation. I mean, if you keep that stuff bottled up, you’re going to have problems.
She had so many problems, my god. And she projected like crazy. I was the one who needed to learn fiscal responsibility. I was the one who had high cholesterol. I was the one who had anger issues. Like, come on! You’re deluding yourself.
The thing about women is that they will always make you the eggs. But that’s what’s so infuriating about them. You never know where their heart is. The woman who makes me eggs because she gets the eggs, appreciates the art—that’s the woman I’m going to marry. Mark my words.
‘Mark my words.’ Have you heard me say that before? I think I picked it up from that guy we always run into at that place downtown. The one who’s always telling us that he needs to be up early in the morning for church. You think he actually goes? I wonder why. A lot of people just go because they feel guilty if they don’t. I don’t really feel guilty about anything, but if I did, maybe I’d go to church.
There’s something kind of sexy about it. The routine, the dressing up, the praying. We would’ve worked out if she went to church, I think.
At the end of the day, things work out or they don’t work out, and you can’t really do anything about it. I don’t know how much you can do about it at the beginning of the day, either.
You know how I do my beginnings, though. Eggs, sunny side towards the sky. It’s a metaphor, if you think about it. Positive attitude. Head up, dream big. I’m going to make a shirt with that on it.
It wasn’t her fault. I mean, it was, but I don’t blame her. Some people just don’t get it. We get it. We’re blessed. But some people aren’t, and you just have to respect that. You know?
No part of my time at Princeton differs so much from the rest as Sunday night student Mass.
Tutoring for Petey Greene brings me to state prison, stripped of all but a volunteer badge and a never sharp enough pencil, often face-to-face with men serving time for murder. Leading Outdoor Action drops me every September somewhere in the mid-Atlantic backcountry, with the gear and food needed to survive five days, and clueless but good-natured frosh who make the whole matter enjoyable.
Neither of those experiences feels as disparate from my normal life as Mass. Those experiences take place in environs that cause many of my peers to shudder, while Mass is in Murray-Dodge, without surprises, and requires neither first aid training nor an intensive background screening. But, unlike OA and Petey Greene, Mass leaves me questioning the motivations and ideologies that underlie how I live.
In other words, I don’t bring my phone on OA or to prison, but I still cling dearly to principles like subjectivism and radical individualism. Because of this difference, when my friends jokingly ask, “What’s wrong with you?” regarding my tutoring in prison, or going on OA, or attending Mass, I’m not sure they’re joking when asking about Mass.
My friends are surprised because I’m not Catholic, never have been, not even Christian. In fact, very much a bleeding-heart liberal. But I go to Mass because it’s so unlike everything else at Princeton. On a campus whose gospel is multitasking, it’s an experience in discarding everything external for a rare single-mindedness. It’s one of the last refuges on campus of true humility, where silences are only broken to profess the faith, where worldly concerns—academic, social—are unconditionally forsaken for greater ones.
My introduction to the faith came freshman year through arguments with a Catholic friend, mostly had late at night while working through math proofs due the next morning.
He would take shocking stances on matters like same-sex marriage and gender roles, and I would readily take up arms. Even amidst my occasional emotional outbursts and frequent logic of “It just is!”, he always took our discussions seriously (the friends we worked with were a different story: progressive as most of them were, they wanted to go to bed before the sun rose).
For months, I searched hard for any semblance of hate, the ultimate contradiction for any faith worth practicing. In him I never found any, only a skepticism towards the accepted and the mainstream, a willingness to be persona non grata for what he believed in, and an ability to live this way while sacrificing neither kindness nor humility. And I also found, at the foundations of his beliefs, love.
On a campus where encounters are overwhelmingly casual, the rigidity and intensity of Mass force me to actually think about some very difficult beliefs—difficultbecause they leave me tremendously skeptical of how most of us live.
These beliefs include: that there exists something greater than us and this, that late modernity’s founding myth of human supremacy is just that. That we don’t have the answers and never will; that not only are things far from perfect, they’re also not even getting better.
I don’t know how the Catholics feel about my reasons for attending Mass. But they’re ever welcoming, always with open hearts—and even minds—so I go. Fifty minutes of faith that have become salvation for the ultimate skeptic.
I have faith in the heel of my shoe to get me where I need to be. High, thin, a stiletto pinpoint under which I carry the weight of myself, my decisions, my expectations. I joke that I only wear them to better Crush The Patriarchy™. But, I haven’t forgotten that at the Cannes film festival last year, several women were banned from the red carpet for wearing flats.
My heels can make me feel unattractively tall, imperious, powerful, but that power is fragile and easily stripped away. Apparently, my shoes are an invitation for others to judge me. Too tall and I’m a whore, too short and I’m a prude. That’s what Molly Ringwald meant in the Breakfast Club, right?
I’m told that a heel on my shoe is the required footwear to climb the corporate ladder, that I won’t be taken seriously without it. Look professional, they’ll say to me, as I stand next to my coworker who’s worn the same pair of khakis for three days straight. They’ll also say that being feminine will be my downfall, that I should expect lesser pay and to have to shout twice as loud just to be considered as an afterthought.
I just trust that my heel won’t wedge itself in some metaphorical crack in the pavement, leaving me stuck, while in the meantime others around me divest themselves of these limiting contraptions to go off and change the world.
And me? How am I supposed to chase ambition when I can’t even walk?
I have faith in my black Donna Karan New York belt to hold me together. I fasten the buckle two holes from the end of my belt when my high-rise jeans come up below my belly button, four if I’ve situated my trusted leather companion higher, around my waist. I spent fifteen dollars on that belt at Marshall’s, feeling good about myself because it retailed for almost thirty-five.
When I wear it, I feel a rush of pride in the fact that I—yes, that’s right, me—I am stylish. I idolize name brands, mentally ranking outfits based on how many people compliment them.
I used to lie to myself and say I wear it as an accessory, to create the illusion of an hourglass figure on a fruit-shaped body, as if the scale didn’t call my bluff every single time I dared to check. Now, I’m ferociously satisfied, carving new holes when the old ones feel much too loose. It makes me sick to my stomach.
I have faith in the staying power of 24-hour matte concealer, as advertised by Maybelline New York. Each week, my wallet suffers a little bit more, but I’m so tired of having to field questions all day long just because I decided to leave my house barefaced.
“Are you okay? You look sick.”
“Wow, you’re so pale. Is something wrong?”
“Did you know you have a zit right there?”
Did I ask?
I have faith that eventually, I’ll be fed up enough to actually saysomething about all of this. Maybe write something. And I trust that both myself and my pencil point will be strong enough not to brea-
- strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
Faith is not believing in something, it is the unrelenting willingness to believe in anything. She wrote those words in a plain, lineless notebook in an effort to embrace the unknown. After two weeks of meditation— consisting of first feeling connected to her surroundings, starting from the ground and radiating outward, to “erasing” the body with her mind— she began to reconsider her beliefs. Or rather, her lack of belief in a divine creator, spiritual being, or force. Faith was not a common vocabulary in her life. In its place stood words like discipline, control, strength. She used phrases like “It will work out eventually,” halfheartedly, as a temporary bandage for a friend in an undesired situation. Meanwhile, she herself had no real faith. Words like Soulmate, God’s will, destiny, meant nothing to her. “How do you learn morals and values,” a Catholic friend once asked casually over dinner. As if morality was rooted in religion. As if religious faith was an indication of one’s character. As if herlack offaithmade her lacking. It felt like a stab not just to herself, but to a certain kind of upbringing. True, she never believed in Santa Claus. The tooth fairy had always been her father, leaving one dollar bills under her pillow in the middle of the night. And how she longed for the Polar Express to be real. Her pragmatic parents placed no value on childhood imagination.
But she never wanted to believe in a God. It felt too confining. Only years later, would she realize that rejecting the idea was in itself narrow-minded. And therefore came that night of pen and paper, to immortalize the idea of an unrelenting willingness to believe.
complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
He held her little fingers with a gentle yet strong grip. Ice cream! Ice cream, she would point to a vendor on the sidewalk. Okay sweetie, which flavor? He could never say no. Every day, they walked together after school ended: her eating sticky sweet ice cream, thoughts only on the chocolate chunks that were quickly melting, and him trying to co-raise a child in New York City. Her father was always there— cooking breakfast in the morning, and attending appointments, meetings, school events. He was an informal coach in tennis, clarinet, swimming, ice-skating. She learned to bike as he slowly let go of the handle when she was not looking. No, don’t let go, she would scream, terrified of the narrow crooked sidewalks.
Ten years later, as she learned to drive, he was more scared.
Just trust me Dad. Finally, he places the key in her hands.
Okay I know. Don’t worry, you can go.
I don’t believe in romantic love, she declared cynically at the age of 14. What do you mean, you can’t not believe in it, her best friend shakes her head.
Well how do you know it exists, she pushes back, knowing that neither of them had loved anyone that way before.
Don’t your parents love each other?
I don’t think so. She paused, realizing the weight of that statement.
What? Are you sure?
Maybe it sinks into the bones like an elixir. Or it is like falling — the pit of your stomach suddenly floating above you. Or when the tilt of his head and timbre of his laugh become ingrained in your memories.
How did you know, Mom?
I just did.