Fifty

I hadn’t attended the LDS church since I’d arrived in Italy. I’d just been feeding myself, savoring the abundant beauty and attempting not to be abducted. Strangely the stalker incident hadn’t made me hunger for faith any more than usual. The mental space I’d acquired was sweet salvation.

I did actually attend a full church service in Rome, just not my own. Sweet strains of music beckoned me inside the monolithic old cathedral. I was only going to stay for a few minutes, just enough time to admire the frescos and stained glass. But, enchanted by the lilting Italian sermon, I lingered for the entire service. I observed as the priest solemnly waved a smoking lantern up and down the aisles. I watched him effortlessly re-enact the ceremonies that had been repeated here and reflected around the world for centuries.

It was all vastly different from my church experience back home. But it was also hauntingly similar. The hallmarks were the same – ceremony, tradition, guidelines that would build an honorable life and guarantee entrance into heaven. It was all there.

Afterward, I wandered around the edges of the great, echoing chamber, peering into each of the small mural-coated enclaves to see which patron saint resided therein. Most hosted a small stand of candles for parishioners to light as they prayed to their favorite saint.

As I passed one enclave, I caught a glimpse of a woman. Her form was illuminated by the solitary glow of one small, glimmering candle. The burning punk was still clutched tightly in her hand as she lay, kneeling, with her forehead to the floor. She was silently sobbing. Her back tore up and down with each gasp for breath. I imagined her quietly pleading with her saint. Pleading for what? Was someone sick? Had she lost someone? Was she in pain? I didn’t know, but it touched me … to witness her devotion … her tender faith.

I stole away before she could realize I’d been there but I carried the remembrance of her through every church I entered from then on. Her image and the powerful emotion that flowed from her body breathed life into all the flat representations of saints and saviors that I encountered thereafter. It wasn’t really about rules or art or hierarchy or beauty or paying homage … it was about faith and what that faith looked like manifesting through flesh and blood.

For all my past experiences, this reminded me that religion could be a refuge, a healing salve. It could enact a very real and present salvation. It was a place to turn when the waters of life became black with rage and threatened imminent destruction. It could bring peace. It could bring solace. It could bring joy.

For that dear woman, and so many like her, religion was a place of refuge. It was a place that bred hope. It could bring peace during unrest. It could bring love after loss. A place where miracles could happen. It was a way to connect with God and, in so doing, turn one’s life into something worth living.

I thought of my precious family members to whom the LDS faith meant so much. I didn’t understand how they could believe everything the church taught … but I understood how they could believe in this.

I thought of my sister, Julia, and her husband. I may never have understood why she made the choice to return to the church and marry as quickly as she did, but I couldn’t deny that she was happy. I had watched the two of them up close before I left. They were both fully and joyfully invested in the life that they were actively building. No matter what the church was to me, it had brought the two of them together. What’s more, it would provide a framework to keep them that way. And, if tragedy ever did befall them, the church community would be there to lift them up again.

I had known people who had spent their lives struggling with every pain imaginable. Their pasts were one big parade of devastation, from abuse to poverty to drugs. They seemed to have flung through life ricocheting from one tragedy to the next, with no reprieve in between. Then they had found the church and, through it, learned of God. This had changed everything for them, freed them from addiction and brought them to a healthier reality. Religion could turn lives around.

My own Grandfather had come from a family rampant with alcoholism and its accompanying devastations. It had been a rough, survival-based life. That changed when he grew up, got out and, with my Grandmother, found the church. The church had helped them. The things they learned there aided them in raising their two children into educated, well spoken, kind and decent adults. My Mom was one of them. I had certainly benefited from their involvement.

Many of my friends, like Kesa, had grown up in our faith, happily. They loved the teachings and faithfully followed the path laid out before them. For most of them, this led to a stable, fruitful life. They were content. They had purpose. They didn’t find themselves overwhelmed with frustration at every turn. My lot was not theirs. The church uplifted them and gave their lives meaning. Religion could be a beautiful thing.

With my fellow art students, I passed through dozens of churches – meticulously examining the art and architecture in each. The parade of religious paintings were beginning to bleed together in my mind. There were more Virgin Marys in Italy than actual virgins. Of course, Jesus was a popular subject as well. We saw him depicted in every way imaginable. Jesus heals the sick, Jesus blesses the wine, Jesus gets real with the Pharisees, Jesus makes a ham sandwich …

There were other images too. In one cathedral, I encountered a life-sized mural that answered that age old question of what happens when we die. More specifically, the billboard-sized warning depicted what would happen to sinners in the afterlife. The prediction was not good.

The artist had painted the devil, looming large and grotesque, greeting newcomers to Hell. The Satanic creature was actively consuming them, biting off their heads and tossing extraneous body parts haphazardly aside. It was terrifying and grotesque.

My professor explained that when this church was originally erected, its congregants were mostly poor peasants. This meant that, by and large, they were illiterate. Generally, the priest was the only one permitted to read and interpret the Bible anyway. The lay people simply listened and did their best to obey. Words can only have so much impact, however, so priests commissioned frescos to illustrate their points. A good visual could really drive the message home.

This particular work had been created to show people what would happen to them in the afterlife if they didn’t shape up in the here and now. If they weren’t careful, they’d end up being dismembered and digested by Satan himself. Apparently, gaining possession of your soul for all of eternity wasn’t enough. He was going to F*** you up.

Who knew? Maybe we did go through a giant Willy Wonka-style Bad Egg Sorter after death. Maybe there was a giant, subterranean demon waiting to sharpen its fangs on human femur bones and savor the delightful taste of ribs marinated in sin.

Better to just do as one was told.

Staring at this massive image depicting their potential Satanic doom week after week must have been impactful on the cathedral’s first and subsequent congregants. Fear could do that.

I’d seen this side of religion in my own life. There was often an element of fear in organized faith. This seemed to be true in all churches, not just my own.

Over the centuries, religious intimidation had served as a method of controlling the masses, building empires and fortunes. It kept the social hierarchy safely in place. The threat of a dismal fate in the afterlife was pretty good motivation, after all. I’d been through it myself It wasn’t fun.

This was just one aspect of religion’s dark underbelly. Religion could manipulate, control and intimidate. The results were sometimes terrible. Even on a less violent level, religion could be oppressive. It could be silently, insidiously undermining. It possessed a very real ability to destroy what it should have nurtured.

So, what was true? Was religion a manipulator of humanity – a shackle on our collective souls? Or was it a healer of wounds – the bearer of peace and comfort? What was religion really? Was it solace or intimidation? Spiritual connection or spiritual anesthesia? Or, could it be both? Was that even possible?

I would have to figure it out.

When I was a young girl, I often escaped church services and found refuge in the branches of a small Aspen tree outside. I stayed there, watching the ants crawl up the flakey white bark, feeling the breeze in my hair and the sun on my skin. My dress made a soft swooshing sound as it swayed along with the leaves. It was peaceful. It was heavenly. Eventually, my parents or my sister would uncover me.

I still remember Julia standing at the base of the trunk below calling up to me, “Andrea! Come down here right now!”

Actually, she couldn’t quite pronounce her R’s back then, so it sounded more like, “Andwea! Come down hewe wight now!” (Not to worry, she says her R’s better than I do now).

“No!” I would holler back.

“Yes!” She’d protest. “You’w so embawasing! Evewyone can see youw undawawes!”

Eventually, I had to come down. It was the same now. I was occupying sacred space here in Italy, free from the restraints of others, free from reality. But the real world was waiting for me below. I’d have to come down eventually.

I had done a lot of thinking and meditating over the preceding months. The break I’d allowed myself had been interjected by more epiphanies than one.

Hudson had said, “Work backward. Start with what you know and build from there.”

I had done that, building faithfully and doggedly, losing a little here and gaining a little there, in the year since he’d uttered those fateful words. I still had a long way to go, but I was going.

He had also said, “That’s the easy part. The hard part is deciding what to do, once you’ve figured it all out.”

I wasn’t there yet. But I was trying.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Yeah, that was me. Bloody and sweaty and striving – at least before my Italian escape. Now I was mostly full, confused and indecisive. But at least I was trying. I didn’t know if what I was doing was the “right” thing to do, but it felt good to me. And that was one feeling that I was slowly getting used to.

This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.

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