With Non-Believing Feet on Holy Ground
“I am not in awe of God, but I am in awe of faith.”
I did not learn about the expression “lapsed Catholic” until it was too late to detach the essence of such a particular brand of nonbelief from the sound of the phrase itself. Before the English “lapsed,” there was the equally fascinating but far more challenging “lapso.” In my native Portuguese, it is an involuntary slip into oblivion, the reverse sleight of hand, which sometimes drives me to throw the spoon in the garbage and the yogurt container in the wash. It is a glitch, an intermittence. Life with interruptions, to borrow and butcher the title of a Saramago novel.
It is no great leap, then, to define a lapsed Catholic as one who’s been robbed of some bits and pieces by a treacherous, involuntary malfunction. Catholicism with interruptions, defined in different ways by what has gone missing and what remains. There, yet not. Schrödinger’s Catholic.
But this self-reflection is a futile exercise. I chose this. I left. I was the malfunction. I ground my teeth and put my foot down and gathered all my failures about me and announced, fueled by all the rage a seven-year-old body could contain, that I would rather go squander my virtues somewhere else, where a God—who was in turns forgiving and resentful—could not see or hear me. In Sunday school, they asked me, “Why do people die?” and I drew multicolored skyscrapers and people hanging from the windows by stick arms and stick legs and answered, young and innocent and so far from weary, “Because we’d run out of room if they didn’t.” I have never in my entire life been on the receiving end of such contempt.
“You don’t understand. You’re not ready.”
And yet days before, I’d walked down the aisle for my first communion and lent my admittedly terrible but heartfelt voice to a solo ode to the glory of God. Clearly I’d been ready enough.
But that was before. This is now.
I am twenty-something years old, in a humble chapel next to a haphazardly cemented cemetery, leaning over the mummified face of a folk saint. He wears a cassock, but he is not—has never been—a priest. I don’t take pictures. I study the bumps and craters on his bald skull and the furrowed texture of his fingernails. If this is sainthood, I don’t want it. Glass separates us, and I leave fingerprints on it while doing my best to keep a safe distance from the wax models resting on it. A heart and a breast—my stomach turns. Corpses I can handle. These effigies, heads and shoulders, knees and toes, models of whatever body parts we wish to save, I cannot.
Outside: rusted vending machines, Christ with open arms by a cigarette display, a hundred Virgin Marys in a shop window. Before, I’d allowed myself to contemplate buying one garish figure, with its turquoise gown and Barbie pink headscarf. Now, a woman in crutches comes into the chapel, her shirt almost as bright as Virgin Mary’s scarf. She kisses her fingers and touches them to the glass, again and again. She never looks at me and I wonder if she can see me at all, if I have finally found the place and time where God and His people cannot judge me.
Irish comedian Dara Ó Briain once said Catholicism is the world’s “stickiest, most adhesive religion.” He’d meant that you can’t leave unless you formally defect or, alternatively, bring excommunication upon yourself. But I mean it differently. I mean that I see God’s people everywhere, doing His bidding, taking steps and living lives in His honor. I mean that I have never not been surrounded. From my window, I watch as a man uses all his weight to make the bell toll. Inside my home, I keep finding misplaced icons and candles and rosaries. The men in my family wear their faith like they would a hat—quiet, unassuming—but the women build small shrines to whoever needs them, and they pray to St. Anthony for the retrieval of lost items. The women plead, request, haggle, negotiate, demand, wield their faith as a righteous morning star, and I cannot help but feel I must have it in me to do the same, to negotiate with God.
Every once in awhile, I still flip through my Bible. I’m good with maps, codes, directions, and I haven’t forgotten how to find my way through this labyrinth of chapters and verses. (Those words, too, sound much more complicated in my mother tongue.) One verse, Act 7:48, is particularly close to my heart, and it reads “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.” It feels like explicit, canonical permission to forget everything I’ve ever learned.
A few months before the folk saint, I’m at a Renaissance faire. The sun is set on melting my bare legs into the stone steps I sit on, and the only place I can escape it is inside a convent church. I walk in to witness the closing of some historical reenactment. There are so many of us, tourists and visitors and desperate chill-seekers alike, and we are invited to take a tour of the convent. It begins behind the altarpiece.
I have no business being in the house of God, of course. (Much less the altar.) And yet I cannot stay away. I yearn for meaning, for transcendence behind those double doors, like I yearn for some sign of lives to come in the Peruvian mummies and the incorrupt folk saints and the autopsy room—dead people and churches are all alike among themselves, listless and quiet, and I have yet to find one who will be moved by my pleas.
Not far behind the tour guide, I have a hard time reconciling this scaffolded backstage with the baroque, icon-encrusted, gold-leaved glory it supports. Here, on the old floorboards, no step is silent, and an entire galaxy of dust particles floats in the dry, stale atmosphere. Hidden crevices and doorways make it possible to tend to the front of the altar from here.
Would we like to try? Would we like to stand on the baroque, icon-encrusted, gold-leaved glory of the altarpiece?
Yes. Yes. I don’t care, don’t ask me again, there’s no time to consider the potentially blasphemous implications of this offer. Help me up.
I have never seen a church from this angle and it rattles my bones. A priest, a young thing, beckons me to hurry along. I am stalling, there are others behind me, only two people at a time, please step aside. I obey, but I must look hungry, eager, desperate, because he stops me, invites me to step back out there once the tour’s over, just me, myself, and the cavernous emptiness of this temple.
Is he even a priest? Does he wear his cassock like the folk saint wears his cassock? For my sake? I can’t tell anymore than I can tell whether the boy running up and down the choir in gold brocade is a real prince. The priest smiles at me. I’ll never know which part he’s playing, but for him, I’ll play a believer. I take one picture—that’s it, one picture—and I add this holy perch to my mental catalog of places where I’ve felt at peace.
A few years after my “lapso,” I stopped crossing myself as I walked into a church. At first I’d still bend my knee and touch those key points in quick succession, but soon I stopped bowing and eventually I stopped raising my hand altogether. I had no business playing a believer, and so began the negotiations. If my grandmother could ask for salvation in exchange for her blistered feet on the way to Fátima, I too could learn to set my own terms. In exchange for never having to cross myself in church again, I’d forgo the right to walk down the central aisle. It seemed fair—and to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever broken this unspoken rule.
I’m in a cathedral now. I take furtive steps up the right-side aisle. The columns between me and the pews that line the nave are thick, Romanesque, and I only realize I am not alone when I cross right in front of her. Old lady, front row, rolled down socks on swollen ankles, bejeweled purse on her lap, eyes hard on the altar. I stop. I’ve been so quiet, so discreet. She smiles at me.
“Beautiful church, isn’t it?”
All right. She sees me. But does she know I come in awe for the house, not the God? Does she notice the graceless sloshing of the half-drunk Coke bottle in my backpack? Does she realize I’d much rather kneel to the shattered bones and the bruised knuckles and the endless strength of God’s builders than to God Himself? Do I offend her? She tells me she comes here to pray. What have I come for?
I’ve given myself away. Believers don’t approach the altar on stealth mode, tiptoeing so their heels never knock on the tombstones lining the floor. Believers don’t fear they’ll fall into hard times should they step on one. Believers realize, perhaps better than I do, it’s been almost two centuries since we’ve buried anyone inside our places of worship—there’s no need to pay our respects to the ground we walk on anymore.
I am not in awe of God, but I am in awe of faith, like I am in awe of the stars and mile-long equations and women whose makeup never runs. All things I could have understood if only I had chosen differently. I have, for all intents and purposes, been initiated. I have looked around in Sunday school to see people, but no gods. I have wanted answers more than questions, or questions more than answers, but in any case, I have refused every single one, and demanded more. I have hoarded my weekly prayers to say them all at once, so they’d demand less of me. I have gone to confession to tell yet another man in a cassock that I do not understand what a sin is, but that God would probably not like that it takes me three hours to finish my meals, that I carve circles out of the red skins of my apples to make ladybugs. (I was six or seven, and I never ate the apples. I rarely ever ate anything.)
It’s not that I wish I’d stayed. It’s that I wish I knew what I’ve missed, and nothing—no witness account, no Bible verse, no woman in hot pink kissing a dead man in a cassock—seems like an accurate enough portrayal.
What’s that expression again? Lapsed Catholic. Defined in different ways by what has gone missing and what remains. There, yet not. Schrödinger’s Catholic. It’s been nearly two decades since my treacherous, voluntary malfunction, so perhaps I have yet to live long enough to regret my decision. One thing I do know, though. My soul would be poorer—not quite as golden, not quite as ostentatious, not quite as fatalist—if not for the bits and pieces where Catholicism has changed it. Should I carve them out now, and make a ladybug out of this particular apple, I do not know what it would look like. Only that I would not recognize it as my own.
More in this series
“I saw that God I’d been so determined to believe in not as an absolute, but as a construct that couldn’t take a joke.”