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The world is green, grass in full fall five o’clock shadow, and I stand in the middle of it. My hands cradle two pecans. There are more barely hidden in the verdant whiskers. Nearby, I may have a pile of them or a bowl full. Now, I have only the two—perfect brown ellipses flecked with black. The nuts warm quickly in my touch, the dust of their abandoned husks bitter and drying as alum. I hold the pecans. We are poetry, a song of praise. This is my first conscious memory.

I am two years old.

And I am sacred.

 

 

I descend from generations of Catholics, numerous as rosary beads. My grandparents are devout beyond the expectation of prayer and Sunday mass. The One True Church is chosen for me, and I sit in one of its domiciles surrounded by echoes and incense but anxious to go outside.

Beyond the cathedral steps is the largest, oldest living thing I’ve ever seen. Almost 500 years old, it is Magnificence and Beauty. The oak tree waits for me, for my hands on its bark, for my entranced orbit around its trunk. I will learn the words axis mundi decades later, and I will know exactly where that is.

For now, the tree holds the space between the cathedral and the school building where I attend catechism. In the classroom, I’m told of the indelibility of original sin, the importance of pleasing the Lord, and the stories of a great ark, burning bush, giant whale, and woman who turns to salt.

But before I’m called away, I stand on the fluorescent-lit sidewalk within a footstep of the darkness, a leap away through moonlight into a canopy of leaves. At the ancient oak’s roots is where I want to be.

I am a pagan.

 

 

Requisite catechism classes and first confession complete, I wear the white dress my grandmother made for this first communion. I walk down the aisle with the other children to the pews—boys sent left, girls sent right. The veil’s haze blurs my sight. I kneel. I mutter what I’ve learned by rote, and I feel I’m doing something wrong. I don’t belong here. I’ve told no one I don’t believe what I’ve been taught in catechism, by example, through osmosis. I push this feeling down, hard, and it stays. The wafer on my tongue transmutes into caulk.

I am a bad girl.

 

 

We move to another parish, with a modern building and no oak tree. The priests are younger, as well as the families. The circumstances are different, but the doctrine isn’t. I barely contain the danger of what I know, what I feel, but I can’t speak of it.

So I sit in the bright sanctuary where the acoustics are balanced and the pews are unworn, with the unacceptable thoughts I’ve formed on my own. I am only twelve, but I don’t believe birth control, sex before marriage, or homosexuality is wrong. I don’t believe in hell, purgatory, limbo, or heaven. I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin or resurrected from the dead. I don’t believe that Catholicism is theOneTrueChurch, that people of other religions—or none at all—are damned, or that the pope is infallible.

I am an apostate.

 

 

I meet with a confirmation counselor, a middle-aged woman who does most of the talking about the solemn sacrament. My feet dangle from the edge of the wingback chair. I sip the Coke she serves me. Knowing I can’t endure an act of hypocrisy, I tell the woman I’m not ready to do this yet. I don’t know her, or trust her, so I summon up the most neutral excuse I can imagine. “I need more time to think about this commitment,” I say. Perhaps I come across as mature, or at least respectful. Several weeks later, after much sulking and silence, after several red-faced insistences upon my obedience, I am allowed to quit.

I am a disappointment.

 

 

I’m not prepared for the difficult growth from the tendrils of doubt into the gripping vines of uncertainty. Our Father who art in Heaven has been imposed upon me, but I have no guide to take his place. I want to be an atheist—desperately—but all I can achieve is an embittered agnosticism. My rage at God, if God exists, is complicated. I don’t want to be this way, but I am, and if my will alone can’t make me a believer, then was I fearfully and wonderfully made not to be one?

At fourteen, I begin a search for answers beginning in philosophy, psychology, and natural science. In college, I learn of a time when God was a woman, or at least not only a man. I behold the Venus of Willendorf and the Minoan snake goddess, who seem familiar to me, like someone I’ve forgotten. I read the names of the dead goddesses and their myths, invoking the Feminine in the place where the rigid, judgmental Masculine banged his hairy white fist. I encounter Joseph Campbell, the venerable sage, who reveals the common motifs of mythology and religion from all over the world throughout time. He teaches me that human beings have always assigned stories to the Great Ineffable.

I am a scholar.

 

 

During the first years I practice yoga, I acknowledge the envy I have of my grandmothers. What is it like to believe as they do, to have trust in a faith, to have prayers and rituals that hold meaning? What does it feel like to have a relationship with the Divine that isn’t constantly in question? And if there’s doubt, how does one carry its weight, the pressure that perhaps there is, in fact, nothing after all but the spooky action of matter and energy?

As I enter Eastern territory—where Hinduism and Buddhism speak to me—I also return to the Earth. I read and think about the span of human wisdom, but it is only in stillness with Nature that I discover any truth. I ache for a return to something I think I once knew, something that belonged to me, something that was stolen and buried.

Then I find peace in my knowledge that the Divine force takes many forms. Each is a fragment of the whole, a glimpse through which the person perceives according to his or her understanding. My grandmother finds comfort in the Blessed Virgin Mary. My sister’s Hindu friend has a shrine to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. My Buddhist friend sits in meditation, sometimes in the presence of Tara, the bodhisattva of compassion and action.

I reach for the ancient oak, a flower, the song of a bird. When I hold these things, I am connected to the Divine in the purest state I comprehend.

I am a seeker of what cannot be taught or found, but instead known and felt by my individual human soul.

 

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Ronlyn Domingue Ronlyn Domingue is the author of The Mapmaker's War (Atria Books, 2013). Its sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, is forthcoming in 2014. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, The Independent (UK) , and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org, The Nervous Breakdown, and Salon.com. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats.

Connect online at ronlyndomingue.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

27 Responses to “Divine Roots of Disbelief”

  1. james says:

    lovely exploration of the genesis of your faith. you’ll like my audio piece, hail holy queen” that’s coming in the drum!

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Ronlyn,
    This is a wonderful journey you describe. Your words are put together so well that I can taste them.
    This line is perfect:
    “I barely contain the danger of what I know, what I feel, but I can’t speak of it.”

  3. Quenby Moone says:

    I love this. The pecans open the story, the oak closes it–you are just as comfortable as Dad was with the natural world, full of strange light and mysterious faith, cosmic and small in the same breath. A bird song, indeed!

  4. Mary McMyne says:

    The arc of the journey of my faith – or lack thereof, or whatever you want to call it – is so similar to this it feels familiar. Thank you for writing it down.

  5. Paul Clayton says:

    Nicely told tale of your search. I’m still looking for answers myself. We probably finally find them after that final breath. That’s when the present is opened. Inside, something nice… or maybe nothing. Who knows?

    In the mean time we should try and not beat each other up and eat our vegetables. :)

    Best!

    • Indeed, Paul, who knows. Although I do hope there are some answers when it’s all over.

      A little more kindness and vegetable eating can make the world a better place.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. kristen says:

    Ronlyn, this is beautiful.

    Are you familiar w/ the Eamon Grennan poem “Two Trees”? Here ’tis: http://difficult-loves.blogspot.com/2011/06/two-trees.html. Your essay called it to mind for me.

    As always, thanks for sharing.

    • I went to the link first. *swoon* Jean Shinoda Bolen recently published a book called LIKE A TREE. She claims there are “tree people.” No doubt Mr. Grennan and I are those people…

  7. From the title alone, I had a hunch I’d like this one. I’ve had my own not dissimilar journey, spending an especially long time cultivating my own stripe of pagan. But like you I never abandoned a sense of divine and, for the frequent nausea that organized religion induces in me, I’m grateful that it opened a space somewhere in me for faith. My former youth minister would describe it as a “God-shaped hole in our hearts,” which is an image I like but could never believe was limited to only that single form.

    Thanks, Ronlyn, for sharing your experience, and that ancient oak.

    • The thing is, I don’t know what I believe, but I believe “something.”

      I love that image your youth minister shared. Perhaps he, or she, didn’t mean it to be so open and inclusive, but that’s how it comes across. That reminds me of someone I knew in college, who was from the Northeast. For whatever reason, we were talking about religion, and he said that at his church (Episcopalian?), they referred to God as “MotherFatherCreatorBeing.” I’d never heard such a thing. I had a moment of wonder–and resentment. THAT was a concept I could relate to and didn’t hear it until I was a young adult.

      Paradoxically, perhaps, I love cathedrals and churches. You live in a part of the world where amazing places of worship are a day’s drive or train ride away. And of course, very very old trees.

  8. Zara Potts says:

    You are a marvel.

    Oh, how I miss your writing. So beautiful and lush even when you use your words sparingly. This is the first TNB post I’ve read for 2012 – and it’s a marvelous way to start the year, Miss Ronlyn.

    Xz

    • The “twins” were responsible for the long absence. Now that one is done and the other inching toward completion, I have the energy for other projects. Thanks for the kind words, Miss Zara. I look forward to seeing you back here again, too.

  9. D.R. Haney says:

    I’m with Z in wanting to welcome you back. I mean, it really hasn’t been so long, but I miss the time when you were a regular presence here.

    I’ve been thinking about spiritual matters of late, and specifically of how I thought I was done with Christianity in my teens, yet, because I was raised a Christian, it’s impossible to ever be done with it entirely. There are aspects of Christianity, of the example of Christ, that have continued to influence me beneath my awareness. “A journey that’s not ever yet,” you say. Yes. Also: “Contemplation is hard.” Well, certainly, for me, wording what I contemplate is the hardest of all, particularly where it concerns spirituality.

    On another note entirely, I recently started Connell’s The White Lantern, and if it were published in the same volume as A Long Desire under one title, no one would know that they’re in fact two books. That’s how similar they are.

    • Thanks, Duke. It was a few months. I hope there are new pieces on the horizon from you.

      No, there’s no way to be done. Our lives spiral through these issues again and again. It wasn’t germane to include this in the piece, but I’ve developed an affinity for saints, or at least the idea of them, within the past few years. Maybe it’s a genetic vestige that’s grown in me. Or maybe it’s because they don’t seem that odd when I consider Hinduism with its multitude of deities.

      Oh, to savor more Connell now or to wait until I reached another rest point with my book!!!

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Well, if you liked A Long Desire, I think you’ll definitely savor The White Lantern. I hope the rest comes soon and leaves you feeling pleased, not lost or frustrated.

        • That Connell, something to anticipate.

          If I’m lucky, I’ll have another stretch like I did in December–which would yield a clunky first draft. The last twin and I are in a better place than we have been. Long time coming.

  10. Joi Brozek says:

    Damn, Ronlyn. This was exquisite.

    I so can relate, too.

  11. Joi Brozek says:

    Thanks, Ronlyn!! I’m getting there! I’m finally out of boxes. I am, of course, loving every minute of living here. Talk soon… would love to have a cup of coffee and a meaningful chat :)

  12. Oh, man, that doubt’s such a serpent. Nagging and gnawing. I was always a little jealous of people who Felt the Presence; I always felt like the guy at a concert who didn’t know the words to the non-radio songs around them.

    I always liked trees too.

  13. Erika Rae says:

    Beautifully written. Your last line struck such a chord with me. Like you, I was raised Christian – but of course, I’ve had so many questions and have even named my book “Devangelical”. It’s a struggle – a nagging – that never lets me alone. Who is “God”? Who am I in relation to God? My religion did not give me answers – and yet there is something deep inside, ‘buried’ as you put it, that I’m trying to rediscover. I admire the honesty you had at such a young age.

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