War & Peace

  1. War & Peace

I grabbed the over-sized handle of the tall, wooden door and pulled.

Heck yeah. It was unlocked.

I stepped inside. The sounds of the town behind me, all the little cars and camions giving gentle honks and tapping on shrill brakes, all the nasal salutations between various shopkeepers and the old ladies rolling their grocery carts down the sidewalk, were suddenly eclipsed by the closing of that heavy door.

Thick, stone walls surrounded me. Muted sunlight filtered in through stained glass windows at select intervals. The stone floor gave off a coolness. It was like entering a womb, a controlled environment. Calm. Focused.

I looked around. No one else was in the church.

I walked around to the outermost aisle, up to the front row. I genuflected out of habit and sat down.

I held my breath as I waited for someone else to walk in. I listened for voices in the sacristy, footsteps in the balcony, for a pin to drop--but it was silent. After a while, I relaxed and let my mind wander.

It was the middle of a school day. I had decided not to go to my Spanish class anymore since the blonde profesora lady snubbed me constantly. I think she thought I was some sort of American nuisance. No matter. I was in desperate need of quiet time anyway. Day and night, I was surrounded either by chattering French students or a rambunctious, young family.

My host family wasn't religious, so I had never been in here before. It was a grand church for such a small town. It was old and very traditional. I liked it a lot better than the modern, 1970s-looking church I was forced to go to back home.

Yes, forced.

I had tried, one Sunday, to resist. I stood at the top of the stairs in my pajamas, fists on my hips, and announced that I was not going to church, not today, not ever again!

My mom fired right back. "Oh yeah? Well, then--I'm never buying you any new clothes ever again!"

The only way I could safely, stylishly rebel was by folding my arms and sitting like a statue while everyone else went up for Communion. Week after week, I endured the silent scorn of the strangers in my pew who had to shuffle awkwardly past my knees.

No matter. I had bread to eat that they knew not of: my integrity.

I had suspended my integrity two years ago, and I still was not over the wound of it.

"Mom, why do I have to get confirmed? I don't even believe in God! I don't want to be Catholic anymore."

"Well, you might want to get married in the Church someday."

Really? That was it? That was the whole reason?

Something was just wrong, empty, missing, completely lost on me. The event of Confirmation seemed like my chance to make a statement, to leave the Catholic Church, to follow my conscience and say "No." I didn't want to do something I wasn't wholehearted about. It seemed like a lie.

But I was a coward. I was very much dependent on my parents for material things, and I didn't exactly have a deep spiritual well I could draw from to comfort myself in the event that my mom thought I didn't deserve the gift of a car, or any future trips to Abercrombie & Fitch, etc., because of a choice to rebel about Confirmation.

My sweet, old Godparents drove to town and stood beside me as sponsors. I chose St. Cecelia, patroness of musicians, for my Confirmation saint. The Bishop must have put chrism on my forehead in the shape of a cross, although I don't remember this at all.

At home there was a reception. There was cake. Lots of my relatives were there, people who were supposedly also Catholic, although their faith, as far as I could tell, existed in the same impenetrable bubble that my mother's did. All these brown-haired, brown-eyed relatives in one room, chitchatting, their plastic faith bubbles smooshing up against one another, and all the while, I was still confused as hell. Like the oppressive, endless silence must be in outer space, where your screams are not carried six inches past your face, such was the atmosphere for a conversation about faith in my family, even at something like a Catholic Confirmation reception.

I took the picture with grandma on the front porch. I ate some of the cake. I opened the Hallmark cards and pocketed the money, which only made me feel worse.

No, I wasn't in this church today because I was nostalgic for any of that. I was here because I needed to think.

I had just returned from a trip to Normandy with my host family. We had gone all around, visiting the D-Day beaches, the WWII cemetery, and a really cool museum called the Caen Memorial.

We were at that museum for hours. The exhibits were all about the Holocaust and World War II from each country's point of view. Right at the end, after I had learned and cried and suffered as much as I possibly could alongside these ghosts of the past, the museum opened up into a luminous atrium with an exhibit on the many peace initiatives in the world today. There was even a video in a small movie theater we could have watched, but by then, my host brother and sister were getting pretty antsy. We left without seeing it, unfortunately. But still, I had experienced a lot. In the gift shop, I bought a key chain of a white dove holding an olive branch in its mouth.

I was so exquisitely melancholy on the way to the car and on the drive back to the hotel, I couldn't bear to talk. My host parents thought I hadn't liked the museum. I quietly assured them that I had.

That night, in my journal, I wrote:

"The whole day made me REALLY want to go to church. I have NO idea why, but it did. And only a Catholic church would do. I like Catholicism because it's solemn."

I felt like a hypocrite. Well, I didn't want to go to Mass, necessarily, I just wanted to sit inside of a church, in silence. I still thought Jesus and the Bible were "hooey." Apparently, though, I might have believed in a "higher power."

"Is believing in a higher power automatically considered being religious? I hope not. I've never wanted to come off as religious. In fact, it's been the only reason I feel I'm still a bad-ass, which is key. By not being religious, I've been able to attribute my good behavior and decisions to my own common sense."

I was at this church today to ponder whatever it was that I had felt at the museum when I came face to face with all that cruelty and human suffering, as well as the bravery and self-sacrifice that had been required to vanquish it.

I continued to visit the church sporadically for the remainder of my stay. I did end up going to Mass there once, on Easter Sunday. I went for the sake of anthropology, and, I suppose, because it was Easter Sunday. I tagged along with a nice, Catholic family from my neighborhood.

As I followed along in the missal during Mass, I noticed they kept addressing God informally instead of formally.

"How come you address God as 'tu' instead of 'vous'?" I whispered to my neighbor lady. "Why so informal? Isn't he God?"

She was puzzled. She didn't know what to tell me. I wondered if she had ever thought about it.

Using "tu" instead of "vous" was a big deal. I had done that, on accident, to my host family's grandfather when we visited him in Paris, and I paid for it. He treated me with disdain the rest of the day.

Hmm, I thought, they must consider God, like, a friend or something. . .

Sarah Weik

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