The oak pew pressed against my back as I sat surrounded by clinging silence. Stained glass windows grew luminous behind the pulpit; the sun was rising. I clutched an open hymnbook in my hands while the preacher introduced the choir. His voice reverberated, piercing.
It was the Christmas service, and my gift for my extended family was my performance of religion. They unknowingly received it, accepting my participation as a normality.
The choir emerged from the preparatory room, my grandmother with them. The swish of their long robes punctuated the silence. After the singers lined up along the risers, the church’s pianist poised her fingers over the keys. My grandmother caught my eye and winked. I smiled and pushed my hair behind my ears— a small confession of my discomfort. As the first notes hit the air, everyone around me stood. I missed a cue in the play. I quickly stood to join them, and Sunday service memories of quaint dresses and peering over pews on my tip toes arose.
My grandmother, seventy-seven at this time, born during World War II, is a combination of the click of knitting needles, a pianist’s fingers, endless cookies, and the sound of prayers. She has sung in the choir ever since I can remember. She plans the church rummage sale every year, never misses a bell rehearsal, and unquestioningly believes.
As the service continued, I stood there with my toes crushed into pointed heels. My grandmother closed her eyes and began to sing with the choir. Her face displayed the connection with God that she claims to feel most clearly through song. I watched her as I held the hymnbook aloft. Her voice, while still nice, shows her age; you can hear the past Sundays and Christmases in each note.
Everyone around me joined the choir in song, and my voice followed slightly behind. My finger traced deliberately over the words, grasping onto the lyrics. I wondered in this moment if I felt nothing because I was simply trying too hard. I tried to stop trying. I still felt separate. I felt present and self-aware in a way that I was fairly sure I was not supposed to.
I want to believe in a religion. I wish I believed my grandmother’s religion of Methodist Christianity. The light falling from the stained-glass windows onto Jesus’s cross means something more to her, bursting with promise, but I simply see a trick of light and time passing. This removes a sort of magic from my world. It also reveals a sense of loneliness. Finding God in light cast through a window or the foam of your coffee means you are never alone. I felt isolated from those in the church that Christmas. From my Sunday school dresses to my pointed heels, I always felt this way. Trying to make yourself experience something does not make it real.
I balanced in my heels that Christmas, clothed in my Sunday best, which was really my job interview dress. The song concluded, and with the congregation, I sat down, knowing I would inevitably have to stand again. My grandmother stayed on the risers with the choir, and she gave her undivided attention to the pastor. I observed her in my analytical way while she resolutely stood, like her feet did not ache and her arthritis did not make gripping her notated hymnbook difficult. I continued studying her and the stained-glass when suddenly the congregation rose—I realized I had not heard any of the preacher’s sermon. I quickly stood, following my cue, trying to seem like a believer.
This lack of belief restricts me. Since I do not believe in some other religion, I float around. I feel the lack of a unified community that religion provides. I miss having that connection even if it means me perpetuating an illusion. I catered to the illusion until I was in university when I found that many people in my dorm, in my classes, and in this new phase of my life felt like me: skeptical and separate. They expressed this. I pushed my hair behind my ears as I was confronted with blatant statements of what I quietly thought for so long, and gradually, I found myself saying them. Intellectual scrutiny replaced assumed unification. It was during this time that I met Mallory, who became my best friend, and in her strength of opinion and willingness to discuss religion, I realized that honesty was possible. We were free to discuss my qualms with faith as well as other topics. I talked to her about how during my middle school years, the pastor gave a Christmas sermon that wives should be stepladders for their husbands to get closer to Jesus and how I thought that was ridiculous. Over pizza or grilled cheese or tacos, for four years, I met her inquisitive gaze and did not feel burdened with illusions. I matched her intellectual analysis, and I evaluated my lack of faith and the way I see the world. While this mindset may make me more cynical, it also makes me more honest. I became direct about my religious views with my friends, but I held my cards close when I rejoined my family; the same rules did not apply. Even now, everyone at the Thanksgiving table seemingly believes, and while my family accepts and encourages my political opinions, denying religion feels off limits. It took gaining a new community to leave one behind, but in many ways, I still have a foot in Methodist Christianity. I remain wrapped in its assumptions. I remain a nonbeliever.
This lack of belief places a schism between my grandmother and me that she does not even know is there. It existed that Christmas and the next and every moment in between. It existed last holiday in Canada when my grandmother led the family down the road to the small-town church, and we all stomped through the snow to sing hymns. It exists now because it is a Sunday, and I am in a Starbucks and my grandmother is in church.
My grandmother and I are very alike. We are both no-nonsense, musical, and exhausted by misogyny. My grandmother is the one who made me die of laughter after using “asses” in a Scrabble game while saying “what all men are.” She is the woman who just a few months ago discussed Trump’s presidency with me while eating mozzarella sticks in a TGI Fridays. She said it was all “stupid.” I said, “We are going to have a lot to fix after four years.” She huffed, saying “If we make it that far.” She carefully ate her mozzarella stick, and she nudged my arm. She scoffed: “And he calls himself a Christian.” I bit back my desire to say that Christianity often seems to be at the center of oppressive regimes and systems, which I would say to my friends or in an academic setting. Instead, I nodded. I tried to hear her meaning beneath the religious condemnation; I tried to see the version of church that she holds dear and that still tempts me with its security. I did this internally. I changed the subject, and then I ate another mozzarella stick.
It is more than just the lies by omission to my grandmother that bother me. It frustrates me to be “agnostic,” I guess, or not sure what I believe. It annoys me that I will probably change, recommitting to some other kind of belief like many of my friends have begun to do. For someone who appears so headstrong, I feel that folding into a new faith would be a concession, proving my true fallibility. I want to be perfect even in my faithlessness. Amidst all of this confusion and analysis, I still pray almost every night although I do not know if it is really praying. I typically list my hopes for the future and plead for the protection of loved ones. I think it may emerge more from my anxiety as I feel that if I do not pray, this will be the one time that a friend dies in a freak accident or something else bad happens. It is a fail-safe that I use often. Whenever a dire situation occurs, I discover myself begging to God for help. If I do not get what I want, I use it as proof that God does not exist, but if things do work out, I take it as a small glimmer of hope that someone is watching and helping. I used this tactic when my friend went unresponsive in the library last summer, and I spent the night with her in the hospital. I asked God for help, and my friend ended up being fine. Another time, however, I asked God to help my cousin recover from cancer, and she died a month ago. I take this as evidence that if there is a God, he must not be listening. It is a running tally that no one knows I keep. I realize that this is not how faith works. I know people who live in their religion as if it is a safe place; it gives them a sense of meaning in the meaningless. This security brings connection. Religion provides an assurance in a way that social groups do not. Religion gives a transcendence from the present, and I find this aspect alluring and unattainable. My social groups may offer companionship, but they do not provide a solution to my feelings of transience and insignificance. Methodist Christianity gives you an explanation. I imagine people who believe this find solace. My grandmother is one of these people. She sings to God from the choir and feels that he listens, holding his plan close to his chest. The comfort must be nice, but I do not feel it. In a lot of moments, I wish I did. It would make grief easier to bear if I knew it was not a place that I must live in alone or for very long.
This religious confusion places me in a category of a “typical, millennial young adult,” who tries on religions and opinions while committing to nothing. While I think this label is simplistic and biased, it will follow me. It may evolve, but it will still affect future relationships. It already affects my relationship with my grandmother. If I tell her about my lack of faith, her face would surely fall, and a divide would form even if she did not want there to be one. In a family of believers, belief is expected, the norm, and I silently move within this expectation. Breaking this silence would mean change, and I would not want to lose my family even in a small way. I hide silent behind my childhood experience. I do not paint my Sunday school learning as purifying, but I also do not speak out about its increasingly uncomfortable misogyny and all-or-nothing answers to my extended family either. Even to my parents, who do not attend church often but still believe, I do not bring it up. It is all an extended performance. One that I give my grandmother whenever we see each other. I keep up this performance somewhat because I fear the associations and assumptions that may come from my grandmother’s disappointment. Still, if I am to be honest, I think the real reason is that I do not want to make her sad. I do not want her to worry over my loneliness or cynicism. I also do not want her to feel like she failed me. Maybe the real problem is not my grandmother’s piousness or my lack of faith in Christianity; maybe the real problem is my lack of faith in her. My lack of faith that she will continue to love me unconditionally and that small fractures will mend.
When I think of the Christmases with my grandmother in the years to come, I often wonder when the performance will end. If I never marry in a church or baptize my children, how will I explain these things as anything but a lack of belief? Who, besides my grandmother, will I have to explain it to? How will it limit me? I sometimes think, however, that it would be freeing. I would not have to become part of the clinging silence each Sunday when visiting my relatives. Maybe I could be present and not perform, and with no pretense, I would attend each Christmas service to hear my grandmother sing. I could listen to her voice and not clutch my hymnbook like a prop. I would be there for her not for God. I would bear the honesty, and I could truly hear.