It was five years ago, and my twin sister was in love with Orthodox Judaism. It was not a hard thing to fall in love with–here we were confused freshman at a big East Coast school, “the party school of the Ivies” as it was nicknamed in the ’90s. And we were homeschooled kids from Alabama, who grew up without a TV, reading Lord of the Rings and bottle-feeding half a dozen younger siblings. Now suddenly. a culture of subwoofers, condoms, beer and vomit…. It was a shock. And also freshman year I had a very talkative Biochemistry professor who stated all the world’s ills were created by the British Empire & the Catholic Church; he spent class periods rambling about the stupidity of religious folk, details of our presumably active mating practices, and the ascendancy of atheism. The emotional/existential onslaught of it all was a big overwhelming at times. For me, the existence of God, spirit, and beauty, all hung in the balance.
And then there was this kosher dining hall. We would go Saturday mornings. Sunlight would stream through one of the windows. There were half a dozen tables, with boys and girls talking and laughing–a world I recognized from my homeschooled umbrella group, traditional conservative flirting. Nothing much. But then there was one table closest to the window. The most devout Orthodox boys sat there, the ones we saw in our science classes who constantly wore their yarmulkes and paid no attention to us. They would sit at this table, too busy to flirt, with these books in front of them. They were singing– accapella, in Hebrew, songs in some sort of non-Western key with a beauty that tore your heart out in longing. The remnants of their breakfast would be on the table, their chairs a little pushed back, swaying a little to their singing, faces in a heedless bliss. It was worship. The other tables all chattered away in cheerful talk, but the singing table would keep going. They weren’t performing–they were worshipping, breathing in G-d’s presence. In those voices you could hear the joy, the ernestness, the faith. There was a purity there, evidence of another world.
I asked my twin what they were singing–with her halting knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, she told me it was mostly psalms–and one about “send us the Messiah, and he will redeem us” or something like that. I and my twin would try to inconspicuously sit at a table as close to the singers as we dared, disentangle ourselves from kindhearted girls’ welcoming conversation, slowly eat our kosher food that wasn’t that good, and soak in every sound of it. It gave us strength. I wanted to record them, but felt it would be sacrilege (which is just as well because I later learned electronics are forbidden on the Sabbath). Once my twin’s yearning got the better of her, and she went over and held one of those Hebrew books, staring at the letters with such a mixture of loving wonder that she started to get attention from certain folks. I fled to the corner watching this prospect, and had a good laugh, but later that day lectured my twin into wearing a crucifix round her neck. She had to be honest, I insisted, and let them know that as much as you prefer Orthodox Judaism to faltering Christian churches, you will never dump Jesus. We argued–she said it would be offensive, etc. In the end I won. But then I had to eat my own medicine. So I started wearing one too. It was a little cheap metal one, that I had appropriated from the end of one of the rosaries belonging to my Presbyterian Pastor Jewish grandfather (he had a great many of them, sent to him by his colleagues in the pro-life movement, so he hung them on a peg in his office).
I wore my little crucifix, on a succession of breaking cheap chains and fraying ribbons. Some of the humanities classes I was in were a bit secularist, and a few science classes decidedly materialist. Sometimes I’d be embarrassed (depending on the crowd or professor), but I’m the type that can only run away or towards, so I chose to run towards. I started filling my dorm room with prints of icons I’d printed in the computer lab downstairs–images the older the better. Respectable modern kant-divided Christianity had no power in this struggle, I needed religion that was physical and medieval, holy water and the bleeding body of Christ. Real faith.
16 months ago, I made it to my graduation, and wore that little crucifix under my expensive rip-off robe (made out of fibers from recycled plastic soda bottles to save the world of course). There were tens of thousands in the arena. The speaker (Huntsman) gave a moving and slick speech. I had a nasty cold/flu contracted from sleep deprivation during my last finals, and was doped up on tylenol, so I dozed on my twin’s shoulder for most of the ceremony. My family cheered from the stands.
11 months ago on this day my Korean grandfather passed away. We were there during his last few days, we brought him home for hospice after the 100 days at the hospital. I watched him drift in and out of consciousness, my siblings played their instruments for him, the relatives took turns sitting by his side. We sang. In the last 36 hours, I was in the room when he smiled at us, pulled himself back into consciousness to nod at his old war buddies, and bowed his head for the Korean pastor’s enthusiastic prayer. I wasn’t in the room when he winked at my grandmother, but my siblings told me about it. I was in the room when his breathing became raspy, and then stopped, and he turned white. As he went pale, there was a sense in the room as if there was something bigger there. A sense of mystery, or awe, I don’t have the right word. But God is close in all that. As if he had gone through a door, and for a second we could feel the draft from the other side. Perhaps ‘Awe-ful’ and ‘Beautiful’ are the wrong words, but I can’t think of another one. For a moment, eternity feels very close; and though it is not a comfortable feeling, it is very good. There is much hope in it, and a kind of fear/terror/awe.
It was a bit of a blur, with relatives all camping out in the house and flowers being bought, and everyone keeping odd sleeping schedules (or lack thereof) with spontaneous reminisces and snacking. Then we were in the chapel at the cemetery, and I had forgotten to bring the big wooden cross I’d brought up from Alabama. I had nothing else, so when I went up to kiss him before they shut the coffin, I took off my crucifix, and slipped it in his vest pocket, over his heart. They shut the coffin, and lowered him into the earth. There were alot of flowers and crying.
My mother bought me a replacement two months later for Christmas. It was a plain cross. In a few months the copper beneath the silver plate started to eat me, leaving burn marks around my neck that looked like Frodo’s in the movie Lord of the Rings. I was at home surrounded by my siblings, so for the first time in years I went without. Then my sister gave me her big, weighty, bronze-colored crucifix, and after getting burned by another metal chain, I switched to a leather cord (but chemicals inside the leather are now beginning to eat through the metal…).
One month ago I arrived at my history Jesuit grad school. Yesterday it dawned on me that my crucifix is no longer a declaration of open rebellion–now I match the decor in every classroom. I didn’t realize how much I relished being the rebel until I lost that status. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed it–now for the first time, I’m not subversive at all–I’m in step with with the establishment. Really, this feels so weird. It shouldn’t matter to me…argh…I’m such a silly person. 😉
Sorry about this note—I started it out planning to crack some jokes and be lighthearted, to make up for all my typical longwindednesss, but on the way to my punchline in the above paragraph, this became just another one…. Sorry–Kind of.