Congratulations to Heather Burtman, whose essay “Searching for God in the ESC” was selected by Christian Wiman for the 2018 Frederick Buechner Prize. Learn more about the Frederick Buechner Prize here.
It was October and there were stars in the concrete jungle. You could kick a chip bag up with your shoe and scuff through plastic wrappers like fallen leaves, and it was almost like a perfect fall. Though we could not see them, the milkweed pods were spooning each other in the pastures and the seeds of silver dollar plants were sneaking into translucency. My roommates and I were all twenty-something and we believed things stubbornly one moment and doubted them the next. Everything was on the verge of nothingness or love. The apples were apocalyptic or else they were just apples.
The just apples I packed for lunch with a quarter cup of peanut butter in a lunch bag that smelled of leaked tomato soup. It was Thursday maybe, and running late per usual, I half-jogged the twenty minute stretch between the church where I lived and the homeless shelter where I worked. I passed by lemon and violet and gray houses, some peeling, others pristine. My focus blurred in and out: a bright blue slice of sky, a broken TV, a cracked flower pot spilling daisies, a cat with steel-colored eyes. I would sit in on my first depression screening at the shelter that day.
As I jogged, I thought about milk. Our fights back at the house seemed to start and end with milk these days. People drank too much milk – our grocery budget was exhausted. The women wanted to buy Greek yogurt, but that was a luxury item. Feta, on the other hand…
Our other pet argument was theology. Wasn’t open communion an abomination? Did the prayer really count if it didn’t come from the BCP? Or did the BCP actually invalidate prayer, make it rote and insincere? My roommates would discuss these things heatedly at community dinner over cheap cuts of chicken from Stop N Shop. As the night went on, knives would saw harder and voices would rise.
When the conversation promised to drag long into the night, I would clear my dishes and retreat to the attic. A pair of nuns used to live in that attic and there were still little wooden crosses hung on the wall keeping watch over our empty suitcases. One of the nuns’ names had been Ruby. She reportedly had had a drinking habit and definitely had a fierce stare which now looked out from us from a framed snapshot on our living room coffee table. “Welcome to the Episcopal Service Corps,” that scowl said. To Sister Ruby’s perpetual dismay, I was always late for Morning Prayer.
Our goals, as members of the ESC, were innocuous enough; most of us just trying to save the world in one way or another. Or else just trying to figure out what to do with another year of our lives and have a place to eat and sleep and grow up a little more slowly. Yet, the fact was that we often did not get along, and even the attic didn’t provide total escape. You could hear everything in that house, and the words would continue to drift up the stairs: liturgy, sacristy, thurifer, high church. Words that I couldn’t have argued about if I had tried. I had been baptized in a swimming pool at a Day’s Inn, for God’s Sake. I still didn’t know how to take communion properly, mostly because I wasn’t quite sure what the word, “intinct” meant. At the moment the most sacred word I knew was “alone.”
My first depression screening at the shelter felt voyeuristic at best, given that, as an intern, I had little to offer. The woman staying there with her four children wore her hair in a tight bun. She apologized for the mess and offered us glasses of water which we declined. We sat down, carefully arranging ourselves in a half circle around the woman, trying to make it look less like three on one.
The curtains were closed, and the light filtered in warm yellow. There was a jaundiced sadness to the stack of dishes that sat by the sink, especially the overturned sippy cup. Though very possibly I was just superimposing. “Do you have a support system?” The case manager began. “Are there people you can talk to? Do you feel alone?” The woman began to sob. I tried not to stare and also not to look like I was looking away. We should have agreed to the water, I thought. Though I quickly learned that this was a ritual: the client always offers water; the case manager always declines.
Afterwards I went home and a roommate, who was both very into the liturgy and experimental baking, had made a pie whose main ingredient was oranges. He offered me a piece; everything was the color of sunshine that day. I ate it and, though it was terrible, I thought then that I did not care about the milk, that maybe we should, in fact, buy more milk.
“What does a high church liturgy possibly have to say to a woman living in a homeless shelter?” I wanted to ask him.
“What does a low church liturgy possibly have to say to a woman living in a homeless shelter?” He might have asked me. But I didn’t start the conversation in the first place.
I choked down my pie and looked out the window. The leaves were falling, tarnished gold. Next month our church would spend a small fortune on wreaths and candles. Like the oil poured out on Jesus feet, they would say, there’s beauty in lavish waste. Maybe.
I had to laugh at myself a little. Just another day in the life of an ESC member; even the leaves prompted theological reflection.
Growing up my family attended a non-denominational church in Ontario called Shallow Lake. My memories of it are disjointed and fleeting: losing my Sunday school dues – a single quarter – down the sides of church pews; spitting watermelon seeds in the grass outside; the red glow of an oil lamp at a Christmas party. The day I picked a scab and showed up to Sunday School with dried blood on my shirt. My Sunday school teacher asked me if I had been eating chocolate ice cream, and I swallowed hard and said yes. That is, I agreed to the most comfortable deception. Is that all religion is? But even then I didn’t really think so. I remember also a woman at church who wore flowy pants and danced with a tambourine like she really meant it. And yet I might have been a happier child if I thought God hadn’t existed.
They say that our image of our father affects our image of God, but the fact is that my father left when I was two, and I never really knew him. I saw God as an opposite; as a hyper-presence, aware of my every action and thought, who knew, for example, that I loved my mother more than God. God, I also knew, was disappointed in my mother because she was getting divorced. God did not sanction divorces, even when they weren’t your fault.
But always remember, even when God is disappointed, God still loves you. I was often reminded of this. But I had nightmares that said otherwise: sharks grabbing at the edge of my red dress, wolves lurking along forest paths, the Jungle Book gone gray scale and filled with snakes and sharp-toothed monkeys. The worst one was my mother being crucified. I had that dream once. I would wake her in the middle of the night and she would draw me a bath and try to coax my nightmares out of me, but I never would tell her that one because it involved religion and God, and I thought it might scare her.
We lived near Georgian Bay and I can remember looking out at night over the bay as the lights of distant cottages winked out one by one. In the dregs of the last light, I felt terror for what became of people when they died. Lord Jesus, come into my heart. Those were the words of salvation I was taught and I whispered them to myself each night before I went to bed in hopes that one of the times it would take.
Even now I can’t fully explain why I was such an anxious child. Perhaps the simple fact of it is that when there is one parent and not two, life becomes harder to hide from your children. You see your mother having a panic attack on the stairs. You see her crying over receipts, kneeling to put frozen pot pies in the oven after a sledding accident and a busted ankle that will not heal. She has been crawling around on the floor for awhile now, but it doesn’t seem like a game anymore. You are small and you do not really understand, and there is nothing you can do to make her feel better.
More than that, there is no promise that life will ever be good really. God, the God your mother prays to, did not make it good for her. Why will God, the God you pray to, make it good for you? Your worship doesn’t change anything; you owe it to God, that’s all.
Like many, I became suspicious of the God of my childhood in college. I thought I had left the faith of my childhood completely behind by the end of my junior year. But still there was something I missed about looking at a cherry blossom tree and thinking it might have something to do with the way the world was brought forth in love.
Towards the end of college I became increasingly conscious of my continued search for God. I didn’t know what I believed. I didn’t even know if I really wanted to believe. I just wanted something. I might have gone on a cross-country road trip or a really long hike or a retreat at a monastery, but I didn’t. Instead, I started attending a Lutheran church, I worked at a Lutheran summer camp, and then joined the Episcopal Service Corps.
As the weather got warmer, my roommates and I started laying out on the section of tar paper roof outside my bedroom window. The roof was clearly visible from the rectory where the priest lived, but the lights were off which meant we were alright. It was just spring and the air wasn’t too sticky. We were looking up at the pine tree and above that the church steeple. Even above the church steeple was a sky, a hierarchy which I found increasingly important. A pollution of light streamed out of J.Crew and the Apple Store, and the stars wrinkled in the sky.
The church steeple was beautiful really, burnt, red brick. I didn’t care so much what happened inside it, but here from the outside it was beautiful. The pine tree was beautiful too and the smoky, polluted sky and the moonglow eyes of a cat slipping in and out of the courtyard gates. That night my mom called to tell me that our neighbor in Ontario had been diagnosed with cancer. His wife had passed away from cancer years before.
During dinner my roommates discussed the merits of Rite I versus Rite II Eucharist. I ate quickly, rinsed off my dish and retreated to the attic. I forced myself into conversation with God. “This is bullshit,” I began. That’s all I really had to say, but God didn’t respond and that made me angry.
“If You can’t provide answers, You should really just leave me alone,” I called after God, “You should have let me stay an atheist that one year in college. Your leading me on, it’s irresponsible. I’m tired of moral objectivity and holding onto hope for the redemption of humanity.” I began to cry.
In college, when I first stopped believing in God, I found the news increasingly oppressive, not because it had grown any worse but because there would be no one there to fix it all in the end. Because it would not have mattered that anyone had suffered. All suffering was in vain, and birth, life, and death cycled on endlessly, meaninglessly. Believing in God, however, does not necessarily produce more comforting answers. If human suffering exists, then God must allow it to. That fact is inescapable and troubling.
Trying to believe in God, it turns out, means a lot of time spent raging against God in attics. “Explain Yourself,” I said finally through my tears, but God never did. I began to sob, and when I finally stopped I found myself once again alone with my silence. That night in the shower I tried my best to wipe away the tar paper smudges on my thighs. The roof and the beautiful sky overhead from earlier that night felt like some sort of betrayal.
That year in the ESC, I found that there were certain parts of the liturgy that touched me deeply, and I thought they might have something to do with the somethingI was looking for. “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep, this night…” the choir sang during Compline. The single red candle we had placed on the pulpit flickered red. Smoke eddied along the dark ribs of the church ceiling. The smell of incense would cling to the clothes of the congregants long afterwards. It was a smell that was neither sour nor sweet, equal parts must and mystery. Vetiver, I thought. I had never smelled vetiver before, but the word seemed right. I would sit in a comforting haze of smoke and darkness and cry for the single mothers at the shelter. Not just for them, but for my own mother too, and ultimately myself.
Compline I found beautiful at least, the way in which it created space for reflection, for grief or rejoicing or awe. But at morning mass a priest would be standing wearing green and gold-stitched vestments. “Pity the afflicted,” he would say as the stain-glass filtered the light through lemon and orange and rose-colored, and I wondered at what happened out in the real world, who sat weeping in their stairwell while we sat unblinking in church.
There was a special liturgy for the last Compline service of the year. A roommate and I were asked to be torches. I had no idea what that meant, but I agreed. What it meant was that we would be part of the procession, carrying torches at the sides of the bearer of the heavy, metal cross. There was a certain amount of sweating and nervous laughter whenever I was asked to take part in the actual liturgy; I didn’t know where to turn, when to bow. This time the church, except the candles and torches, was completely dark, and I imagined the congregation might have missed the slight delay in our bowing, the extra shuffle of our feet to compensate for a missed turn. But as it so happened, after we had finished processing, we couldn’t get the torches back in their stands properly. Whoever was holding the cross dropped it on the stone floor. The clang reverberated throughout the church.
I looked out at the dark church; how did they remain so silent? I looked up at the choir on the balcony, their faces illuminated by clip lights on their music stands. They were paid musicians I knew, many of them not religious. They were laughing, I could tell. I began to think about the fact that I was wearing a cassock. I had the sudden urge to stand up and proclaim to everyone in the church that I had been baptized in a hotel swimming pool on a college ministry retreat. “This is absurd!” I wanted to yell. “Don’t you see how absurd this all is?”
I want to be able to say that all of the years’ questionings finally folded themselves into something as graceful as a stiff lemon meringue. That after everything, I met God again in the ESC.
I think, quite possibly, that I did meet God once after a party. Maybe that seems strange, but my roommates and I did, in fact, go to parties. We would walk home from these parties in the middle of the night and someone would still be smoking hookah outside of Mamoun’s. It didn’t matter what sort of thing we had fought about that day; we would link arms. The sky would shimmer with cold and someone would murmur something about the stars.
I remember that on one of these long, cold walks home, a roommate who had perhaps earlier been expounding on the virtues of Lenten disciplines, turned to me very wistfully and said, “Some days, I’m not sure I believe in God at all.”
I am not sure what I replied then, but I can hear the whispered response I would give now in my head, “Me neither, but I want to.” I wonder sometimes if it’s like Harry Potter and the sorting hat, if it’s what we want that really matters the most in the end, if God factors that in. If hope might in the end stand in very neatly for faith. That night I truly think I met God in my roommate’s disbelief. Maybe disbelief is exactly where God meets us.
I think now about haggling theology over dinner, about a woman at the homeless shelter who applied for jobs over and over only to be rejected, about my mother crying in our stairwell, about myself crying in our attic. The way in which even baking a pie or taking a snapshot of the stars requires a level of belief, and therefore questioning of belief, that is ultimately exhausting. In the end we fall to our knees; we have tried so bitterly for so long. The only comfort I can think of lies in the slightest possibility that in the end nothing else is asked of us.
When we lived in Ontario by Georgian Bay, we also lived by a dam. The trout would come to jump it and swim back to their birthplace to spawn. They would grate themselves to pieces on the rocks, and we would find them dead and eyeless among the lower rocks. I remember the one time, just another bright, unplaceable summer day, that we found one alive. It was floundering in the small pools at the bottom of the falls, fins torn, chunks of flesh missing, gills shivering in the sunlight.
I watched, not old enough yet to be surprised by such an action, as my mother picked the fish up. It regarded her with eyes bulging and glittery with panic, and its fins flicked water across her chest. She carried that trout up and over the rocks and set it down in the calm, golden afternoon water at the top of the damn. The water stirred for a brief moment and the trout swam away home.