One of the most horrifying moments of my undergraduate career took place in the North Market parking lot in downtown Columbus. Fortunately, all of the people involved (except for the questionably homeless guy) are some of my best friends and, even though they are academics, have never judged me for my faith, and have never done anything to make me feel ashamed. Otherwise I might have pooped myself.
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” asked the Questionably Homeless Guy.
Oh, fuck. I had always been told that under no circumstances are you to deny Jesus.
Even if someone has a gun to your head?
Even if someone has a gun to your head. You’ll just go to Heaven faster.
I looked to Best Friends. They were absorbed in conversation and Polish mashed potatoes.
“I do,” I answered.
“Do you believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father?”
Best Friends looked up from their mashed potatoes.
“I do,” I answered quietly. I could feel my face turning all kinds of red.
“Do you believe that He came down from Heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit, was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man?”
“I do.” How much blood can flow into your face before it explodes? Best Friends were going to think I was so dumb. Virgins can’t get pregnant. That’s like Sex Ed 101. You have to have sex to get pregnant.
“Do you have any spare change?”
First, you can see that if this was one of my most embarrassing moments, obviously I didn’t get out much. Second, as humiliating as that experience was, I’m grateful that I don’t have to experience more alienation on a regular basis. I could be Jewish or a Muslim and be ironically patronized in a superficially friendly academic environment. I could be anything other than white and never be taken seriously in academia. Or I could be a female…
But aside from that fact, I am genuinely grateful that I’m as privileged as I am.
Even academia, the safe haven of reason, is not free from people who want to poke around in your god-vagina. For academics who are supposed to take a relativistic approach to their studies, anthropologists seem to forget that they are allowed to treat the religious practices of their colleagues with the same relativistic respect that they normally reserve for their subjects. There isn’t a ban on appreciating Western religion for its cultural value, and there isn’t a ban on believing in a god or gods just because you’re an intellectual. And quite honestly, you’re doing a disservice to the rest of the world by patronizing them for engaging in cultural practices that don’t appear to have a direct scientific outcome.
Now, to be frank, I’ve always had some self-esteem issues to begin with. Working in an environment where colleagues are, on a fairly regular basis, dismissing Western religions and mocking faith exacerbated this for a while.
What if I can’t be a real scientist because I believe in God?
What if they have x-ray brain vision and can read my thoughts and know that I believe in God and think I’m stupid?
What if this skull in my hands comes back to life and yells, “Stop touching me! I want a REAL anthropologist!”
Actually, that part would be pretty great because it would need its mandible to talk, and I can’t figure out how to put it back together, so if it could reassemble itself, that’d be super helpful.
Lately though, like God and your genitals, I’ve decided that I don’t give two shits. This sounds like a decision you’d come to over a long period of time whilst preparing for a religious sacrament or diving into a self-help book, but I actually decided on my level of shit-giving in the span of about twenty minutes in a run-down church in Zagreb.
Located in the heart of what must be the world’s biggest farmer’s market, Dolac, the Church of St. Mary was built in the sixteenth century and quite possibly has not undergone any renovations since that time. It’s easy to imagine that its bile-yellow exterior must have at one time looked more like sunlight than dog vomit as the church of the Blessed Virgin looked down at Her patrons in the marketplace. The bell tower is typically Eastern European, with gilded markings against a dull green bubble and a gilded cross at the top struggling in vain to stand out against the back drop of the unending construction project that is St. Stephen’s Cathedral. A worn statue of the Blessed Virgin guards the entrance, shedding flecks of paint faster than you can say, “lead poisoning.”
Hesitantly, I walked into the church, dipping my hand into the basin of Holy Water and collecting instead a finger-full of slime. Reluctantly, I blessed myself, making a mental note to sanitize my hands and forehead upon leaving.
Inside, the church was silent, but not empty. I made my way to the last row of pews, genuflected, blessed myself again, and sat. Behind me, a line of women stood waiting for their turn in the confessionals. In the row across from me, I saw a nun on her knees whispering the Rosary.
The windows were narrow, and the room was dim, lit only by some battery-operated plastic candles. The walls were little more than solid gray stone decorated with the Stations of the Cross and cobwebs. Outside it was ninety-degrees, but inside it was cold and damp, and it smelled like a wet basement and mold.
I looked at the alter lined with plastic flowers.
I should pray. That’s what churches are for.
When’s the last time you prayed in church?
Um. February? I think I went to part of an Ash Wednesday service…in 2013.
That’s a long time.
Church is depressing. I prefer to pray in the shower where no one can see. One time in the shower, I told God that if we got a snow day, I’d fold all my underwear for a year instead of shoving it in a drawer, and it worked.
I started by saying the Hail Mary. That’s a good starting prayer. It’s also how Catholics call God. It’s like dialing the operator, and she’ll put you through to Him. I don’t know why, in 2014, God still relies solely on a landline, but He does.
I apologized for the normal Catholic stuff- not praying more, not going to Confession since 2006, and in general, existing.
I thanked Him for the opportunity to travel and study, and that I hadn’t yet died in a plane crash.
In 2004, when I was beginning preparations to make my Confirmation, the nun in charge of the whole shebang asked if I ever prayed to my dad. No, I answered. What’s the point?
There might be a point, but like most people, I try to avoid things that make me feel like Jack the Ripper is slicing through my heart with a hunting knife. So I rely on Holy middlemen to do my bidding.
Please tell Daddy that I miss him, and love him, and thank him for the scholarship, but we could have found another way. He didn’t have to go. We could have found another way.
Tell him I do archaeology now. He would like that. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.