Navigating Spirituality in a Relationship
This story was originally published as a 2nd Story performance piece, 2011
On a weekend morning in January, a few years ago, I was lying in bed with Jess. Jess and I had just started sleeping together, and we had woken up in my apartment in Edgewater.
The winter sunlight poured in through my windows and lit up the bedroom in golden light. Jess’s long brown legs were tangled up with the sheets, my fingers in the locks of her hair, and we were cozy amongst the pillows and blankets, talking about, well, “everything” and “nothing”, the kind of conversations you have with a new lover. We talked about where we grew up, our favorite stuffed animals from childhood, and if we ever sang to the mirror in our underwear as teenagers, or as adults.
Then she asked me, shyly, the kind of question you only ask when you are really comfortable and safe with someone. She turned in bed so that she could face me, and she asked, “CP, do you believe in God?”
Not, “Did you go to church as a child?” Or “Are your parents religious?” Those are roundabout questions. This was getting to the heart of the matter.
There was a long pause while I thought about how to answer.
I didn’t have an easy answer like, “Hell no, I’m an atheist and every sane person is one, too,” or “Yes, I’m a faithful _______” insert some label here, Baptist, Buddhist, Methodist, Muslim, Wiccan, or what have you. No, I grew up in a household where we didn’t talk about religion. We put up a Christmas tree and painted eggs for Easter, but that was just being American, not about religion.
My mother belongs to the church of “Does It Put Food on the Dinner Table?” She never cared about heaven or hell. My father, on the other hand, said “Grace” each dinner, setting his chopsticks down and bowing his head, his hands in his lap, whispering something so quietly I could never tell if it was in English or in Chinese. He prayed at night, too, his hands pressed together palm-to-palm and held up to his forehead. I knew that this was something private, a closed door.
My father did tell me some things, though: that his grandmother was converted to Presbyterianism by missionaries, but that his own mother didn’t convert and stayed Buddhist. It was my great-grandmother who took my father to church.
My mother’s extended family, in Taiwan, is also Buddhist, and at the gravesite of one of my cousins, it was my father who taught me the Buddhist rituals of burning incense and ghost money in the furnace outside the graveyard. I really had no idea of where my father was coming from. There was no talk of choosing a religion, or even of God. Like the things you do behind closed doors, I was on my own.
At13 I decided that believing in God was the prudent thing to do. I was 16 when I decided that believing in God because it was safe was totally bogus. By the time I graduated from college, I knew enough to know that “knowledge” was a slippery creature. The summer before I turned 25, I was out of work, living at my parents’ home again and reading a lot; I was reading Nietzsche and Sartre, and about Taoism and eastern philosophy.
I would take long walks through abandoned farmland near my parents’ house, thinking at first, and then trying to meditate, and then, just listening. That summer I started believing in God…and while I can tell you when, I hate talking about why. We seem to live in a world these days where there’s no room for disagreement, whether it’s about something as big as climate change or something as small as reality TV.
If I’m right, then you must be wrong. If you think you’re right, then you must think I’m wrong. So I let it alone.
And yet, here in my bedroom on that winter morning was this woman that I cared so much about asking me that very question. “Do you believe in God?” This woman was kind and warm and intelligent, had stayed with me even as I was self-destructing after the death of one of my best friends. But this was another level of intimacy.
You know that vulnerable feeling you have the first time you get naked in front of someone you care about? You’re opening yourself up to the possibility that he or she is going to judge you, for that potbelly you have, or the cellulite on your thighs, or the pimples on your back.
I looked away from Jess, and told her, “Yes, yes, I do.” In that moment, she waited for me to explain. In the years since then, she’s gotten used to my short answers to long questions, but that was all I could tell her right then. Finally, she snuggled up to me and let the moment pass.
But she did want to know more. Jess’s family was strongly Christian, and though she had broken away from the conservative church of her upbringing, her faith was still very important to her. As our relationship grew, she asked me more questions. “If you don’t go to church, or temple,” she asked me one day, “how do you…do what you do?” And more importantly to her, how do we do it together?
So I took her on a walk with me along the shore of Lake Michigan. We sat on the stones above the beach, listening to the water splash against the shore, listening to the joggers and the parents with their kids and the dogs, listening to the road behind us, listening to the occasional plane overhead. Jess sat with me in silence, our fingers intertwined, and then after a while, she leaned over and asked, “What are we doing?”
“Listening.” I said.
She didn’t let go of my hand, but she needed more from me. To Jess, religion didn’t mean privacy, it meant a fellowship of like-minded folks, a place to go to practice rituals of faith and to commune with the divine. Religion meant a chance to break bread and share in the joys and sorrows of other human beings who wanted the same things.
“CP,” she asked, “is there a spiritual experience we can do together, in community? I mean, if we are a couple, then maybe we can find a way to worship as a couple?” That was the question. If we could start a life together, shouldn’t THIS THING be part of our lives?
I had no idea what any of that was like, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that anyone else could understand what I felt. Not even the woman closest to me really understood. There was going to be a church for us? But I trusted Jess.
So, soon after Jess and I moved in together, we began to shop for churches. We were just as wide-eyed as Goldilocks in a house full of things too hot or too cold and never just right.
We tried a Quaker meeting hall where everyone sat in silence until someone was moved to speak. Jess thought the idea of a silent worship might appeal to me. In a large semicircle, a couple dozen of us sat quietly for thirty minutes until one woman stood and said, “I’m grateful my son has found friends at college.” Then she sat down and that was that.
After we left the meeting hall, Jess asked me, “What did you think?”
“I’m not sure what just happened,” I said.
“Me neither,” she sighed.
We kept trying. We found a Buddhist temple in Uptown, and as we walked in, hand-in-hand, we were both a little nervous about something so different. Inside the temple, there was large stone bell in one corner, and a brass gong next to the pulpit, and a small chest of drawers at the front of the rows of folding chairs.
The smell of incense was soothing, but nothing else seemed familiar to me. We listened to an English sermon and then a Japanese translation, and then there were hymns in Japanese. And I kept thinking how my great-grandfather, in the early 1900s, was among the Chinese farmers who fought off the Japanese soldiers who invaded their homeland. I liked the Buddhist connection to nature, but after we left the service, Jess and I didn’t even discuss it in the car. It was too foreign, too different, and not for the two of us to share.
There was even the Catholic Church in Evanston that we attended for Easter services (this is a few Easters ago now). It was a mammoth building with hordes of people sitting in tiers of pews on all sides of the pulpit. People were dressed in spring finery, and there was a festive air to the chatter.
I admit, I liked being anonymous in great big church, and Jess found comfort in the rituals of the liturgy. But it was TOO big for her, and one day soon after, as we sat on our couch watching the news, she turned to me and said, “We can’t be Catholic, can’t we?”
And then a good friend of Jess’s introduced us to a small, unconventional church. The first Sunday evening that we attended (), they were having their monthly jazz and poetry vespers. A slideshow of art photography ran on the back wall while a jazz trio played. The readings included sections of the Bible, but also poetry. It was a Christian church, yet its members included a practicing Jewish man and a guy who called himself agnostic. If they could attend this church, then maybe Jess and I could, too.
We were a tiny group of attendees, maybe 15 people at any given service. The place was multi-cultural, like my relationship with Jess, and it was a little artsy, and a little quirky. And I realized that it was the first church I had walked into where I wasn’t braced for someone to interrogate me about my faith.
We made friends there, folks that we saw outside of church; for outdoor concerts at Millennium Park or summer picnics, or to drink wine and talk about art and writing. Once I saw Jess passing notes with another woman like teenage girls in math class, and eventually Jess leaned over to me to whisper, “We’re invited over for veggie hot dogs and beer.”
When Jess and I got engaged, we asked the pastor to marry us. This church really was a home for us.
And then things went south. Jess had a falling out with her friend who had introduced us to the church, an argument over a perceived insult that escalated into several “State of the Friendship” discussions, and culminated in sentences like, “You owe me an apology,” and “Don’t talk to me like I’m your shitty mother.” Rather suddenly, our little community was no longer a safe, welcoming group of like-minded people. It was such a small church; there’d be nowhere to hide if we went to service. So we stopped going.
Jess was heartbroken. Soon afterwards, I found her curled up in our bed, tears in her eyes, mourning the death of a friendship and being cast out of a community. For a while, Sundays became a time of bitterness and sadness.
All of us, at some level, for some time, just want to be understood. We go to places, either in person or online, where we think or hope that people will understand us: a writers’ group, a sports bar where they cheer for your team, a yoga studio, or a place of worship. There, we hope to find ourselves through others.
But maybe we can never really understand each other. Maybe we’re better off saying “Grace” under our breaths, keeping our prayers silent and in the privacy of our own bedrooms, where we don’t have to be vulnerable to anyone.
Jess and I took a long break from any sort of church at all. And though we’re together and happily married, she’s still lonely. So we’ll still keep looking. As for me, well, I can hope for warmer weather.
Maybe sometime soon, I’ll head over to the lake shore, maybe when the sun is high in the sky and the waves are lapping against the stone barriers. I’ll ask Jess if she wants to come, and she might come and walk along the rocks, but she also might choose to stay at home and practice yoga in the sunlight of our living room. That’s okay, too. I’ll find a spot along the lake, and sit quietly, and I’ll just listen.