Ghosts of religion past

In hindsight, the haunting started well before the holiday season, but the Christmas carols were the first undeniable sign. I haven’t been a practicing Christian in nearly fifteen years, and I hadn’t sung a religious carol in about that long. But all through my childhood, they were part of the fabric of winter. A bit before the beginning of Advent, my mom would dig out a cassette album of traditional carols, and she’d play it most evenings while cooking dinner.

I always loved these songs much more than the secular stuff. I liked that you can hear just how old their roots are – the slightly atonal harmonies, the erratic grammar, the weird symbolic holdouts of indigenous Europe. (Oh, the holly and the ivy!) The medieval sound of those melodies was intrinsic to my experience of the season, and to my sense of being Catholic, part of a cultural lineage.

Like I said, I haven’t been a real Catholic in a very long time. But this past December, spurred by nostalgia one evening, I found the album of carols online and listened to the whole thing. Then I listened to it again and sang along. I felt a little strange singing Christian songs, even such blatantly pagan ones. Mostly, though, it was comforting.

But after Christmas and the carols came a more sinister ghostly visitation: the hymns. Suddenly all sorts of regular hymns have started wafting out from the attic corners of my memory. I’ll wake up with an obscure scrap of verse in my head, and there it will stick all day, rubbing like a rock in my shoe until I manage to recall the rest of the lyrics. Or a hymn will possess me while I’m folding laundry, my traitorous voice absently humming in rhythm: Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, Allelu-Alleluia!

Part of my discomfort with all this involuntary joyful noise is the knowledge of how a Christian might interpret it. Clearly Jesus is shepherding me back to the flock through the use of subliminal musical messaging; all I have to do is heed the call. (Rejoice and be glad!) And this theory does have a certain magnetic force to it – a force of both attraction and repulsion, the sensation of my skin recoiling from an intangible touch. Or the sensation of hairs stirring when you glimpse something you thought was long dead and buried.

Winter is fading, and it’s Lent now, not Advent. But there are nostalgia traps in this season too. We always went to midnight mass for Easter, once my sister and I were old enough to stay awake. I’d stand with awed breath in the darkened church holding my unlit candle, waiting for the flame to pass from one congregant to the next until it reached my mother, then my sister, then me. In the cavernous sanctuary, full of the familiar swelling chant of call-and-response, it seemed not just plausible but apparent that the emptiness above all our flickering lights was filled with spirit.

It was also during an Easter mass that I realized I was finally leaving the Church. I was in college by then, past coming out as queer and just past the flashbang of the Boston abuse scandal, long past understanding I didn’t believe the things I was supposed to. And yet it was a surprise when I started ugly-crying halfway through the gospel, and when I couldn’t stop, and when I had to walk out down the center aisle while four hundred parishioners pretended I wasn’t happening.

Some things you don’t completely walk away from, it seems. Some things just won’t stay dead. (For I am the resurrection!) I’ve always been well aware that my continued longing for the spiritual is just as much the result of nurture as nature. But it’s disconcerting to discover how much the language of that longing is still full of psalms and beatitudes, even after all this time. And it isn’t just the hymns I’m remembering. Along with them comes an old fear that while I can quit the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, they might never quit me.

I’d grown so used to this submerged fear I’d stopped recognizing its inhibiting influence. The fear is part of what keeps me hovering at the edges of deeper spiritual or ecstatic experience, seemingly unable to relax into the plunge. Here I am outside the tomb of mystery, ready to roll back the stone. But what if it’s still the bloodstained shroud of Jesus inside? (It causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble!) Better to be like a character in a horror movie, reassuring herself before she flings open the creaking closet door: there’s nothing in there, and I don’t believe in ghosts!

It may be true that I don’t believe in that kind of deity anymore, but I do know there’s something behind the door. Otherwise I wouldn’t constantly find myself standing in front of it, willingly or not, flexing my hands and working up the nerve to push it open. Maybe the only way to break through the hesitation is to own up to the true fear that’s still shaping my spiritual life – the fear that it’s either Jesus or nothing. The fear that if I ever want to truly feel the mystery of spirit again, in that bone-and-viscera way, I’ll have to go back to Him.

It’s tempting to deny the dread with knee-jerk defiance, to tell myself that while the haunting may not ever be exorcized, I’ll never be seduced by it. But the truth is that the past can repossess us, especially if we aren’t reconciled to it. This has happened to many an ex-Christian before me. As long as I’m seeking mystery, I’m taking the risk it will greet me wearing the face I’m most familiar with, speaking the words written deepest in my memory.

To enter the tomb and explore the teeming emptiness, I have to acknowledge that risk without recoiling, without resorting to intellectual distance as protection from my fear. I have to embrace the double-edged promise of all true mysteries – seek, and ye shall find.

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