When I was fourteen, I stood before the deacons of my church and lied.

The deacons sat in a half circle of red and gold armchairs that seemed incongruous with the church’s Puritan ancestry. A small group of my peers sat behind me, waiting for their turn to speak, truth or lie.   I told them all I believed in God, that I believed Jesus was the son of God, and that human beings were made in His image.  The head deacon knew I was a liar, but he liked me.  When I finished my statement of faith – required for confirmation – he threw me a few softball questions.  One deacon tried to catch me in the lie.  She asked me why I hadn’t talked about attending church, about the congregation, in my statement.

I told her, and the rest of the room, that I believed in the ability of the individual to navigate his or her own way through the complicated, conflicting, confusing world of faith and belief. For me, independent inquiry and intellectual and spiritual curiosity were more important than participation in a congregation.  I quickly added that I did acknowledge the value of a pastor’s leadership, and the ability of the congregation to infuse my own spiritual quest with needed energy and knowledge.  Lying again.  They let me in.

On confirmation day, the pastor grabbed my arm. “Listen to my sermon,” he said. “You’re its inspiration.”

The pastor, at the pulpit, told the congregation that one of its newest members had inspired him to grow as a Christian in a way he had never considered before.  He said that the independent spirit of this young person had moved him to preach that day about individual curiosity, introspection, and honesty.  Don’t say what you think is right to believe.  Say what you believe, listen to others, and you’ll grow.  I was beaming. I had fooled them all.

Then, we, the about-to-be confirmed, approached the front of the congregation and knelt in a half circle on the red carpet. We waited for the pastor and the deacons to walk to each of us, lay hands on our heads, and pray.  I was last in the half circle.


***


The pastor taught our year-long confirmation class himself. Congregationalists don’t like ritual and pomp, and they certainly don’t pay much attention to the Catholic obsession with saints. So it came as a surprise when the pastor told our class about his latest idea to make confirmation more exciting — each of us were to be assigned a saint, based on his assessment of our spiritual needs and personalities, and we were to research that saint and find a spiritual connection to their story. We each got a pendant in a white cardboard box, and the pastor explained to each of us his decisions.

Mine was Saint Anne, Grandmother of Jesus, the patron saint of housewives, women in labor, miners and poverty. The pastor said he saw Saint Anne as part of my nature, the part that made me exceptionally strong-willed.

I thought, “Is this a joke? housewives, poverty, and labor? I’m going to be a doctor, a pathologist. I’ll be neither poor nor pregnant.”

On the pendant, Anne held a book. She wasn’t looking at the book. She was staring up to the sky, to God. This saint was meant for me somehow but the joke would be on the pastor. I decided Anne was studious, well-read, and wise. She was the grandmother of Jesus, the holder of precious knowledge beyond her time. I imagined Anne reading the Book her grandson would pass to the world two generations early. I thought of her as a happily silent prophet, who would treat those close to her with odd bits of information, and revel in their misunderstanding and confusion. Unlike tragically misunderstood Cassandra, Anne was content to be the only one who knew the full meaning behind her eccentricities. Like most artists, I thought, she’d be best understood once she was long dead and the rest of the world caught up.

St. Anne, praise her, helped me take pleasure in my secret knowledge.


***


Finally, the pastor and deacons reached me.  He had handpicked crosses for each of us to wear.  Most of the girls had large, silver crosses with embedded jewels.  Mine was plain, small, gold, with flared edges, more like what he gave to the boys.  The pastor and the deacons placed their hands on my head, and the pastor leaned in close and whispered in my ear:

“I know you have hardened your heart, and I pray to God that one day He’ll open it.”

They finished praying, and the newest members of the church stood up to lead the congregation in a hymn.


***

 

I had lost my faith about three years before this moment. I don’t remember when, exactly.  It was before I saw the pictures of the Mengele experiment victims, but after the death of my grandmother.

Nowadays, I ask other people to tell me how they found God, and they ask me to tell them a story, too. Have I lost mine? If so, where do I search for God? Testify. Fair’s fair, but there’s no story.  So, what do you say: truth or lie?



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ABIGAIL OHLHEISER writes about believers, politics, and culture. She is a contributing writer at The Revealer, and has contributed to The New Humanist and Slate Magazine, where she's also a regular news blogger for the Slatest. Hobbies include sharing meals with strangers, forgetting to write thank you notes, and trying not to miss the point.

27 responses to “Liar, Liar”

  1. Meghan says:

    Abigail, you have a gift for unfolding stories in your own time.

  2. Karen says:

    I enjoyed this. It could have been me you were talking about. I look forward to reading more from you.

  3. […] The Nervous Breakdown thenervousbreakdown.com/aohlheiser/2011/02/liar-liar/ – view page – cached Lying in church, for the sake of St. Anne., Lying in church, for the sake of St. Anne. Show influential only (1) $(‘#filter-infonly’).change(function() { var el = $(this); var url = document.location.href; var checked = el.attr(‘checked’); if (checked) { document.location.href = url + ((/?/.test(url)) ? ‘&’ : ‘?’) + ‘infonly=1’; } else { document.location.href = url.replace(/[?&]?infonly=1/,”); } }); […]

  4. sujal says:

    Great piece, Abigail.

  5. Becky Palapala says:

    TNB, bless its heart, has been long-wanting for substantive, interesting discussion about God and believers.

    Looking forward to more.

  6. Ashley Menchaca (N.O.Lady) says:

    I love that you are brave enough to write about God and religion and like Becky, I look forward to much more.

    • Abigail Ohlheiser says:

      Thanks for the kind comment.You know, for me, it’s not so much a matter of bravery, so I think you might be giving me undue credit with that virtue. But: for many, it’s an extremely difficult subject to talk (let alone write) about honestly or usefully. I’m hoping to turn to the stories of others next as I continue to write here.

  7. sheree says:

    Wow! Looking forward to reading more of your posts. Excellent writing.

  8. Jessica Blau says:

    Wonderful piece. I’m so glad I read this. Maybe there’s a whole other post about the connection between God, Grandma and Mengele? I’d love to read more.

    Of the saints, Eulalia of Barcelona is my favorite. At 13 she was put into a barrel of broken glass and rolled down the street. When she died, white doves flew out of her mouth.

    • Abigail Ohlheiser says:

      Jessica – I’ve always been partial to St. Joan of Arc. And her contemporary, Agnès Sorel. The juxtaposition of the two, to be precise.

  9. I remember fibbing my way through a confirmation hearing. In my case it was early enough, right around the onset of puberty (possibly a deliberate Presbyterian strategy), that lying to myself about what I could place faith in came easy. It’s a large part of belief in divinity, the ability to spin a fiction to yourself, for better or for worse. But it’s hard to go back once you’ve stopped, isn’t it?

    Very nice piece, your imagery brings me right there.

  10. Matt says:

    Truth. Always truth.

    Even – especially when it hurts.

    (Welcome aboard, ya jerk!)

  11. Joe Daly says:

    Welcome aboard, and congrats on such a strong debut. The pastor’s comment to you when giving you the cross was a brutal summary of the whole experience. Some people might flee all discussions of God and faith- glad that you’ve chosen not to, and that you’ve continued a dialogue with such a thoughtful piece.

    Reminds me of the saying: religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell; spirituality is for those who have already been there.

    • Abigail Ohlheiser says:

      Thanks! Glad to be here.

      As you can imagine, I didn’t know what to do with the pastor’s comment for about a year or so after the moment. Brutal is the right word.

  12. dwoz says:

    Sometimes really stupid people aren’t as stupid as you think.

    They’re just on a different schedule.

  13. dwoz says:

    One of the amazingly transparent fallacies about faith is that you can just have it. That you just have to say “I accept Jesus as my personal savior” and somehow suddenly you have it.

    You can’t have faith until you go looking for it, and make ultimate sacrifices for it.

    Sacrifice == commitment.

    Your pastor was an observant man. He took special interest in you because you were the only one. Sheep wear wool inadvertently. Seekers wear it deliberately. Or at least, aspire to it.

    Seekers are what they are because they can at least see what they’re not. They perhaps understand that Jesus was an exemplar, not an icon.

    Faith can fill your cup to overflowing, but most people aren’t holding a cup, they’re holding a sieve.

  14. […] published @ The Nervous Breakdown: […]

  15. carl says:

    re: “There was … no anything else. We just call things funny names”

    dear Abby, if anyone offers you a mortar and pestle, please remember
    lead is poisonous.
    think of the weight.

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