The Atheist and the Crosses

By David Ohmer/ Flickr

By Cassandra Morrilly

I work for a Jesuit university, which surprised everyone in my life, especially me. Upon accepting the job, my devout old Catholic aunt, who has long been worried about my rejection of religion, sent me a rosary. Friends and former coworkers laughed and speculated on how long it would take me to get fired. Others told me I’d do well, as long as I didn’t talk.

I’m an opinionated atheist. No one thought I’d last at an institution whose buildings are decorated in religious art on a campus full of statuary and crosses. I told myself I could fake it—after all, I know Catholics. My family is Catholic. I went to a Catholic high school. All I had to do was blend in to the background, and everything would be fine.

For the first few months, I was profoundly uncomfortable. People were much more open about their faith than I’d anticipated. Employees are constantly reminded of Jesuit values, and open discussions often happen about how to live those values in our jobs and our everyday lives. I waxed pathetic one evening about how long it would take my coworkers to realize that I wasn’t like them, that I wasn’t suited for that sort of environment. Sooner or later, they’d find out that I don’t believe in God, and then what? How would they react to having an atheist in their midst? I felt like an intruder. I had stepped into a world that I had consciously rejected, and now it was going to reject me. I was convinced that it was only a matter of time.

Though my husband listened patiently, he showed no mercy. He simply looked at me and said, “This is the best job you’ve ever had. Don’t screw it up.”


The best job I’ve ever had began with a Master’s degree in Literature, which led me to market research and eventually into data analysis. People often find this odd, but the purpose of studying literature is to analyze narratives: to think critically, ask a lot of questions, and be able to understand and apply a variety of concepts. It’s not so odd that my skill set easily translated from analyzing Victorian novels to analyzing large quantities of raw data.

A narrative is a narrative, whether it’s constructed of words, or numbers, or ten crosses hanging on an office wall.

The owner of the crosses was one of the first people I met, in a computer lab that he announced had once been the shower room for the original group of Jesuits who inhabited the building more than one hundred years ago. It was a strange feeling, knowing the history of that room. And my coworker is full of those sorts of tidbits and trivia. His memory is itself a vast database, one that I was advised to access as often as possible, and that I still rely on two years later.

When I walked into his office for the first time, I immediately noticed a line of crosses hanging above his office door. Crosses are hardly out of place in a Catholic school, hardly something to be startled by, yet it somehow struck me as excessive. When I asked him about them, all he said was, “I plan on covering my entire wall.”

The first time I asked why, he didn’t answer.


On a campus that’s full of crosses, the only crosses I continue to find odd and distracting are my coworker’s. Every time I’m in his office, I end up staring at them, counting them repetitively in my head, studying their ornamentation. It seems so strange, looking at crosses that are decorated with colors and flourishes, crosses that are downright cheerful. I understand that they’re symbols of faith, of hope, of forgiveness and eternal life. But I can’t get out of my head that they were also an instrument of punishment and torture, peculiar Roman contraptions upon which many suffered and died.

Several times, I asked him why he had so many. The first time I asked, he told me that it was his intention to cover the wall with them, starting from the doorway, and wrapping all around his office. I asked him why again, and he told me how carefully he spaces them apart, so that they’re equidistant. It bothers him if they’re not aligned correctly. He told me about standing up on a ladder, about feeling uncertain about his balance, about being worried that he’ll fall.

I asked him why he hangs them then, if it’s such an inconvenience, and he told me again that he wanted to cover the wall in crosses.

Though I kept asking the same question every time I visited his office, he would always act like he hadn’t heard it. He would tell me instead who gave him this cross or that cross, or repeat his intention to cover his entire wall, or even talk to me about the other random items he’s collected over the years.

That sort of technique doesn’t work well on me. Even if someone won’t answer, I typically won’t stop asking. It is my most endearing and infuriating trait—and the Jesuits’ as well.


Asking questions is one of the core values that our university encourages. This may seem strange to some, as Christians are often characterized by the godless as mindless followers taking their marching orders from a two-thousand-year-old book. That’s an unfair stereotype, as Christianity is much more nuanced and complex than simply a set of rules handed down by a judgmental God-figure. The Jesuits in particular encourage people to think and question. They’re the rebels of the Catholic faith, the original bad boys, founded in 1540 to educate, to serve, and to work for the greatest common good. In their nearly five hundred years of existence, they’ve spread to every part of the globe, leaving behind a network of universities.

One of them is nestled on ninety-one acres in North Denver, a university which is made up of three separate colleges and enrolls nearly ten thousand students per year. Many of them are online—the Jesuits have always been open to change, and our university was one of the first to offer online-only degrees. Even though practically every school followed our lead, it’s still a point of pride to know that tradition can still be cutting edge. That faith can be supported by data and technology.

That’s what I do—I work with the university data.

Data, much like the Victorian novel, is not easy to understand. Learning the complexities of the university systems was at times frustrating and made me reliant on others for questions and guidance. In my first few months, I had the frustration of a high learning curve complicating my adjustment to a work environment that encourages open religiosity. The only thing that overcame my defeatist thoughts was pure stubbornness. I figured, as long as people are willing to answer my questions, I’d keep asking them.

I still periodically visit my coworker’s office, and stare up at the beige-colored walls, compulsively counting the crosses. In fact, it’s the first thing I do, every time I’m there. The moment his attention is on his computer, my eyes are drawn upwards. There were eleven, then twelve, then thirteen. I find them hypnotic. Though I value everything that he takes the time to explain to me, I often have to struggle to pay attention to what he’s saying. I have to remind myself to listen to him, to look at the screens in front of us, to take notes and ask the right questions—the ones I’m supposed to ask, not the ones I want to ask.

Seventeen crosses in, I was beginning to feel like I understood something. The day I counted the seventeenth cross, I began to visualize our database in a way I hadn’t before. I imagine it as a series of flat planes that glow a soft blue, with a lot of moving pieces and endless loops. I see it not as if it’s something I’m constructing, but as if it’s something I’m remembering.

That was when I started to think that maybe I wouldn’t screw it up.

Except for the whole Christian thing. That still scared me.


When I first professed to my family that I didn’t believe in God and didn’t consider myself a Christian, they took it as nothing more than a passing phase. My father used to sometimes say, “If you’re raised Catholic, you’ll always be Catholic, even if you don’t go to church.” As if Catholicism was a scar I couldn’t ever get rid of, a stain that would never wash out. For years, I was sent Christmas ornaments and asked why I hadn’t put up a tree. For years, I vacillated between politeness and annoyance. I don’t need ornaments because I don’t put up a tree. I don’t put up a tree because I don’t celebrate Christmas. Even though I asked people to stop sending me Christmas-themed gifts, they continued. I realized my family didn’t take me seriously, and I resented them for it.

This continued until well after I was married, when they finally began to grudgingly accept my adulthood and admitted to themselves that my lack of religion is not something I’ll grow out of.

Atheists are no different from anyone else. We’re not the smug, self-assured people that some think we are. We have questions and doubts. We wonder why we’re here, what our purpose is. We think about life, and we think about death. We just don’t think of those things through the filter of faith or a higher power.

Getting a job at a Jesuit university has instilled in my family a sense of hope that I might be coming around, that I might once again embrace the religion I was raised in. Two years later, I can say with confidence that I am not. If anything, working for a Catholic school has only solidified the fact that I don’t believe in God. I never anticipated anything changing that.

One of the major things I dislike about religion is that it seems like it has an answer for everything. To me, faith sometimes feels like a way to manage fear. I was in a seminar recently when the speaker admitted that he turns to faith when he doesn’t like the answers science gives him. Everyone else in the room nodded and murmured in agreement. I wanted to jump up and shout, No, that’s not good enough! It cheapens your faith! Admittedly faith is something I don’t understand, but to me, it seems that faith should be about more than simply finding the most satisfying answer.

That’s why it means a lot to me to see people who are heavily steeped in a very complex religious system encouraging others to ask questions, and not settling for the first answer they’re given. It means a lot to me that our university has branded itself on this notion, on the notion that we’re not going to give you all the answers—we’re going to teach you how to find them yourself.

Early on in my employment, someone told me that it wasn’t the purpose of our university to provide people with a blueprint for their lives. He said that it was our purpose to give them the tools to create their own blueprint. He said that answers are not as important as questions, and that sometimes the act of asking the question is more profound than any answer ever could be.


 The story in Genesis, one of the first things I learned as a child in Sunday school, makes sense now—knowledge is a drug. A very powerful drug. I can’t get enough of it.

Perhaps that’s what attracts me to data-related jobs. There’s something satisfying about being able to take something raw and unformed and turn it into something meaningful. But I’ve had to evolve how I understand data. Like any narrative, it has plot holes and ambiguities. It can be read and interpreted in a multitude of different ways. It’s not always interesting, and it’s not always true. It can be used for, and it can be used against. It can only answer questions that you’re willing to ask.

I’m willing to ask all sorts of questions. Being both an analyst and a writer makes me curious to an extent that I sometimes come across as intrusive. I’m like Eve, and all the archetypes that step outside of boundaries and break the rules simply because there’s something on the other side that they need to know. And I accept the consequences of this terminal curiosity.

Sometimes the consequence is that I learn things that are disturbing. I make discoveries that bother me or that leave me with more questions. Sometimes it means that I have to learn to live with dissatisfaction and ambiguity, or try to be graceful as someone dodges my questions.

Such as my coworker, who for a long time acted as if he simply didn’t hear me when I asked him why he hung up crosses. Perhaps he feels that the answer is obvious—he’s Christian, and these crosses are a symbol of his faith. Perhaps he doesn’t know the answer, but doesn’t want to admit it. Perhaps he tunes me out the same way I sometimes tune him out. Perhaps he’s making himself listen to me the same way I have to make myself listen to him, even when his answers are the only thing I want to hear.

I was in his office again recently, and couldn’t resist indulging my new favorite habit of counting his crosses as he pulled up our database on his computer. I counted them as he mumbled at his keyboard.

“You’ve got twenty-four crosses now,” I noted.

He stopped typing. “Twenty-five,” he said proudly, and pulled another one from his drawer, telling me who gave it to him. Telling me again how he wants to cover his entire wall.

I’ve evolved a lot as a person since I started in my job. I’ve learned a lot about questions and answers, about faith and facts, about knowledge and ambiguity. I’ve discovered that while I’m okay with not knowing, I’m not okay with not asking.

So I did it again. I smiled, and I asked, “Why do you want to cover the wall?”

For once, he didn’t rush into another thought, or repeat himself, or dodge my question entirely. Instead, he glanced at me and then up at the wall.

“Because there’s too much beige,” he replied.

That was the worst thing I could have imagined him saying. I chose to believe he didn’t mean it.

An act of faith, perhaps?


Persistence is one of the hallmark of the Jesuits. They’ve been controversial for nearly their entire existence. They’ve dealt with oppression and suppression, accusation and intrigue. Their commitment to social justice and liberation theology has ensured that they’ve remained in the center of many debates.

Persistence is also one of the hallmarks of the particular institution I work for. Enrollments are falling at most higher education institutions, and we’ve got the additional challenge of being a private school, which means higher tuition rates that some of our local competitors. We don’t only have to work harder, we have to work more creatively. That’s why data is important—data tells the university’s story, and by doing so, allows our leaders to revise that story when the need arises. Data people are the watchdogs, the soldiers in the tower, guarding the castle, keeping an eye on what’s going on within the walls as well as outside of them. We provide the intelligence.

That sounds like a narrative of guts and glory, but most days it’s a lot of fighting with javascript and carefully quality checking thousands of lines of data. I’ve had numerous people tell me, with crinkled noses and expressions of dread, that they could never do what I do.

I can’t imagine doing anything else. Data, and the stories it tells, will always be an integral part of what I do.


As intelligent as my coworker is, he doesn’t seem to understand the narrative he’s constructed on the wall of his office.

“People see my crosses and always say they’re surprised I’m religious, and they’re even more surprised when I tell them I’m not,” he said to me the other day.

I kept myself from laughing, but barely, remembering my own shock the first time I was in his office. “Then why do you have twenty-five crosses hanging in your office?” I asked.

“Because I like crosses,” he replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I think they’re beautiful,” he said, giving me the shrug I’ve seen countless times before, signaling that he’s ready to move on to another topic of conversation.

This time, I didn’t let him. I was determined to understand why a symbol that so often reminded me only of the bloody end of a human life was so often construed as a thing of beauty. I take a deep breath, and I again I say, “Why?”

This time, he doesn’t ignore me. This time, his face is different. “Because,” he says, then pauses.

I watch his face change from its normal expression, one I can only describe as bored curiosity, to something astoundingly unfamiliar. And also astoundingly familiar. It’s just that I’d never seen that sort of expression on him. His face softened, the lines seeming to disappear, as his gaze shifted from me to some invisible thing behind me somewhere, something only he could see. He lingered for a moment on that word. Because.

There have only been a two times in my life that I can safely say I’ve witnessed the descriptive cliché, “and then his face lit up.” The first time was in Philadelphia, when a waiter set the most beautiful osso buco I’ve ever seen down in front of the dedicated foodie I was dining with, and I watched his entire face lift into an expression of happiness I’ve never seen before or since. The second was when I told a teammate that his arch-nemesis in an adjacent department had just given two weeks’ notice, laughing when he actually gasped in delight, like a child on Christmas morning who just discovered that he had been given the gift he’d always wanted.

The third time was that afternoon on our sleepy little campus, watching my coworker dig deep into the recesses of his faith and pull back what its greatest symbol meant to him. The because was still lingering between us, when he said, “They represent a perfection yet a cleansing, and I think that’s beautiful.”

I have no idea what that means. I’ve thought about it a lot since he said it, and I can’t even begin to fathom it. Perfection is something I don’t believe possible or desirable, and the concept of cleansing, in a religious context, makes me profoundly uncomfortable. While I can see how cleansing is a comforting thought to someone who believes in sin, it seems like an oppressive concept to someone who doesn’t.

Yet my disappointment in not understanding his response in the slightest was countered by my ability to connect with his expression. It looked something like how I’d felt the first time I read Whitman’s Song of Myself, or the day my best friend, who was almost as broke as I was, gave me the last fifty dollars in her bank account because she thought I needed it more than she did.

It was joyfully transcendental. It was lit up yet peaceful, both his eyes and his mouth smiling. The words were foreign, but I connected with his face. I know that feeling, inside and out, and I could go there with him. I could be in the moment, and I could understand what he felt without understanding why.

I can’t say that my coworker’s blissful moment of sublimity or that the Jesuit spirit I so admire moved me to re-embrace the religion of my family. I don’t want to go back to church, or celebrate Christmas. They haven’t persuaded me to believe in God, but they have done something that, for me, is even more beautiful—they’ve made me want to.


CASSANDRA MORRILLY is the pen name of a writer who was raised in rural Ohio before receiving a BA in English from Seton Hall University, followed by an MA in Literature from the University of Colorado. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her pack of ravenous terriers. You can read more of her writing at

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Acts of Faith

Courtesy Antonia Malchik

by Antonia Malchik

St. Petersburg, which my relatives still sometimes call Leningrad, is a city of water—canals, islands, the massive Neva River. Neva, sweeping to the Gulf of Finland, is an illusory barrier, giving the impression that the city is water-locked. In reality, the metro clicks out easily to a network of islands that comprise the rushing circulatory system of a huge city. These islands are hardly remote, but just far enough by metro that most tourists pass them over.

A few years ago, during a two-week trip attending a writing seminar and visiting my relatives, I took the metro out of St. Petersburg’s tourist-choked center to one of the islands. I was looking for a church. Any church, as long as tour groups hadn’t discovered it, and its Orthodox services fed the sense of mystery that an atheist like me requires from religion.

I can’t always explain this need. A fascination with faith doesn’t seem to mark most other atheists I know. And the older I get, the more grounded I feel in the lack of it. Yet something still draws me—a yearning that is both wordless and slightly annoying, probably as old as human consciousness. I don’t know whether I want to simply comprehend faith or, a more daunting thought, to find it. A place of safety, to shed my burdens.

Russia is my lodestar in this search, the country of my father and his honest, humanist parents, who had themselves chosen atheism over their severe ultra-religious existences in Orthodox Jewish villages. They left the ghettoes for Leningrad to build the new communist dream, where all that mattered were your hands and your brain. As they faced repeated defeats in their attempts to qualify as engineers—thrown back for their Jewish blood or bourgeois history rather than lack of skill—they realized Lenin’s dream was another illusion. By the time they’d survived Stalin’s purges, their noble-hearted humanism was all that was left for them.

Those grandparents would be both amused by and sympathetic to my attraction to the haughty self-righteousness of the Russian Orthodox Church. But the streets of the city they made home seemed to have given them a self-assurance I lack, and it is there, in the adopted home of my atheist grandparents, that I seek a religious conversion.


During the midsummer White Nights celebrations, when the midnight sun left a rosy light on the streets, I walked through the islands seeking a native’s church, where babushkas spent afternoons murmuring to their saints and inappropriately dressed tourists were scowled at.

On the island of Vasilievsky, I found one. A courtyard with battered grass hid an old Byzantine church from the noisy main thoroughfare.

My aching feet and struggling lungs drove me from the hot, humid street and polluted air through an entrance in the stone fencing. Prepared for Orthodox churches (and those barb-tongued babushkas), I was wearing a long skirt and had a scarf tucked into my purse. Before touching the entrance steps, I tied the scarf over my hair and assembled an expression of humility and languid determination—the Russian expression.

Inside, scaffolding for restoration work covered half of the dome over the comparatively small main floor of the nave. The public part of a Russian cathedral, no matter how decorated, always feels like a waiting room. There are no pews. Even the most gnarled grandmother must greet her God standing. Icons of saints hover about the room on stands or the walls, waiting for their tribute of thin prayer candles. The real work of the church goes on constantly, unseen behind elaborately constructed doors, surrounded with icons of Jesus and Mary and all the saints—the iconostasis. Together, the sanctuary and the icons maintain the mystery of the divine.

It is the nature of Russian Orthodox churches to be unwelcoming. The practice is founded on a sacred belief in its own superiority. The country club of religions. Its very stony-faced exclusivity is what draws me to Russian Orthodoxy. Wildly private, I always found the Presbyterian churches of my upbringing intrusive. I shrank from talking about God or Jesus, or about being saved. The Orthodox Church is its opposite, intensely private itself. Nobody here cares about my personal salvation. In this church, I must find my own way. Russians already believe themselves to be, after the Jews, the second of God’s chosen people. They don’t need my faith.


Chanting hummed behind the doors in the sanctuary. Hidden behind the iconostasis, unaccompanied by piano or organ, the choir’s reverberations hit my shoes through the stone floor in waves. I had forgotten, until this moment, that Russian churches never have any other music than this lyrical, unseen choir. The incomprehensible Old Church Slavonic—to my ears, Slavonic’s only similarity to Russian is its musical quality—orchestrates the priests’ black-swathed activities throughout the day as if helping them weave spells. Which, in a sense, they are.

The spells always work on me. There is something about an Orthodox service that creeps into the locked, lonely places of my heart, the ones that cry for understanding, for protection and salvation—or maybe for enlightenment and guidance. The service is so impersonal it seems to promise answers that other religions struggle with on a too-human level. Its remoteness breeds awe, even in an unbeliever.

Far from St. Petersburg’s tourist routes, this cathedral was nearly empty. Four middle-aged men and one old woman stood scattered around the room, as if their prayers would fill an abundance of personal space. As I adjusted myself against the back wall, barely out of the entryway, a young man in jeans hurried from the entrance straight to one of the icons in the center of the room. He bowed, kissed it, crossed himself. And stood. And waited.

The priests finally came out of their divine seclusion. Wrapped completely in floor-length black, with long beards, they walked in a group of three—one leading, the other two assisting—to swing a long, egg-shaped incense burner at each of the several icons propped on stands around the room. I’d seen churches in this country where the very murals on the walls were covered in icons from floor to domed ceiling.

The priests’ robes brushed the floor in time with their resonant singing. Realizing they were approaching the icon to my left, I back-stepped into the entryway, fearful of being found out even as a tourist, if not as a nonbeliever.

As the chanted service rang through the nave, the five worshippers crossed themselves continuously; they knelt to touch their foreheads to the floor. The old woman, her knees swollen under a plain dress and thick tights, made the “little reverence,” as it’s translated from Church Slavonic, dipping from the waist. It’s a pattern I couldn’t comprehend and couldn’t possibly imitate. So I bowed my head reverently.

In Western Christian churches, the visitor hides herself in the pews—a welcome trespasser who can usually follow the pray-stand-sit routine. But she is also prey to the curious and the missionary, a guest who has to make conversation after the service. Here, I was in an open space, with no hard bench to guard me, but also no inquisitiveness to guard myself from.

My ignorance was obvious: I didn’t belong here, but I bent my neck in solidarity and hoped that, for once, the service would lift me away from myself, as promised. I worked at it, remembering the words of one Anthony, Bishop of Smolensk: “Stand in church silently, peacefully, quietly, as for example, the candles lit by you stand before the icons … So should you also stand, striving with hearts aflame with love and prayer toward God.” My flame flickered as I shifted my feet and tried not to be seen. The music coming from behind the iconostasis plucked at locks in my soul, swelled a lonely “why?” (or maybe it’s a “please” or a “help”) that I am always aware of but rarely acknowledge.


Sometimes I tell myself this is simply the human condition; this “why” or “please” or “help” is examining nothing more than the meaning of life. Other times I think I’m fudging, that what I really want is comfort, for some acknowledgement that the invisible wounds of my childhood and the pains of the world have some meaning. But defining my yearning for faith is like trying to bottle the sense of the unanswerable that makes faith so effective for millions. What is this thing I’m looking for? The lonely places of my heart are a mystery to me; they engender too many questions. I give them these church services in hopes that answers will unfold.

This time, I didn’t have a chance. Just as my eyes began to prick with tears, a priest hurried up to me, speaking so rapidly that my mediocre Russian failed to comprehend. He waved a hand around the entryway, and I realized that it, too, was covered in icons and needed to be blessed with incense. My unorthodox person was not welcome during the sacred ceremony. I opened my eyes wide, face red and apologetic from embarrassment. Wait! I wanted to tell him. I was just about to feel something!

But he hustled me to the dusty gift shop behind the entrance, where I could stare at religious books and icon reproductions for sale until those of faith were safe from my presence. Under a wash of shame, the groping for belief slipped away. When the service ended, my heavy feet turned to the hot streets.


From childhood on, I have always been told that atheism is a willful choice to reject God—a choice to say there is no god, no deity—and agnosticism is simply the empiricist’s way of saying that there could be a god but we don’t know one way or the other. I never questioned the assertion that atheism was an act of will rather than a type of faith in its own right. But I could accept neither atheism nor faith without analysis of my motives. I dug around in feelings, memories, and reactions and found … nothing. Except myself. It surprised me.

It never occurred to me to choose not to believe. Who would choose such a thing? Only the most self-confident and satisfied person would choose to live like this—knowing that every decision and action, every mistake, is on your own shoulders only. It is a crushing responsibility: I walk bent under the weight of my own life, the weight of my choices, but worse, the weight of my accountability to humankind. If I want to change the world, the smallness and impotence I feel is terrifying next to those who believe God, or a god, is on their side.

Atheism was never a choice for me. It is knowledge. I know not that there is no God—my training in mathematics assures me that you cannot prove a negative—but that I assuredly do not believe in a god. This is a different kind of knowledge. I know I love the wilderness. I know I do not like eggplant. I know I do not believe in God. I cannot be agnostic, hedging my bets.

In seeking to discover why I have no faith, I found it was just as inexplicable as its opposite. I have no faith because it is not there.


There is an incident I’ve never spoken of to anyone: the time when atheism scurried away, and I thought faith in something had finally come to bring relief, to lift that weight off my shoulders.

When my son was born, he was very weak. Taken out seven weeks early because I had come down with a rare, nearly fatal pregnancy-related condition, he was breathing through lungs as underdeveloped and fragile as soap bubbles. Over a two-week period, the doctors had to insert tubes into his tiny, scrawny chest to drain pockets of air that threatened the viability of those delicate lungs.

The day they called my husband and me at home to tell us that John needed a second air tube, and that he was ill enough they might need to move him to a tertiary care center, my reality ground itself into little pieces. I could do nothing for an hour but huddle on the floor and sob as I hadn’t done since I was a small child. I was so scared.

That same morning, I had woken up suddenly, just after seven, certain I’d heard John’s voice calling to me. Crying for me. I felt that he was in pain and needed me. It was only later I found out that I’d heard him, a forty-five-minute drive away, at the same minute they’d cut his chest and inserted the tube. I knew because, of course, they wrote down the times of all procedures, and I had checked the clock when I’d woken up (to see if it was time to drag out the breast pump), two hours before they called us at home. That is the part I’ve never told anyone, except my husband, who forgot it in the days that followed.

A friend asked me, about three months later, if John being so ill had given me some faith in God. She’s a religious person. She can’t imagine living without God, or, especially, without prayer. I told her the truth: I’d looked for faith during that time, and afterwards, and still found nothing. I think I searched deeply. I tried. But the experience didn’t send me away with faith; it sent me away with doubt. There are things in this world that I could not explain.

Was it a religious experience? A spiritual one? A trick of the imagination? A tidbit of Jung’s collective unconscious willing hope into my dreams? An aspect of physics and quantum particles we have yet to discover? I have no idea. All I could tell myself, and my friend, is that I still didn’t believe in God. Maybe atheism has become my own personal god, because it returned, after fear and glowing, new-motherhood happiness had faded, and life shifted back to its normal rhythms. When I fidgeted impatiently while attending church for a friend’s baptism, I knew my chance for faith was lost.


The philosopher Bertrand Russell postulated that belief in God echoed Christians’ desire for safety, “a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you.” Ever since I became a mother, I have wondered if it’s more like a desire to get back to the mythical safety of our mothers’ arms, where we believed the world was a good place, and it loved us.

C.S. Lewis is said to have been a famous atheist, always engaged in debates about faith with devout Christian J.R.R. Tolkien. Then one day he went for a walk to the zoo. “When I left,” he said, “I did not believe that Christ was the Son of God. And when I got back, I did.” So simple. Maybe faith has a eureka moment like the greatest discoveries of science and mathematics. I do not believe. If one day faith should come to me, then I would believe.

I don’t find atheism fun. It’s a pest. It daily reminds me that I am alone in this yawning universe. Scrabbling for answers in the rich incense and enveloping music of Russian Orthodox churches gives hope that someday I can attain the eureka moment. Until then, I ride the coattails of others’ convictions, hitch my prayers onto those of people who believe they work.


The next day I left Vasilievsky Island and returned to the center of St. Petersburg. I walked to the Kazan Cathedral. Closed for decades during Soviet times, Kazan now sweeps its arms around Nevsky Prospect and attracts thousands of tourists. The crowds move you up the main steps, past youths swilling liter-bottles of cheap Baikal beer as you keep a tight hand on your purse.

I crept from the entrance to a blackened wall. Close up, the wall was revealed as the icon of the Holy Spirit, so faded that the only intimation of its subject was a man’s faint outline, arm outreached, and a glimmer, above, of a white dove. The dove presumably represented the Spirit entering the soul of the sinner. A candelabra in front of the icon held the skinny, toothbrush-length candles sold in Orthodox churches all over Russia. One was burnt out. I lifted it, appropriating the prayer of another, and touched its tip to a neighboring flame. Like feeling for a tooth that wasn’t there, I probed my thoughts for pricks of hope and faith. Why couldn’t they enter my own heart as simply as the icon brought light to the aching sinner?

Today, in my morning hurry, I had forgotten to bring a headscarf and was not wearing a skirt. The oversight denied me even the simplest form of acceptance. It set me in a blank world with the other tourists, ignored and despised by the faithful, the Russian women with their covered hair, humming their love for and obedience to God.

The Kazan Cathedral was built, I am told, to house the icon of Mary, Mother of God, which was set above a raised floor to the right of the nave. She represented mercy and the preservation and unity of Russia. Hard silver encased her face, and she looked down upon the line of repentants who waited for a chance to pour out their prayers, kiss her frame, and come away renewed, hopeful, humble.

Watching them, I wished I had the courage to approach, to ask for faith. I played with the idea that I had simply walked away from God for a while, that maybe He—She, it—would welcome me back to safety if I only proclaimed my desire. I hovered near Mary’s line of the devout, wondering. Here, I told myself, is my central problem. The courage to ask for faith requires an act of faith in itself.

A man stepped forward to the silver clad Mary, crossed himself, kissed her frame, and touched his forehead to her, shivering in his reverence. How I envied him.


ANTONIA MALCHIK’s work has been published in The Boston Globe, Brain, Child, The Walrus, Creative Nonfiction, many other newspapers and journals, and been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on Elements, a memoir about motherhood, striving for the lost competence of her pioneer ancestors, and questioning the true meaning of sustainability. Her essay “Competence Lost,” forthcoming in February from The Jabberwock Review, addresses these themes. She can be reached through her website,