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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