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, antoniamalchik.com.