Finding My Religion

     I had not stepped into my grandmother’s church for 15 years before my visit to my native Romania last month. I had avoided churches for a decade, except for my son’s baptism – my way of pacifying the family.
     The little Orthodox church felt familiar, like I had only left it yesterday, with brightly colored Eastern saints ready to leap off the walls and arched ceiling. The air heavy with myrrh, wine, and mystic incense took me back to childhood holidays.
     My grandmother went to Mass every Sunday until she became too frail to leave her home. My grandfather, a church usher and member of the choir, devoted countless hours to maintaining the church and making sure its people stuck together. Now they both lie in the neighborhood cemetery, less than one mile from the church.
     Back in the building for Grandma’s memorial service, one year after her passing, I listened to the priest’s incantations, resembling a chant from another world, and the dingy light with golden reflections gave me the impression of a surreal dream. But I found comfort in the contours of the chairs that had once held my grandparents, in the starry ceiling I used to size up as a child, wondering if the choir was up in the sky, in the paintings that I had seen appear gradually on the walls when my grandparents housed and fed the church painters for months.
     Coming from a family of priests and anti-communism resistance leaders, I was raised to believe the church was at the core of staying true to oneself. As I got older, I started to notice incongruities in preachings of absolute truth. The church, advertised as a place of comfort, identity and community, slowly morphed into a threatening entity with inescapable claws. I learned about priests raping boys, and pastors molesting women and little children, and shamans robbing followers of everything they had, and radical Muslim leaders beheading people in the name of their beliefs.
     The raw violence was not what scared me the most. It was the unlimited control, the idea that impressionable lives were put in the hands of semi-gods they were asked to worship and follow into self-delusion without questions. My revelation sent seismic waves through my family, but the geographical distance I put between us as a U.S. immigrant made it easier to carry on dissident thought.
     Back for my visit this year, I watched people flock to the grand cathedral in my home town, where the second Romanian king was crowned in 1922. They were looking for a safe place in a menacing universe, to reconnect with the ancestors, or simply justify their existence.
     Religion is deeply ingrained in Romanians’ lives, although they do not talk in Bible verses, they rarely knock on your door to ask if you’ve seen Jesus, and their religious schools are strictly for those who pursue careers in priesthood or theology. It is a private experience to most Romanians, a link to a past of devout grandmothers and struggles to defend ancestral homelands against Ottomans, Mongols, Hungarians and Russians.
     But while the older generation hangs on to ideals of holiness, many younger people have started the quest for their own formula of spirituality, one that does not involve hierarchies of priests in golden garb, grandiose churches built with public money, or nuns driving Mercedes cars our retired parents could never afford.
     The bells started to toll as the memorial ceremony entered its last phase. Grandma’s relatives chanted along, pleading for her soul’s admission into heaven. I looked up at the balcony, remembering a day almost 30 years ago. I had gotten up in the attic, that mysterious place that music came from, for the feast my grandparents had helped prepare when the church was completed. The choir did not deliver its songs from the sky, after all, but to me it was close enough. I sat next to my sister at an improvised table and watched as Grandpa talked to people, made sure they enjoyed their food and drinks, and bragged about the church that had turned out so well. Every now and then, he stopped to look at us, palpable warmth in his eyes. The air was charged with human connection, and I had never felt closer to angels before.
     As I stood by my grandmother’s grave later that afternoon, aware of the futility of talking to a tombstone, I wondered why something meant to bring us peace and closure so often takes the form of oppression, and how long before we find a better way.

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