The Sin of Certainty

by Tyler Slade

I’ve always thought that cathedrals were far too ominous to be a place of worship. But maybe that was the whole point—to scare you into confession. Somehow, despite the seemingly endless expanse of stained glass dominating those cold stone walls, there’s a lack of natural light, creating a space permeated by shadows only intermittently intercepted by flickering candlelight. It seems that true appreciation for God’s work entails blocking it out completely with this vast, gray monument that makes me so claustrophobic. I feel heavier here, small in my place among the pews, but maybe this is because I am being encouraged to face all that makes me irredeemable.

I look over at Asher, and he is so at peace, smile lines etched like small canyons in his freckled face. His eyes are closed, and he is beautiful, and an unrighteous jealousy flares up inside me, followed immediately by shame, then frustration at feeling sensitive enough to care. This tumultuous wave of emotion knocks the breath out of me, though from the outside, I am rigid as ever. I feel as though he is a part of this secret club, like everyone’s laughing at an inside joke that I didn’t witness.

“Oh, you had to be there!” they say, bent over in stitches. “You had to be there when Abraham took Isaac up to kill him; it was quite the show of faith, a testament of God’s love!” I was not there, nor were they, and I do not see what they see, though I try.

Mostly I try for Asher, because of his goodness, to be enough by attaining what he has. But I sit there, and I feel so small and rudderless, like a chasm may well open up beneath me and swallow me whole, and no one would be surprised in the slightest.

“Oh, that Eve,” they’d say. “Such a shame. But did you see how short her skirt was? She was just asking for Hell to swallow her up. It was about time.” Asher would be sad for a while, but then he’d find his true match. She’d be just as faithful as him, with that innate sense of goodness that comes to him so easily.

I instinctively pull my black dress down as far as it will go, though it still doesn’t quite reach my knees. This used to be my favorite dress. Now I think it’s much too tight, and I’m embarrassed, and I feel like those stone walls are closing in on me, the dark tapestries hanging from the walls tormenting me like the villainous flowers from Alice in Wonderland.

As the priest (or is it a pastor?) continues his sermon, I decide that regardless of what his title is, his wizened stature seems drastically emphasized by his wizard-like attire. Intricate jewels adorn his robes, and his large hat seems to weigh him down, his back arched painfully as he grips the pulpit with white-knuckled, spindly hands. I decide that this man is held together by pure stubbornness. I wonder what in his life has lent to this all-consuming certainty of God’s presence, and what has been inflicted upon him in all his years that shaped the steely glint in his eyes, the deep pockmarks in his face.

My mind drifts from the landscape of his skin to a different landscape entirely. Cathedrals, in all their portentous glory, weren’t as prominent where I grew up. In New Hampshire, each small town was punctuated by an archetypal white church that towered over the neat brick buildings. Proud and haughty, they stood tall, weighed down slightly as the icy wind chipped their wood year after year. I remember a particularly harsh onslaught of hail gouging the fragile paint of our own small town’s church one fall. I rode my bike past it on my way to school one morning and saw a crowd on the grounds, reverently passing paint to a figure perched precariously on a ladder and mending the aged building as though it was a child with a scraped knee. As it turns out, our wounds aren’t always as apparent as the chipped wood of a building, though things might be easier if they were.

The summer after the hail, I let James Halstead feel me up in the grass behind that very church. It was a humid night, and the foliage was tinted orange from the rapidly descending sun. As we lay entangled in the grass, I felt mildly intrigued at the foreignness of someone else’s hands grasping my body so hungrily, with such clumsiness. I wonder now if God was watching me then, and whether this was rude to do in what may as well have been his backyard.

Asher reaches over and grabs my hand, squeezing it twice, and I snap out of my reverie to smile back at him apprehensively, feeling as though I’ve been caught doing something wrong. I examine the highway of veins on the back of his steady hand and wonder how something so strong can also be so fragile, and what sense there is in any of it. I lay my head on the gentle slope of his shoulder and close my eyes. I feel him there, but I’m excruciatingly aware of how temporary it all is. The idea of eternity both frightens and exhilarates me. One thing I do know is that if God really did create us all, then he’s my favorite artist just by virtue of creating Asher.

Truthfully, I have never given much thought to the concept of God before now. I was not raised in a religious family, though I was taught that God existed. He was mysterious to me, this God, and very elusive. People were always fighting wars in his name, knitting blankets for refugees because of him, killing people for him, loving people for him, or standing outside the 7-Eleven with a “God Hates Gays” sign yelling obscenities at anyone who passed by. I don’t think that God would necessarily approve of the latter, as this seems to be an entirely unappealing way to spend a Saturday. Yet this is where the problem lies. If God exists, what is his will, and how are we to know? And what exactly is the value in doing these things if we are only doing them to please? And why are people so certain that they are aligned with someone who is invisible, yet ever-present? I am not sure, so this is why I am here.

The closest I’ve felt to anything like God was in art school a few years back. I was lucky enough to have attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and, consequently, my nights were spent painting, drunkenly coming up with ideas for my next show with fellow students, overusing the word “juxtaposition,” and not-so-subtly holding back tears as my work was relentlessly critiqued by my professors and colleagues alike. The cutthroat environment, however, was not where the divinity was present. It was present when I faced my canvas, and when I lovingly, painstakingly applied layers of paint till shapes began to take form. There, it was just me and the act of creation, bringing ideas to life with the swift flick of my wrist. No one to give me withdrawn, tightlipped smiles as they nodded to me in the gallery, the lack of fervor obvious in every movement. That is where I think I have felt God the most.

I am curious, now, if God feels underappreciated as an artist. I wonder if he has ever had peers tell him to get a real job, or if he was ever looked at with disdain when creating the world, or whether his work was seen as amateur. Did he throw any iterations of our world away, frustrated because he couldn’t get the shadows just right? I wonder if he is critical of his work––whether he looks at me with regret, because looking at me reminds him that he just did not make me kind enough, that he made my torso too long and my skin too pale. John Baldessari, a painter, once cremated over two decades of his own work. Maybe God feels like doing this sometimes, but he allows us to do the damage ourselves.

With my knees braced uncomfortably against the unfamiliar wood, I lace my fingers together as I’ve seen people do on TV, and I lift my head from Asher’s shoulder to turn my closed eyes to the sky. I must’ve looked devout to the naive passerby, but all I’m wondering is if I should look at the floor instead, and whether it’s disrespectful to look at God directly. Is he like those monarchs that immediately demand for your head if you glance at them wrong? I sit there for a minute, and I realize that I have not been smitten, so at least I must be doing something right.

In that moment, the rest of the congregation melts away, and it’s just me there. And I imagine what I might look like from God’s perspective, assuming that he is looking at me from above. I must look so small from up there. I am tired of feeling small, so I consider the possibility that he’s sitting next to me instead, growing weary of the invisibility that so effectively cloaks his love. I cannot help but hope that this love becomes more palpable soon, as I’ve heard so much about it, failing to see its role in my own life. Being faithful, clearly, is not my strength. But a lack of faith seems wholly less dangerous than faith that is misplaced.

Tyler Slade is a writer from San Luis Obispo, California. She is currently a senior at Brigham Young University, where she studies philosophy while minoring in creative writing and global women’s studies. Her immersion in these academic disciplines has had a significant influence on her writing, which tends to explore the tumultuous ideological terrain of the world, with attention to themes of morality, connectivity, and injustice in religious and secular contexts. She mostly writes creative fiction and non-fiction, and has won multiple awards for her work.