After I toss the pills and decide to live, things don’t get better for a while. Eventually there comes a day when I sit in one spot on the couch all afternoon, grasping that I was in an abusive relationship. Then, comes the time I dare saying ‘no’ to him and I suffer the consequences; with that comes the realization that he will not change. And then, there is that moment I see him for the last time: he drops me off at the airport, waves goodbye at his wife of ten years, and walks away with the words “well, have a good life!”
In my introductory piece, I wrote about the day I lost my Christian faith. I didn’t become a Pagan right away, even though that would have made a great story: a heroine’s quest. Sheltered and disempowered girl from a small town in Germany leaves Christianity, divorces her abusive husband, and discovers Witchcraft in a dramatic moment of conversion. I would probably buy that novel, but my life isn’t a novel. Mine is a story of apostasy, of conversion, of empowerment, and of transition, experienced from different angles all at once.
As I am sitting here writing this, I want to skip over the long season of confusion. I want to write the next chapter in which the story flows from despair to hope, from darkness to light. In reality, I tumbled from one to the other for weeks, for months. I have images, snapshots; I want to weave them into a tale. And yet, my faith journey is as much the story that is left out as the one I am weaving. I can’t settle a clean story arch, and I have no universal road map for conversion, but I can offer another snapshot of my journey.
After moving in with my parents, I spend weeks doing what Arwen, my cat, loves to do best. Together we sit on the heater in my old room, staring out the window, watching the sun rise too late and set too early. Germany’s coldest winter in decades. Whenever my parents leave the house, I secretly turn the heater to its highest setting, hoping against hope it will invoke in me the sense of a warm, beating heart.
Most nights, I cry myself to sleep. Days go by in a blur. I think about him all the time. He’s in all of the nightmares. My waking moments are filled with my hatred and my longing for him. Codependency. It’s a new word in my vocabulary, and I don’t really understand it. I reminds me of the time I was studying to become fluent in the English language. That was the year I lived in Seattle, and Seattle was where we met, where we had our first date, our first kiss. Every thought leads back to him. One night I can’t take it anymore, and I think of going upstairs and crawling into my mom’s bed and begging her to fix me. Codependency.
Then, the ice melts and the snow turns to mud. Grey and brown and slippery. I go outside sometimes, but the flashbacks come unexpectedly. His fist punching through a wall. His face coming toward me. The scenes in the bedroom. I am too afraid to drive, and I don’t walk far from home. When the hardened layers of earth are punctured by sprouting weeds, I feel a stirring of hope. Flashes of light in the darkness. At times, the contrast is so bright I feel ecstatic, if only for a moment. These moments tell me there is a life for me, life after my choice to live. There are moments in which I feel a hint of being myself, moments that feel like heaven. “Someday I know I shall actually take up residence here”, I write in my journal.
Easter arrives, the festival of the resurrection. My family takes me to an old Lutheran church and we enter in silence, an hour before midnight. Instead of a sermon, we listen to bible passages, starting in Genesis, leading up to the resurrection. A story from beginning to end to resurrection, told in a place, a religion, a town where my own story began. We sing traditional German hymns and recite parts of the liturgy. Words I don’t remember but have heard as a child.
Once the story approaches the resurrection, the sound of a violin pierces the darkness, a cello moans, and then an orchestra proclaims the coming joy. A light flickers as the first candle is lit and tears spring into my eyes. I watch as the first candle lights another, and another, and another. Flame to flame, light to light, passed from one person to another; and the darkness flees. A wave of tiny fires bathing the ancient walls in an eerie glow.“He is risen,” the pastor proclaims. “He is risen indeed!” The proclamation is passed just like the flame, from person to person. I am no longer sure if He is risen indeed. I haven’t known Him since the day I wanted to die. But, I want to let myself feel this ancient hope, older than the stones of this church.
Ancient mortar and bricks have witnessed these words for centuries, spoken by pastors and princes and paupers. There is a sense of hope all around me. I feel it coming from the stones, as if they remember. Year after year, through the dark ages, the famines, the plague, and the wars, through Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, they have heard these words.
I think of widows, who lost their spouses in war. I think of peasants oppressed by the heavy rule of princes. I think of orphans and knights and young maidens and old crippled women. There are stories held in these walls, stories of pain and stories of hope. I waver between them. Pain and joy, hope and depression. We heard a story today, the story of God’s creation and His plan for His people and His Son, but there are other stories here. Stories that were lived in and around this church. Stories that found expression in resurrection vigils, voices that filled this space ages ago. They were stories that no book will ever contain, no scripture will ever declare, just like my story. And they are calling to me. I can’t make them out, it is the noise of too many decades, held in the thickness of these walls, thicker with memory than stone.
I don’t remember if I give the proper response that “He is risen indeed.” My mind is elsewhere. There is a resurrection here. There has been life and there will be again, and the stories held in this space – they are also mine. I come from these stories, I was born here. These people, these walls, these memories run in my blood. I was a part of something ancient once, older than the story we read today, older than the stories of this place, older, older still, as old as humanity.
Someone touches my arm. It is time to leave the church. Lent is over and we are each given a freshly baked bread roll, baked with yeast. We gather around a bonfire, lit on the church grounds. I long to feel the joy of the resurrection like those around me, but there is heaviness on me, a density.
An acquaintance makes a beeline toward me, pulls me into an overjoyed embrace, tells me how excited she is that my husband and I are here. She points at a visitor she has mistaken for my husband. This is all wrong. I want to go back to the fire. The heaviness of the walls still cling to me, and the dance of the flames is calling me. I can’t feel the joy that everyone around me is exuding. I feel a depth, a heaviness as I stare into the fire. This fire is so old, so young, so new, it changes, every moment and every second, and yet it is as it always has been. My body burns with grief, always, and I ache to know the joy and hope of the resurrection. Joy and hope doesn’t come to me, and yet the longing tells me I am still alive.
There is no conclusion of hope here; no expectation that this moment changed the arc of my story. It is true that something stirred in me that night. I suppose a Christian would say that it was Jesus showing up in a way I didn’t appreciate, in the walls and in the fire. A pagan interpretation would talk of trance, a calling from the ancestors, a connection with place. Maybe both are true or maybe neither. I had lost my religion and my framework for understanding, so that night came to me uninterpreted, divorced from all meaning, just like myself. It was a time outside of time, after my Christian narrative had died. I wouldn’t gain a new framework until the day I stepped into my first circle where encountered the unexpected and saw my narrative be reborn.
All images courtesy of the author.