I went home to New York City over Easter weekend to see my parents and to do what we do as a family only once a year — go to church. If you’re at Holy Cross Church of Armenia any other weekend, there are (maybe) 10 parishioners in the pews. But this weekend, the holiest of the Christian calendar, there’s hardly an empty seat in the building. Everyone looks at each other nervously for cues on when to stand and sit, since most haven’t been since the same time last year. Yet every year, they come back.
I met a friend in the city later that day for dinner. As she and I perused the eclectic shops and restaurants, we came upon a façade that looked completely anachronistic. “St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church,” the display board read, adjacent to a huge bust of Pope John Paul II. We went in to have a look. She immediately crossed herself thrice — repeating the gesture as we left.
“You know, I don’t really believe anything the church teaches,” she said. “But tonight, after I get drunk, I’m probably going to stumble over to Easter Vigil at 4 a.m.”
This entire episode shocked me almost as much as another here at Yale, when a friend — surely one of the most passionate, ardent atheists on campus freshman year — was caught (by me) at Slifka, with a kippah on his head. “I thought you hated this stuff!”
“I’m keeping an open mind,” he replied, without a trace of the tenacity with which he defended and evangelized atheism freshman year.
The metanarrative of the prodigal son spans millennia, taking on 20th century forms in the lives and works of Edith Stein, Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde. Lewis recalled his conversion to Christianity as an experience in which he was “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.” In the end, he felt compelled to submit to what — whether he liked it or not — he deemed to be the truth. Leah Libresco ’11 converted to Catholicism from atheism after years of intense debates with friends from the Yale Political Union.
Religion is lost on a great many Yale students, for whom religious practice is a childhood activity one compartmentalizes in college, if not abandoning it completely. Few have the deep, serious discussions about how to live, partly because the implications of these discussions are way too real. We intensely hunger for truth but don’t know, don’t have the time or don’t have the bravery to start looking.
Religion is powerful because of God. Social justice is a noble cause, and lifelong self-improvement should be in the back of everyone’s mind. But being part of a community center can do that for you. For those who think that this is all religion offers, you’re only getting the frosting on the cake. Tastes good, looks good, feels good — but it ain’t the cake. It is the externality of divinity from the meekness and banality of life that makes it powerful. It is this externality that reminds us, when we grow blind by routine, that good and evil are everywhere around and inside of us.
When the power goes out, as it’s bound to do at some point in every individual’s life, the distractions with which we foolishly placate ourselves and justify the significance of our existence fade away.
Serenity is hard to come by, but religion isn’t just another balm. Some days you feel good, some days you don’t, but religion teaches you to take everyone as they come and to live authentically — because God is going nowhere. As another convert, English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, put it, He “plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”
So Yale, please start talking again. Talk long hours into the night. And sure, you’ll still do your homework, you’ll still run 10 clubs, you’ll still go to Toad’s — but do a little bit of forward thinking, too, so that you’re a little less scared when the lights go out. Ask yourself, when you go to church once a year, why you bother showing up at all. Are you selling yourself short?
And finally, while you still can, look, as Hopkins says, just a little closer, “into the features of men’s faces.” Is there anything there?
John Aroutiounian is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .