One Pilgrim’s Progress
Sunrise. A man recited the call to prayer with a voice smooth and solid as polished wood. The syllables strung together and wavered like thread unravelling through the loudspeaker. My mother, father and I boarded a train at the Giza metro station, our stomachs stuffed with couscous, dried fruit, and clotted cream. At midday, the voice rode through Cairo once more. My throat turned warm, the tips of my fingers quivered, and I wanted to cry. Maybe it was the way the voice thrummed against me. Or the way children my age still ran through the streets while cars ceased to honk. Or the way I thought I could understand prayers in a language and religion that weren’t mine. The echoes of the adhan told me that "Allah is the greatest" and "there is no God but Allah," but I was too young to realize what it meant to have a God. I couldn’t pretend to understand who Allah was or what the prayers meant to me.
The routine of prayer confused me, unaccustomed to a voice so thick, burdened, and tethered to faith. I had experienced this only with my grandmother in Costa Rica when we knelt beside her bed together and she prayed the rosary. In a quiet, almost whisper, she prayed every night. Her voice didn’t beat loud against my chest like the adhans’, but I felt her words on my hands and on my shoulders as I leaned against her. Melodic, velvety, almost healing.
At El-Giza station, we took a bus to the pyramids, and from there walked a kilometer at a pace as methodical and rhythmic as the five prayers that spanned the day. In the midst of dunes, knots of limestone and single-humped camels the color of bread pudding, I thought of the book that taught me to draw Egyptian hieroglyphs. My name was a viper, a reed, two baskets, and a double set of reeds. I knew that Osiris was green and held the crook and flail of kingship like a mummified pharaoh. Anubis was jackal-headed, and Isis was the “Mother of God,” the first to make a mummy from Osiris’s dismembered limbs. Western education taught me to view these Gods as nothing more than a myth. But I perceived Allah and my grandmother’s Catholic God as equals with the faded, animal-headed Gods of Ancient Egypt, all of them strangely identical in my mind. These were folktales, creations, beliefs that came and went with the passing of time, ideas I would encounter, consider, try and fail to decode. The space left for faith needed to be filled.
And I tried to fill this space at nine years old, when I told my mother and father I wanted to become a Buddhist. It was summer, on a trip to Borobudur, Indonesia’s largest Buddhist temple, with nine layers of volcanic stone platforms overlooking the rainforest below. I felt unattached from myself and my parents, and thought that maybe it was because the silence and elevation seemed to morph the tension we felt. It made my parents stand closer to each other, exchange a couple of sentences, and look at each other in a way they had been avoiding. But on the ground, it was different: the sharp smell of spiked durians dominated the air, motorcycles and trucks stacked with dust covered crates congested the streets, and people leaned out of concrete windows covered by tin roofs. On the ground, my parents screamed or cried or threatened to leave each other as soon as we returned home. I figured that whatever momentary sense of peace and monastic silence that fell over my parents on Borobudur must be the work of Buddha. If I stayed here long enough, maybe peace would reach me, too.
Each statue of Buddha positioned its hands differently. Some sat in lotus, arranged in rows on the outer sides of the balustrades. Each had identical faces, long ears, and short tight curls. Some held a palm against their stomachs in benevolence. Some had both palms at the stomach, a sign of concentration, and others with a palm pushed outward in courage. I tried to imitate the way their stone fingers intertwined. Each step we took as we weaved through the stupas brought us closer to a new realm, to some form of liberation, to the final platform and the largest stupa. I was unacquainted with the way Buddhist meditation worked. No one at the temple showed outward signs of prayer, but I wanted the ability to meditate, to chant to myself in the hopes that someone would listen. I didn’t know where to start, the same way I didn’t know how to speak to God when my grandmother told me I could. Every sentence I tried to form was hollow, carved out like the diamond-shaped holes in the domes on the temple.
The way visitors hardly spoke on the upper levels of Borobudur had just as intense of an effect on me as any vocal sign of devotion. In my mind I repeated a form of prayer to someone in no particular place: I wanted my mother and father to forgive each other, to sit with their arms around each other, and to speak as they used to. I wanted to stay and attempt to understand how Borobudur made me feel different than any Catholic church had. Rectangles of sunlight broke through the domes and soon enough, we had no choice but to descend and try not to lose our way back to the ground. In that moment, I thought maybe if my parents had married as Buddhists rather than as Catholics, they would be harmonious, unconflicted, maybe even content. But maybe my evidence was all circumstantial.
For a while, until I began high school, I ceased to give faith any thought. And then my best friend Shivani invited to me to Garba, a dance within the nine-day Navratri festival in Autumn, which the local Hindu community held in a bright, empty, brown-carpeted room at the Florence Civic Center. Shivani greeted me at the entrance by tables of hot roti and turmeric seasoned peas and cabbage. We removed our shoes to dance and gave little thought to the significance of each movement. But only thirty minutes after I arrived, her boyfriend Gus came looking for her in his borrowed blue kafni pajamas. She left, and they spent their time together in the unlit parking lot. I only knew Shivani, and as the sole vessel I had for understanding Garba, I relied on her. Barefoot with people I hardly knew, we danced in a circle around clay lanterns, plump wreaths, and sticks of brown Champa incense. On every wall were images of Durga, the feminine form of divinity, the mother Goddess. I felt as though I participated in something meaningful without knowing what any of it meant. The more we spiraled across the floor as the beats of drums and sitars throbbed, the more my failure to dance with fluidity increased. Shivani finally rejoined us and then disappeared. The only constant in the room was the Goddess on the walls.
The night moved in a circle, a cycle of disappointment when Shivani left and of relief when she returned for a dance. Everything was circular: rings of dancers, yellow and orange and red curls of loose fabric, and palms cupped and lifted as if to catch tendrils of incense. I thought of their celebrations as beautiful, as something propelled by more than just belief, by something tangible, perhaps. But it seemed as though I wasn’t meant to celebrate Garba just like I couldn’t feel connected to the religion I had been born into. I couldn’t understand the different ways to cross myself in Mass or couldn’t learn and believe in the words to Roman Catholic hymns.
Shivani did not know the purpose of Garba or the nine-day festival of Navaratri. She went for the party and for the opportunity to fit her waist into a sequined dress. I was unsure how she could be disconnected and oblivious and forgetful of the traditions that permeated her life. I judged her actions to a fault and didn’t realize my own hypocrisy. If Shivani were to join me on the rare occasion that I attended Mass or a Holy Week procession, I would be as uninterested as she was at Garba. How Shivani and I felt about our religions resembled the way she left and rejoined the circle of dancers throughout the night. Ambivalent. Indecisive. Fleeting.
Maybe my dispassion for Catholicism stemmed from an ignorant need to move beyond the faith I was born into. I slowly began to shed this ignorance while I was sixteen in Spain, as thick mildewed incense blessed us. The priest and deacons raised a thurible from a system of pulleys as my mother and father and I filtered into the back. The Pilgrim’s Mass started every day at noon at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Peregrinos in scuffed hiking boots and layers of thick socks filled the pews. Their faces were tired, weathered, and fulfilled from weeks of trekking on the Camino de Santiago, from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic Ocean, to reach Saint James’s remains, the patron saint of Spain. In Costa Rica, before my grandmother’s back ached and before her legs swelled with varicose veins, she walked thirteen miles on an annual pilgrimage for Costa Rica’s patron saint, La Virgen de los Ángeles. Both pilgrimages followed once undiscovered and unclaimed paths, until boots heavy with faith cleared the way.
My parents never cleared a path for me. They never showed signs of adherence to any religion, though they baptized me in the Catholic church as an infant in a handmade white dress. My father preached evolution and read On the Origin of Species to me at night. My mother avoided any talk of God and only showed interest in adorning the walls of our home with rosaries from Colombia, tapestries of a pink Brahma with four heads, and a mask of a red-faced Buddhist demon above the fireplace. I found it difficult to comprehend how, among four-thousand two-hundred religions in the world, only one could be the truest, only one could exist.
My grandmother took me to Mass when I was younger, much like the Pilgrim’s Mass in Santiago de Compostela. It was a sort of pilgrimage, a twenty minute walk through fog on a road wedged between lush and verdant mountains until we reached the church in the center of town. Round and paneled with green, blue, and white glass, the church was all-encompassing, but I didn’t feel included. I tried to understand the priest’s words, and only until I sat through the Pilgrim’s Mass in Santiago did something feel different. In no way was it an epiphany or a flash of inspiration. Instead, it was the way crowds inside the cathedral filled and warmed every space on the floor and left nothing cold. It was the way the silence with which people prayed made me feel restless, uneasy, like smoke had infused my insides. I imagined the priest with spindles of gold string attached to the cathedral’s high ceilings, to the people in the pews, and to the white marble floor. And I couldn’t find a way to interpret what I felt, much less ask someone to explain this combination of doubt and appreciation to me.
I didn’t speak about faith with anyone but my parents, though, until Caleb. I spent two summers with him, and he became one of the last people I expected to talk about religion with. I didn’t think our conversations would extend beyond music or films. There was nothing admirable or exceptional about our encounters in the summer. At first, we were consumed and confused by the idea of only caring for each other during two months out of the year. We soon figured out a way to give in. Our shared interests in space, in Earth, and in each other were beyond our abilities to comprehend, all forgotten once August began. It was a compromise that echoed our indecision and the absence of permanence in our lives.
One afternoon, we sat on the couch in my living room, with cans of seltzer water and orange creamsicle wrappers littering the floor by our feet. Before he kissed me again, he asked me if I still liked him, asked if enough time had passed between last July and this one for me to change, or if my feelings were constant, like his. On the television screen, Neil deGrasse Tyson told us about the lost worlds of planet Earth on an episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Plate tectonics, like a pulse beneath the earth, beat against the crust. They shaped ridges, pushed continents together, and brought animals to migrate and connect. I told him yes, nothing’s changed, and he put his hand on my neck again. When my mother entered the house to grab two Funkatorium beers from the fridge, we separated. Caleb picked up a wooden figurine from the coffee table. A voodoo effigy from Mali. He inspected the nails stuck through its body and brushed his fingers over the bristly yellow hairs. He set it back in its original place, and as his head rested on my shoulder, I felt his heartbeat quicken and his body shift. The space between us left no room for plateaus or ridges.
The afternoon sunlight glinted off of the small mirrors embedded in piles of Indian pillows on the couch. Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke against a background of exploding stars revolving planets. Caleb asked if I knew that the Mediterranean Sea formed only because the natural dam of the Strait of Gibraltar broke. I said no, I wasn’t aware of that. After he pulled me closer again, he told me he thought about me when he was in Alabama. Then, for some reason, I asked him if he believed in God, or in anything greater than the planets that revolved behind Neil deGrasse Tyson. I didn’t know what answer to expect. And maybe I only asked him this because I felt close enough to someone who could provide reassurance for my doubts. In Egypt, I was young, curious, and in the midst of customs I found strangely beautiful without knowing why. In Indonesia, the mess and confusion led me to believe Buddhism could somehow piece my family back together. In high school I neglected to understand why I felt about my traditional faith the way I did and thought only that what wasn’t mine could be valuable. In Spain, I knew that I doubted because I would never find an answer. That instead, I would have to accept my lack of conclusions without contempt. Caleb thought for less than a second, rubbed his hands on the edge of the couch, and shook his head
“I don’t either,” I said. My question proved useless. So did my answer. But after years of deliberation, his simple nod was enough.
VICKY BROWN is a junior at the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, SC where she studies creative writing. She is the recipient of Silver and Gold Keys from the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. When she is not at school, she is traveling to foreign countries with her parents.