This was originally published in Commonweal Magazine (Oct 8, 1999 as “I was aTeenage Atheist”) and reprinted in Philip Zaleski’s “Best Spiritual Writing” anthology
Flames leaped into the horizon. My parents, my sister, Shalini, and I abandoned our dinner to race up to the terrace and watch the blaze. It was Holi, the Hindu spring festival, an explosion of mischief celebrating the god Krishna’s shenanigans with the cowgirls. Flung water balloons gushed vermilion; water pistols squirted indigo. Stranger smeared stranger with silver paint stolen from construction sites. Buckets—dishwater? urine?—were emptied from high apartment windows onto passersby. Riotousness and devilry burst forth, a ripe sore.
Durga, our tiny, curly-haired cook, cycled into town and returned, panting with news. A procession of Hindus, chanting bhajans, statues of Shiva, god of destruction, hoisted on their shoulders, had marched past the mosque and forced a pig into it. Rumors of Muslim vengeance for this desecration flew round the town. “I won’t tell you in front of the chhota memsahibs,” Durga said. The Hindus retaliated. Jamshedpur, my North Indian home town, was 82 percent Hindu and 11 percent Muslim. The fire engines were silent as Muslim slums, homes, and businesses burned.
Mesmerized by the flames zigzagging into the horizon, I sat on the parapet, my legs dangling over the edge. In the boredom of boarding school, I had read of front-page disasters wistfully—hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, floods, war. But nothing happened, except in the movies. I was seventeen and had just graduated from Saint Mary’s Convent, Nainital, a century-old boarding school in the Himalayas run by German and Irish nuns—staid, staid.
* * *
I gazed down: fire devouring houses, crashing rafters, distant screaming. The effect was hypnotic, as in a cinema rustling with peanut-crunching, betel-nut chewing, enthralled throngs. But these were not sound effects—I snapped out of reverie—these were real people, just like me, burning to death. Suddenly sickened, I ran downstairs and locked myself in my room.
The police slapped a curfew on the town: A glare, a curse, a flung stone could spark a riot. Police stood at every street corner, their rifles cocked. The market shut down. Home deliveries of bread and milk stopped. The cook sifted out insects to make parathas from old whole wheat flour. It was romantic in a way, the Indian Family Robinson.
* * *
The Hindu-Muslim riots held little personal terror: I was Roman Catholic. My forebears from Mangalore on the west coast of India were converted in the mid-sixteenth century by Portuguese missionaries, backed by the Inquisition. It was the prospect of boredom that bothered me. At the first hint of violence, libraries closed their stacks as too-easy targets for arsonists. Though we lived in faculty housing on the campus of Xavier Labor Relations Institute, a business school run by American Jesuits at which my father taught, it was impossible to get books. How would I get through curfew without them? A compulsive reader, I went through our bookshelves: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, I had read them several times. I shrank from rereading The Return of the Native, Far from the Madding Crowd, or The Mill on the Floss, though I loved those “classics.”
I settled down with the books I had not already read: Christian books. My father bought them at parish jumble sales as though there were virtue in the purchase. He never read them. To my surprise, I was fascinated. The Cross and the Switchblade, David Wilkerson’s tale of Christ’s radiance transforming young gangsters and drug addicts in New York City, and Catherine Marshall’s Beyond Ourselves were vivid accounts of Christ bursting into everyday life, setting it to music, making it sweet. This felt very different from the fossilized Catholicism forced on us at boarding school.
My childhood had been totally immersed in Catholicism—saints, angels, rosaries, novenas, litanies. It was punctuated with those rituals—baptism, first confession, first Communion, confirmation-that can so entwine themselves with the fabric of your spirit that to slough off Catholicism is to shiver in uncertainty. It’s like stripping off your skin. As a child, I unquestioningly accepted Catholicism, and believed what I was taught; that it was the only true faith. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: Outside the church, there is no salvation.
* * *
When I was eleven, I read through a compendium of General Knowledge during the winter school holiday and discovered a new passion: Greek mythology. I abandoned my stamp and postcard collections to read everything I could find on the enchanted universe of Greek gods and goddesses. Then, I chanced upon an idea that shattered my religious complacency.
I read that primitive men and women, often devastated by nature, imagined it was God. They worshiped the sun as Apollo; corn, fickle in blight or plenty, was Ceres; the raging sea, they imagined, was the mighty god Poseidon; the north wind, Boreas. Flabbergasted mortals elevated the forces of erratic, uncontrollable nature into gods to adore and placate. I understood. And was Catholicism any different from this awe-struck, foolish approach to nature? I doubted it.
* * *
I became an atheist and fed off the secret knowledge of intellectual superiority. How benighted they were, these parents, grandparents, priests, and nuns who ran our boarding school-they and their rattling rosary beads and boring Masses, their sprinklings of holy water from Lourdes, their relics, holy pictures, apparitions of the Virgin, prayers both to and for any good soul that left this earth. Just eleven, I knew better. I whispered to cronies, “I am an atheist,” as one might confide, “I am a murderess.”
Sister Hermine, our stern-faced, square-jawed German principal, summoned her rebellious charges to her office and, from her lowest desk drawer, slowly drew forth her strap-a thick strip of leather. She rarely had to use it. At the mere sight, the victim whimpered in terror and repentance. I was the only girl she had ever strapped, Sister Hermine often said, shaking her head. When I was sent to the principal’s office to apologize for calling Miss Fernandes—a teacher who had maliciously and unfairly punished me—a Gorgon and a bitch, I clarified “No, I didn’t call her a bitch. I said a witch,” which seemed worse. Since I refused to recant (I meant what I’d said) I was struck on the calves with the strap and let off apologizing. Sister Hermine was ambivalent about breaking her students’ wills. “What’s the merit in taming lambs?” my father’s brother, Theo Mathias, a Jesuit, asked her when she was close to expelling me. “But if you get a lion cub, and tame it into a lamb, isn’t that something to be proud of?” Sister Hermine agreed.
Still, she would be unimpressed by an eleven-year-old atheist, I thought. Outwardly, I went through enforced Catholicism-daily Mass; Benediction: a cascade of hymns every Sunday evening; adoration: silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament every first Sunday; confession, rosary, stations of the cross, and choir practices. Inwardly, I scoffed, and as the habit of confidence grew, I rebelled. I got my friends to join me in crawling out of the choir room while Sister Cecilia, behind the organ, warbled in a holy dream. I embedded the altar candles at Mass with the sulfurous heads of match sticks, reducing the girls who strained to catch the hiss, the sputter, the odor, to convulsive giggles.
When I turned fourteen—no longer one of the “babies,” or the “middle set,” but a “big girl,” especially in my own estimation—I knocked on Sister Hermine’s door and announced that I did not believe in Catholicism, or in God for that matter, so please, please, could I not have to be a Catholic, and—especially—not have to go to church?
“I’d much rather join the non-Catholics at ’silent occupation,’” I protested. The Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were allowed to read, study, paint, or embroider, provided they sat at their desks in perfect silence—oh, oasis!—while we, we went to church.
“Can’t I just obey the Ten Commandments and not go to church?” I asked.
She was amused. “What are the Ten Commandments?”
I rattled them off from years of catechism, but stumbled over “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” “See, you can’t even say the Ten Commandments. How can you obey the Ten Commandments?” Sister Hermine laughed. “You have to be a Catholic now. Wait until you are twenty-one. Then decide.”
And that was that. I got no support from my parents for my desire to officially “lapse.” They detested adverse attention. You are a Catholic, my mother said, whether you like it or not. Seven years to go.
I became openly defiant. As president of the debating club, I chose subjects like “God is dead,” and “religion is the opiate of the people,” speaking for the motion, annoying the nuns. My favorite writers were Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy. (I was not aware that doubt had a more modern face.) I embraced Hardy’s bleak Learian vision—”As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport”—his absent or malign god.
Still, the vanishing of God left a vacuum which was filled by restlessness, unhappiness, and puzzlement about the purpose of life. Like Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, I concluded that if there was no God, there was also no immutable moral law, nothing intrinsically right or wrong. There was no one to reward goodness or punish wrongdoing in this world, and there was no world to come. So one could do whatever one wanted or, at least, whatever one could get away with.
I shared my new philosophy with my friends. We formed a gang, “the bandits,” and our first exploit was our daily raids on Modern Store which catered to rich kids from the four expensive boarding schools in Nainital, and to the tourists and honeymooners who swamped the Himalayan resort. Kaye, Savneet, Bella, and I strolled into the store wearing the baggy sweaters of our convent uniform, designed to disguise nubile figures. We stuffed Cadbury’s chocolate, Mills and Boon romances, stickers, cards, nail polish, and costume jewelry into our sleeves and up our sweaters. When our desks overflowed, the nuns noticed, made inquiries, then pounced on us. We were marched back to the shop with our booty and forced to apologize: “We are sorry, ’Mr. Modern.’”
Furious, I debated with my class teacher, the fiery, Irish Sister Josephine, through a long summer evening. Perched on a piano in the music room (a sacrilege), I argued that if “Mr. Modern” overcharged us all year, it was okay to even things occasionally by “swacking” from him. Her beautiful brown eyes kindled. “The Bible says…” she began. But I did not believe the Bible was “the Word of God,” infallible.
But at the same time—secretly—I began to crave a moral framework. How easy choice can be when there are absolutes, a road map through the maze of decisions. How wearying to thrash out the morality of every case, every time, all by yourself. I wished I could believe.
“You are experiencing an Augustinian restlessness,” Sister Josephine said, quoting the saint: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Pascal, she said, wrote of the “God-shaped vacuum” only God could fill. And I was God-bitten. Atheism is closer to faith than indifference is.
I was nicknamed “the naughtiest girl in school” after an Enid Blyton heroine. But being a rebel wasn’t really fun despite its jaunty aura. If I could have been “good,” I would have. When the nuns predicted a conversion experience for me, I feared it. I wanted it. Their naughtiest girls often become the “holiest,” they claimed. For was not Saint Augustine a rake, and Saint Francis a playboy, and, as for Saint Mary Magdalen…?
When we were to be confirmed, I was eleven. Sister Magdalene, an enormous, squint-eyed British nun, persuaded me to take her name. “Mary Magdalen was a notorious sinner who became very holy. Take her name, and she will ask God to give you the grace of a great conversion,” she said. The old story-flamboyant rebellion later swinging to passionate devotion. I did not ask “Maggie” why she compared me to a supposed prostitute, harbor to seven demons. I composed scandalous poems about the nuns: “Sister Secunda eloped with a gunda,” a bandit. I ran away from school with Micky, the school sheepdog. In revenge for being sent out of class, I locked my teacher and classmates into the classroom throughout an afternoon. Such things were surely wicked. But too awkward, alas, too “nice,” to refuse Sister Magdalene, I became Anita Mary Magdalene Mathias, adopting that stodgy, dated name I hated. The classic coming-to-faith trajectory had its appeal. I wondered if the “Mary Magdalen” might prove prophetic. Would I suddenly turn “good,” perhaps even, in a blaze of glory, become “a great saint”?
I might convert like Paul. A bullet of hatred, galloping to Damascus to kill and destroy, he is struck off his horse and glimpses divinity. “Saul, Saul, it is hard for you to kick against the goad.” “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus whom you persecute.” His life acquires a purpose: “the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ, my Lord.” “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain,” he writes. How wonderful, I thought, to convert just like that, your life transformed-but I lacked both belief and an object of devotion.
Father Clement Campos and Father Ivo Fernandes, handsome Redemptorist priests with twangy-voiced charm, preached our annual retreats: an aesthetic delight, days of hymns and silences, resounding oratory, and prayer by candlelight led by a luscious male voice. And every year we, who from March to December rarely saw a man except the chaplain, developed monstrous, predictable crushes.
“And is anyone here an atheist?” the priest asked provocatively on the first retreat evening as he polled our group of Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists—and atheists. And every year, I raised my hand.
For the next week, they worked on me—private conferences and counseling, private prayers for healing from whatever trauma brought me, a Catholic girl of good family, to this strange pass. A foot away from the man’s animated brown eyes, how easy conversion seemed; how it would please this appealing priest.
“Get up at 5 a.m. tomorrow,” the priest said, “and sit alone. Watch the sun rise on those snow-tipped mountains and ask yourself, ’Could this grandeur come to be by accident?’” So I raised my eyes to the Himalayas, waiting to be surprised by faith. Gazing up at the mountains, I thought, as I was expected to-“Maybe, maybe….” But back down in the valley, any belief born of eloquence and hormones left with the good-looking priest.
Still, I was fertile soil at seventeen as I read the Bible while confined to the house during those Hindu-Muslim riots. On the patio where I sat reading, the sun, a ball of vermilion fire, sank beneath the emerald fortress of trees, lit by the orange-crimson flowers of the Flame of the Forest and the red and yellow Royal Poinciana. I continued reading after dusk by the glow of a kerosene lamp. Was Jesus Christ who the New Testament claimed he was: the God who made and loves us, the creator of the universe, cornerstone and crux of human history, the zigzag of the jigsaw that makes sense of everything else?
Paul says, “He is the image of the invisible God. All things were created by him and for him… and in him all things hold together.”
And Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God. “
Who do you say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Driven by an inchoate hunger, I read and reread the New Testament, my thirst growing even as it was quenched. Gradually, my cherished objections-the lack of scientific proof; the myth-like aspects of virgin birth and a Christ resurrected from the dead; that Christianity was the credulity of fishermen given form and credibility by Paul’s sophisticated intellect—crumbled like clay gods. No, this was not mythology. It differed from the tales of Mount Kailash, Mount Olympus, and Asgard that I had devoured. It differed in the sense of, well, holiness. It had the taste of truth. Jesus’ words sang in me like music, like poetry. I found myself praying, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”
I gradually surrendered the intellectual high ground of cold reason: What I do not see with my eyes, or feel with my hands, I will not believe. I could not spar against the Christ I apprehended dimly—I who did not understand cars, or logarithms, or tides, or love. It’s possible the Gospels are true, I conceded. It’s plausible. Intellect can bring you to the brink of belief. Faith is the missing link. I believed: in a leap of the heart as rationally inexplicable as the leap from affection to love. For like love, faith is the heart’s knowledge. “Lord,” I prayed. “I believe. You are the living God. I will follow you, wherever you lead. I will do your will insofar as you make it clear to me what it is.” I did not quail at this largesse, this scattering of blank checks. I did not add, “but be merciful, Lord. Be sensible.” With an air of adventure, of rusty doors wrenched from their sockets, revealing fresh vistas, I prayed: “Show me, Lord. What should I do?”
I would dedicate my life to Christ, I decided. How then should I live? “A life of love!” How exactly, I did not know, but, being seventeen, I wanted to do something dramatic and do it swiftly. “I want to be a pen in God’s hands,” I wrote in my journal, “picked up and used, leaving light where I have written.”
My first impulse, to fly off from Jamshedpur to help David Wilkerson of The Cross and the Switchblade in his work with teen drug addicts and gangsters in Harlem, wasn’t exactly practical. While casting about for a vocation, I volunteered in the Cheshire Home for physically handicapped and mentally retarded children, on the outskirts of Jamshedpur. Here, in the postage stamp of my world, I tried to practice the kindness at the heart of Christianity, without which words are noisy gongs, ardor and alms worth little. I lived with the Vincent de Paul nuns and was captivated by their life of prayer, quiet work, and silences. “How beautiful this serene life is, governed by the pealing of bells,” I wrote in my journal. “Scaling inward mountains—lovelier by far than a life of distraction, worries, gossip, and moneymaking, a life inimical to the spirit.”
Catholic children brought up by nuns or priests brace themselves against a vocation: a tap on the shoulder, inward marching orders, an imperative you can ignore, but at the cost of your soul. At some time, we all think we’ve caught it: That’s it, we are the chosen of God, chosen for a lonely, lovely way, another bride of Christ.
Now, I began, obsessively, to wonder if I had a religious vocation. God was the only thing that was real, I kept reminding myself, and all else—college, marriage, career, social life, money-was vanity. I wanted to find a way to live, always, close to Christ, tasting his joy and peace. Surely leaving “the world,” becoming a nun, was the only way to do that.
While at the Cheshire Home, I read Edward Le Joly’s Servant of Love about Mother Teresa’s congregation, the Missionaries of Charity. How utterly radical they were in their following of Christ, I thought, as I read of their austere life, stripped down to essentials. They owned but two saris, a Bible, and no more than could fit into a bucket—their “suitcase” when they traveled. How seductive to slough off everything, to live deep in the embrace of Christ, the creator of the universe, friend sufficient for every need. Wow! Without training, with impetuosity, they plunged into all manner of human misery, their reach widening year by year, their mandate simply to serve “the poorest of the poor,” defined broadly: lepers in Yemen, shut-ins in Melbourne, crazed drug addicts in New York, freezing homeless people in London, orphans in Peru, tramps near the Vatican, the dying destitute in Calcutta. The energy of it all and, unconsciously, I guess, the prospect of adventure dazzled me. They did just what Christ commanded, I thought, impressed: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was sick and you looked after me. Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me. I felt an inner push, a shove toward this congregation, so literal in its imitation of Christ.
In a burst of lucidity, I sloughed off the destiny my parents had mapped for me: college, followed by (an arranged) marriage. No, I would become a Missionary of Charity. I would help those unable to help themselves. I would feed constantly off the light and joy of Jesus. The notion glowed.
Minutes after I’d returned from the Cheshire Home, full of bright decision, I announced it to my parents. I left the room swiftly as I saw my father’s face freeze. My mother followed me. “Go and see your father.” The muscles of his face worked. There were tears on his cheeks. “Why must you bounce from one extreme to another?” he asked. “You’ve always found it impossible to conform. In the convent, ’It’s yours not to reason why.’ It will be a life of exhausting manual work. Mother Teresa recruits simple women from the villages and you’re an intellectual snob. You’ll have nothing in common with them. Your mind will atrophy. You will be bored!
“However, if you are sure that God is calling you to this…” he acquiesced eventually. “But go slow. Be sure. Wait.” Wait! “I will not wait,” I said. “I will call them today. I have heard my vocation.”
I left for the convent that August, feeling, with the naiveté of late adolescence, holier already, as if the Christian’s life task of “being conformed to the image of Christ” could be accomplished in a dramatic grab for holiness, and showy, though worthy, doing would speed the slow, almost imperceptible process of transformation called sanctification. I grew. I grew through the next two years, through the aspirancy, postulancy, and novitiate. I grew through work in the orphanage, with the mentally retarded and the dying destitute; through prayer and Scripture study; through friendships and conflicts and the “testing of vocations,” and through the tears and humiliation. And I grew through sickness and exhaustion that never let up, and eventually made the whole enterprise untenable, and which, after I left, was diagnosed as tuberculosis.
I left the convent sadly, with a sense of falling off, to study English as an undergraduate at Oxford University, to go to graduate school in creative writing in America, and later to forge myself into a writer and a faculty wife in suburban America-the less poetic path. I still see Christ as the wisdom that created the universe. I still see following him as the sanest way to live, a way I am committed to. The Christian imperatives which Jesus with his Gordian-knot-slashing directness reduced to two-to love God mightily and to love your neighbor as yourself-remain the same. There is just more distraction. The traditional monastic disciplines-prayer, meditation, adoration, the beautiful liturgy of the hours, and “spiritual reading”-served to draw one’s thoughts back to Christ, the breadth and depth of his love, and his enabling grace. It now takes ingenuity to carve for myself a circle of silence to feed on Scripture and the transforming presence of Christ it houses, and to live contemplatively, mindful of Jesus not only amid the beauty and tranquillity of my garden, my writing, and my books, but amid a child’s cries and crankiness, the crucible of marriage, and the haste and busyness which haunts America as poverty haunts India. Nurturing two young children, creating a loving family life, running a peaceful household—the demands to give of oneself are constant, without the convent’s periodic sanctioned escape into the sacred ivory spaces of psalmody and song. In fact, I now consider domesticity, marriage, and motherhood a smithy in which the soul can be forged as painfully, as beautifully, as amid the splendid virginal solitudes of the convent.