I am not religious, but lately I find myself in a church praying. “Please,” I whisper, with my head bowed and hands folded. “Take my husband’s grief away.”
As a child I had no religious instruction. My mother believed that organized religion was male-dominated and misogynist. My father would not have dared to disagree. We celebrated Christmas, and we were taught to scoff at the notion of the virgin birth. We went on Easter egg hunts and ignored the resurrection.
Sometimes between classes I find myself slipping into the college chapel where I teach. Kneeling in the pew I bow my head. “Please take his grief away,” I whisper into my folded hands. “Please help him.”
Dan was raised Catholic— parochial schools, Mass every Sunday, an altar boy. He says he no longer believes in God, and as someone who was raised to question the existence of God this, of course, makes sense to me. Why would anyone believe in a God who would allow a young woman to love a man who would kill her?
“That’s religion for you,” is what my mother would say.
Dan’s sister believed in God and so did her murderer. I know this from the letters she wrote to her husband when he was in jail doing time for assault. In her letters she writes about believing in God, about trying to be a good Christian wife, about reading the Bible every day. I pray, she writes. I pray for you four times a day. I pray that we will be together like we should be. I pray that you are safe. I pray that you will come home to me soon.
Since the college chapel is made of stone, it is cool in the summer. Often, I find myself there in the early evenings. The soft pre-dusk light coming through the windows, the stone floor cool on my bare knees. “Help him,” I whisper. “Please help him.”
I read my Bible every day, Dan’s sister writes to her husband, the man who will stab her to death in two years. I read my Bible because I know you are too. It comforts me to know that I can share this with you. We both love God and have accepted Jesus Christ into our lives.
“Was your sister always religious?” I ask Dan one night over dinner.
“No,” he says. “She went to Mass every Sunday because my parents made us, but she wasn’t religious.”
“So, it was after she met her husband that she became religious?”
“I wouldn’t say that she was ever religious,” Dan says reaching for the butter for his baked potato.
“She was religious,” I say.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. She was like me— we were raised Catholic, but we didn’t go to Mass unless my parents made us. She wasn’t any more religious than me.”
“But in her letters she talks about God all the time. About how she reads the Bible, about how she wants to be a good Christian wife.”
Dan looks up from his plate, and I can see that he is clearly confused. “What are you talking about?” he says. “She wasn’t like that. She wasn’t sitting around in her room reading the Bible.”
“That’s what she says in her letters.”
“She writes that she reads the Bible every day. That she prays every day.”
“You mean to him?” Dan focuses on his plate. “You mean she is writing that to him?” Dan clutches his steak knife. “She was probably just writing that crap because she thought that was what he wanted her to say. He probably got ‘religion’ in jail. Probably some jailhouse conversion so they would let him out early. And then she thought she had to talk like that too.” Dan pauses and begins to aggressively cut his steak. “That fucking asshole had her so brainwashed.” Dan stops to put a piece of meat into his mouth and begins to chew.
“Nothing, but brainwashing,” is what my mother would say. “That’s what all those religions do— brainwash people.”
The chapel is never empty when I go there. I’m never alone. People are scattered throughout, always alone, sitting, kneeling, quietly reflecting, praying, thinking. We never acknowledge one another. Everyone is left alone, allowed to be with their thoughts. “Please help me,” I whisper. “Please help me be a better person.” I press my forehead into my folded hands. “Help me find a way to take his pain away. Help me find a way to take his guilt away, ease his grief.”
I go back over the letters that Dan’s sister has written. Could she just be writing words she doesn’t mean? Could she just be saying what she thinks her husband wants her to say?
But there is something so earnest in the words, something so honest, so sincere. She repeats over and over in her letters her love for God, her desire to be a good Christian wife, her desire to have children and to become a good Christian family. Were these just empty words to her? Was she really just trying to do whatever it takes to keep this man who would soon kill her?
“I think your sister was religious,” I say one day to Dan.
“You’re wrong,” he says. “She wasn’t some religious nut.”
“I’m not saying she was a religious nut. I’m saying that she was religious. She believed in God. She wanted to be a good Christian wife.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Dan begins to raise his voice. “A good Christian wife?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “But that’s what she says.”
“She wasn’t some kind of nut,” his voice becoming louder. “She wasn’t one of those born-again Christians.”
“I didn’t say she was. I was saying she seemed to have this strong belief in God. She seemed to have a strong sense of faith,” I paused. “Or at least it seemed she wanted to.”
“I don’t ever remember her reading the Bible. I don’t ever remember her talking about God or anything like that,” Dan pauses to catch his breath. “I don’t remember.” Dan furrows his brow. His eyes become dark. Sorrow and grief begin to mix with anxiety across his face. “I don’t remember,” he says again. His voice breaks.
“Please,” I pray silently to myself. “Please take his grief away. Please help him.”
I never tell Dan about my trips to the chapel. It isn’t a secret, and I’m not sure I would really call them trips. They are not purposeful in the sense that I plan to go. They are more like moments, unplanned moments, moments I find myself in a place I need to be. I don’t stay long. Just long enough to gather my thoughts, gather myself and whisper what I need to say.
One afternoon I go with Dan on a couple of errands he needs to do. Before we are about to head home, Dan pulls into the Catholic cemetery where his sister is buried. We drive through the headstones until we reach Dan’s family plot. He stops but doesn’t shut off the engine. He doesn’t get out. He just allows the truck to idle. I sit beside him and wait for his cue. But Dan sits quietly and stares at the headstone. I look out the window at the crosses that surround us.
After a while Dan says, “Well, a lot of good it did her.”
“What?” I softly ask.
“Religion,” he says. “Hell of a lot of good it did her, reading the Bible and praying.” He turns his gaze from his family headstone and looks down at the steering wheel he is clutching. “She still ended up dead.”
Dan puts the truck in gear and we drive out through the headstones.
P.M. Woods is the Assistant Director of the UMass Amherst Writing Program where she directs the teacher training program. She holds a Ph.D. in English (specialization in rhet/comp & creative writing) from SUNY/Albany, an M.A. in English (with specialization in creative writing) from California State University Northridge, and a B.A. from the University of New Hampshire. She teaches College Writing and has taught a range of expository and creative writing courses. She has published short stories and essays on the teaching of writing. Her novel Spinning Will was published by Swank Books.