A Holy Covenant

by Timothy Norton

I love churches. Always have, always will.

My wife thought it was cute at first. A fun, quirky paradox that someone who identifies as a humanist finds something appealing, even something to love, within the houses of God. The grain of the pews, Biblical translation choice, organ type, prayer lectern, crucifix coloring and size (and level of gory detail)—all these important choices had to be considered. My wife came to find my obsession with these banal elements of Christianity too much.

“Are the pews here any different than the church on Barclay?” she once said during an impromptu visit to New York City. I imagined some differences in the lighting and arrangement then tried to point them out to her, but she saw through my thin lies.

“Seriously, let’s get going.”

It’s not that my wife didn’t find the churches beautiful, or even meaningful, it’s just that she was raised in a denomination centered around hating gays and abandoning your secular friends. “It felt like you were born into your side of the team regardless of what you thought.” my wife once told me. “Questioning the team is rebellion, leaving is treason.” Over time the hate wore her down and she decided to stop playing the game altogether. While her family did not appreciate the nuance of the metaphor, they still minded the federal guidelines and had her exiled. They could have settled on estrangement, but probably didn’t want to get mixed up in the ‘strange’ portion of the word. I forget sometimes that these memories spark up whenever she enters a new church conjuring a look on her face like she bit into an unripe lemon; an acrid pain tensing her jaw and causing her eyes to water.

My church focused on the Jesus stuff; all the heavy moral lessons you learned from Republican politicians your pastors endorsed. God, if it exists, doesn’t matter to me. I wish I didn’t have this compulsion, this need, to enter these mausoleums of Faith. However, the inside of a church gives me a feeling I can’t experience anywhere else: a calling to be part of the universe, something greater. It’s like the stored faith of all those who enter fill the air and bewitch non-believers with its hopefulness in a higher power.

So, instead of joining me inside, my wife opts to hang outside the doors. For her the exterior was much more beautiful than the inside, the stained glass more colorful, the architecture more unique. And you could experience her favorite part, the church bells, far better outside than in. She told me once that the bells were unpartisan: they were the call but not the message. It was around this time that I began detouring towards the Good Lord’s houses around 5-till-whenever. This was a compromise that worked for us, most times at least.

Once while on vacation in Pennsylvania, I was obsessing over an 18th century New England chapel when she decided to push back against me, against the whole concept—my funny obsession.

“I get it, but what makes you any different than those suckers who fall for it? Aren’t you doing the same thing?” She gestured towards the empty pews of the chapel as she stood on the threshold, taking care not to cross it. I frowned at her challenge.

“I know the difference. There’s no truth to be had in here.”

“I’m not sure you really believe that. I think that maybe you want to believe.”

She was right in that way that only someone willing to spend the rest of their life with you can be. She knew me and she knew that behind every denial was a spark of curiosity. I challenged her back, “What if I said I wanted all this back, spend a few hours with the good Lord amongst Republican donors every Sunday?” I laughed at myself, “I know where I stand, and you?”

While I laughed at my wit, her silence clued me into the mutual defeat.

She turned the other cheek and stared out the archway. I sat down, running my hand along the bumpy, unfinished oak of the pew. It wasn’t sanded or coated; a rustic choice most likely due to practical frugality. The sun poured in from the stained glass, illuminating floating dust bright shades of green, red, and blue. The simple colors reflected off the golden, chiseled, hollow, European body of Jesus Christ and cast a kaleidoscopic show across the church’s empty chamber.

I closed my eyes and leaned my head back, letting the warmth of the mid-day sun wash over my guilty being and I melded into the wooden trough. My mind hummed with a familiar, yet unknown, pleasure.

“Look, I just want—” was all she was able to get out before being interrupted by two long, low tolls of the church bells. There were ten more chimes to come. She didn’t want to interrupt.

These, perhaps, are the moments where I love my wife the most. I turn to take it in: her head leaning on the large arched doorway to the church, eyes closed, and letting the sound wash over her. This is one of the few times I ever see her at peace.

She gets mad because she understands the pull towards something bigger—even if she doesn’t want to admit it. She doesn’t only come here for me. These visits offer a place where she can close her eyes and be reminded of a time where it felt nice to be held in comforting ignorance, to be promised hope and love and believe they were on their way. No one leaves you, no one hurts you; at least that’s what the preacher says. It’s nice to share something so personal and nonsensical with someone you love. For a few seconds, and maybe a few more after, we get to live on the same, holy frequency.

Timothy Norton is a writer, father, and occasional professor or bartender living in Norfolk, Virginia. He attends the MFA program at Old Dominion University where he recently served as the Fiction Editor for Barely South Review. You can follow his writing, studies on narratology, and too many craft projects on Twitter or Instagram.