Fathom Mag
De Profundis

“Maybe that is belief.”

I don’t even know if I believe in God some days. But I miss him.

Published on:
May 17, 2021
Read time:
11 min.
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I spoke in tongues for the first time in my living room, alone. My bare legs stretched against the cool linen of our hand-me-down couch. I prayed in a language I understood, and then, I didn’t. One phrase flowed from my tongue over and over: Yo venero. Yo venero. Yo venero. It sounded like it meant something, but I didn’t know what. 

I pulled out my phone and looked up the phrase. Yo venero means, “I worship,” or more precisely, “I venerate,” in Spanish. (I should mention: In ordinary circumstances, I don’t speak Spanish.)

The air around my head buzzed. My insides churned like liquefied gold. 

The living-room-praying-in-tongues experience happened in the middle of a near decade-long era of fervor, my faith a fire burning straight through the brush of my life. I was devoted to Scripture, to church, to God. I would wake in the middle of the night sometimes, burdened by a mission I never seemed to live up to in the light of day. I prayed for strangers on the street and at my workplace. I wept. I repented. I believed. 

Then, the wind shifted and the fire burned a new direction. 

Eventually, more out of exhaustion than defiance, I started loosening my grip on what all I felt certain of.

I’ve known nothing but the Christian faith for all of my life. It has been definitive of my identity and every meaningful relationship. So when it began to slip from my hands like a bar of slicked soap, anxiety fell into its place, heavy and unwieldy. The shift was palpable, but not unexpected. At some point, waking in the middle of the night to a burden to pray became staying awake under the burden of wonder. 

For years, I had worn myself thin with questions. They fogged my mind, formed knots in my throat. I had tended them, checking in every day, or once a week, especially on nights when sleep came fitfully. In the fringe hours, when my mind wandered, it wandered to them. 

Eventually, more out of exhaustion than defiance, I started loosening my grip on what all I felt certain of. I kept faith, in a sense—a belief in goodness and in God—but I was too fatigued to continue my labyrinthine pacing around confusing and potentially harmful doctrines: that God controls everything (an idea I found untenable in the face of trauma and grief). That hell is understood and unending. That God can’t stand to be in the presence of our sin—my sin. 

As I began to let go, my body responded in full force. It was as if my unanswerable questions, pent up physiologically, now rose to the surface and bubbled over. I began having panic attacks about inconsequential things like a flea on the dog or dishes in the sink. So I did what I had to—cut back on social engagements and stepped away from church leadership. I needed to let these questions out; I felt their tension seeping from my pores. 

Around the same time, one of my closest friends gifted me with a trip for two to a local Scandinavian spa. I couldn’t have fathomed spending money on something like this for myself. It was entirely non-utilitarian—wasteful, even. But beneath a twinge of guilt, I was thrilled. I wonder now if my friend knew how desperately I needed a place to surrender. I wonder if she could see the questions rising from my skin. 

We checked in on a Friday morning, the only two in the place. She pointed me to the showers first. “Take your time,” she said. “Use the shampoo—it’s good.” I did. The spa’s interior was cool, quiet, like the inside of a seashell. Decorations were spare, birch wood and soft cream-colored linens dotting the room. Dried eucalyptus hung from the walls. No music, just the muffled sound of cars beyond the tinted windows. 

We headed to the sauna, where the air was dry, woody, thin. My friend splashed water over the coals. Sweat formed beads across the surface of my skin while I talked or sat quietly, eyes closed. We wiped sweat across our chests, letting our towels fall beneath us. Our skin took on red flecks as blood rose to the surface. I feel heat emanating from my insides. We made it a full ten minutes before admitting we couldn’t take it any longer. 

When we opened the sauna door, air hit us like a cold front, a brisk inhale. Following my friend’s lead, I stepped into a shower separating the steam and sauna rooms. “This is the cold plunge,” she said, a mischievous flash in her eye. “You’ve gotta do this between rooms.” 

No one ever said it outright to me, but at some point, I picked up on a certain set of undertones regarding the nature of faith—namely, that it was fragile, in need of protection.

I stepped inside and pulled the heavy curtain shut. The rainwater showerhead creaked on and ice-cold water poured all over. It ached. I started with the tops of my legs, my arms. Then I got brave and stuck my entire head under, a loud gasp escaped my lungs involuntarily. The worst was my lower back—it felt mad to stay under water this cold for any length of time at all. 

Then came the steam room, a reprieve in comparison. The air was heavy and wet, like stepping into a eucalyptus-y cloud. White tile covered the walls, the floor, the ceiling. We took our seats on the bench, and I breathed as deep as I could, down into the bottommost portion of my lungs. I held my inhale like a seasoned smoker. When I exhaled long and ragged, I felt my sinuses opening, the tension in my chest loosening. Steam billowed around us until we couldn't make out each other’s faces. When the steamers shut off, it was silent, except for the sound of condensation dripping off of the ceiling and neatly plopping onto the tile below. 

It’s possible I’ve spent more hours in churches and church-adjacent spaces than anywhere else. I am fluent in the language; I know the inflections and nuances by heart. No one ever said it outright to me, but at some point, I picked up on a certain set of undertones regarding the nature of faith—namely, that it was fragile, in need of protection. 

It could have been the time an acquaintance became an atheist and stopped attending church. On several occasions, various friends and church leaders shared their insight on his shift: “He’s just too smart for his own good.”

Or maybe it had to do with the times I voiced seemingly benign questions and felt the air tighten, people tensing up and shifting in their seats. They didn’t need to say it; I knew they were afraid for me.

I eventually developed an understanding that faith was dainty, easily broken like heirloom china. I gathered clues that the capacity to believe in God—and in the numerous doctrines that uphold a particular understanding of God—was infinitely precious. It was a treasure, handed down by biological or spiritual ancestors, and it was not to be disturbed. If you left it alone and did not handle it too roughly or ask too much of it, it would remain intact. Otherwise, it was liable to shatter.

But if faith couldn’t weather a bit of intelligence, I began to wonder, was it capable of upholding a life?

After fifteen minutes in the steam room and a second cold plunge, we wrapped up in our waffle robes and took a seat on the pale linen lounge chairs. I laid my head back. My friend tucked a lambswool blanket over my legs, and the weight of it fell comfortably over me, making my chest feel warm and swimmy. It was quiet. I don’t mean in the lounge—in my head. In my body. 

After sitting in silence for a while, we talked, trying to find the right words to describe how we felt after experiencing the extremities of heat and cold, back to back. 

“Like I’ve just done an hour-long yoga flow and eaten a kale salad,” I said. 

“. . . And then drank a gallon of water and taken a nap,” my friend said. 

“Like I’ve had a green smoothie a day for my entire life,” I added, beaming. 

It was true; I felt like a million bucks. Pinpricks of sensation shimmered across my skin. My heart rate felt steady and enlivened, like it needed the challenge of extreme temperatures to release the dead weight of anxiety. I breathed deeply and completely for the first time in months. 

My particular brand of Christianity had been my home, my mother tongue. Who would I be without it?

I didn’t feel the tears coming on, but I noticed them as they rolled down my cheeks, pooling in the indentation at the base of my neck. I was detoxing. I hadn’t recognized, until that exact moment, the grief that has accompanied my shift in faith. I was disoriented, but even more, I was heartbroken. My particular brand of Christianity had been my home, my mother tongue. Who would I be without it?

I wiped my tears nonchalantly and only when I absolutely needed to, hoping my friend didn’t notice. She didn’t say anything, but I know she saw. 

When a record-shattering cold front hit Oklahoma City, we were still settling into our new home. We got pummeled with snow, nine inches or more, and the temperatures fell below zero and stayed there for nearly a week. Our infrastructure—from city roads right on down to our homes—was not built for that type of cold. Our pipes were poorly insulated, and though we ran every faucet in the house, we lost water pressure and the ability to use our appliances. Our crawl space carried frigid air under the entirety of our first floor, and the two space heaters we ran round-the-clock hardly made a dent. We learned to live with the cold, taking baths in the morning and evening when there was enough hot water for it. We sipped tea and coffee religiously. We tucked in under blankets or stayed upstairs where the heat hovered like a cloud. 

Our home is fairly old, a neo-colonial revival built in the late 1940s. Many of the windows are original, with layers of peeling paint and old brass locking mechanisms. When the cold comes, the windows in our bathroom and bedroom ice over almost completely. They look straight from Elsa’s palm—elaborate fleurs de lis of ice decorate the glass. It’s beautiful and alarming. I’m reminded of how little insulates my small family from winter’s harsh, elemental grip. 

Nowadays, windows undergo the tempering process during production. Tempering exposes cut glass to extreme heat (upwards of a thousand degrees Fahrenheit) and then, immediately, a blast of cold (called quenching). In the quenching phase, the glass is subjected to shocks of cold air which rapidly cool the outer layers more quickly than the inner layers, causing the outer layers to contract. When the inner layers eventually cool, they pull away from the outers, creating tension. It’s this tension that the glaziers are after: tension makes the glass strong.

By a bit of synchronicity, I ended up by myself at my city’s art museum the Saturday after the snow had thawed and temperatures were back in the normal range. (Though, when I drove up, there was a mound of snow at the edge of the parking lot that towers two feet over my head, a rare sight for central Oklahoma.)

I’ve been to our museum plenty of times. I go most often when a particularly interesting exhibit pops up, like Matisse In His Time, which came straight from the Louvre. They have a permanent (and extensive) Dale Chihuly exhibit, but I always skip that one, scoffing a little. Blown glass is kitsch; Chihuly’s work is everywhere. But for one reason or another, I felt a tug toward the exhibit that day and followed it. 

The lights were turned down and the walls were black. I walked a maze of dark hallways that featured pockets of glass orbs, illuminated from above so you could see straight through them, colors refracted across the walls. When the hallway dumped me out into a larger room, I saw two canoes brimming with buoyant glass bulbs and spirals in every color—candy apple red, buttercup yellow, deep navy, and turquoise. 

Before exiting the exhibit, I walked down an empty white hallway. Where the ceiling should be, there was a clear plexiglass partition, and above were piles of colorful, scalloped glass bowls and baubles that turned the hallway into a walkable kaleidoscope, colors splashed over my face, creating prisms on the floor. I was bathed in color, in light. 

The exhibit at my museum was called “Magic and Light.” When asked about his work, Chihuly said, “I want people to be overwhelmed with light and color in some way that they’ve never experienced.”

His work had worked its magic on me. 

The process of glass blowing begins in a furnace cranked to two thousand degrees. This makes the glass malleable, able to be formed like clay into impossible shapes. As the glassblower works, she will return it to a hot chamber—called the glory hole—to keep it pliable and workable. She will need to return the entire work to the glory hole again and again; the glass cools quickly in plain air. 

When it’s complete, the glass is placed in a dedicated annealing oven, which allows it to come down from its high slowly rather than all at once. Cooled too quickly, the glass could break. Cooled over several hours, the glass will become strong, less likely to shatter. 

Glass blowing is possible because glass occupies a liminal space, structure-wise. It is neither liquid nor solid. Rather, it’s an amorphous solid, which we might think of as the middle ground between those two extremes. 

I think of the glass, stretched and heated to its max capacity, sitting on the shelf of the cooling oven. I wonder if it shifts and creaks a little as it settles, as the particles navigate the space between hot, liquidized flow and cooled crystallization. I wonder what happens when the glass isn’t strong enough to endure such intense change—if it cracks. If it can be fixed. 

I know now my faith has always mingled with anxiety. Was I doing enough? Was I faithful enough? In the end, would I be sorted with sheep who pleased the shepherd or doomed with the goats? 

I don’t know if I’m cold or hot or, worse, lukewarm. What I do know is that, everywhere I go, I find things to pray about

A person can only place herself under such scrutiny for so long without reaching a psychological breaking point. I did reach this point, or at least I got dangerously close. That’s when I realized that instead of questioning any manner of authority or the vein of Christianity I had learned from, I had spent years only questioning myself. I internalized shame without externalizing dissent. I ignored my intuition, my sacred sense of what should be questioned, in order to become what my Christian subculture said it looked like to follow the teachings of Jesus. 

When I let the self-debasing questions fall away, a different type cropped up: Where did we get our idea of hell? Couldn’t the creator of the universe have devised a more manageable way to account for humanity’s problems? Who decided the Bible was inerrant, and how could we ever prove such a claim?

I had worked hard to keep these questions at bay, but they railed against my best efforts, rampant at the edges of my mind. If my youth group self could peer into the future and see me now, she’d likely categorize me as fallen away, lapsed, cold as ice in comparison with the fire of faith I used to hold. I don’t know if I’m cold or hot or, worse, lukewarm. What I do know is that, everywhere I go, I find things to pray about. I try out prayers to the Universe, sending off good vibes. I try calling God different names. I can’t seem to keep my spirit pinned to the material world; it floats like helium toward the unseen. 

I don’t know where I land, what label to assign myself. In the religious world, I feel squeezed. In the secular, I feel bisected, only ever half-seen or understood. So for the time being, I hover in the middle space. 

In an intimate conversation with a friend, I confessed, “I don’t even know if I believe in God some days. But I miss him.” 

“Maybe that is belief,” she said. 

I nodded, and I felt her words roll through my chest and spread to my arms and legs, carrying with them a soothing, familiar heat.

It was February in Florida, cold and drizzly every day of our trip. 

One morning, my mother and I caught a glimpse of sunlight sneaking into our tiny, perfectly outfitted condo. We threw sunglasses, sunscreen, and towels into a bag and shuffled down to the beach. 

In an intimate conversation with a friend, I confessed, “I don’t even know if I believe in God some days. But I miss him.”

The breeze was cold on my skin, leaving goosebumps along my legs and arms. But the sun was warm enough to make my skin feel stretched and dry the next day, my cheeks pink and freckled. 

When the sun tucked behind a cloud, I grabbed my black sweatshirt and slipped it on halfway, covering my arms and belly. I pulled my legs in, wrapped my arms around my knees, my body a tremor in the breeze. 

We stayed on the beach all day, subject to the sun’s whims. The water was beautiful in a way that almost hurt, like I couldn’t stop missing it, even as I stared into its churning. 

When the sun came out—sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a heavenly stretch of an hour or more—I ditched the sweatshirt and spread my limbs across the sand. Every possible inch of my skin was exposed, desperate again for the sun and its heat, that warm and familiar sting.

Hallie Waugh
Hallie Waugh is a copywriter and creative writing professor by day, poet and essayist by night. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University, and her poetry and essays have been published with Nations Media, Windhover, and is forthcoming from New York Quarterly. She lives with her husband, son, and energetic Boxer mix in Oklahoma City. You can find more of her work at halliewaugh.com or follow her at @halliewaugh_writer.

Cover image by Carson Masterson.

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