My friends and I liked to speculate about M. We knew her from graduate school. For almost a decade now, she had been writing a dissertation on seventeenth-century English devotional poetry. The university had stopped funding her years ago, and though she didn’t have a job, she managed to live by herself in an apartment in Beacon Hill.
We had various theories about the source of her wealth. Someone said that M.’s grandfather had been the governor of Rhode Island, while someone else swore that her family had founded Houghton Mifflin, the publishing company. My roommate’s girlfriend claimed that there was a portrait at the MFA, painted by Sargent, of M.’s great-grandmother. I went to see for myself one day and found the portrait on the second floor of the American wing. Though it had been painted in the 1890s, the image that gazed out at me was identical to the woman who had sat across from me in the seminar room—thick black hair, arching eyebrows, severe, beautiful, bored.
I didn’t know M. well. When we met, I found myself babbling and making bad puns, and she invariably excused herself to use the restroom or talk to someone else across the room. It was hard to be myself around her. Or maybe I was too much myself. My friends joked that I was in love with her.
Last summer, they took the joke too far. Two of our friends were married in Brookline, and everyone from our graduate program was invited, including M. After the ceremony, we filed into the dining room and found our places. I was seated at the end of a table—next to M. I shot a look at the bride and groom. He flashed me a thumbs-up; she winked.
A bottle of red wine was passed down the table. I filled M.’s glass and my own. She wore a dark-blue turtleneck dress, and her hair was pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck.
“Were you at the Eileen Myles reading last month?” I asked. “I thought I saw you there.”
“I was, yes.”
“She’s really great, isn’t she?”
“I went with a friend. Not really my thing.”
“No, I guess not. I like her well enough, but I get why people don’t. I respect that. I respect it a lot, actually.” I took a sip of wine to stop myself from talking.
The best course, I decided, was to ask questions and listen. If I couldn’t be myself around her, then I would have to follow her lead and figure out who I needed to be. I asked M. about her dissertation, and she described the chapter she was writing on John Donne and the Church. Donne, she explained, was more of a mystic than people realized. Even after his conversion to Protestantism, he insisted on the mysteries of faith, and the Church was the bearer of those mysteries.
M., it turned out, cared deeply about the Church. (I could hear the capital-C in her voice.) “When I was a teenager,” she said, “I was obsessed with Saint Teresa. I wanted to become a nun, like her. I still wear her medal every day.” She touched her chest, where the small round outline of the medal was visible through her dress. I poured more wine, and she told me about the Anglo-Catholic church she attended in Beacon Hill.
Soon, we were exploring all the mysteries of faith together. Between the salad and the main course, we covered the Oxford Movement, Simone Weil, George Herbert, and the apostolic succession. I didn’t know much about any of these topics, but I kept up my end of the conversation. If nothing else, grad school had taught me how to talk about a subject when I hadn’t done the reading.
“Most people—most Christians, even—think that the Church is anti-sex,” said M. “But the tradition is much more complicated. In Paradise Lost, for instance, Adam and Eve have sex in the garden—before the fall.”
“So it’s not a sin,” I said. I held up the wine bottle. She nodded, and I filled our glasses.
“In the seventeenth century, there wasn’t a firm boundary between erotic love and divine love,” M. said. “One could lead to the other. There’s a Donne poem called ‘The Good Morrow’ about two lovers waking up in the morning. Donne compares them to saints: their erotic love has joined their souls and led them toward the love of God.”
I never told her that I was a Christian. But I didn’t say that I wasn’t either. It was reasonable, on her part, to assume that I was, given my enthusiasm for the subject. And so she began to say “we”—meaning her and me and, I suppose, all the rest of the Church. I could have corrected her, and maybe I should have. After all, I had only been to church twice in my life, and I didn’t know what “Anglo-Catholic” meant. But if I had admitted the truth, I would have had to go back to being myself. I preferred to be a part of her “we.”
We finished two—or was it three?—bottles of wine between us, and everything shifted and glowed. After cake and coffee, she took my hand and led me to the dance floor. The rest of the night blurred into a bright haze of images and sensations: the two of us swaying together to “Sweet Caroline,” the sweet woody smell of her hair, the grassy taste of gin, her lips whispering long vowels in my ear, an Uber bouncing over the cobblestones of Beacon Hill, a brick townhouse covered in blooming wisteria, a heavy key inserted into a brass lock, a white bedspread, the medal of Saint Teresa.
Her alarm went off at nine. As she showered, I looked for my glasses. The room only spun a little.
The apartment was on the third floor of the townhouse. It looked out onto a long rectangular park and a statue of Columbus overgrown with ivy. The furniture was heavy and old. I recognized one of the carved chairs from the Sargent portrait.
M. emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of steam, a towel on her head. “Would you make some coffee? It’s above the refrigerator. Mass is at 11:15.”
I watched the coffee pot slowly fill. Somehow, I felt both bloated and empty. It was more than a hangover. In a flash, I saw myself as a figure from the literature that M. and I had studied: a Wickham or Lovelace, a cad, a rake.
M. put on a black dress with a white collar; I unrumpled my suit as best I could. We left her apartment, walked toward the river, past townhouses with overflowing window-boxes, and came to a large, high-spired brick church. I followed M. down the center aisle. She kneeled and crossed herself before entering the pew. I tried to do it too, but I wasn’t sure how: did you start at your head or your stomach? Left-to-right or right-to-left?
The service lasted nearly two hours. We stood and sat and kneeled, stood and sang, and sat and kneeled and stood some more. Every few minutes, a priest walked up and down the aisle, jingling a silver bowl of incense. The movement and sounds and smells all seemed perfectly designed to inflame my hangover. I could no longer doubt the existence of God: who else could come up with such a punishment? My pulse pounded in my temple, and sweat dripped down my spine and pooled at the base of my back. After the prayers, as I raised myself from the kneeler, I toppled sideways and knocked over several hymnals.
If M. believed I was religious last night, she certainly didn’t now. She knew the service by heart; I squinted at the bulletin and mumbled through the chants. I didn’t cross myself at the right times, and when we went up to the high altar for communion, I gulped too much wine and nearly gagged. I gave her several apologetic looks throughout the service; she stared pointedly at the crucifix above the altar. The figure of Christ hung on it, his face twisted in agony. I understood what he was going through.
When the service ended, M. got up. I started to follow her, but she froze me with the glare that I had seen in the Sargent portrait. I sat down in the pew and shut my eyes. It probably seemed like I was praying, but in reality, I just didn’t want to have to look at anything.
I was one of the last to leave the church. The priest was standing in the doorway, greeting people as they left. He shook my hand and said that he hoped I would worship with them again soon.
The next Sunday, I took the T into Boston. I couldn’t remember what street the church was on, but I saw the steeple from the T station and walked toward it, through a maze of Beacon Hill alleys. I waited across the street until I heard the first hymn before I sidled through the wooden doors and sat in the back pew.
Throughout the service, I practiced my apology to M. I had been working on it all week—daydreaming at my desk, laying awake late into the night—and had come up with a few phrases that I hoped would express my regret. The priest swung his silver bowl and doused us in incense, and we stood and sat and kneeled. I wasn’t hungover, but I still felt ill.
The priest blessed us for the last time, and the organ began the final hymn. The clergy and the altars boys processed down the center of aisle of the church, led by a boy in a white robe who carried a golden cross on a long wooden pole. The congregation turned to watch them, and I saw M.’s face in profile, following the cross. Something hot rose to the back of my throat. Before I understood what I was doing, I was outside in the blinding June day, walking very quickly toward the T station.
I returned the next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and then again the next week. I was very careful, always ducking in after the first hymn and ducking out before the last. I told myself that I was going to church in order to apologize to M., but I knew that this wasn’t really true. If I had really wanted to apologize, there were better ways to do it. I could send her a text, write her an email, or even retrace my steps through Beacon Hill and drop a note through the mail-slot of the wisteria-covered townhouse. Any of those would be easier for me and kinder to her.
The real reason that I went back to the church was far more confusing: I liked it.
The incense and the kneeling no longer sickened me. I appreciated the order and regularity of the service—the same thing, Sunday after Sunday. It was objectively boring, but I realized that I had reached a point in my life where I wanted to be bored—or, at least, bored in a different way. My life was already boring, of course: I spent ten to twelve hours a day looking at my computer or my phone, growing more and more anxious or angry about all the usual things. But on Sunday morning, within the walls of the church, I was free from all that. I could observe the rituals that we happening around me, listen to the voices of the choir and the thrum of the organ, stare at the columns and crosses, or just let my thoughts drift and dissolve like the cloud of white, pungent smoke that rose from the priest’s silver bowl. As on the night of the wedding, I didn’t have to be myself: for a few hours, I was part of someone else’s “we.” The incense scented my clothes and my hair for the rest of the day, and when I went back to my regular life across the river, the faint smell marked me as separate from everything around me.
M. had said that erotic love could lead to divine love. Had this happened to me?
I didn’t tell my friends. I knew that they wouldn’t understand: I barely understood it myself. I wanted to keep whatever was happening to me in the church—I hesitated to call it “faith”—secret and pure.
But there was M. I had avoided her so far, and I tried not to look in her direction during the services. One Sunday at the beginning of July, I noticed that she wasn’t in church—out of town for the holiday, maybe—and I felt an immense relief. For the next two hours, the voices of the choir soared and blended as never before. I stayed until the end of the service and left with the rest of the congregation.
M. was back the next week, and I fled before the last hymn.
On the last Sunday in August, I stood outside the church, as usual, waiting for the service to begin. I crossed the street when I heard the organ and the choir, and I was halfway to the door when someone came half-running around the corner. We collided, and I was overwhelmed with a vaguely familiar smell—sweet and woody.
We stood there for a moment, M. and I, regarding each other. I had never received a look like this from another human being. Its meaning was entirely unclear. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. What could I say? That I was going to church? That she was right—that erotic love had led to divine love? The truth was implausible enough on its own, and she would find it especially unlikely coming from me. I considering walking in the other direction, but my legs did not move.
M. asked what I was doing here. At the sound of her voice, something inside me came unstuck. Everything was clear now: I would tell her the truth, and she would decide. I was no longer worried. It would take a miracle to make her believe me, but a miracle didn’t seem unreasonable, given the circumstances.
Her dress had a square-cut neckline, and below her collarbone, the medal of St. Teresa shone in the bright summer sun.
Ryan Napier is the author of Four Stories about the Human Face (Bull City Press, 2018). His stories have appeared in Queen Mob's Tea House, minor literature[s], and others. He lives in Massachusetts. Twitter: @ryanlnapier Image: The Universe, from a manuscript by Hildegard of Bingen, 1165