Happy for the wrong reason

My first years as a Christian were a happy sleep of reason

Romanian version of this story

We stand in the small church, full of the smell of wax, of smoke, of incense, of heat preserved at any cost. There is light, but not much, more from candles than from light bulbs. Electricity is a luxury here, up on the mountain, and aside from the church and the refectory, the monastery is not electrified. It’s late in the night before Christmas Eve, but we all woke up to attend the Hours service. There are eight of us, five boys and three girls. We listen in silence. The music is solemn and pleasant, very different from what I imagined church music would sound like.

The weather is nice during the day. It snowed a lot before we arrived, but now water is dripping from the eaves. We spend time outside or help with chores. We chop wood, we peel onions and potatoes. We feel indebted because we get free room and board. The food is simple: bread, stewed cabbage, rice. But it’s the best rice I’ve ever eaten. I haven’t had such an appetite in months.

At night the rooms are cold. On the first night, it couldn’t have been more than 50 F. From time to time I go to the next room and do some knee bends to get the blood flowing. Only on the last night, after three days of fire in the stove, will it be warmer. But we don’t care. We have light, because we bought some large candles from the church store, the kind that last three hours each. We can stay up as long as we want. We sing carols, we play conversation games, we chat. We chat about failures in love, of course; after all we are all teenagers or thereabouts.

We came — and we will leave — by two night trains for six hours, by bus for one hour and four miles on foot on a gravel road. But we all know why we are doing this. By the time we return, even I, who happened in the group somewhat by chance, understand. At the end of a deplorable year, I found, out of blind luck, the last thing I would ever have to look for. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found (Luke 15:24).

After returning to Bucharest, for a while I went to every church service there was. I even went to Vespers on the evening of December 31 and to Matins on the morning of January 1. Over time, like when love becomes habitual, I settled on a routine that included Masses on all Sundays and holidays, fasting, prayer, confession and communion. I can count the exceptions on my fingers during those first years.

During that time, faith gave me peace and the confidence that I have chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from me (Luke 10:42). It took me over 20 years to understand the magnitude of the mistake I made.

The Sorrows of Young Cătălin

1995 was not a good year for me. In springtime, me and my girlfriend at the time started having arguments, which we resolved a few months later when we broke up (we had no more arguments thereafter). So I was exceedingly sullen for the rest of the year. That probably made me quite annoying to those around me. But I was the first person in the world to suffer from love! So it was the world’s duty to bear me.

With today’s mind¹ I realize that, in fact, I was doing more than fine. I was a diligent student, I used my time well, I was paving the way for a fulfilled career. I had a loving family and good friends. I had a burning passion for computer science, which I still have today. The only occasional sources of sorrows were my failures in love, which usually stemmed from my own oafishness.

But at the time I made a big tragedy out of it. Rather than enjoy the last summer before the Baccalaureate and the copious amounts of free time, I spent it drudgingly, staying indoors, reading worthless books and playing computer games that I did not enjoy. In July, while traveling to Greece, I bought an icon from a monastery, my first one (and I think the second in our home, since we were not big collectors). I wanted it more as a travel souvenir. I was later to reinterpret this as a call from God.

The following fall I skipped a lot of school. I had more absences during any given week than in all my previous years. Fortunately, I was in 12th grade, and my teachers assumed that I was studying for college admission. I even continued getting high grades, because the teachers had become accustomed to me always doing my homework and they refused to notice otherwise.

In reality, I was walking alone through Herăstrău Park, almost every day. On one of those days, on an impulse, I took a detour to Cașin Church. There was no service, the church was empty and a bit dark, but I liked the atmosphere. It was quiet and somehow I was no longer thinking about my pseudo-problems. Thereafter, I went to Cașin every few days. Around the same time I started fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. I don’t recall what prompted this decision, but fasting is a common custom in Romania, so I probably copied people around me.

In December, towards the end of the semester, a young teacher asked me: “What are you doing for Christmas?” And he invited me to go to the Petru Vodă monastery with him and some students and friends of his. Proselytizing among minors? Welcome to Romania. I accepted, I have no idea why; I probably wanted a trip, a change after six months of teenage drama. But instead of a breath of fresh air, I got my life reorganized from top to bottom and some radically changed priorities. Caveat emptor.

Illuminate my mind, open my heart and my lips

Suddenly everything made sense in my 17-year-old mind. Every icon I bought, every respite in a church, every day of fasting from an inexplicable whim, everything actually represented the call of God. If I still had any doubts, they dissipated as soon as I started going to services and listening to sermons from priests, who are people with decades of experience (and, at the institutional level, millennia) in dissipating doubts. When it’s the December 31 in the evening and you use the last hours of the year to go to Vespers, and when the old priest tells you “Know that God has counted the steps of all those who have come here”, you gain an unshakable fervor.

I could fill hundreds of pages with all the bits of memories about the episodes that fueled this fervor. When I came across the poem How Doth the Little Busy Bee I immediately adopted it as my professional creed. From it I gathered that man can be industrious only in preparation for the Last Judgment and as a precaution against Satan, not because Homo sapiens as a species is naturally inclined towards curiosity and diligence. When I heard that the relics of St. Andrew were coming to Iași, I bought a ticket for the night train without hesitation, returning the following night, because two sleepless nights in a row were a minor inconvenience for such a spiritual gain. When it occurred to me that a particular icon was especially helpful, I scanned it and used it for a wallpaper on my PC. When I asked my philosophy teacher to excuse me from class, because it was a holiday and I wanted to go to church, she said to me: “OK, but on one condition: light a candle for me too” .

It was a feeling comparable to falling in love. And, like any fresh love, it leaves no room for questions about the foundation on which it is built. My opinions about the world, about my meaning and purpose in it, about what is good and bad, were now flowing from this love with impeccable logic, or so it seemed to me.

Give me a false premise and I will move the Earth

It became obvious to me, for example, that homosexuality is a sin, and the argument went something like that. God gave us instincts in order to eat when we are hungry, to sleep when we are tired, to have children to propagate the species. And he also gave us the pleasure of fulfilling these instincts: the pleasure of a good meal, a restful sleep, sex. But man dissociated pleasure from need and sought these acts only for the sake of pleasure, and therein lies the sin. This explains the gluttons, the sleepy and the lustful. Homosexuality, too, means sex for the sake of sex, not for the birth of babies, therefore it is a sin. My mind back then was not hindered by the realities of genetics, the complexity of the human being or the decency not to lecture about intimate things that I did not understand.

Image by yourfallacy.is

I was absolutely positive that all the other religions are wrong, only Orthodoxy is true, and I was proud of my luck of being born into the right religion. I pitied the unfortunates out there who had not even heard of Jesus and who were to be judged by the imperfect law in which they lived.

Whenever someone used the phrase “ceased to be” to describe the death of a person, I condemned it, because nonexistence is the opposite of everything religion teaches us. Instead, I said on every occasion “God forgive them”, not as a cliché, but with the understanding that all the good that a man has done for his fellow men is not intrinsically sufficient, but needs an external stamp of approval.

One day I argued on the bus with some neo-Protestants who tried to explain to me that we shouldn’t worship icons: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, they said. OK, I retorted, but when you look at a photograph of a loved one, do you cherish the paper or the face it evokes? And thus I became the great defender of Orthodoxy on bus 311. I was preoccupied with this type of discourse, I was delighted by the flawless logic of faith, with the small exception of the premise we need to swallow whole.

On the other hand, my logic did not revolt against the abuses of all kinds that the Church commits against society: its involvement in elections to consolidate its own power, all the funds for building and renovating churches spent by local authorities that cannot afford them, the state paying priests’ salaries, churches built on park land… Somehow the fact that Jesus gave us eternal life is supposed to conceal these temporary shortcomings. For me, the trick worked perfectly.

My first priest used to say, concerning the corruption of some of the priests: “If a bank clerk refuses to serve you properly, what do you do? Do you give up your money? Or do you look for another clerk? So it is with the priests. ” In 1997 this seemed to me a gemstone of logic. Today I still consider it a gemstone, but one of irony. Banks, like the Church, do not err on a clerical level, but on an institutional level.

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)

I embraced the faith so avidly because I saw its beautiful side. I was never the kind of misanthropic and grumpy Christian who believes that floods happen because people are sinful. I was optimistic and every day of those early years was a joy.

Accordingly, of all the Christian literature that I read (and there was a lot of it), the dearest to me were the books of Nicolae Steinhardt, this Christian hippie. His jovial nature was my model. I still remember the passage about Jesus Christ Superstar and the fool of Dame Masquerade: There is no wrong way to praise Christ. Without Steinhardt, I might for a second have believed the theory that Jesus never laughed. Having read him, it was impossible for me to believe that.

Two true Christian comic masterpieces fall in the same category: The Screwtape Letters and The Devil’s Dictionary. Although the latter is extremely irreverent, I considered it (and still do) irreverent only towards hypocrites.

Those were beautiful years, years of going to liturgies with good friends, of trips to Petru Vodă, of going caroling, of easy fasting, of dozens upon dozens of religious songs memorized by heart. I met talented priests whom even today, as an atheist, I could ask for advice. It was like living a beautiful dream.

It was a coherent world, a constant source of peace and meaning in my life. Why would I have gone out of my way to find out if its core is rotten?

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5)

Looking back, during those years I had just as many mishaps as during any other period. For example, my experience at the Polytechnic University in Bucharest was disappointing. There were a few great courses (no more than one per semester, lest it went to our heads), but also many that were outdated or useless for the schooling of software engineers, kept in the curriculum because the teachers did not want to either update them or give them up.

Photo by Kristina Alexanderson

Also disheartening were the sporadic disappointments in love. Christianity did not annihilate those but, on the contrary, it caused them. What else can you expect when you let the Church guide your relationships? With today’s mind I would dismiss as mad anyone who urged me to keep the physical side of a relationship to a minimum or, I really want it, to ask the girl to marry me (literally: when I was 18 the priest advised me to propose to my girlfriend). Denying a natural and complex side of being human sounds like the recipe for incomplete relationships and dull fumbling in bed. But back then I saw relationships through the prism of religion.

It is noteworthy how I perceived these shortcomings. Christianity helped me face them, but with the wrong weapons. If I didn’t like a college course, it was my fault; I thought myself a sinner if I dared to think that, objectively, the course was appalling. If a relationship went sour, maybe I wasn’t praying enough for myself, for her, for us? Maybe I wasn’t insisting enough on bringing her to church?

Attaboy!

My family and friends’ reactions to my transformation were of two kinds: approval or restraint. In Romania, moral integrity is closely associated to religious faith, so the conversion of a young person is automatically something to be admired and encouraged. Too few people object to this. That’s why, even in my most flamboyant phase (crosses hanging from my neck, icons in my wallet, prayer books on the nightstand, religious gifts given regardless of the occasion), no one asked me why I was doing this, probably simply because I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. Occasionally people around me even followed me with fasting or going to church.

Photo by Marco Fieber

The respect I was getting and the lack of counterarguments (or at least of some irony) assured me that I was on the right track. Once during a computer camp I asked the lunch lady in the cafeteria to just give me the side dish, no meat, because I was fasting. You could see the admiration in the lady’s eyes: Attaboy!² She gave me the largest serving of beans in history. Stephen Hawking himself would have had no chance of convincing me that I was wrong.

The only objections I received came from my mother; she was worried I was being influenced by legionnaires³. At the time, that seemed crazy to me, because I had no idea what legionnaires were. Today I know that many churches really were legionnaires’ nests. For instance, a distant acquaintance gave me a biography of Corneliu Zelea Codreanu⁴, with the message “To Mr. Cătălin Frâncu, to help discover the truth”. It probably should have worried me a little. But apart from this isolated incident, I was unaffected by the nationalist-chauvinistic wing of the faith.

With today’s mind, I wish I had come across reactions stemming from rational skepticism, but those never came. I’m not even sure they would changed anything. I had an educated mind, but educated in a dogmatic way, without a robust understanding of how to separate truth from falsehood. This remains one of my big post-Christianity questions and the main reason I am writing this series: could anyone have said something to me in the first days, in the first year, in the first 3, 5, 10 years, that would have stirred me to reevaluate my core beliefs?

To say goodbye is to wake up a little

The end of this phase of maximum zeal ties in with my departure to college in the United States in 1999.

I pondered for two years before applying to American colleges. I understood that I had the chance of a formidable education, but I had (or was making up) reasons to stay in Romania: the mostly serene and satisfying life, my family, my friends, my girlfriend. I was putting a high value on my current girlfriend, although later I ran a census and realized that my current girlfriend kept changing every year. As for the Church, it was one of my strongest anchors. The idea of parting with my priest in Bucharest, together with the concern that I would not find a good Orthodox church in the States, compounded the myriad fears and questions that moving 5,000 miles away tends to raise.

Photo by Hermann-Otto Israël

Unquestionably, my departure affected my faith and was the first step on the road to healing. I often wondered what would have happened if I had not chosen this path. I will never know, but an informed guess is that it would have made me harder to reclaim from religious faith. Even in Romania I would have had a trajectory oriented towards science and engineering, I am sure of that, but in Romania religion permeates science, the state, school, culture, medicine, the Internet, everything. I believe that, had I never left Romania for a while, I would never have reached the degree of cognitive dissonance that doesn’t leave you alone until you deal with it.

As soon as I got the news that I was admitted to college, I shared it with my priest. His sincerely worried face is burned into my retina. His words were: You will fall. These words have accompanied me for years, motivating me to fight for my faith. Only now, 22 years later, do I know that I have not fallen. And I know that using the verb to fall with the meaning of losing one’s faith is a value judgment on renouncing faith. It is a biased term used in order to induce the notion that the losing one’s faith is a bad thing. Because falling is a bad thing. Falling evokes broken ornaments, fractured hips and Trainspotting heroin addicts. And this bastion was, for me, the most difficult to conquer in recent years, when my faith was crumbling: shaking off the stigma of renouncing my faith and accepting that I did not fall, but I was cured.

But I’m peeking at the end. I still have 20 years of transformation to cover up to that stage.

Conclusions

I had a good life and was reaping the fruits of discipline and good family upbringing, for reasons that had nothing to do with religion. But in a flash, my brain put God up on a throne and decided that all my successes, in fact, were due to him.

Photo by ThomasThomas

Happiness built on an illusory foundation is real happiness. This is an important theme in The Matrix, in The Truman Show, in the allegory of the cave, in The Country of the Blind, in Memento… Additionally, all these works claim that the affected person opposes change. My conviction was hard to uproot because it made me happy. Therefore, my brain had a strong motivation to keep on believing and to discard any elements that challenged my worldview. During that time, it would have been easier to convince me that the Earth is flat.

Once the seeds of doubt are planted, cognitive dissonance begins to set in the brain. But it takes time for the dissonance to mature to the point where we feel the urgent need to resolve it. We do not just sit idly all day thinking about the things we have just read. We also have chores to do and fun to have, and Sunday comes again soon. And the feet know the way to church. It takes time for the mind to work, for ideas to sprout and displace other ideas. And all this time the shame of explaining to the priest (or privately to God) why you skipped mass on a Sunday prevails.

Why does all this matter? Who am I to suggest that we should wake people from their dreams? Why are The Matrix, The Truman Show, the allegory of the cave relevant not because of the false worlds they depict, but because of the protagonists’ journeys of awakening to reality? Why is Cypher a villain because he wants to return to the Matrix, to his sweet sleep? Why, in Memento, is it tragic that Shelby deliberately severs all bonds with reality and sinks into his delusion? We all value anchoring in reality, but why?

I have two pragmatic reasons. One, when millions of people in a country dream a false dream, that translates into political and economic decisions that affect the entire population, not just the dreamers. In This Life, Martin Hägglund shows in detail why it is precisely this faith in another life that prevents us from doing more for our loved ones and for society now, in this life, the only one in which we can do something:

That those who are enslaved or live in poverty may need faith in God to carry on with their lives is not a reason to promote religious faith but a reason to abolish slavery and poverty.

And two, a lie swallowed too easily denotes a mind with its guard down. Other lies will penetrate that guard, some of which do not matter, but some of which do. If people can be convinced that God exists, maybe society has only to benefit (with small exceptions such as the Inquisition and the Crusades). But if people can be convinced that global warming does not exist, that evolution does not exist, that vaccines cause autism, then we will all bear the consequences.

How do we reclaim those who are sinking in this sleep or those who have been asleep for years? I do not know. I can only tell my story and hope it will help somebody else someday. If I can persuade a single person to stay in touch with reality, or to confront their falling friend and bring them back to reason, or if I shorten someone’s post-religion convalescence by a few years, I will be glad.

One thing I am sure of: I wish those around me had perturbed my sleep.

[1] Reference to a romance song: I wish for the years of youth and my mind of nowadays.
[2] What she actually said roughly translates to I could just eat you up!, which sounds less weird (but still weird) in Romanian than in English when directed at an 18-year old boy.
[3] Members of the Iron Guard, a far-right movement in Romania.
[4] The Iron Guard’s founder.

software engineer living in Bucharest, Romania

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