A single beam of light falls upon the cardinal as he speaks to us, the reverent crowd. He shouts to the heavens and eyes close, letting words sink into bone. Warmth spreads from my soul to the tips of my fingers, tips of my eyelashes. Another booming line of praise flows over me, and I feel a kink deep inside snap back into place. This is where I belong, I think to myself. I am never so happy or humbled than when I am here. The mass of bodies around me vibrates in anticipation and adoration. We came together on this day to celebrate our lord and savior.
At the front of the congregation, the cardinal is now knelt in murmured prayer, his microphone pressed to his lips. Standing beside him are three others, his brothers in holy bond. As the praying man rises to his feet, the four clerics come together and begin the opening hymn. Like a single soul, people in the crowd throw hands and hearts to the sky. This is a hymn that saved our lives. These are the words that pulled us from the clutches of evil. Air is gulped down until our lungs feel like too-full balloons; we are anxious, not wanting to miss a single sound. We are ready for worship.
With a scream of electricity, the rock ‘n’ roll band throws itself into heavy rifts and soaring vocals for the next two hours. Bodies wrapped in leather and denim press against me in waves, and heat from stage lights washes across my nose and cheeks. Next to me, a friend stretches her hand to the singer, reaching for nirvana. In front of us, sweat shines on skin and the necks of guitars. A security guard reaches over my head and drags a crowd-surfer across the barrier. We press together, my fellowship and I, and flash our palms to the stage. As the final notes fall around us, and the breathless clergymen take their bows, an amen reverberates from the heart of the congregation. My friend and I clasp hands amidst the chaos, hearts pounding in unison. Mass is over and we say our final prayer.
The concert’s done, and the venue’s lights switched on. T-shirts bought at merchandise tables are slung over shoulders and shoved into bags. Roadies are throwing things from the now-empty stage: picks, set lists, a crumpled water bottle, one sopping sweat towel. Frenzied fans are battling one another for the best of the trash-prizes. I smile at them, and slide my hand into my pocket to trace the pick I snatched earlier in the evening. Polyester-shirted workers steer us stragglers to the parking lot. Before climbing into my car, my friend and I look around one more time. She nods her head toward the edge of the lot; a gaggle of teenaged groupies is trying to sneak by the line of security at the tour buses. We shout encouragement toward their hunched shoulders. The next generation, I say with a grin.
As always, the drive home is a blend of calm and exaltation. A part of me is wishing for more. I am in awe of the talent and art I witnessed, consumed by the passion of the performers and of the crowd. It’s almost indescribable, a purely sensory experience. I feel empowered, humbled, invincible, and frail all at once. It is physical exhaustion coupled with emotional enlightenment. Contradictions stack on each other until I am lost inside them, cocooned by a sense of peace and fulfillment. I can’t help but wonder if this is what it’s like for people who attend an actual church, if this is what religion feels like for the people who believe in God.
I do not believe in God. I do not wake up on Sunday mornings and walk into a brick building with pretty stained glass windows. I do not close my eyes and whisper prayers to a single unseen being, palms pressed together in silence. Pews are uncomfortable at best, and I’ve never found solace in the tissue pages of Bibles.
It’s not for lack of trying. During junior and senior high, I crammed myself into pews and listened to the impassioned words of robed clergy. Peeled apart pages of testaments and Chicken Soup for the Souls, looking for the faith that others so readily embraced. I spent Sunday mornings with a friend’s youth group, bought a Bible and a no-bleed highlighter. Still, I could not find God. Millions of people worshipped him wholeheartedly, yet I could not find a single thread to grab. I was convinced my lack of faith was my own fault. That I was doing something wrong. That I was wrong and needed to fix myself before God would reveal himself to me. For years I tried to find God, tried to make myself a better person so he could find me. I blindly continued my desperate search for faith, because I was young, and had yet to experience the Absence, or Non-Existence of, God.
The Learning of the Absence was swift; it began in the fall of my freshman year at university and came to fruition that spring. An old friend, Shawn, reappeared after high school graduation and we quickly rekindled the friendship from our past. That summer with him was full of laughter and perfect afternoons spent by pools and ponds. We were inseparable. But November had given him chest pains, December had given him unexplained weight loss, and New Year’s Eve gave him a diagnosis. Cancer. The horrible make-a-commercial-featuring-Sarah-McLaughlin-songs type of cancer. We, his friends, knew it was bad and heard when the doctors said “the outlook wasn’t good,” but we were so young. We thought he would get better. Even with that delusion I cried for him, for myself. I prayed to the god he so firmly believed in and asked for healing, or at least for an answer to the overwhelming “why.” But my friend got sicker. He got thinner, weaker as the weeks slipped by.
And then it happened, the final breaking point in my search for faith. It was April 15th, 2009. A half-packed bag sat on my dorm room bed, waiting to be filled for a routine trip home. I had told myself I would go see my friend that weekend, because it’d been so long since I’d gone to visit. Too long, I knew. I already felt guilty when I thought of how long it had been since I’d seen him. But as I was in the hall, laughing with roommates, my phone buzzed in my pocket. I thumbed to the message screen, expecting something from my mom. What I read stopped my heart.
“Sam, he’s gone,” was all it said.
That’s when everything I had ever known, or thought I’d known, fell to pieces. I not only lost my best friend, but I lost whatever hope of God I’d harbored through my adolescence. I couldn’t stop asking myself the typical questions of grief. They ravaged through me for days, weeks after my friend’s death. I couldn’t focus on anything but the questions. Always the questions.
Why him? Why so soon? What kind of god does this to such a good person?
It was through these questions that I uncovered the Absence of God. I could not, and do not, believe that a beloved creator would condemn so many people to such tremendous pain. I certainly do not believe that a benevolent god would force a boy through that much physical and emotional trauma. I watched Shawn, once a bundle of corded muscle, wither to paper skin and skeleton in less than six months. What god does that? The answer was clear; no god does that. As soon as the thought blinked into existence, I seized it. Accepting the Absence felt like letting go of long-held breath; it was relief. And to my surprise, as soon as I stopped looking for someone to worship, I found the thing worthy of worship. Music.
Music had always been a huge facet of my life but, following the Absence, it became a crutch. The art itself became my god. I feverishly burrowed into my old favorites: Linkin Park (the band I shared with my late friend), Taking Back Sunday, Radiohead. I hoped their familiar songs would give me footholds. I started pilfering my dad’s records– Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, and the Beatles. I didn’t even have a turntable.
Chord progressions and harmonies saved me from a reality I was desperately trying to escape. In effect, listening to music became my own method of prayer. In times of desperation or joy, I found a song that fit my need and let the sound rush around me. I discovered that through this type of prayer, I could heal. The god I had been trying to find before had never once answered my prayers or helped to ease my pain. The weeks surrounding my friend’s death were spent on my knees, crying over folded hands and crinkled pictures, asking God to help me understand. I never received an answer from that god. But Music, when I asked it to help me understand, responded immediately and with fierce compassion. I found the answers to those scraping and scarring questions from before and a calmness in myself I hadn’t known.
The art of music became my savior. The musicians’ words were of perseverance, and coaxed us to keep holding on. They promised life would get better. Songs preached to the masses, and I discovered that even the most innocuous of lyrics could hold bone-deep sentiment for those who truly listened. I settled into hours of scripture, absorbing the messages of these great creators. Through speakers and headphones poured the Book of Way and of Bennington, of Morrison and of Beckett. The gospels of Dylan, Nicks, and Carpenter. Each album had a moral and each song was an extended hand of fellowship. I was reborn through music’s undying devotion to me and my brethren.
And so I worship them– the graceful, pleasurable, soul-healing art of melody, bridge, and crescendo. Instead of Philippians 4:13, I turn to MCR 4:13, the thirteenth song from My Chemical Romance’s fourth album. The lyrics of that song give me the strength that God never did.
Even now, years later, when self-hatred and guilt creep into my head, when the little voice whispers in my ear that I don’t deserve to feel sad over him because I wasn’t there like I should have been… I listen to his favorite song and I can feel his hand in mine as we jumped into the pool. I hear his wildly off-key voice singing at the top of his lungs as we drove too fast down country roads. I remember the love we shared that last summer, and the bad thoughts slip away with the last notes. Music is my salvation; it saves me daily from myself.