“Did you see how smug he was?” Alison immediately shot off walking out of the large convention center. Shannon walks next to her with a less enthused reaction to Alison’s extreme bouts of passion. Struggles in the rowdy girl's faith had left ideas slamming up against each other in her mind like waves claiming and eroding the edges of rocks. Her heart was never sure if it was twisted with anxiety or a sense of conviction as she felt her life begin to change at the end of high school. The combination of graduation and the suicide of her best friend twisted her heart as well as her turmoil of faith.
There was a gaping hole in her life where a companionate presence used to be. A physical body that sat by her at lunch, came to her track meets and gave Alison a human soul to see her tears now was earth buried in the ground. In the time since her friend's death, it left Alison to think about how the separation of the soul from the body really showed the essence of a person. It was not the physical body who sat next to her on the couch and laughed, it was a different presence. It existed beyond the human body. This leads the mournful girl to ask, where did Beatrice’s soul lie now?
Shannon tried to muster compassion but had little for Alison at this moment “No, I think you’re the only one who sees that.” As much as Alison had at one point liked Shannon as a person, she noticed that after Beatrice died the two had grown apart. Alison felt at times like she was still clutching Beatrice’s dead body in her hands and Shannon ignored it and acted like it was any other day.
The tension between the two continued to snap and break as Alison erupted with further thoughts of the sermon that she had just heard. “I’m not though, why do they deny that there’s a human authority in the church, and then treat him like there is one!” Alison has to restrain herself from screaming as her face goes red. She had been bottling this up for the past hour and was now about to implode from the vitriol she felt interacting with the sermon. She held a special disdain for men in suits who claimed everything was unchangeable, and that there was no charity that could alter someone’s perspective into repentance.
Shannon turned around and grabbed her shoulders, attempting to bring her focus back. “Dude, calm down. You’re just mad because he brought up suicide in his sermon. You need to move past what happened to Bea.” As Shannon says this, her stomach twists into a snarled knot. Alison was staring at the redhead with tears in her eyes.
Alison shoves her off, looking at her as if she was an insect ready to be killed. Her fist was bawled up and she was now holding tears back. “Take her name out of your mouth, you weren’t as close to her as I was and you know it. If you were you would know what I’m going through!” Her voice was now lowered, it was now gravely with suppressed sobs.
Shannon walks closer trying to grip Alison to ground her. The angry girl’s tears ceased to fall and her face became almost solemn and emotionless. “This is what I mean, you get so touchy about this stuff and you should be healing by now.” As Shannon spoke this there was an echo in the hallway, making the two feel like lonely prisoners sent to a strange planet.
Alison’s eyes shifted toward Shannon. Something about her gaze was vacant and empty.“It was men like him who killed her,” her voice whispering like a low wind of the night.
Shannon steps away again, fearful that Alison will experience an outburst once again. “Allie, don’t play that game-”
“It’s Alison, you call me Alison,” Alison interrupts sternly.
Shannon sighs. She always felt like the third wheel in the group between Alison and Beatrice. Where she was an outsider bullied by another group of friends, Alison and Beatrice had grown up together. Sat next to each other in kindergarten, knew what the other looked like in the most awkward stages of childhood, and knew the intricate workings of one another's family much like a clock. Where Shannon was concerned with everyday occurrences in their high school, Alison and Beatrice would shun the social norms and find other passions. Shannon would always feel like a foreigner to both of their minds. Without Beatrice, she felt like she had never known Alison. “Fine, whatever. I know her parents were abnormally strict on her but that wasn’t the reason she-”
“They told her that her gift had no place in the church, Shannon. She was a gifted musician and they tore it away from her.” Alison’s voice began to climb octaves and shriek once again as tears fell from her eyes. The thought of Beatrice came to mind. The guilt of missing the steps leading up to her death, the abuse, the trauma, where she has now all wracked Alison in that very moment.
“You know they were on the fringes though. It was just a bad situation.” Shannon tries to say as a means of comfort, but how were you supposed to comfort a girl who you knew nothing about. Someone who was once on the other side of the dining room table was now on the other side of an ocean.
The other girl falls to the floor and sits down. Alison was silent and buried her face into her knees. “Seriously though, we’re the church, we should afford charity to those who need it. Bea was struggling for years and all they did was treat her like something was wrong with her becuase she was an artist, or she dressed a little different, or whatever...”
Shannon makes a final attempt in reasoning and connection. “I know but-”
“But what? Sure justice, charity, and cleansing of the world isn’t the endpoint of the gospel but without that, there is no outward expression of salvation. Y’know it’s dead. Why do we forget those things?” Alison falls silent, as she slips back into her thoughts. Ones that Shannon felt like she would never know. They were speaking foreign languages and were expecting the other to break the communication barrier. “Her parents didn’t care about any of that and now she’s gone.”
Shannon sighs again and kneels down to meet Alison’s gaze. “Alison-”
“Shannon, they either preach something without the needed truth or they wield the truth as a weapon while they pretend they have an authority on scripture. The lack of balance always leaves someone to get hurt.” Alison cries out in silent frustration. Shannon couldn’t tell if this was directed at her or another.
“Alison, I don’t have an answer for you.” Shannon stands up, feeling something drain from her. This conversation, the reminder of Beatrice, and the tumultuous spiritual seas of Alison; all of these things were like a means for suffocation.
Alison shoots to her feet. “I don’t want an answer from you, I want the honest answer, I want God!” As she yells this it echoes through the hall and imprints itself with intensity in the sound of the empty hall.
“You get so mad about these things, I legit can’t help you.”
“I said I don’t want your help!”
Alison walked past Shannon. Severing something that neither was quite sure ever existed.
10 Years Later...
Alison and her mother stand outside of the old cathedral in the city and look up at the statues and icons looming above them. They both stare upon the long and ancient faces that retain a form of both reverence and judgment. It is both beautiful and terrifying to look up and see something so beautiful staring down at you. The art is moving, as is the history of the architecture. The practice and dedication to create something in an effort to battle destruction in itself was an act of defiance against an ugly world. The moving thing was the sight of her family in front of her; in particular, her nephew who was now in her care. Ever since her sister had been shot he had stayed with Alison. Jesse runs around, astounded and yet unfamiliar with what stood in front of him. The large statues and patiently laid brick are a dark background for an ecstatic, little, blonde child with a toy car being moved along the ground.
“We forget the beauty in our faith.” Alison’s mother quietly interrupts her daughter’s daydreaming, pulling her mind out of the warm fog that was watching Jesse enjoy himself in the sunlight like a normal child.
“Mom, what’s that mean?” While Alison finds the comment poetic, she finds it strange and out of place. Then again, her mother saying something odd that borders on the rhetoric of a poet or mystic were in her nature.
“That window of Michael the Archangel. I think it’s beautiful.” The mother points up to a large stained glass window. It looks almost like crystal. The sun reflects the shining blues and golds. The image of the angel in itself is beautiful, fitting the human standard of handsome, fulfilling the European standards that showed the expression of beauty that was absent from today.
“I mean, I agree. Aesthetic beauty can only get you so far though. Look at mega-churches, in a modern sense our culture finds them beautiful but they’re empty. I’d even argue devoid of any real meaning or portrayal of true spirituality and devotion to God.” Alison could not suppress the need to play devil’s advocate to her mother as she mutters under her breath, “They either hide the truth or they speak it without any love.”
“So do you subscribe to the puritan sense of there being no need for art in the church? Do you believe that the extravagance outweighs the actual faith of a church or relationship with Christ?” Her mother grins taking a drink of water and smiling. Taking her daughter’s unspoken challenge of philosophy. There was no doubt in these conversations that they were mother and daughter.
“One, you sound like Ripley, except you actually understand the meaning of the word puritan. Two, I don’t believe that, but I think the absence and presence of art are abused on both ends. You see, some use it as a means to express the beauty of Christ and his divinity (the intended use for it in the church). When art is abused, it will be used as a way to express outward holiness while ignoring the inside of the person or state of their soul. Then we have the case of the opposing party, art is expelled from the church and any usage of it is treated as demonic.” Alison’s mind wanders back, a young girl is sitting at the auditorium piano and she is opening the stage door to watch her play. She tries to recall the song. In the back of that old auditorium, she can hear Great is Thy Faithfulness, Beatrice would sit unknowingly as Alison heard a beautiful hymn in a way that she had never heard before. A way that displayed and sounded like humanity reaching out for a sign and it moved her to tears. Even the image of the empty auditorium, faded lights, and long hair of the girl sitting at the piano brought something out of her that she tried to bury.
“Allie, don’t you believe that the third road you mentioned is no better than the second in terms of abuse? Both show the outward appearance of holiness either through excessive beauty or excessive simplicity, still, when the appearance of either sort is the focus it leaves little room for the inner work to be done.” As her mother brought this up a situation comes to mind. Beatrice and her wounded disposition, along with her dysfunctional parents. They wanted to maintain the outward appearance of holiness to the point where their daughter had become the ultimate sacrifice on the alter of appearance and idolatry.
“You mean sanctification?” Alison speaks up. The process is difficult, lifelong, and painful. It was the image of being awake during an operation but knowing without that operation you will ultimately die. Oneself is being picked apart and reassembled. A sculptor was looking at a lump of clay, and molding off parts of it to make muscles, veins, and intricacies more apparent. The old version of someone dies and another is reborn, one that you can argue is more like the person than the old version.
Alison’s mother smiles at her daughter, knowing the response. Understanding the transferral and passing on of faith from parent to child. An understanding she was grateful to share. “Yes, a man's soul must be changed first before his outward appearance changes. If a certain population of Christianity sets a standard of outward appearance that demands anything as the being truly changed, then I would argue it is man-made.”
“We have to agree on a standard though because otherwise modesty can be defined as anything.” Alison chimes back. Her eyes are focused on Jesse as he runs from one side of the step to the other. He looks small under the large image of the angel. It’s visually appealing in the accents and spacing that her eyes see. Jesse shares the bright blonde hair with the image of Michael. The angel's eyes look down upon the hyper blonde as if he is keeping watch over him. The small hint of beauty gives her peace in the thought that Jesse may grow up in some stability with her despite both his parents being gone.
“Yes, we do. Modesty has less to do with the appearance and more to do with the soul.” Alison hears her mother's word. Part of her fully embraces it, and another part completely rejects the sentiment. She looks up, again the church seemed to look down upon her as if it had a life of it’s own. There was concern in her as to whether she was being judged or comforted. The presence that she felt watching her may understand her each and every move, even predestining it. Then again, it could be loving, holding her hand and looking at her with a kind eye. An omnipresent, just, and merciful eye. A maternal and paternal presence. Dancing, never knowing which is leading and which is following.
As deep as these thoughts ran and circulated in Alison, she struggled to articulate them in the midst of the treatment she had seen in the world. A rupture or split was felt in her soul, a presence much more powerful and greater than herself had given people like Beatrice a gift that no one else possessed, yet they were still treated as an oddity and an anathema by those who made claims to love her.
“Mah, you sound like a hippy.” Alison chides, trying to move away from the discomfort of the tunnel of thought she was falling into. Her mother was accepting, but Beatrice’s mother had been cold and callous. The music she created was not treated as something useful in the church but instead something that allowed the young girl to be driven towards her death.
“You should listen, people are not as black and white as you label them to be.” Alison can feel her mother’s eyes rest on her. The world has become progressively more grey to her in a world that was originally black and white with even outlines. Freinds had left the country and the loved ones that once held her when she cried were now part of the earth.
“Aunt Allie!” Her nephew runs to her. Knowing that she is now his caretaker brought these thoughts to mind more. If she could protect him from the tangible and spiritual pitfalls of the world, she would but she had to prepare herself to prepare him. To feel as though someone is watching and guiding is both comforting and terrifying.