The grounding I felt in organized religion was substantial: the loss, acutely painful. I found temporary relief in all the ways nature found me wherever I lived.
My brothers and I were late to baptism but had our first communion and confirmation on time. During my first confession, I stayed in the booth for long enough to make my parents uncomfortable. They didn’t know what, at nine years old, I’d have done to require twenty minutes of repentance. But I wasn’t confessing—I was asking questions. I wanted so badly to have a system around which to organize my values, my beliefs, my life. I understood the tempos of devotions, the revolution of the liturgy, the cycles of the resurrection. The framework was proven, repeatable, had stood the test of thousands of years. But the more I learned about the world, the less steady I felt in it. I clung to what I felt was solid, the physicality of worship and the concrete numbers. The melt of the Eucharist, fourteen stations of the cross, three manifestations of God in the Trinity, the brush of my thumb marking God in my thoughts, my lips, my heart.
At confession, I was under the impression that the priest was a direct conduit to God, and I wanted Him to talk to me. I wanted to move beyond the theoretical and historical of religious education to the more practical matter of how I should live. I wanted to know how thoughts could be sinful when I could not control them. I wanted to know why God hadn’t protected the child soldiers I’d see in my grandmother’s Newsweek and if they were going to Heaven. I wanted to know what would happen if I hurt someone by accident. The father told me that God loved me and would help me understand all of those things when I was ready, that true faith means believing despite not having all the answers.
“Just tell me the truth,” I said. “I can take it.”
Instead, he told me to do ten Hail Marys—my age plus one to grow on—and to be kind to my mother.
I continued to read more, both about God and about life, and none of what I learned made me feel any better. As I got older, I started to doubt, which felt normal and right. An unchallenged belief is no belief at all, I thought. I argued with my dad and devout protestant friends. “But how do you know that there is someone listening to you?” I said. “Doesn’t it seem unreasonable that God can be that close to everyone?” The answers that made the most sense to me were not the ones based on logic, because there was no logic that made sense of how bad the world could be for some people. The only proof that felt undeniable was the intangible, immeasurable peace that came from a mass or prayer. The feeling was scarce, at least for me, but when it came, I felt anchored and still, secure in my infinitesimal but indelible point in space.
But the more I learned about the world, the less steady I felt in it.
I lost my faith in God the day I took the SATs. There had been an accident, an overcorrection, one of those things that could happen to anybody, except this time, it happened to my friend. The first question was whether he would make it. The second, who he would be if he lived. A brain injury could change a person in unpredictable ways, their personality, their memories, their capabilities. We had to wait, they said, and pray.
The first question did not change anything. Death was biblical, internally consistent. But the second, the question of self? I’d thought of personhood like a peach, with skin and flesh and a pit inside. The pit would hold, even as the skin tore and the flesh rotted, even if the fruit stopped being a fruit at all and fed the ground and the birds and the insects. The fundamental self was immutable. I was rocked by the idea that we are essentially no one, with plastic souls that can be warped and altered by our own experiences and by bricks or windshields or a railroad spike.
As a Christian, I believed my life was perpetual, that grace would save me and I would live on beyond death. If who someone was could be fundamentally changed by an injury to the body, then there was no essential person. I couldn’t reconcile the impermanence of the body extending to my soul, not predestined or intentionally designed or able to be judged and go to any afterlife, if who I was could be so crudely manipulated. I pressure-tested it every way I could, bumping into the boundaries of free will and reconciliation and grace. I couldn’t see any way that the anatomical facts of our being could be resolved with an eternal life.
I was rocked by the idea that we are essentially no one.
I tried to pray but couldn’t. I had known God as the way, the truth, the light, and I was suddenly, irrevocably without any of those things. Life at once felt vastly unfathomable and tragically finite. The paradox of the infinite possibilities of life on earth and the sudden brake of death seemed almost funny in how wrong it was, the laughable freedom and how little it mattered. I wanted to be reckless, absolved of the Catholic sense of goodness, but was constricted by the fresh realization of my own dumb mortality.
My friend recovered beyond what anyone thought he would. Miraculous, some said. I didn’t know what to do with my gratitude. I still don’t. Twelve years later, whenever we’re in the same city, I always pick up the check.
Without a religious paradigm, I lost the comfort of prayer, of worship, of the solid wood of the church itself. The Catholic church as an institution does not deserve defending, so I won’t. But the grounding I felt in organized religion was substantial: the loss, acutely painful. For about a decade, I was spiritually absent. I chased the feeling of peace through ritual at yoga classes, the sameness of sun salutations and savasanas and an hour of being told exactly what to do and how to be. I found temporary relief on runs by the rivers that cut through Boston and DC and in the pressing humidity in New Orleans, all the ways nature found me wherever I lived.
In religion, I wanted to find something that codified my place in the world. It had never occurred to me that the pattern of life isn’t something I needed to find to fit myself into, but one I was already a part of. I found that in basic biological science, in the work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Ramón y Cajal was a scientist, writer, and artist, and is considered the father of modern neuroscience. Aside from his paradigm-redefining work, he is known for his drawings, black and white depictions of the components of the nervous system he was seeing through his microscope because no camera could capture them to his liking. He used and refined Golgi’s method, a silver staining technique that was used to stain neurons so they could be seen under a microscope. As a result of his research, he proposed the neuron doctrine, widely accepted in the field but not proven until the 1950s, long after his death.
Without a religious paradigm, I lost the comfort of prayer, of worship, of the solid wood of the church itself.
The neuron doctrine states that each neuron is a discrete cell and the nervous system, a repetition of cells connected by sites of contact. We now know that a neuron releases an action potential which catalyzes the release of a neurotransmitter, the second neuron being either excited or inhibited by the influx. It’s not a simple process, but one that requires communication and connection. It is not a single entity that allows us to think and feel and move, but a pattern of cells and a cadence of release.
Similarly, though they are in their essence anatomical drawings, Ramón y Cajal’s drawings are naturalist art, reflecting the landscape of the cells that make us who we are. They’ve been used for over a hundred years to teach young scientists about the structures of neurons and components of the brain, but I don’t see those things when I look at his work. In his drawing of the pyramidal neuron in the cerebral cortex, I see a crack of lightning or the root of a young tree before its first flower. In Purkinje cells, I see the tubes of an underground network of caves or the calcified ecosystem of a coral reef. I see glial cells as the feathered bark of a palm tree and tumor cells like the whorls of a storm, destructive and organized. The patterns of nature repeat at a microscopic scale, like the foundations of our bodies are projected on the sea or the ground or the sky.
A contemporaneous Spaniard to Cajal, Antoni Gaudí, also referred to as “God’s architect,” designed the Sagrada Familia to reflect the natural world, the entire church held up by pillars of trees, with stained light shining through the canopy. Gaudí said, “Man does not create… he discovers. Those who look to the laws of nature for support for their new works collaborate with the creator.” Ramón y Cajal’s structural biology is scientific discovery, uncovering what is already there in the natural world, what Gaudí would say has its origins with God. In such, the act of exploration through art and science in and of itself feels like a kind of faith.
The patterns of nature repeat at a microscopic scale.
I see God in the trunk of a spinal cord flowering into thought and humor, in the taproot of nerves that let me hold my husband’s hand, in the web of my nervous system lifted to skin by the shock of a jellyfish, in the awe in the shadow of towering Redwoods planted like cells from the cerebellum. I remain grateful for the heartiness of nature, for life the simultaneous fragility and resiliency of life. I do not believe in souls, but I believe in bodies and the structures that make up who we are. Who I am may just be cells and electricity, their state malleable and impermanent, but energy and matter itself is finite. My cells have had many lives before me and will have many after. I will be recycled and reimagined in trees, in fire.
Neuroscience examines the fundamental pieces that make us who we are. The results are cells and energy—that’s all. But, that those cells and energy make consciousness seems a consecration of our material parts. That they can make language and art and feeling is in itself adjacent to divine. When my life is over, I won’t know exactly where that consciousness goes, but I don’t know how these electrons and atoms come together to make who I am, either. No one does. All I can hope is that the magic that makes me a person will find me in death, too. When I am feeling lost, like I need a higher power, I sit by the ocean and count the waves.
Anna Held is a writer and editor based in San Francisco. Her essays have appeared in BuzzFeed, The Cut,The Rumpus, Romper, Runner's World, Catapult,Vox, and Electric Literature, among other publications. She is an associate features editor at The Rumpus and a prolific ghostwriter.