The Illusion of Free Will

Before I was confirmed into the Catholic Church, I was reprimanded by a Buddhist monk in a forest thick with mosquitos. My khaki pants stuck to my legs and my collared shirt clung to my damp neck. The hijab I had worn earlier that day was still in the car along with five or six library books about Judaism. I wanted to appeal to the monk, so I hid the fact that I was shopping for other religions like flavors of ice cream at the Winn-Dixie. I desperately wanted to be his next project. I wanted the monk to look at me and see unbounded spiritual potential in the form of a sixteen-year-old girl who would do anything to escape the Catholic Church.

Instead, I killed a mosquito and scraped the blood off my skin with my fingernail. The sound of the slap reverberated as if caught in the trees and the monk spun slowly to face me.

“Have you learned nothing?” he asked. “What is the first precept of Buddhism?”

Shamefully, I recited what I learned while trying to hide the caked blood on my forearm.

“Abstain from taking the lives of living beings.”

The monk nodded slowly. Everything he did was slow.

The hijab I had worn earlier that day was still in the car along with five or six library books about Judaism.

Humidity congregated on his bald head and slid down his temples. I wondered if his bare feet ached from traveling without shoes in the woods; he showed no indication of pain. When he turned back around and started moving down the path leading to the temple, mosquitos continued landing on my exposed arms and neck. I let them take my blood. Nothing made my life more valuable than theirs.

*     *     *

I was told confirmation was the process of becoming recognized as an adult in the eyes of the church, but no one clued in my mother who still insisted on driving me there twice a week as she had done my entire life. She knew that I disagreed with many lessons taught in my religious education classes, but I never told her that I was ejected once during a discussion about women’s roles in the church.

Although my religious education leader was a woman, she maintained that since Jesus did not ordain any women in the Bible, the church should never allow women to hold any positions of power. She argued that God deliberately made women weaker than men and she cited the Bible as evidence.

“Has it ever occurred to you that book was written by men?” I spat. “You act like it came flying down from Heaven and that’s just bullshit.”

I hid in the bathroom for the duration of class, trying to forget the indignant look on my teacher’s face as she silently held open the door for me to leave. On the way home, I stared fixedly out the window so that my mom wouldn’t notice the tears coating my hot cheeks.

When I approached my confirmation mentor to ask if I could explore other religions, she agreed that I should be educated in other systems of faith before committing to Catholicism. She sent me to a synagogue where the Torah was taken down from a sparkling golden shrine and unraveled before my eyes. She took me to an Eastern Orthodox Church where the murals were so bright and enveloping that I forgot to breathe while staring up at them. She even offered me a hijab to wear for my first time entering a mosque.

“Before you enter the masjid, you must cover your head with this,” she said, touching the golden crucifix dangling from her neck. “Non-Muslims are welcome to see the Islamic way of prayer, but you must be modest.”

I think my church knew that my brief voyages into other faiths only provided the illusion of free will. They were constructed to make me feel alien so that when I returned to the familiar wooden benches and stained glass I would feel at home. Catholicism was inevitable for me as long as I lived under the domain of my mother.

For a while, I tried to talk to her about my exploration of other religions. On the way to a Saturday evening mass I told her all about the Muslim’s systematic worship in the mosque. It gave me comfort to remember watching from the balcony as they chanted to Allah and fell to their knees in unison. My hijab kept unraveling and blocking my view, but I pushed it back and kept watching. Their faith was raw and honest and I envied it.

“In Islam, there is no Heaven,” I told my mom. “This life is just preparation for the next realm of existence. So death is just movement, not permanent. Isn’t that interesting?”

My mother didn’t answer. She pulled into our usual spot in the church lot and walked intently through the glass doors leading to the narthex. They swung closed before I could catch up with her, but I entered in time to see her genuflect at the end of our regular pew and drop to her knees. It creaked loudly but I doubt she heard. Her eyes were already squeezed tight and her fingers laced in prayer.

Around the time I was exploring other faiths I was also attending a world history class taught by an elderly man with kind eyes who called himself a determinist.

“Based on what I know of things, I do not believe in free will,” Mr. Johnson told us. “By definition, determinism is the philosophy that every human action is an inevitable and necessary consequence of the ones that came before it.”

I didn’t raise my hand before I spoke.

“Are you saying that you think everything we do is predetermined?”

The old man nodded.

“Exactly. It would require a computer precisely the size of the universe to untangle the future, but I believe we live in a deterministic universe. It’s just best for our sanity to pretend that there is such a thing as free will and act accordingly.”

At night when I was alone, I contemplated free will. I considered determinism and the notion that every single physical movement I made, every thought in my head, every event in my life, was not really my own design and merely a consequence of the events that happened prior. When this became too overwhelming I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined reaching through a sky full of clouds. This image alone put my mind at ease enough to sleep.

*     *     *

My mother taught me at a young age that bodies decompose but the soul is immortal. We rarely discussed death, but my mom once almost drowned in the ocean several years before I was born. She never learned how to swim but she could float on her back, which is how she saw the lifeguard frantically blowing his whistle and waving a green flag to warn her of the undertow. Without her knowledge, the current had already pulled my mom out so far that her toes couldn’t scrape the murky ocean bottom and she quickly sunk under the surface.

Even though I refused to call myself gay and promised I would marry a man later in life, I became increasingly sure that my sins qualified me for an entirely different level of Hell.

My mom always discussed Heaven as if it would be lucky to have her. I think it gave her comfort to assume her soul would live forever in a place with no suffering, but Heaven never seemed as inevitable to me.

We read excerpts of Dante’s Inferno in Mr. Johnson’s class. I wrote down the circles of hell in my spiral notebook and tried to decide which circle I would be condemned to after my death. Certainly not the third where the gluttonous lie in vile, freezing slush but perhaps in the sixth circle, where heretics are forever trapped in flaming tombs. The fifth seemed just as likely, where the wrathful and sullen would be forced to fight each other until the end of time. When I started dating another woman soon after I turned eighteen, I changed my mind. My church called gay relationships moral disorder, and maintained that homosexuals are contrary to the natural law. Even though I refused to call myself gay and promised I would marry a man later in life, I became increasingly sure that my sins qualified me for an entirely different level of Hell: a level where souls are blown about forever in a violent storm. I belonged in the circle of lust.

*     *     *

I learned I was a sinner at age seven. Around the same time, we were preparing for the sacrament of communion by practicing with a roll of candy Smarties. This specific event was also when my religious education teachers started rightfully identifying me as a threat to their lesson plans and everything about the church they held sacred.

“When I place this on your tongue, you must let it dissolve,” my teacher said. “While it disintegrates you have to contemplate sacrifice.”

The instant the first Smartie hit my tongue I crunched it in half with my teeth.

“No, no, honey. You must let it dissolve,” she said. “Go back to the end of the line and try again.”

Her tone was harsher when I chewed the Smartie a second time.

“Are you deliberately disobeying me? This is the body of Christ,” she said, madly shaking the roll of candy.

It didn’t take long for the other kids to catch on. When they realized that I was being punished with more candy, they all chewed their Smarties too and eventually my teacher threw the extra candy at us in defeat.

The lessons I never interrupted were the ones in which we discussed the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. In high school, one of my friends thought she was pregnant with the next Messiah. She hadn’t had sex but was positive there was a baby inside her. This was never a fear of mine. I sinned enough to be disqualified for the role. That part of Christianity never fascinated me anyway—what did fascinate me was the relationship between Jesus and his mother. Jesus had been born the natural way, but somehow the woman who birthed him was not biologically his mother. He was not a derivative of her and did not share her genetic makeup. It didn’t matter if the Virgin Mary had attached earlobes or a widow’s peak. It didn’t matter if her eyes were blue or brown or if her hair was curly or straight. Jesus was entirely his own person. I wanted to be my own person more than anything in the world.

My mother didn’t pass on many of her physical traits to me, but she blames my grandmother’s genetics for making me queer. She told me one day when we were out at lunch.

“It’s obvious it comes from that woman,” she said. “Think about it—she had three children and the only one that’s not a homosexual is your father. I don’t want you to think I believe this is some sort of genetic problem, though. It’s not. At least it’s not for you. You made a very deliberate choice. And I feel sorry for you, because you’re too stupid to realize that the one you chose will make the rest of your life very hard.”

The first summer I spent away from my mother I worked with artists in Rome and although I walked past hundreds of churches every day, I didn’t attend mass once. Instead, I smoked Macedonian cigarettes in tall grass with people I didn’t understand despite their perfect English. We lay there on the hard ground for hours and stared at the stars, which looked about the same to me as they did in Michigan. The familiarity of the sky gave me the kind of comfort I never found through prayer. I clutched the slim cigarette clumsily between my fingers and expelled the smoke deep from my belly. When it all cleared and I could see the sky again I shut my eyes and smoked and pleaded with the universe not to make me go back home.

*     *     *

Shortly before I was confirmed, I invited Mr. Johnson to a pub down the road from my high school. His stringy gray hair, which was tied back into a low pony tail, stuck to his face at various angles. He drank beer. I drank Diet Coke and swiveled on the stool like a child. He asked me about my future, writing, college, and why I’d wanted to talk to him.

“Of course, as a determinist I would say you had no choice,” he said, chuckling.

I wanted to tell him that his faith in determinism was exactly why I picked him, but instead, I just smiled and shrugged.

I thought of Mr. Johnson when I raised my arms and slid on my white confirmation dress.  Although it hung loosely from my thin frame, I could not take a deep breath while it was on me. I wrapped pieces of my long hair around the curling iron and stared at my hollow reflection.

In church I sat beside my mother. She insisted we should be silent, but before the mass began she knocked her foot against mine and whispered, I hope you get married in this church one day.

Her words knocked the remaining air out of me. Suddenly, I was the one drowning in the ocean. The undertow grabbed my ankles and was dragging me down and I couldn’t fight back. I didn’t know which way was up.

I was confirmed into the Catholic Church feeling violent. When the priest anointed my forehead with oil I felt like a wild horse being held down for branding. His thumb seared my skin and when I opened my eyes and saw everyone watching me and smiling I was struck by how similar they all looked. I wanted to shake them and yell. I don’t belong with you people. This isn’t me. I tried to escape this but the Buddhists didn’t want me and my Jewish books were overdue and my fucking hijab kept falling off. I don’t belong here with you but my teacher says I had no choice. From the moment I was born, I had no choice.

For a brief second I felt faint. From the pew, I concentrated on the window in the lobby. The sky was blue and clouds hung peacefully above the tree line. I shut my eyes and imagined I was reaching into the sky and through the clouds. Slowly I felt my breath even and my chest relax. We lined up for communion and I flattened my white dress calmly. I held my hands in prayer like I had been taught in second grade. I sang the communion hymn from memory.

As I approached the priest, I made a conscious decision. Perhaps the decision was not mine and was predetermined long before I was born. Maybe a computer the size of the universe could have teased out the threads that led to that moment. Or maybe, like my mother insisted, the choice was all my own. I still do not know.

The instant the priest placed the host into my mouth I snapped it in half with my teeth. I hoped everyone heard the sound as loud as the death of a mosquito in a silent forest.

Gabe MontesantiGabe Montesanti is a current MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Washington University in St. Louis. She has a BA in mathematics and studio art from Kalamazoo College in Michigan. She wrote her senior thesis in Rome, a creative nonfiction piece about working for artists along the Tiber River, and the project was awarded honors from the college. After graduation, she was awarded a residency at Sundress Academy for the Arts in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her work is featured in Word Riot, Crab Creek Review, Devil’s Lake, and forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom.