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Confessions of a non-Christian

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NOVEMBER 02, 2022

Content warning: heavy religious discussion

I was a breech baby, born legs instead of headfirst. With high risks of suffocation in the birth canal and permanent damage to the legs or the mother’s ribs, doctors usually recommend C-sections for breech babies.

By the time my mother managed to get to the hospital, it was too late for a C-section.

It was a long, agonizing delivery. But both my mother and I emerged mostly unharmed. She had to deal with the usual postpartum aches and exhaustion, but no broken ribs or any other major complications. I was as healthy as a horse.

Some might consider it a miracle.

There’s another term for breech babies in Malaysian Buddhism and mythology — lotus children. We’re believed to be particularly blessed by the gods themselves, already seated in an upright, meditative pose in our mothers’ wombs.

My family is not exceedingly religious, but I’ve always sensed a whisper of difference in atmosphere when I interact with certain relatives. It would be much too far to say reverence, but just a flicker of strange awareness.

Aside from my fortunate birth, a handful of odd events throughout my life have only added to the fuel: a supposed soothsayer seeing “greatness” in my future and describing a very specific birthmark with eerie accuracy, horrid bouts of sleep paralysis just before a major tragedy struck my family, an especially large crow that followed 5-year-old me around so closely that my grandmother eventually had to chase it off.

And so, my lotus child reputation has bloomed throughout my extended family. Innately well-mannered, intelligent and dutiful. Now a hardworking student at a top university who hopes to become an art history professor bettering the national education system someday. A service-based goal which the gods would heartily approve of, or perhaps even destined me for.

My favorite era of art history, however, is mid-16th century Christian art. From the Protestant Reformation to the Holy Roman Empire’s sacking of Rome, this was a time of major religious turmoil. Its art reflects the distress, biblical narratives distorted with writhing bodies and acid color. Everything is just a little too sharp, a little too bright. Angelic, inhumane beauty luring you in to strike you down for your sins.

“Fear not,” the angel had to say to the shepherds before announcing Jesus’s birth, knowing they would shudder its heavenly flame. Luke 2:10, King James Version.

I am a blessed child fascinated with another faith’s sacred judgment and the eldritch horrors that follow.

It is not that the art history of Buddhist hells is not readily available for study. As a matter of fact, it’s an area that demands more scholarship than Christian culture, considering the Eurocentrism which the discipline has yet to fully dismantle.

But I am too much of a coward to investigate deserved punishment within my own faith. Examining the torments of another is a way for me to thrust my hands into divine fire without being burned. To attempt to scorch away all my guilt without having to bear any actual deserved pain.

Because my trusting family knows nothing of the ludicrous amounts of money and time I spend preening myself, of the strangers I commit unholy acts within neon-tinted shadows at parties, of how a horrible part of me does enjoy the elitism of art history and higher academia.

I am so often vain, calculating and selfish.

“You know for someone with such a sweet face,” someone once told me with brutal honesty, “you say really nasty things sometimes.”

Two-faced. I have deceptively accepted the image of a righteous, gods-guided innocent when in truth, I have done nothing to earn the descriptor. From birth, I have ridden on the coattails of another’s pain, allowing my goddess of a mother’s strength to be reduced to some flimsy mystical fortune.

But though I fear what karma has in store for me, of a next life searing with suffering that I brought upon myself, Buddhists do not believe in eternal damnation. We believe in harrowing phases of repentance, but the key term here is phase. A temporary chapter that can arrive at a peaceful conclusion once all loose ends have been settled. We believe in second chances.

Arrogantly stubborn as I am, I’m not sure I believe in second chances for everyone. Including myself. But another aspect I love about mid-16th-century Christian art is, despite its attempts to disguise or religiously justify this fact, its indisputable obsession with the mortal human form. The aforementioned angels may show traces of inhumane power, but we are only able to visualize their transcendentality through a corruption of humanoid form. Four twisting limbs, two glittering eyes, an expanse of tangible flesh. Humanity comprehends even the seraphic through itself — the pinnacle of arrogance, but perhaps preservation as well.

Because if I choose to center my life on people, on humans rather than celestial judgment, I allow myself to slacken my hold on notions of morality, just a little. People are not innately good or evil, only capable of terrible and wonderful things. Much to some of my relatives’ dismay, I do not walk a preordained route of good. I have already done a myriad of awful things, but I’m trying to believe I have moments of compassion as well.

I am human, and, arrogantly, I think that’s quite divine.

Contact Geraldine Ang at 

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NOVEMBER 03, 2022