Leah Libresco ’12 hoped that her boyfriend Chris Pagiriella ’12 could find her a very particular Valentine’s Day Card.
“I told him he didn’t have to get me one unless he could find one that said, ‘I love you so much that I am accidentally condemning you to hell by wishing you existed,” she tells me.
He looked, “but it wasn’t in the Yale Bookstore! Not the first or second floor,” Chris laments. They share a quick kiss on the lips.
The romantic sentiment, which didn’t quite make it to Hallmark, began with a wild hypothetical:
Would Chris, a practicing Catholic, rather have Leah, an ardent atheist, exist with her heart hardened completely against Christ forever – or would he rather she did not exist at all?
Chris thought for a moment.
“Well I’d probably wish you existed, but that would be for selfish reasons.” He’s in love. Come Hell or high water, he wants her by his side.
Commons is a cavernous, crowded space, but when I meet Leah and Chris in the back, they only see each other. Throughout our conversation, Leah will squeeze Chris’ cheek or he’ll pat down her hair. When one puts an elbow on the table, the other soon follows, and when one leans back, it’s only a matter of time before the other is tipping in his or her chair. (I’ve read about this “chameleon effect” in psychology class – when a couple is close, they unconsciously mimic each others’ reactions.)
Chris and Leah have agreed, along with three other couples, to be interviewed about religion and relationships at Yale. It’s the type of stuff you’re never supposed to bring up at a cocktail party. We’re told to avoid politics, avoid God, avoid talking about your great boyfriend or your horrible ex. But there’s so much to learn if we do. Chris and Leah, Sloane and Harris, Jessica and Roland, and Michelle and Alan have let me into their private lives. So they talk, and I listen.
for Sloane Heller ’12, is about doing a good deed. I meet her and her boyfriend Harris Eppsteiner ’12 in the Slifka Center, which serves as a hub of Jewish life at Yale. She is small and brown haired, with a cheery, high-cheeked smile; he has a politician’s gaze and blue eyes. They speak to me from the same bench, opting to squeeze in next to each other instead of spreading out in separate chairs. He leans on her shoulder.
Can you have sex on Shabbat? I ask the pair. Shabbat is the time between Friday night and Saturday evening, considered holy in the Jewish tradition.
Sloane nods furiously. “DOUBLE MITZVAH!” Mitzvot are acts of human kindness. By Jewish law, you’re required to do them.
Harris corrects her. “No no no, that’s basically only if you’re married.”
Then again, they admit, college kids sometimes ignore that part. And besides, Sloane and Harris argue, Judaism is very pro-sex.
“Within the context of the family, it’s absolutely encouraged,” Sloane explains. “There are passages in the Talmud, which is the main text of Jewish law, about how to please your wife.”
“I’ve never read them,” Harris admits.
Sloane turns to look at her boyfriend. “I have.”
In truth, they explain, it’s more about procreation than pleasure. By Jewish law, men are required to have sex with their wives. (There are some logistical dispensations. “If you’re a sailor, you can do it fewer times,” Harris notes.)
“Jewish babies! Yay!” Sloane exclaims.
But she’s serious. “Since the Holocaust, there’s a very prevalent fear in our grandparents’ generation that we could be wiped out. And that’s a very visceral thing, because all of my grandparents’ friends were survivors.” She looks at Harris. “Barbara,” she says.
“Barbara?” he asks.
“Babs,” she clarifies.
“Oh, Babs.” He gets it now.
Babs is Sloane’s grandmother; the majority of her friends are Holocaust survivors. With so many people murdered under Hitler’s rule, it makes sense that Babs’ generation feels strongly about making sure the religion doesn’t die out. And since Judaism doesn’t proselytize, the only way to perpetuate the religion is by raising Jewish children.
“It’s the first commandment in the 613 commandments!” Harris says. “Be fruitful and multiply.”
For a Protestant opinion, I talk with Jessica Letchford ’11. She’s dating a fellow Christian, Roland Reimers ’11, long distance while he spends a semester abroad in Beijing. Jessica talks to me about their relationship from a bench in the Davenport courtyard, her blonde hair glowing in the sunlight. Roland emails me about Jessica from China. “Our fundamental trust in God is what binds us closely together,” he writes. “Since we have assurance in God’s plan for us no matter what, we can just enjoy our relationship exactly the way it is.”
Jessica, too, says sex has its place in religion—when it is between a pair united in matrimony.
“I think that God created sex to be a really good thing, but that it brings the greatest happiness and the greatest fulfillment in the context that He created it for.” That context is marriage. According to the Bible, Jessica tells me, God intended the relationship between a man and a woman to mirror the bond between Christ and the church. As such, it shall be sacred.
are common across religions. Leah, the atheist, was skeptical of the ones performed at Chris’ Catholic Mass. “At first, to be honest, it looked like when you watch a fantasy movie,” she tells me. “There are these bizarre and arcane rituals!”
“I love your National Geographic take on this,” Chris responds.
She softens somewhat.
“Mass doesn’t seem to touch on Catholicism that much, but rather just on being decent people. I was surprised,” she acquiesces.
Chris smiles goofily at his girlfriend. Leah turns to look at me. She’s read his mind.
“He thinks you can’t have objective morality without God,” she says, and Chris nods.
At least they’re on the same page about how they disagree.
Sloane and Harris, for their part, keep Shomer Shabbat. The practice means different things to different people, but it’s mainly about observing the Sabbath’s prohibition on work. From Friday at sundown to Saturday night, Harris doesn’t use money, cook, write, use his computer, or drive a car.
“I don’t use lights.” Sloane explains. She and Harris don’t use their cell phones on Shabbat, either. (This can make it hard to meet up with friends on a Friday night.) But Sloane breaks one particular rule.
“I do take showers.” She looks at Harris. “That shower’s for you. That’s a gift,” she tells him. “You’re not supposed to shower because you’re not supposed to heat water,” she explains to me.
Jessica says she misses Roland. But they, too, share a ritual that keeps them close to each other, by keeping them close to God. Christian relationships, according to Jessica, are like a triangle. God’s at the top, and each partner forms a bottom corner.
“And if you each grow closer to God, you grow closer together!” she explains.
So they pray together, even though they’re far apart. Skype is their virtual chapel.
“We both close our eyes, and usually one will pray first, and the other one will pray next. We pray out loud together. We’ll pray for each other and for each other’s friends, and pray for our relationship,” Jessica explains.
Roland writes to me that praying over Skype “reaffirms and cements the fact that we, first and foremost, want to look to God for everything in our life, before we look to each other. Fears and concerns that we have—whether about school work and classes, looking for jobs and grad schools, or other post-graduation plans—don’t seem nearly as daunting when we can pray about them openly and honestly with each other.”
For them, the ritual of prayer brings comfort. It works.
works, too. I learn this from Alan Wesson ’11 and Michelle Ho ’11; Alan’s been a life-long Christian, but Michelle just recently joined the faith. One of their first shared experiences was at Alan’s church. He’d invited Michelle and two other friends, none of whom were religious.
“One of them was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to find God in a church.’ The other one found it hard to believe, too, because science makes sense to him,” Alan remembers.
But Michelle was different. She left the church changed. At that time, Michelle was absorbed in thoughts of her family back home, and how she missed them. But the pastor was speaking about love and community, more about people than about God.
“I just sat there, and I remember clearly he referenced 1 Corinthians 13, the passage about what love is.” The choir started playing “Your Love Never Fails,” and Michelle was moved to tears.
“It was just like, oh, this is speaking right to me,” she remembers. “That’s what I needed to hear.” Over the summer, Michelle stayed at Yale, and the Christian community here welcomed her.
“Just through potlucks, and talking,” she found her place in the Church. “My needs were being filled all over the place,” she explains.
The process was moving for Alan, too. His world changed.
“I just remember being like, wait! Wait! What’s going on? It was a paradigm shift—that Jesus can talk to people no matter what their background is.” Michelle’s mom had been Catholic, her dad had been Buddhist, and she’d never really been either.
“I was raised nothing,” she tells me. With Alan’s stray suggestion, she found something.
Chris and Leah are constant thinkers. They started sharing religion as part of an intellectual bargain. Do they ever have arguments about their beliefs?
“Oh my goodness, we have them all the time!” Leah tells me. They frequently talk about religion, and they frequently disagree. So recently, they made a deal. As they tell me about, Chris and Leah go from holding hands to playing a feisty game of thumb war.
“I wanted him to dance with me at the Yale Political Union Ball. So I told him if he went to ballroom dancing with me for two hours, I would go to Mass with him. I’m still not Catholic, but he knows how to waltz!” She laughs.
Chris looks at her.
“You went on holy days,” he says, “which I really appreciated.”
The thumb war continues.
“As much as I make fun of Mass,” Leah notes, “I’m also pretty glad I go now. It’s an important part of Chris’ life. And I like being able to have arguments.”
Chris’ face breaks into a smile.
Explaining it all
can be difficult. After Michelle’s freshman year, she and her big brother sat together outside, watching the Perseid Meteor shower.
“I just kind of popped it up, like, ‘By the way, I think I might’ve become Christian in the past couple months,’” she recalls.
Her brother was surprised. He pushed back.
“He started asking questions like ‘How do you know the difference between God’s love and people’s love?’ and ‘Why does the world keep turning if people don’t believe?’ These questions got me pretty flustered.”
As Michelle speaks today, she waves her hands around to help explain. Alan watches her closely.
“I would try to answer, and it would be pretty circular,” she says. “I kept referring to this ‘limitless feeling’ that was ‘pooling from this ocean of love,’ and I just got flustered, and really frustrated, because I thought, ‘you’re asking the wrong questions!’”
She calms as she comes to her conclusion: It took her brother a minute to grasp, but he understood. It wasn’t that he didn’t support her choice, but simply that he wouldn’t have made it for himself.
“For him,” Michelle told me, “everything, even down to feelings, can be explained by science, something other than God.” And for him, that was enough.
For Chris, God and rationality both serve important roles in the world; he’s quick to apply academic rigor to his faith.
“I did a lot of research on the historicity of Jesus and the Gospels, and it was a hypothesis I could believe in,” he explains.
Leah coughs a little, and Chris reaches out to pat her on the back and continues, “The historical arguments are there. I believe in Jesus as a man and as a part of the conception of the Trinity and God. I try to critically evaluate each Gospel claim.”
Leah begs to differ.
“I’ve never really seen a persuasive case” for God, she tells me, and, looking at Chris, adds, “despite many efforts.”
She rubs his head. He rubs hers.
have ideas of their own. Chris’ parents are very religious. Leah’s parents are very much not. Her nineteenth-century ancestors were among the Europeans printing Emile Zola’s radically socialistic, naturalistic books.
If Leah ever converted to Christianity, I ask, would her parents support it?
“Oh, they’d kill me,” she exclaims.
Just don’t tell Chris’ mom. She wants Catholic grandkids, and Chris is under some pressure to supply. Ms. Pagliarella, however, approves of Leah, even if she holds out hope that she’ll convert. Chris explains that his mom and dad have gotten used to the idea of Leah. “You’d think it’d be problematic that I’d bring home a liberal, bisexual, atheist Jew from Long Island,” but despite it all, his parents have gladly welcomed Leah into their home on breaks. If she doesn’t keep the kids from growing up Catholic, everything will be just fine.
That works for Leah. She won’t keep them from growing up anything they don’t want to be. “I wouldn’t stop him from taking the children to church,” she explains. “I should be strong enough in my truth claim that it shouldn’t be hurt by the fact that somebody saw the Cross.”
Michelle’s mother, too, had opinions.
“My mom and I have this running joke that boys need to ‘apply’ to be my boyfriend, and when I went home she really expressed concern about me dating Alan.”
Alan had plans to follow his religion to wherever it led him, and this wasn’t safe enough for Michelle’s mom. Faith did not guarantee a lucrative job, and Michelle’s mother knew this.
“She was like, ‘you need to be financially stable,’” Michelle explains.
When Michelle came home after break, she told Alan what her mom had said. “And he was just like, ‘if there’s anything that could break us up, it’s your mom.’”
Alan’s face gets serious and he nods. He stars speaking slowly. “I guess I should imagine more what it might feel like to be your mom,” he says. “Like, I came on a boat from Vietnam and created a life for my family. I sacrificed a lot to make sure Michelle had everything she wanted and needed to succeed, and now she’s at Yale University and she seems to be floating, because she met this boy, talking this jivetalk about Jesus, but he doesn’t have a concrete way to take care of my daughter–” and here, Alan pauses, then speaks for himself. “And I think that’s a valid question.” He sighs, looks up and away, put his hands under his knees and sits on them.
then, isn’t always clear. But the couples I spoke to couples have faith that it’s going to be O.K.
“I worry about things sometimes,” Alan tells me, then turns back to look at Michelle. “I get anxious when I think about what it would mean for my life and your life if we decided to stick together for the long haul.”
Michelle plays with the side of her chair and looks towards the far corner of the room.
“As in, how could we do that, where following where Jesus might take us, knowing that we could be in the suburbs of a major city, but could also be in a slum in India!”
Michelle laughs now. Alan does, too.
“Just to make an extreme point,” he clarifies. “I ask myself a lot of hard questions about well, ‘Alan, you do have crazy ideas about your life, do you realize Michelle might not want to live in Fellowship Place for a year while you are chaplain, Michelle might not want to go to Washington state and work with incarcerated prisoners, she might actually want to settle down and have a family!’”
He pauses, then continues.
“Or, I think, ‘you might actually want to settle down and have a family, Alan!’”
Michelle looks up; she’s surprised. She smiles at Alan. She looks back down towards the floor.
Alan explains a little more of the dangers the two of them might face. A life spent in religious service isn’t always lucrative.
“It’s like the security of the American dream, tossed out the window.” He holds his arms out in front of him, to demonstrate.
“Like, “SECURITY!” and toss it out, five stories down.”
Michelle laughs again. No matter their circumstances, it seems, they’ll be keeping tabs on each other.
“We talk about a lot,” she says. Alan agrees.
“We have a library of conversations we need to talk about,” he says. “But it bodes well for the future if we have things to talk about in restaurants when we’re old.”
Michelle smiles. “I have this overwhelming feeling that this is solid,” she says.
We can pray for the best.