There are a few things you don’t bring up on a first date. Your exes. Your favorite acne-fighting hacks. And, usually, religion. But that isn’t the case for Charles and Lily. Charles wants to become a minister. Lily, who’s not sure if there is a God — or if a God exists and is punishing her — has her own complicated relationship with spirituality.
Excerpted from Cara Wall’s debut novel, The Dearly Beloved, which captures faith in a pleasantly unexpected and intriguing way, here’s what happens when you talk about religion on your first date.
Charles was exactly on time. He smiled at Lily as he walked up the path, studiously casual in a grey wool blazer over a navy sweater and white shirt. His hair was neatly combed and still damp from the shower. He smelled like shaving cream.
“Hello,” he said.
Lily raised her eyebrows as she picked up her scarf from the arm of the bench where she had laid it and put on her gloves. They walked to a tavern nearby, where they sat across from each other in a dark wooden booth. The table between them was sloped and scarred with initials. Instead of looking at Charles, Lily let her eyes fall on the tables around them. Other booths were full of people, their tables crowded with glasses and pitchers of beer. She was surprised, as she often was, that her classmates lived noisy, companionable lives.
When she finally looked at Charles, who had not taken his eyes off of her, she saw that he was approachable and earnest; there was no grief in his eyes, no sign of a fare hard-paid.
“Let’s not talk about divinity,” she said.
“Okay,” he said.
She said, “It’s just that I think God is wishful thinking.”
“What’s wrong with wishful thinking?” he asked.
“It’s wishful,” Lily said.
“You must have wished for something that didn’t come true.”
“Yes,” she told him.
“What?” he asked.
She shifted in her seat, tried to lean back, but the wall of the booth was too far away.
“Let’s not talk about divinity,” she said again.
So they talked about school, and Lily found herself admiring the way Charles’s eyes lit up when he talked about history. They talked about the library, and she had to appreciate his reverence for it, the gratitude with which he described its solemn rooms. After they’d finished their first drinks, he told her about Martha’s Vineyard, and she could easily recognize the pictures he painted of his cousins—they were as lively and attached to one another as her own.
While they were eating, he told her about his stern father, his accommodating mother, the thin, silent house in which he’d been raised, and she was glad to see some sadness in him, a close familiarity with solitude.
She told him about the paper she was writing on Leaves of Grass and how much her professor hated the thesis, but would have to give her an A anyway, because it was so well researched. She told him that she had her senior suite all to herself because her roommate, Rosemary, had gone back to homecoming at her old high school and never returned.
Her overwhelming sense, as she spoke, was that Charles was listening. When her eyes landed on him, he was considering her words, every one of them. His attention was alarming. She could not meet his eyes directly. She looked down or over or away and her hands moved across the surface of the table, adjusting the silverware, fiddling with her straw.
Dessert came—two ice cream sundaes in tall cups with long silver spoons. She had not suggested they share, and he had not seemed to mind. They ate in silence. The waitress took their plates away. The seat beneath Lily was hard. The only way to sit comfortably was to lean forward, legs crossed, elbows on the table. Charles was looking at her, waiting for her to say something. His silence pulled at her like a tide.
“Fine,” she said abruptly. “Why on earth do you believe in God?”
Her face was flushed and her expression reconciled. It was the first time Charles had seen her look anything but pale, and he thought she looked beautiful. He wanted to tell her they could talk about God another time, but he wasn’t sure there would be another time.
He took a deep breath. “I don’t exactly know,” he began. “From the moment I was presented with the idea, I believed it. I can’t imagine not believing.” Lily narrowed her eyes, seemingly unmoved.
“Do you think you have some sort of call?” she asked.
Charles looked at the straight angle of her shoulders and the long line of her neck. She was weighing him now; he could not lighten the scale.
“Yes,” he said.
“To what religion?”
“Presbyterian.” It was the church he had gone to with his parents, and the most democratic and practical religion he could find.
“What do you have to do?”
“Preach. Counsel. I talk with people about their deeper beliefs. Not what they do for a living, but why they do it. I get to know people. I see what’s underneath—what gives them comfort, what brings them joy.”
He knew this sounded hackneyed, but it was true.
“Do you pray?”
“Yes.” Before prayer, his life had unfolded in a place of hard study and debate, where men believed in the power of their minds. Prayer gave him a respite from that skepticism, a way to ask for comfort.
“Mostly, I sit quietly. I ask for help in thought, clarity of understanding. I try to see beyond whatever obstacle I’m experiencing. I ask to see the possibility of its resolution. I know I can’t find all the answers, but I think they’re out there.”
Through prayer he had seen, immediately, how much easier life was when he had faith.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lily said.
Charles frowned at her, taken aback. She was angry now, her eyes fierce. She looked like his father, outraged at the absurdity of an unproven thesis.
“It’s not ridiculous,” he said, keeping his voice serious. “It’s what I believe.” He leaned forward, ready to say more.
“Shush.” Lily glared at him. “I’m thinking.”
Charles sat back and watched her still, delicate face as she thought.
At one time, Lily had believed in God. She had gone to church and Sunday school, which was taught by her grandmother or her great-aunt, depending on the year. Mostly, they played with the faded animals that made up Noah’s ark and cooked pretend chocolate cakes in the yellow plastic oven. If they managed not to act like hooligans, they were given a root beer Dum Dum before they went home.
“Jesus likes well-dressed children,” her great-aunt reminded them, “and little boys who don’t pick their nose.”
Her parents’ funeral was in a church. Their caskets were grey, with white roses on top; her aunt Cassandra had asked the florist not to use lilies.
It was very bright inside, so she closed her eyes for most of the service. She didn’t cry. Everyone else did; Tissues kept being passed down the rows. Lily just waited for it to be over. The minister had preached that God had a reason for her parents’ deaths, a purpose only God knew. So, for weeks, Lily racked her mind to discover that purpose. Was it to spare her parents from aging, to let them exist for their loved ones as ever young, ever handsome, ever charming and at ease? Or, Lily wondered, was their death meant, in fact, for her—did she need to wake up, to grow up, to suffer, to learn?
And if so, why? Was she so judgmental, so impatient, so spoiled? Were her parents so casually expendable? She began to panic because she could not discern the logic of it, which meant she was stupid, which meant she was losing her mind.
Then a thought came to her, a simple thought, clear and unbidden.
There is no God. The idea was followed by a velvet abyss of silence so deep that it stopped time for a moment, as one stops for a fear-frozen deer in the middle of a road. She stared at it, unblinking.
Could it be? Was God not real? Had God not punished her or her parents? Had they not been watched and found lacking? Was it possible that there was no magical being, no loving benevolence, no outraged tyrant, not even a mirror reflecting her back to herself? Was it possible there was just nothing? Did life run out as commonly as a ball of yarn, knitting needles waving in suddenly empty air?
The idea was so electric that Lily held it at bay for a few days. When it had stopped hissing and cracking at her, when its sparks fell impotently to the ground, she allowed it to be real. And then she understood.
There was no God.
There was no master plan, no prewritten destiny, no plot, no judge, no sentencing. There was no God. There was only circumstance and coincidence. Life was random, neutral, full of accidents. There was no redeeming value in her parents’ deaths, just debris to be cleared, trees in the driveway after a storm. Her relief was as liberating as a lemon ice on the hottest day of the year.
And now, here, was a boy who was telling her, with his whole being, that he believed in the loving benevolence, the hidden meaning, the plot and purpose. He had described his faith clearly; she could not mistake its outline. It sat between them as fresh and essential as the pale frame of a new house. Her heart was racing. She was afraid. And yet, she did not stand and walk out. Charles had given her a plain truth, and somehow it calmed Lily, opened a still space inside of her, smooth as a lake at dawn.
Without warning, Lily looked Charles in the eye. “My parents died,” she said.
Charles held her gaze without answering. There it was, he realized, the barest bone of her, bright as the moon on an autumn night that was full of the smell of woodsmoke.
From The Dearly Beloved: A Novel by Cara Wall. Copyright 2019 by Cara Wall. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.