In late August, the day before classes started, I went to mass at a monastery in Vilnius, Lithuania. I sat in the back pew, at the very end of a row of girls dressed in blue button-down shirts and navy skirts. In the front, Maja, a Polish girl with whom I’d hiked and cooked and camped as we backpacked over the past week, stood huddled next to the French girls, singing along to half the words of a song I’d taught her. I didn’t kneel. I didn’t think about anything. I listened to them sing.
After mass, Maja caught up to me.
“Look,” she said. “Did you see? This Mary is so pretty.”
One of Maja’s many convictions was that paintings and statues of Mary should be beautiful. It didn’t have to do with exterior beauty, she said; you could see it in Mary’s expression, her posture, her gestures. Why would the mother of God look ugly? Medieval artists had gotten it all wrong.
I looked at the painting of Mary behind the altar. She was alone, draped in brown and red and gold, her hands crossed in front of her chest. Her eyelids were dark and heavy.
“She looks sad,” I said.
Maja shook her head. “To me she is happy,” she said. “She is beautiful.”
Maja was bright, lively, sharp. If she asked you a question and you didn’t answer it in the way that she wanted, she interrupted you midsentence to tell you that you hadn’t understood. She grew curt when she was upset, and when she was happy she didn’t stop talking. In English, she spoke in long run-on sentences, halting only to express with a quick toss of her head how frustrating it was for all of her Polish thoughts to be trapped inside her mind.
I was glad to have met Maja. The week would have been longer without her. I didn’t know how many of the prayers and doctrines I really believed. When we emerged from our tents in creased uniforms and prayed the Angelus together in the morning, I mouthed the words, watching white fog dissolve into the forest. When, every day, we were told to reflect on biblical passages, I walked as far as I could, waded barefoot into a river or a stream, and felt happy to be alive. For the first time, I did not care whether Mary was really a virgin or whether Jesus was only a man. I didn’t feel guilty, but I felt lonely.
We were encouraged to stay silent at night. Once the campfire had been reduced to wet ash, we would go quietly back to our tents to brush our teeth, wash our faces with lukewarm water, and fall asleep. We were meant to be prayerful, to listen to God. I felt that I would be happier listening to the insects and the wind and to Maja.
On Wednesday night I whispered to her that I was going to look at the stars.
“I’ll come with you,” she said.
We climbed a hill, flashlights dimmed. The sky hung above and around us, blinking. At the top of the hill we lay flat in the grass and did not say anything for a long while. We could see the Milky Way.
“What do you think heaven is like?” asked Maja, her voice hushed.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Do you think there will be city? Do you think we’ll have body?”
I thought about a girl who had once told me that, when she was younger, she hadn’t wanted to go to heaven because it wouldn’t be Milwaukee. What would heaven be for Maja it if was nothing like Kraków? What would it be for me if it was nothing like New York, or if there were no hills, no rivers, no stars?
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Most days I can’t imagine heaven at all.”
“I think we’ll have body,” said Maja. “I think there will be party and dancing and shower in river.”
I liked the childishness of our exchange, the earnestness, the broken English. I imagined all the words we couldn’t say. Maja wasn’t afraid of questions. She was so alive. She couldn’t conceive of a world without the kind of pleasures she knew here, and I couldn’t either. Why did I find her story so hard to believe?
“Things wouldn’t be so happy if they didn’t ever end,” I said.
“I know what you say,” she said. “I thought like you before. But I think it is real, this city.” She exclaimed something in Polish and gestured toward the sky. “Isn’t it amazing that God is so big and he is thinking of me and you here looking at stars in Lithuania? Ali, it makes me so sad that there are people who don’t know God.”
I recognized Maja’s God. He was my God, too—curious, proud, alive.
“They can still know this,” I said.
We talked about our boyfriends and parents and best friends. Maja showed me satellites and constellations. I felt an unshakeable fondness for the things that had shaped her and me. I didn’t know what I believed now or what I would believe in two weeks or two years, but I was glad that she and I shared things—an inclination toward joy, an attentiveness to beauty—that were so integral to who we were. Maybe the only thing I would ever know about my faith was that it would be like walking along a road and meeting Majas again and again, intermittently, whenever I felt alone.
When we parted at the end of the week, Maja hugged me briefly. “We are so similar,” she said. “I am happy I met you.”
“I like you,” I said. “Write to me.”
She laughed, and waved, and walked away.
Aliénor Manteau is a senior in Dunster House studying English and Philosophy