Story I wrote for school about a girl, a cult, and a world she's never seen before.
| Faith's Sanctuary
What I have learnt over the past thirty years of my life is that a person's beliefs are not often their own. Rarely are they the result of what a single person values or what they themselves have faith in. They are in fact, the outcome of years of unquestioned tradition. They are the customs and protocols that have been cemented into a person's ways so securely that no amount of reason could possibly make them doubt what they know.
There was once a time when I was well acquainted with these beliefs, with these people. My mind was so clear then, and constructed in such a way that I didn't question anything. I knew what was in the past and I was told what the future held. I knew my place in the world and I knew my place with God. Our leader told us all of Gods plans for us, and I drank in every word she said with the eagerness of a child. Some people called us a cult, but to us we were much, much more.
We were the partisans of God.
We were the bringers of the Way.
We were Faith's Sanctuary.
The autumn winds are cool on my face as the brilliant hue of the sky falls on each horizon like a blessing from God. I outstretch my arms and breathe in deeply till my senses are empty of everything but the gratifying air and sounds around me. I can hear the laughter of old women as they weave baskets and prepare for the evening meal, and I can hear the strike of an axe against wood as young men work to create a fire. Tents are littered across the farmland around me, the biggest of which lies in the centre of the compound. It is the home of our leader, Mother White. She tells us that in order to know yourself, you have to know God. She is the wisest among us all. Ever since I was born into the Sanctuary almost sixteen years ago she has been a guiding force within me, as she is for all of us. I believe that even if I lost everything in this life, as long as I still held her light as a part of me, I would never lose faith.
"Lea!" I hear my sister call. "The prayer is about to start." My sister Andrea is younger than I am by six years, and hasn't come to appreciate the life we have as much as I do. But she will learn, as we all do when we grow older. The lessons of God are taught by Mother White to all of the Sanctuary, and His messages are always given to us through her. In time, Andrea will learn as I have. I take one final breathe of the open air around me before turning to my sister. I see she is already racing back to the others so I follow, ready to begin the prayer.
For much of the time I spent in Faith's Sanctuary I was completely consumed by what Mother White called the Way. The path to more, she said. The path to more of what we believed to be right and just in the world, and the stepping stone to God's place for us after life. As we followed the Way, so did we follow God, and for a long time I believed it to be not only the Way, but the only way. Every word she said was the mollifying words of God himself, every prayer was a direct proclamation of our devotion to Him.
But all of that began to change as I grew older. Slowly and gradually I slipped from the steadfast way of thinking behind the Sanctuary. I unknowingly withdrew myself from their irrefutable approach to life. And I was startled to find myself wanting. Not to reclaim my connection with God or the Way, but rather with myself, and a world I finally realised I barely knew at all.
I often wonder what it's like outside of Faith's Sanctuary, how people live their lives and what they do from day to day. For nineteen years I have never known any life apart from the one I know now, and no world beside the one created within the Sanctuary. I haven't ever been outside the boundary of the compound, and it's so sheltered I'm not even sure how big it is compared to the rest of the world. But I do know things about the outside world, I've been taught about it by Mother White. She tells us that our lives are the only true way of living, and that while we thrive, the rest of humankind lives without cause or reason, as a simple silhouette of our existence. We're told that living in the Sanctuary is the only way we can ever feel close to God, and when we pray to Him, and align ourselves with Him, we can achieve a purity that no other beings can ever wholly possess. That's what Mother White tells us.
But now, as this nudging feeling I have digs a hollow in me that I can't ignore, I feel as if my world isn't so much a world anymore, but rather a tree at the border of a forest, that isn't really part of the forest at all. It stands just at its edge, and as the other trees clump together and twine their branches into each other's lives, we simply turn a blind eye. We turn our backs, to face the empty expanse before us, and we fill it with God and rituals and prayers and preachings. We fill it so completely with what we call the world so that in the end, we never realise that just behind us is the largest world imaginable. And it truly is a world.
What could have been more fulfilling or gratifying than a life within the Sanctuary? And what could have possibly made me search for the answer to that question? As I learnt later on, my wanting and feeling that I was without wasn't merely a youthful doubt that lingered momentarily before becoming insignificant once again. It didn't vanish over time, it just grew stronger and more overwhelming, until I felt claustrophobic within my own skin. I would constantly look towards the line of trees that marked the boundary of the compound, and I would squint my eyes to try and see just a little bit more of the world outside. As it turned out, that world found me much earlier than I could ever have found it myself.
As the sun makes it steady decline behind the hills that surround the Sanctuary, a mounting sound of chatter fills my ears. Having just finished the first purification ritual of the new month, we have all gathered in a circle to wait for Mother White to begin the evening prayer. Andrea and I sit and talk amongst ourselves about the ritual. The ritual is designed to cleanse our body and mind, to allow all immoral beliefs to desert the body, and rid ourselves of any dissolute thoughts or feelings. To do this, our hands are wrapped in rags sodden with water from the land, and our hair is washed in a huge round basin. Then, after the ritual is completed and Mother White has recited a prayer from God's Book, we are bestowed the gift of a new month, and are able to fulfil God's work with our newly blessed hands and mind. My dripping hair still sticks to the back of my neck and it makes me shiver as a breeze passes through our circle. The coarse texture of the rags agitate my hands and I try to scratch my palms through the rough material.
"Where is Mother White?" Andrea asks me as she looks towards the enormous tent fifty metres to our left. I glance over too to see the flap of her tent billowing in the wind.
"She'll be here soon don't worry," I reply, my voice trying to match her enthusiasm. As I continue to look in that direction, my eye is caught by a truck entering the gates of the compound. It's the delivery truck that arrives weekly with food and other necessities we can't obtain inside the Sanctuary. For the past few weeks I've been watching it, as it comes through the gates and stops just outside of the mess tent, as the young man unloads it before a quick exchange with one of the older men, and then as it exits at the eastern end of the farmland and the gates swing shut behind it. It never stays for long, less than five minutes at a time, but every time I watch it I see something that makes me want to look twice.
Suddenly I feel on edge, and my legs become restless beneath me. If only I could talk to him, if just for a second, I could ask him what his life is like. Maybe if I told him about my life, he might tell me about his.
"I'll be right back Andrea," I whisper, getting to my feet.
"Lea," she replies as she tugs on my sleave. "You're going to miss the prayer." I ignore her and walk quickly towards the mess tent. I duck around to the back of the tent and, as it always does, the truck stops on the opposite side. I hear the click of the truck door opening and the thud as the young man's feet hit the ground. I peer around the corner of the tent and watch as he heaves open the back door of the truck. He is dressed in faded blue jeans and a singlet that reveals his upper arms and shoulders, something that's never allowed within the Sanctuary. His hair is messy and unkempt, and gets thrown across his face as the wind gets stronger. Nervously, I step out from behind the green mesh of the tent and into the view of the young man. With a crate in his arms he stops and looks at me.
"Hello," he murmurs, and steps forward to shake my hand. "My name's Ethan." He reaches out to me and timidly I place my hand in his. I hold on for a second too long.
"My name's Lea." I say, and my voice shakes through my reply. He smiles at me, and suddenly, without adequate reason or cause, I have no idea what to say.
It wasn't too long after I met Ethan that I realised the rest of my life wasn't going to take place within the Sanctuary. As we grew to know each other more, I told him of my loneliness and how trapped I felt in the compound, and in return, he told me about the outside world and all of its incredible wonderments. To him, these wonderments were so ordinary and plain that my amazement astounded him. He could not begin to fathom my situation, of being raised on a farmland since birth, to be completely stranded from reality. He didn't know what it felt like to be completely excluded from something, not by your own choice, but by the choice of someone else. He could never quite understand my enthusiasm when he told me stories and could never really know the reason for my yearning. But regardless of all that, he took me under his promising wing, and through the dark of the night, he took me out to see his world. I stepped outside into what I believed to be a place of boundless possibility and opportunity, and onto ground that stretched far and wide in every direction. As blood ran a race through my veins and adrenaline came to life at my feet, I was overcome by a sense of empowerment. An empowerment that thrived and shone all through the darkened night. Like an owl that flies by the light of the moon, my vigour soared to unreachable heights, and beneath the stars and blackened sky I was invincible.
But no one ever told me that when the night is over, the owls return to the treetops, to their little private sanctuaries, to rest and go to sleep. I never knew that the night could hide things the way it does, and I never knew that in the daytime, you see everything in a new light. And I mean everything.
Ethan called this place a shopping centre. It's big, so big that I hardly know where I am anymore. And really I don't. If it wasn't for Ethan holding my hand and guiding me through all of this I think I would lose faith altogether. But there are too many people in this place, too many people rushing through with trolleys full of colourful boxes and packages, too many children darting around the knees of their mothers and in between the shopping aisles. The noise is too great as well. Women yell to be heard over the sound of their crying infants, and the resonating boom of a man's laughter bounces off the walls to echo in my ears. My palms are beginning to sweat and as my eyes dart from person to person my breathing starts to shake. There's no comfort in this place, nothing that I can call normal or natural. I don't know where I am. Ethan must sense my anxiety because he gives my hand a reassuring squeeze.
"Ethan," I whisper, letting him know of my apprehension. "I don't think I can do this." He stops walking abruptly and pulls me around to face him. The unwavering expression I've come to know so well stares at me and I almost look away with shame.
"Haven't you always told me that the reason you hated the Sanctuary so much was because it never let you experience anything other than the world you were given? Didn't you want to leave because you wanted a life that gave you choices instead of controlling you?" His words are almost painful for me to hear, and this time I look down out of guilt. He sighs, and with two fingers raises my chin so our eyes meet.
"You're world wasn't perfect Lea, and either is this one. But look around you," he says. "See those men over there." I glance in the direction he is pointing and see two men seated next to each other, talking. One has black skin and one has white. "Didn't Mother White always teach you to despise the Native American people because their dark skin was not "pure" enough?" I give a subconscious nod in reply, but I don't take my eyes from the pair of men sitting together at the table. It's insane, I think to myself. Even though I've learnt not to hate these dark-skinned people, I can't imagine a white person ever openly conversing with them. But here it is, without bitterness or anger, these two men are talking. And by simply talking, these two men are turning so much of what the Sanctuary believe into complete untruths.
"You don't know this world yet Lea, but you will. And when you do you will learn that although there may have been twenty people that made you want to leave the Sanctuary, there was only one that made you do it. And that person was you. Sooner or later you're going to realise that. And sooner or later you're going to realise that was the right decision."
Maybe he's right. Maybe in spite of all the worry and unease I feel inside me right now I have made the right decision. Maybe in spite of every lingering shred of doubt and uncertainty I have that makes me lose sleep, I've actually opened my eyes for the first time. And maybe, just maybe, I've finally found myself in the thick of everything. In the thick of life, in the thick of love, and for the very first time, in the thick of the world.
What I have learnt over the past thirty years of my life is that a person's beliefs are not often their own. But sometimes, if a person will strive far enough, and search through every attainable aspect of who they are, it is possible to find something they themselves truly believe in. Being part of Faith's Sanctuary taught me that being cut off from reality doesn't make it disappear, it makes you disappear. When you ignore the world, the world won't stop to reclaim you, it won't try to make you pay attention. It will continue on regardless, and won't waste a second of it's time thinking of you. But you'll think of it, because somewhere in the back of your mind is the tiny notion that maybe you're missing something.
Nineteen years of my life will vouch for you and tell you that turning your back on the world is alright, that what you are doing is good for you. But the past eleven years, right up to the person I am now, will tell you that that notion is right, you are missing out on something. And that something is called the world. The real world.