There were several reasons why attending my boyfriend’s cousin Cyril’s* wedding wasn’t going to be easy. There was the problem of getting there (like many French weddings, it was held in one of the future spouse’s native villages, far from any kind of public transport, making it difficult for those of us who don't drive). There was the fact that, due to some family feuding, Cyril hadn’t invited my boyfriend’s mother and father (his aunt and uncle). And there was the religious part.
A few years ago, when we’d learned that the kind, sensitive Cyril was coming to Paris for work, we were thrilled. But it turned out to be a nightmare. Cyril couldn’t bear to be alone. Though he had a full-time job that kept him busy, and though he lived with his best friend, if he had a day off or his friend was working late, Cyril fled solitude, most often fleeing towards me and the boyfriend. Weeknights, when we were tired after a long day at work, or busy with other things, we’d often find ourselves feeling guilty about not hanging out with him. Weekends, though, were the worst. Though we were certainly happy to spend time with him now and then, Cyril expected us to constantly be with him. Life became a never-ending rhythm of seeing Cyril and making excuses (some real, some exaggerated or downright made-up when we needed time on our own) for why we couldn’t.
When we returned from a three-week trip to the U.S., I figured it would all start again. But the days went by without a word from Cyril. I have to admit, we savored the new silence. When we finally did talk, we found out that he’d met a girl. We soon learned something else: while we’d been away, he’d gotten involved in an evangelical church.
As the months went by, we began to notice that Cyril was becoming more conservative, and speaking more and more about his beliefs. During a recent gathering at his best friend and former roommate’s house, the latter took my boyfriend aside and said he was worried. Cyril soon hopes, apparently, to become a part-time preacher of sorts.
Part of his friend’s worry was based on knowing Cyril from an early age, and, I guess, not feeling like this was the same person. Another part of it was cultural. In France, your religious beliefs are generally kept private. There was also the element of the unknown: While there’s a lot of religious diversity here, there isn’t the wide variety of fringe Protestant groups like in the States. But in recent years, more and more organizations resembling what we’d call super churches in the U.S. have started to show up. Cyril’s church seems to be one of these.
Last year, Cyril and his fiancée had a small engagement party. When we arrived, we were told that their pastor was going to speak and then have an interactive discussion with all of us about love and being in a committed relationship. I wasn’t crazy about the idea, but it didn’t turn out to be offensive, although the boyfriend and I both left feeling that this sect, like many others, didn’t consider women and men to be equal. We were worried about Cyril’s fiancée. Though Cyril is a kindhearted, gentle soul, he’s a strong believer in whatever his pastor says; marriage would mean this woman (who’s also heavily involved in the church) giving up her independence. In addition to those concerns, we weren’t optimistic about the true extent of the church's authority in the lives of its congregation members. (I don’t know, for example, if it was Cyril and his fiancée’s choice to give the pastor and his wife places of honor beside them at dinner, and relegate Cyril’s parents to a far end of the table.)
The pastor had been invited to the wedding, where he was treated like a star. Just like his discourse at the engagement party, the wedding ceremony and his sermon weren't offensive or shocking. The one thing that did surprise me, though, was that throughout the night, references were regularly made to God and Jesus. This isn’t normally done after the religious ceremony at French weddings, and it could have made some people feel uncomfortable. Though I’m a Christian, I have to admit it had that effect on me. Part of it was the thought that this wasn’t a church gathering, and some guests could have different beliefs. Why throw your own in their faces all night? But there was more to it. I tried to work out my feelings. I guess, ultimately, that for me, the way you feel about whatever higher power(s) you believe in (or not), is sacred. Speaking about it in such a constant, showy way seems to cheapen it. I had to remind myself that this isn’t the case for everyone, though, and that there’s nothing wrong with expressing yourself, especially at a private wedding where it seemed to be encouraged by the bride and groom.
I thought back to something that had happened earlier that evening. During the pastor’s sermon, I’d had a small sort of epiphany. I’d been standing in the doorway of the packed room, politely listening, when something on the outdoor buffet table caught my eye. A wasp had flown into a half-empty bottle of wine and seemed to be struggling to get out. Tentatively, I walked over to the table, picked up the bottle, and poured it out, setting the wasp free. When I looked up from the wet grass, the other guests near the door were staring at me. “A wasp was drowning,” I explained. That didn’t seem to clear things up. I hesitated, feeling that I should explain how I believe all life is sacred, and every living thing is worth saving. But I realized that for most people, there’s no good reason to save a wasp, and certainly no excuse to willingly spill a bunch of wine all over someone’s lawn. In that moment, I understood how someone like Cyril might feel. He spoke about his convictions; I’d just expressed mine by my actions. Most people would probably judge us as crazy or extreme, but our faith told us what we needed to do, and put us above fear of mockery or upset.
While I’ll probably never approve of constantly expressing your religious beliefs in front of people whose own beliefs and morals you may not know, I do understand a little better now why people sometimes do this. The next time Cyril and his wife start talking about their church, I’ll try to remember that wasp.
*name has been changed.