This is a love story.
If there is such a thing as the Gospel of Fleabag, then this is how it begins. In the beginning, there was Fleabag herself, patron saint of jumpsuits, standing at the bathroom sink, face smeared inexplicably with blood. She glances at the camera–at you–and smiles. “This is a love story,” she announces. She’s daring you to believe her.
Season one of the show is about grief, sex, and hedgehogs; season two is, quite unexpectedly, about faith, hope, and love. (But the greatest of these is hedgehogs.)
The stand-in for God in Fleabag’s gospel is the Hot Priest, lover of swearing, gin & tonics, and colorful robes. I was raised in the Evangelical church, and those robes are just another reminder that Catholics simply care more about aesthetics than Protestants do — at least, more than Evangelicals. The Catholic aesthetic is vaulted wooden ceilings; intricate stained glass; colorful, billowing robes; the Evangelical aesthetic is, basically: “We found this empty office building on the side of the highway and it’s available to rent.”
The churches of my childhood were sparse and ugly and technically gymnasiums. No bronze sculptures, no stained glass. So if I ever see stained glass now, it reminds me only of college, of the tiny stone prayer chapel erected smack in the middle of campus. The chapel was donated to the university by a beloved, elderly professor, its delicate stained glass windows all hand-painted by his wife. It was open 24 hours a day, and the only requirement for entry was silence.
It was the place I would walk to from my dorm in the middle of the night; I was 19, 20, newly and dangerously depressed, and also, for the first time in my life, seriously questioning whether I believed in God at all. The two were not related, I doth protested probably a little too much.
I remember a small cross in the prayer chapel, too. Those are the two things: the stained glass and the cross.
How they present the cross is another difference between Catholic and Protestant churches: in Catholic churches, Jesus is displayed hanging on the cross; but in Protestant churches, the cross is always empty. It is a battle between emphasizing the suffering of Christ or the hope of Christ. The agony or the miracle.
Protestants see the empty cross as a celebration; an empty cross symbolizes hope, joy, resurrection: He is not here! He is risen!
But when I was 19 and unspooling, kneeling night after night before a silent cross in an empty chapel, the only part I really understood was this: He is not here.
They may diverge at most other points, but at the core of the Gospel of Fleabag and the Gospel of Jesus is the same message, which is that doing all of the right things won’t heal you. Following the rules won’t make you better. You can stop sleeping around, you can go on a diet, you can start putting pine nuts on your salad — and it won’t matter, it won’t fix it, because there’s no risk there, not really; because what you’re searching for demands risk, demands foolishness, demands that your awful, cynical self allow for the horrible, embarrassing truth that there has actually been love inside of you all along, and that the only way to save your life is to give it away.
That’s the two-tier Gospel of Fleabag: first, that eating pine nuts does, in fact, make you a grown up; and second, that healing doesn’t begin when someone finally loves you the way you want to be loved. It begins at a bus stop.
The viewer might still have hope, but when she arrives at the bus stop, Fleabag knows exactly what will happen — she knew long before that night (I give it a week.) She knows that she loves him, she knows that he will sit on the bench next to her, and she knows that he will not choose her. If she knows this, then she knows that the sensible thing, the logical thing to do, is to remain silent. To leave.
I kept coming back. Even when I mostly didn’t believe in God, I kept coming back. I don’t remember what I said to God all those nights in that chapel — don’t remember the exact words, or if I even said words at all. I just remember the silence, and what came after the silence. I know that at some point I stumbled in in the middle of the night, kneeled on a bench and prayed something like: You know the worst thing is? I fucking love you.
“I fucking love you,” she tells the Hot Priest, with no hope of reciprocity. “I love you,” she says, and it is not a request.
I kept showing up to that chapel. Mostly there was silence. But sometimes, I could swear: something like a stirring, a movement, a presence. Don’t make me an optimist. Something that felt like hope. It’ll ruin my life. All the usual nonsense that good believers talk about: a burning bush, a still small voice, a red fox at the city bus stop. It’s probably your imagination, I reminded myself. Still remind myself. At the very least, whatever it was, it wasn’t definitive, and it wasn’t enough. How’s the old saying go? Sometimes a fox is just a fox.
And yet it was a fox, wasn’t it?
In Sinners Welcome, Mary Karr writes about how she bucked against the notion of a God who demanded she get down on her knees and pray. She writes, “My spiritual advisor at the time was an ex-heroin addict who radiated vigor. Janice had enough street cred for me to say to her, ‘Fuck that god. Any god who’d want people kneeling and sniveling—
Janice cut me off. ‘You don’t do it for God, you asshole,’ she said.”
I went to Catholic mass once, a long time ago. Non-Catholics aren’t allowed to take communion, but I didn’t know that then: so when the time came for communion, I got in line, and when I reached the priest, he held up the communion wafer. He held it up high, and I didn’t know what to do — did I just reach up and grab it with my hands? Was I supposed to just open my mouth? I didn’t know what to do. I panicked. I opened my mouth.
Love is awful. It’s frightening. It makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from other people in your life. It makes you selfish. It makes you creepy, makes you obsessed with your hair, makes you cruel, makes you say and do things you never thought you would do.
Makes you wait for a bus that will almost certainly be late, if it even comes at all. Makes you kneel. Makes you say ‘I love you’ to a person or a God who you aren’t sure will say it back. Makes you go to a Quaker meeting, makes you go to a silent retreat, makes you go to church. Makes you open the doors and walk inside, makes you sit, stand, kneel. When the time comes, it makes you rise, makes you walk into the aisle, makes you approach the priest; makes you blush, makes you falter, makes you panic, makes you realize, finally, that it’s too late, it’s time, it’s happening, and after all, what the hell else are you going to do (this is a love story)?
You open your mouth.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Riane Konc
Riane Konc is a humor writer and essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Electric Literature, and others. Visit her website at www.rianekonc.com and follow her on Twitter @theillustrious.