The Sacred Family

A short story by Rachel Kushner, recommended by PEN America


What role does prayer play in our daily lives? My relationship with prayer involves often desperate and privately psychotic pleas to a god I don’t believe in to turn traffic signals green, to make my children behave like human beings, to prevent that odd-looking freckle on my shin from turning into stage IV melanoma — inane requests indicative of the amount of faith I put into whatever higher powers may be.

This spring, as part of the World Voices Festival of International Literature, PEN asked prominent writers from around the world to write and then perform short pieces that explore the power of prayer and meditation as experienced in our post-millennial, technological, and increasingly agnostic or fanatical age. Among those pieces was Rachel Kushner’s “The Sacred Family,” a beautifully crafted story that reads like one man’s unintended meditation on God, freedom, mercy, and prayer as a kind of existential confession.

The story opens with the protagonist, Hauser, on leave and wandering toward La Sagrada Família, Gaudi’s “masterpiece of ridiculous splendor,” alone among throngs of tourists, stuck on the Christian belief that freedom is tied to God. “He understood the idea. God created man as something free, a being with a purity of freedom, so-called.” Hauser’s students are all LWOP, life without parole, and “well beyond the moment, the act, that had shifted their life to a punishment that would go on forever.” They are in varying states of acceptance, except Diana, the youngest, who “still doesn’t have the maturity to grasp that she will never leave.” A sense of helplessness permeates the prose as Hauser tries to make sense of the evil in the world, and not the evil of his students. “Twenty, thirty, forty years, is a long time to consider your life. But instead of self-revelation, they were meant to achieve only living death, and then one day, be carried out with a state-issue cloth over the face.”

The real power of Kushner’s piece — and the reason I feel so strongly about recommending it — lies in the layers of narrative complexity that emerge as she explores the contradictions of God, faith, and the power structures that give and take away freedom and mercy. With casual references to Jean Genet, Frans Hals, and Pasolini, Kushner deepens the internal conflict of her characters and the bigger issues at stake, primarily the meaning of freedom in a country that boasts about being the land of the free, but has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The story was first partially published in the chapbook The PEN World Voices Book of Prayer and Meditation, a companion piece to the 2015 Festival.

Antonio Aiello
Content Director and Web Editor, PEN America Center

The Sacred Family

A short story by Rachel Kushner

He understood the idea. God created man as something free, a being with a purity of freedom, so-called. And as Lieutenant Garcia liked to say, a fool and his freedom are soon parted. The original joke was about money, of course, a fool and his money. The idea as Hauser understood it was that if God had created man as a being who lived a perfect, untroubled existence, that would mean freedom was banished. Man would not be free if his life could not be ruined. If he could not ruin his own life, God had designed him in chains.

Hauser himself considered God a not-there. Religion to him was culture, references in art and literature. But working in a women’s prison, he adapted himself to the idea that no one inside its walls did not believe in God. This was not because to be in prison was to be closer to God. The opposite. You were abandoned there, by the world, and God seemed also to have forgotten you. You maintained your opening to him through need. You got a choice inside, King James or International, which the women called “the easy version.”

He didn’t want them knowing his first name. That was the shield he held up to protect himself. The last name was on his staff ID, which he wore pinned to his shirt. It read “G. Hauser,” but the G. was his secret from them, these women he taught, all of them LWOP, life without parole, including his newest student Diana, who spoke in a breathy and elegant whisper and knew she was beautiful and told him they had forced her confession at fourteen with no lawyer or guardian present. Growing up, she told him, her father locked her in a bedroom for weeks at a time, and instead of allowing her out to use the toilet he threw disposable diapers through the door. That was when she was twelve. When she was thirteen. At fourteen, she was an adult, or at least tried as one in a court of law.

Some of them told Hauser everything. They were well beyond the moment, the act, that had shifted their life to punishment that would go on forever. Forever, for each person, lasts precisely up to the moment they die. No one should die in prison, he knew. Twenty, thirty, forty years, is a long time to consider your life. But instead of self-revelation, they were meant to achieve only living death, and then one day, be carried out with a state-issue cloth over the face. The younger ones could not understand Life Without Parole. It takes maturity to grasp that you will not leave. Diana was trying to find a way out, using that breathy grace on him. Who wouldn’t, in her position. She had left parts of the story vague. It was considered impolite to wonder what someone had done, to ask, to be curious. And yet it was a curiosity for truth. But maybe, Hauser considered, maybe the truth itself is obscene.

Of course it was, and he avoided it for as long as he could. But her large eyes, a lost look, stained in even on his vacation. The women would all die there and that fact alone kept them in his thoughts as he wandered Barcelona and remembered, while he did, how dreary tourism was. How you saw the things that the other tourists saw and shared your experience with them, fellow outsiders, except you remained solitary, among strangers, and you all watched one another not have a genuine experience. That was his sentiment, as he walked toward the thing, the Sagrada Família, in all its tacky magnificence, the scaffolding and cranes like ladders to God, and this added to its grandeur, that it could not be finished. He fixed on a column that crushed into the back of a tortoise, as if the column on its back were part of the gravity that allowed the tortoise’s head to emerge from its shell. A girl told Hauser the place was only open one more hour. He said fine, it’s enough time, and bought his ticket.

He had been reading Genet on this trip, and in thinking of Genet sauntering along La Rambla and into the Barrio Chino, Hauser felt less inauthentic and alone. Genet embroidered sacred joy over abject states of existence. To Genet the colors and roughness of prison clothing were reminiscent of the fuzzy petals of certain flowers. Genet wrote that theft was a hard, pure, luminous act, which only a diamond could symbolize. He said handcuffs shone like jewelry. Jewels and jewelry and flowers.

Hauser had read a little of it every night, but the night before this day, visiting Gaudi’s cathedral, he had ruined himself instead. Maybe it was the safety of a hotel room far away, but one night Hauser searched on the Internet. He found so easily, as terrible acts are often marked by ease, what young, pretty Diana had done. Now he knew, and his mind felt like those metal grates in the public toilet stalls Genet described, corroded by hot piss. Evil trickled down over his thoughts. But it was not her evil, even as what she had done was bewildering. What she had said to Hauser was that something went wrong. Something went wrong.

God in prison was the single thing they wouldn’t revoke, you could end up naked in the Secure Housing Unit but they would never take away your right to pray. Only God cared about the women, which meant no one cared about them. Because God was not a person but something outside the world even for those who believed in him, and what Hauser meant by care was not God’s love. He meant human care and these women had none.

He went through the doors. On them, Matthew’s gospel, and if the difference between Frans Hals’s Matthew and Pasolini’s Matthew were not enough to establish the arbitrary nature of the entire Christian narrative, maybe nothing was.

Inside, big drifts of warm wind riffled his hair. The wind seemed to be blowing into the organ pipes and producing resonant streams, sounds that wove among the white columns and archways and opened something in him a little as they did. Hauser looked up at color that was light passing through glass — red, gold, green, blue, against the sparkle of the nave, so high he did not think ceiling, he thought heavens. A jellyfish or parasol with lights on its points, soft speakeasy baubles, floated above him, hovering there to make the cavernous space that much more dizzying, close to show how far. He thought of the false grapes, “as big as greengage plums,” that Genet pinned inside his lover’s underwear, a funny thing but also solemn, the pinning of marvelous and ornate bulk inside his lover’s underwear, the two of them undertaking this ritual of artifice together.

What his student Diana had done was bludgeon an old woman to death in her bed with a wood splitter and an axe. She was serving two life sentences, not concurrently, as if she were meant to stretch far beyond the capacity of one organic life. Her sentence echoed with this place, with Gaudi who died but the church kept going, stretching upward and would continue yet, for decades to come.

Hauser treated them all equally. He wanted to show only compassion and respect. Diana had bludgeoned an old woman and he still must love her and he did, here, in this cathedral, he could; love was vaster even than this massive space, and the organ — it was playing a song.

Hauser looked up at the candy-colored lights and in the great distance between himself and those heavens, he felt a welling and swelling. The women, all of them, would die in prison. Why did there have to be no mercy. The song from childhood said to rise and shine and give God your glory. Glory went up, and mercy came down. That was the exchange. The lack of mercy was man’s, not God’s. Feeling surged up through his body and began to flow from his eyes as he stood under the geometric folds of shadow and angelic but probably artificial light, with tourists bumping past him and they meant nothing. Because he, unlike they, was here in order to let passion destroy him. It felt good to be melted down, reduced to tears by the simplicity of a world without mercy.

A God who has abandoned you is still your God, Hauser knew. He is acting upon you. By his abandonment. He wanted a life of human giving, without being on the take, without an accounting, far from the so-called justice that was ugly and man’s justice and nothing to do with God. Who alone could diminish you sufficiently.

Standing inside this masterpiece of ridiculous splendor, he began to pray.

To pray was to say I am ready. Now. To pray was to request to be able to pray. To keep a line open to the other side. And as it did the thing it requested, to pray to be able to pray to God, it also resolved its own contradiction: we confess to God, and yet God is meant to know already our secrets before we confess. Like that line of Saint Augustine’s, cur confitemur Deo scienti. We don’t do it for God. It is for us, to concentrate passion, intensify faith. It is the most private thing. I have been praying, he told himself, all along. In my unconscious. I’ve been appealing all the time and now I can do it directly.

He couldn’t believe a building would do this. Force on him the question of what he loved, and put God into the what. His sight was blurred by tears, and he knew now that this sudden blindness was supplemental, something added to knowledge, a recognition of what could not be seen.

He turned to his left, toward a young man who was there to assist visitors. Hauser did not plan or think; he acted.

“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”

The young man nodded yes.

“Are you religious?”

The young man, a boy, really, smiled like someone older. “By tradition, yes.”

By tradition. Hauser plowed on. “Is it, by working here, spending so much time in this space, do you have moments where you feel — ”

The boy put his hands up, to interrupt. “I only work here part time,” he said.

“But when you are here, do you have a deeper understanding of God?”

“Look,” the boy said, “when I’m here, I’m thinking about managing the flow of people in through the entrance, and out through the exit. That’s my job. This place, I’m sorry, it’s about tourism.”

“What about the organ?” Hauser asked. He wasn’t giving up. This boy was not going to ruin his conversion. “The wind, it seems to be playing it — ”

“The organ is programmed,” the boy said, losing patience with Hauser, whose face, Hauser knew, was visibly wet. The boy added, but not in a cruel tone, “Honestly sir, if there is a God, I don’t think he’d step foot in here.”

Hauser dried his tears on his sleeve, passing through the exit with the flow of tourists the boy managed.

When Hauser was himself a boy, he remembered asking his father where the skies began. “Down here,” his father had said, and placed his hand just above the ground.

The cathedral was meant to yoke or harness heaven on earth or evoke or be it. It had brought Hauser into himself, or let him transcend himself, and maybe that’s what God was, in people, a way to be more than merely yourself. I am still praying now, Hauser thought, crossing the city as the sky darkened. I pray as I breathe as I want, and worry, and sometimes despair. But he felt light as he walked. The heavens begin on the ground. He turned down La Rambla.

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