Ear­li­er this week, Lily Brett wrote about her beach mem­o­riesher love for pens and pen­cils and why she did­n’t become a lawyer. Her newest book, Lola Ben­sky: A Nov­el (Coun­ter­point), is now avail­able. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

In a wild­ly unex­pect­ed and com­plete­ly unpre­dictable turn of events, I fell mad­ly in love, in Cologne. It was the sort of love that makes your heart pound. The sort of love that seeps into your arter­ies. The sort of love that leaves you smil­ing at noth­ing in particular. 

It was May, 2006. I was hap­pi­ly mar­ried at the time, but that didn’t turn out to be a prob­lem. My hus­band is a very rea­son­able man. And he has always believed in love.

Cologne is not the sort of city where you expect to fall head over heels in love. It is a beau­ti­ful city, but it doesn’t have the dra­ma or the romance of a city like Paris or Havana. But, it was in Cologne that I fell in love. I fell in love with a church. A Catholic church. A church called St Agnes.

St Agnes is the sec­ond largest church in Cologne. Only the famed Cologne Cathe­dral is larg­er. St Agnes is a rel­a­tive­ly plain church. Its beau­ti­ful but sim­ple lines and its white, vault­ed ceil­ing and pink-hued, stone columns give it a grandeur. Not a grandeur of supe­ri­or­i­ty. St Agnes has an embrac­ing, inclu­sive and very human grandness. 

It is unadorned and unpre­ten­tious with a min­i­mal amount of sym­bol­ism or dec­o­ra­tion. It also has warmth. A warmth that is pal­pa­ble. A warmth that allows your spir­it to float, to soar, to ques­tion and to be chal­lenged. A state that feels remark­ably like being in love. Being head­i­ly in love. And I was.

There was, how­ev­er, a prob­lem with this love match. I am not a Catholic. I am Jew­ish. And it gets worse. I am an athe­ist. A Jew­ish athe­ist. Maybe I am not a one hun­dred per­cent, whol­ly com­mit­ted athe­ist. Maybe only nine­ty per­cent of me is an athe­ist. Even if only nine­ty per­cent of me is an athe­ist, falling in love with a Catholic church is pret­ty problematic.

I was brought up to not believe in God. Not believ­ing in God was like a fam­i­ly mantra. I was born to two peo­ple who had each sur­vived years of impris­on­ment in Nazi ghet­tos, labor camps and death camps. My moth­er was sev­en­teen when she was impris­oned in the Lodz Ghet­to. She had four broth­ers, three sis­ters, a moth­er, father, grand­par­ents, aun­ties, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. When it was all over, she was the only per­son in the uni­verse she was relat­ed to. Every sin­gle per­son in her fam­i­ly had been mur­dered. My father’s moth­er and father and sis­ter and three broth­ers were also murdered.

It took my moth­er and father six months to find each oth­er after the war. They were sent to a dis­placed per­sons camp in Feldaf­ing. I was born in Ger­many, one of the first group of chil­dren born to sur­vivors of the Holocaust.

There is no God,” my moth­er said, over and over again, when I was grow­ing up. I grew up in Aus­tralia, a coun­try of blue skies and sun­shine. It didn’t seem like a place in which it was impor­tant to know that it was a God-less world. My moth­er said, There is no God” at the odd­est times. And always out of the blue. There is no God”, she said when she was wash­ing the dish­es or hang­ing out the wash­ing or get­ting dressed up to go to a bar mitz­vah or birthday. 

Both of my par­ents had come from reli­gious homes. After the war, reli­gion was a word they both scoffed at. My father, at 97, still rails at the most­ly young, reli­gious Jews who live near him on the Low­er East Side, in New York, and who fre­quent­ly ask if they can accom­pa­ny him to synagogue. 

And he has kept up his lack of faith in God or an after­life. I woke up one morn­ing wor­ried by the sud­den thought that my father, who bought him­self a bur­ial plot in Queens when he moved to New York about a decade ago, might want to be buried next to my moth­er in Mel­bourne, Australia.

I don’t want you to spend thou­sands of dol­lars to fly me to Aus­tralia when I am dead” he said when I asked him about being buried next to my moth­er. He said it in the sort of severe tone he some­times used when I was a fif­teen-year-old beatnik. 

You won’t be fly­ing busi­ness class” I said. It won’t cost thousands.”

This tem­porar­i­ly derailed him. Where in the plane would I be fly­ing?” he said.

Prob­a­bly with the lug­gage,” I said. He start­ed laugh­ing and then resumed a mono­logue about being com­plete­ly dead when you were dead.

Mum won’t know if I am next to her or not” he said. I do not believe in God and I am not going to change now” he added.

I have envied peo­ple who are reli­gious for most of my life. As a child I wished I was a Methodist because they served apple pies and cream and jam-filled sponge cakes at their church fetes. I had not been inside many Catholic church­es when I first stepped into St Agnes.

It was not love at first sight. I wasn’t instant­ly smit­ten. I was ner­vous. I felt out of place. And uneasy. The feel­ing remind­ed me of being a teenag­er on guard against any inad­ver­tent infrac­tion of the rules that might slip out of me in my over­ly-strict, high­ly aca­d­e­m­ic high school.

I was at St Agnes to do a read­ing from my newest nov­el. I had nev­er read in a church before. I wait­ed in the sac­risty for the audi­ence to be seat­ed. I felt cold. It was strange sit­ting in a room usu­al­ly occu­pied by priests. There was a male aro­ma in the room. I felt like an intrud­er. Or an alien.

A few min­utes lat­er, I walked into the main body of the church and sat down to read. I looked around me. There was some­thing time­less and unclut­tered and unfet­tered about this beau­ti­ful church. Some­thing deeply mov­ing. I felt calm. And embraced. I looked at the audi­ence. Row after row of peo­ple were smil­ing at me.

I went back to St Agnes the next day. And I didn’t want to leave. I was in love, I loved the church. I felt part of the church. I was not alone in this. St Agnes, which sits right in the mid­dle of the dis­trict, has a devot­ed com­mu­ni­ty. They have over the last ten years host­ed con­tem­po­rary music events, art exhi­bi­tions and book read­ings. Last year 300 peo­ple came to hear the writer Ulla Hahn read poems. 

I have been back to St Agnes many times since that first read­ing. I have read there again. The church has, in their per­ma­nent col­lec­tion, one of my husband’s paint­ings, a trip­tych called Pas­sage and Cross­ings. It hangs in the nave. Each pan­el has soar­ing red and black lines that stretch upwards point­ing to some­where above the earth, some­where celes­tial, some­where above the minu­ti­ae of every­day life.

My rela­tion­ship with St Agnes has changed my life. It has changed my view of reli­gion and showed me how we can be deeply con­nect­ed while hold­ing dif­fer­ent reli­gious beliefs or no reli­gious beliefs. I feel as though St Agnes is my church. I refer to it as my church. Or our church. This some­times makes my nine­ty-sev­en-year-old father laugh. But there is a sense of plea­sure in his laugh­ter. I sus­pect it is the plea­sure of pos­si­bil­i­ty. All possibility.

I am still in love with St Agnes. And still in love with my husband.

Lily Brett has writ­ten six nov­els, three col­lec­tions of essays, and sev­en vol­umes of poet­ry. Her work fre­quent­ly explores the lives of Holo­caust sur­vivors and their chil­dren, the expe­ri­ences of mod­ern women, women’s rela­tion­ship with food, and life in New York City. Her most recent book, Lola Ben­sky: A Nov­el (Coun­ter­point), is now available.

Lily Brett | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil Vis­it­ing Scribe

Lily Brett has writ­ten six nov­els, three col­lec­tions of essays, and sev­en vol­umes of poet­ry. Her work fre­quent­ly explores the lives of Holo­caust sur­vivors and their chil­dren, the expe­ri­ences of mod­ern women, women’s rela­tion­ship with food, and life in New York City. Her most recent book, Lola Ben­sky (Coun­ter­point), is now available.

Lily Brett on Inter­view­ing Rock Stars and Not Becom­ing a Lawyer

Lust­ing for Pens and Pencils

Beach Mem­o­ries

Falling in Love in Cologne