by Nora McClellan
One time, my sister and I watched an Ancient Aliens episode about the world ending on December 21, 2012 because of the Mayan calendar and, you guessed it, aliens. Given my young age and tendency to take things literally, I took these conspiracy theorists’ words as Gospel. I grew terrified, worrying about this impending end of the world constantly. Having gone to Church all my life, I assumed that if I turned to God, He would fix it. So I told myself, “If I pray to God one million times asking Him for the world not to end, He’ll save us.” At first, I kept track of how many times I prayed, but eventually I lost count. So I just decided to pray as much as possible and hope it added up to one million.
As Doomsday drew closer, I became more and more panicked. I expressed my fears to my mom, who assured me that aliens wouldn’t come to kill us all. But no one knew about my praying ritual. That was between me and God. And if God is up there, and has some sort of voicemail messaging system for listening to our prayers, I would have been spamming Him. What had started as prayers a few times a day led to constant, involuntary thoughts. I didn’t cross myself or anything, so I could discreetly pray wherever I went. I’d be sitting at my desk in school, and suddenly words would burst into my head. “Dear God, please make sure the world doesn’t end on December 21st in the name of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” Those numbers really added up. I never figured out just how many times I prayed, but the world didn’t end so I assumed it was one million. I felt a great sense of relief, and maybe even a bit of pride, for having worked out a pact with a higher power that led the world to salvation from the aliens.
Or I had undiagnosed OCD. Either explanation is possible, but psychologists have decided on the latter.
Growing up, Church was always a special kind of mental torture. When I stepped into the House of God, I felt the eyes of God, Jesus, Mary, and all the Saints and angels upon me. My sins suddenly came to the surface and I knew I was unworthy to enter under the Lord’s roof. I heard whispers in my ears telling me that I was damned. I felt like I was choking under the weight of God’s judgement.
Because I did believe in God. Wholeheartedly and without a moment of doubt. It would have been easier if I didn’t and could hear the priest’s words without taking them to heart – and to mind – but I did. I am nothing if not devoted. Whatever I do, I do with all my heart and soul – and my mind. And when I put my faith in something, I am a devout believer.
Let us pray, the priest said. And so I prayed.
I was supposed to feel the Lord’s presence in the Church, but I made contact with nothing that had any degree of divinity. The atmosphere of stiffness and rigidity was palpable throughout the building. The rituals meant to praise the love of God only reminded me of how dirty and undeserving I was in the eyes of the Lord. My compulsive acts of contrition did nothing to purify my spirit. And were they really prayers? There is nothing good or holy or righteous in obsessive thoughts, even if they are addressed to God. Compulsion strips the sacred words of their divinity.
It was all profane.
(In its original meaning, profane meant unholy, secular, or not consecrated. I didn’t mean that kind of profane, as everyone was careful not to swear, being good and pious Catholics).
The Church is deeply flawed. From contributing to the oppression of marginalized groups to covering up child abuse perpetuated by its leaders, it has done irreparable harm to many. And, on a completely and utterly selfish level, my compulsive need to be good and pure makes it hard to be in any way affiliated with such a corrupt institution. Can’t I close every door to the sins of the Church?
Yet, try as I might, it is hard to close myself off to the spiritual aspects of religion or belief in the divine. What is the divine? I’m not entirely sure. But do you ever feel contact with a force beyond you, beyond any of us? I do. Sometimes, I see – no, I feel – wisps of a world beyond.
Deep within me, there is an unshakeable conviction that I have some higher purpose to fulfill, as does every living being. I haven’t figured out what this higher purpose is yet, but I want to honor whatever higher power gifted us this earth to live on, this life to live. Yes, there’s no proof of a higher power, but I have faith in what I cannot see. There is something sacred in the sun on a warm spring day. Something holy in the impenetrable darkness of night.
And, while I do not claim Him as my savior, I aspire to live by Jesus’ commandment to love one another, and to emulate His life of radical love. Because shouldn’t your faith be based in love? While my faith is nebulous, I know that in the galaxy of the Universe’s deeper meaning, love shines its light like a star.
This is the kind of spirituality I am trying to cultivate in my life. While praying still carries so much baggage for me, I am learning what it truly means to address God. One quote from Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery comes to mind: “Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”
These words, spoken by the titular character Anne Shirley, perfectly capture my inner experience, as her words often do. A prayer is not a string of words. It is a feeling. The words are not repeated in your mouth or mind; they are whispered from the inside of your heart.
Here in our physical world, there are those moments where our spirits find communion with the divine, whatever that divine might be. Those moments are prayers.
They are sacred.
And to that I say, Amen.