I never really enjoyed church when I was growing up. The church experience comprised:
hard wooden pews, shiny and still smelling of polish.
itchy wool tights, and patent leather shoes.
few or no other children to play with afterwards.
hours out of my Sunday, which could have been better spent reading.
It was a boring, lonely, and uncomfortable experience, during which the priest would issue that invitation – ‘Let us pray’ – and everyone would bow heads and close eyes. I tried to pray, but it never seemed very real. Even then, I didn’t really feel like anyone was listening to me. Perhaps I was in the wrong church? Perhaps I was saying the wrong prayers? Or perhaps there really wasn’t anyone listening?
For whatever reason, I never found the relevance in church, so once I was able to, I stopped going. I don’t miss it, and I haven’t stepped inside one for some years, but for all the boredom and irrelevance, Easter was, I think, the one religious ceremony I actually enjoyed, mostly likely because we got to light a fire.
Nowadays, I appreciate the long weekend, and hot cross buns, and Easter Egg hunts. We often spend some time with my sister and her family. I’m aware of the religious aspect, but it’s far in the background, more a memory than anything.
Then recently, my friend Kate offered to say prayers for her friends during Triduum. I had a moment’s contemplation about that, before I asked her to include me in her prayers.
I had a moment’s contemplation about it, because obviously I’m not part of her church, or any church. I don’t believe in the Easter mystery, and while I’m willing to cede that Jesus may have been a real person, I don’t think that he would have been an incarnation of a deity. It seemed not only odd to ask for prayers, but somehow fraudulent. Why ask for prayers at all, given my own ambivalent attitude towards them, and gods?
I remember as a child, family friends telling me that they would keep me in their prayers, or that they would be praying for me. That didn’t bother me so much. I did find it a bit weird when complete strangers said it. It seemed like it was almost an impingement on my right to not pray, or that they were trying in a roundabout way to convert me. Obviously, I was just that cynical, even in my youth.
Later, when I was in the high school chapel, or in church at home during the holidays, I would use the time we were supposed to be praying to tick off ‘to-do’ lists in my head. I’d think about the English essay I needed to write, or the boy I had a crush on, or what I was going to do on the weekend. I’m not sure if I used the word atheist to describe myself. But I railed against the idea that I could reach any kind of god simply because I was in the appropriate environment, and I didn’t feel strongly enough to pray on my own, when I was out of that environment.
Prayer has not been part of my life, in the way that I know it’s been part of others’. Perhaps I lamented that once, but I have certainly made peace with it. I do take time to sit, to breathe, even to practise some kind of meditation, such that it is. I need to ground myself in that way, to keep my patience. And that is the extent to which I can relate to prayer: the quietness, the stillness. But my meditations are just about me, breathing and finding my calm, not about a higher power.
And yet, for all that, I don’t dismiss the power of prayer. I think that there is a lot we don’t understand about belief and how it influences actions – and reactions – to the world around us. I still think there is something beautiful and wonderful to be found in rituals, whether they’re religious or not, and it is possible that rituals are the only things I miss about going to church.
But in the end, I came to a conclusion about what it really means when people tell me they’ll keep me in their prayers.
It means they’re taking time out of their day, devoting time from their busy lives, to think of me. It is a reinforcement of my value as a person – as a friend – to them. And as intangible as it is, there is new hope and energy in the world on my behalf, because they have cared enough to put it there.
Regardless of anyone’s beliefs, that is a precious gift indeed.