I stopped praying when I was nineteen. This was kind a big deal for me because I’d been praying to the Catholic God Yahweh, His son Jesus, Jesus’s mother Mary, and as many saints and angels as you can possibly imagine almost since I could talk. Church mattered to me; praying mattered. I would lie in bed and say decades of the rosary every night as a child during May and October because I felt compelled to, driven to speak to a God who, as it happened, never talked back to me. But it didn’t matter that He never answered (or at least never answered in a way that I recognized at the time, like a booming voice or via a fiery angel or something equally dramatic). I still had to pray because I was driven to. I felt like keeping the candle lit in my heart was more important than anything else, and prayer was the way to do that.
Dominican and Benedictine priests and nuns would come to my elementary school several times a year and sermonize loudly and at length about Holy Mother Church needing “vocations,” new priests and nuns, and had any of us heard “The Call”? That’s what they always called it, “The Call.” None of us ever raised our hands, sitting there in the drowsy afternoon church dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, because of course we didn’t. Who would? Those priests and nuns would come to our masses, yell at us for a little while, then let us go back to school with an admonition to turn off “Speed Racer” and “The Brady Bunch” and listen harder.
I always left these masses feeling sick with guilt, like I was letting God down profoundly and on every single level because I would beg Him to not make me be a nun. I didn’t want to be a nun, and every night for weeks after one of these visits from the Catholic Traveling Proselytization Corps I would lay awake racking my brains trying to figure out if God had called me and I was ignoring it because I was a bad kid. I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old when all this started, and to this day I couldn’t tell you what a call from God as those priests and nuns imagined it was supposed to sound like. Was God going to send an angel to me like He did to Mary? Because that’s what I must have been expecting, and it never happened. But I kept praying anyway.
I went to mass almost every Sunday and every day during Lent; I said the prayers, did the rituals, and received four of the seven sacraments. At some point, though, by the time I started high school perhaps, I stopped saying the Apostle’s Creed during mass. I got as far as “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord …” and I would stop. I couldn’t profess to the rest of it because I didn’t believe in it any more. I didn’t believe in what I began to see as Catholic exceptionalism (even though I didn’t have a word for it at the time) because I couldn’t understand how a God of love could exhort his followers to so much hate against their fellow human beings (and don’t even get me started on the millennia of institutionalized misogyny). I had already stopped saying the grossly anti-Semitic lines of the Good Friday service retelling Christ’s Passion because they were horrifying to me: pretending to be a Jew screaming for the death of the God I loved struck me at first as just awful, and then uncompassionate and mean-spirited toward the Jews living now who had nothing whatsoever to do with the death of Jesus, and then as just hateful in general and I didn’t want anything to do with it. But by my mid-teens, I stopped saying the Creed because it was asking me to agree to something I didn’t and couldn’t condone. I would get maybe fifteen minutes into any given mass and would start to cry. I couldn’t pray, so I would weep.
And then my Dad died when I was eighteen, and that was it. I’d had it. I thought that if the Church’s version of what happens to us after we die was correct, my Dad would be in Hell burning off some ugly sins – maybe not deeply in Hell, maybe just in a Hell-suburb or something because he wasn’t a bad or evil man, but in Hell all the same because he made some stupid choices and mistakes in his life and hurt his wife and kids. And I remember thinking, “No. Fuck that.” I didn’t know how it was in the afterlife, though, and I still don’t. But back then, awash in tsunami of grief and in a deep crisis of faith, I decided that God was gonna do what God was gonna do and my wishes and desires weren’t part of that algorithm, so fuck it. I was done.
I didn’t realize it at the time – who does when they’re eighteen and stupid? – but the death of my Dad freed me from the clutches of the Church and set me on the path I’m on now, searching for meaning and understanding in life. But I still wrangle with the Church because so many people I know, and millions more I don’t, adhere to its tenets. Most of my people are the ones I call “Buddhist Catholics” or “Compassion Catholics” or the “Service to All in the Cause of Social Justice in His Name” Catholics. I find I get along very well with them because I see the reflection of the Founder of the Faith in those practices.
Recently on Facebook, though, I came across something that used to rattle me as a child and still upsets me to this day. A person was thanking her Heavenly Father for providing her with a house here in the San Francisco Bay Area that was bought for her by a family member – and as real estate markets go, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that wealth must be involved with this family for one member to buy another member a house here. Now, don’t mistake my meaning: I think it’s a great blessing that they are able to afford such real estate, and it’s right of this person to offer gratitude. But here’s where my confusion comes in, where it’s always come in: this Catholic God is the same Energy, the same Being, the same Deity as the God of the Muslims, the same as the God of the Syrian refugees who are not only living in a terrible war zone, but they’re doing it without any homes at all and in most cases with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Millions of men, women, and children are utterly and completely homeless, possessionless, and in some awful cases parent-less or child-less. How in the world do you reconcile those two truths? How is that God so cruel, so divisive, so out of touch as to bless one small family with multiple homes in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world while millions of other families sleep in the cold on the bare ground, with nothing between them and flying bullets but that Deity’s apparently whimsical grace. Why would anybody worship such a Deity? I’m asking sincerely because I’ve always wanted to know: is your God responsible for your wealthy relation who can buy you a nice home in a wealthy town? Is He responsible for all your Grammy awards that you thank Him for, or your touchdowns, or your successful Internet businesses?
Because here’s the implication of all those prayers of gratitude: “Thank you for treating me better than You’re treating those poor bastards over there. Thank you for letting me be safe and rich. I must deserve it because otherwise it would be the other way around.” Every moment of gratitude to this Deity includes a sigh of relief that we are not as screwed as those people over there. Are we more deserving of blessings and goodness than those who don’t receive the new house or the Grammy or the touchdown? Does their God somehow love them less, those losers, and is this material success His way of showing it? Even though it’s the same God?
Or maybe God has nothing to do with it. Maybe praising a God or Gods like this is a way of letting ourselves off the hook for not helping others or not taking responsible action toward justice in the world. “God has housed me so I don’t have to worry about the homeless because if they were worthy, God would take care of them too.” Of course people aren’t consciously thinking things like this because I believe people are basically born good. What they are, though, what we are, is thoughtless. We don’t think about what we’re saying or what we’re doing (or not doing), and this thoughtlessness comprises many modern prayers and offers of gratitude.
Do you pray? Do you think about Who you’re talking to? Do you visualize that Deity, whether it’s European Wealthy White People Jesus or Radical Social Justice Person of Color Jesus or the Prophet and the One he spoke for or any of the hundreds of Forms of Odin or the Great Earth Mother or the Cosmic Void or Tara or Shiva or Aphrodite or the Orishas or the Forces of the Natural World or even the Elements themselves that form the basis of our Universe? What do you say? We reach for pre-ordained words and speeches because maybe we’re all a little bit lazy, but mostly because speaking to the Ineffable is overwhelming and at best intimidating. It can be terrifying to speak with a Power that could utterly destroy you with less than half a breath. Naturally we’re going to rely on what we’ve been taught to say by others, what’s been passed down through generations perhaps as the only right way to approach a Divine Force.
Except that that’s exactly why Jesus came in the first place: to destroy habit, to utterly trash what structures had grown up and over the flowering tree of faith in his homeland and had begun to stifle the life out of it. He came to breathe life and strength back into a crushed and oppressed people, and to tell them that speaking to God was as easy as quieting the mind and saying hello to their neighbors, or just taking the hand of a stranger. So here’s a thing to do: think not only about what you’re saying when you pray, but also about the implications of your words, the shadows that live between the hard edges of what’s spoken. And if you want to say “thank you,” by all means do so, but when you’re done, follow it up with some action in the world that passes on the blessings you’ve received to others so that all are equally blessed.
Imagine you’re Yahweh. How many times do you want to be thanked for a Grammy award by a guy who uses slave labor to produce his clothing line? How many times do you want to hear “thank you Heavenly Father” from wealthy Americans who live in homes big enough for extended families to live comfortably under one roof, who waste more food than some people eat in a year, who consistently support violent governments that spread warfare in poor places in the name of “arming friendly rebels” simply because they can’t take the trouble to educate themselves and vote from a place of responsible global citizenry? If you were Yahweh, you’d have stopped listening a long time ago too. You’d have just started gardening and growing really nice tomatoes, and you’d have left those noisy kids down the road to fend for themselves, paying no attention and not giving a damn in the slightest about Who stepped into and is currently stomping around in your large, dangerous, and utterly deadly Shoes.