Once upon a time, I said my prayers every night. I even wrote my own prayer, all about rainbows and the other pretty things that concern an eight-year-old girl, and I memorized it, adding it to the Our Father and the Hail Mary that ended my day. Once upon a time, I prayed the rosary to lull myself to sleep when my teenage worries kept me up too late.
Then, at sixteen, I “left my faith.” That’s the phrase that’s used but it’s not what really happened. What I actually left was a religion that was incompatible with who I had become. The young woman who had once felt ’chosen’ by God, had become disillusioned by a Church community whose hypocrisy showed through in all those who attended only on Christmas Eve, decked out in full length fur coats; vanity seemed to matter more to those people than the values of the church’s teachings. In addition, a troubled relationship with my alcoholic father made it difficult to connect with God the Father; I just couldn’t manage to trust either of them. I was also a budding feminist and ecologist, neither of which I was able to reconcile with the church’s various policies.
What I went looking for was a new container, a new belief set that would be able to hold the ideals I still felt in my heart. I was young and not quite sure if faith could exist without a religious context but I felt the need to try. Damage was done along the journey; things were lost. One of the things I lost was prayer.
Years passed and I explored my faith and what context of religion could hold it. I explored various organized religions, vetoing every one as not quite right and never quite finding a view of the Divine with which I was comfortable. I missed praying but couldn’t force myself to do it. I thought, how can you pray when you don’t know who to pray to? Prayers had to be addressed to a recipient, didn’t they? I still had no name for ’God’ and so I turned away.
When September 11th hit, much of the world as I knew it fell out from under me. I didn’t know anyone first hand who died on that day but I did sit in a car half a mile from my home in Queens and watch the next day as the smoke plume rose over NYC. The event itself, in my ’backyard’, was difficult enough but then illness visited our household in the same month that I found out I was pregnant with our second child. I spent the entirety of my pregnancy wondering about a future I had always taken for granted.
All this came hard on the heels of my brother’s untimely death the summer before, as well as news of both my parents’ and my sister’s imminent divorces. It seemed all the world was suffering, both the world at large and, more immediately, in my family.
The year before, I had set up a family altar in my living room. On it were pictures of my family and little figurines representing each of us – a tiny bird for my daughter, a smiling dragon for my husband, and a meditating monkey whose expression reminded me somehow of my own. There was also a candle, my symbol for Spirit.
In my need to do something amid all that turmoil, I would light that candle nightly. I would wrap my heart around the thought of all those people mourning their loved ones lost on 9/11. I would think of my own loved ones, struggling with their own pain. When stress and frustration and feelings of helplessness overwhelmed me and I lost my temper with my daughter I would ask some unnamed source for strength; I would ask that I be able to treat both her and myself with loving kindness. I would focus on the warm light pouring off that candle and, like Mary, I would “ponder these things in my heart.”
As I grew more comfortable with lighting the candle I began to write notes in my journal, neutral notes asking for blessings for others or strength for myself. My life coach had me work with affirmations. I began to accept that prayer could have a wider definition than just what I learned as a child. Prayer could take many forms. I also began to understand that I didn’t necessarily have to have a name for ’God’ in order to pray. Maybe I could just pray and the prayers themselves would figure out where to go. Maybe it was the act of praying that was most important.
In all the anguish of the loss and uncertainty of that year I learned to recognize what my faith looked like. I hadn’t realized before that I still had it but what I had always taken as heart to heart talks with loved ones turned out to be faith. What I had always taken as a selfish but slightly pointless act, the keeping of a journal, turned out to be my faith. All those little things -- creating sacred spaces like my little altars, lighting candles and working with affirmations, all those things so deeply ingrained in who I was that I almost forgot about them -- they were my faith, too. They were all prayers, different from what I had first known but prayers nonetheless.
Our health situation improved without the need for hospitalization and our attentions turned to the ups and downs of life with a newborn. With the birth of our little one, the sadness and hardship of the year before began to ease. Life began to return to normal for all of us in the family, as well as in New York City. Normal just looked a little different, the same as my prayers. For my mom it was an apartment five hundred miles away from my father and that much closer to her grandkids. For the average New Yorker, normal now included cops on corners with semi-automatic rifles and a scar on the skyline to remind us all of what was lost. A new normal isn’t always easy.
For me, my new normal came with an awareness that I would never again be able to withdraw into the world of depression that so often kept me from engaging with the world around me. So much of that depression was feeling that I had no way to cope with all the emotions that tore through me. These acts of faith and this wider definition of prayer reminded me that I had all the coping mechanisms I needed and more. With or without a name, Spirit was (and is) present for me and I had ways of feeling connected to it. I would still struggle with feelings of depression but never as long or as lasting. Faith kept me company, and the way to remember my faith was to pray.
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Written by Deborah Globus