Prayer and Other Things I Sometimes Believe In
by Callie Bisset
I am nineteen years old saying the “Hail Mary” aloud for the first time in over a year. The almost forgotten words fall from my tongue with a too familiar grace. Lexi stares wide eyed at me, as if I have just uttered some sort of mystical chant. Later, as she lights a candle, she whispers,“Say the prayer again.” I sigh but oblige anyway, my teeth stumbling over “the fruit of your womb” and my lip quivering just a bit. Here these words seem to have a mystical power, it is as if the prayers become a spell that I can cast, summoning the faith I’ve tried so hard to leave behind with plaid skirts and bad poetry.
I haven’t been in a church since I graduated high school, but standing in the Notre Dame staring at stained glass, pointed arches, and statues, all the memories rush back. Twelve years worth of formal religion classes and memorized bible quotes. “Jesus would hate all this,” I say on repeat. Lexi doesn’t know what I mean, or perhaps she does, but she has let the enchantment of this place get the better of her. Religion and magic it’s all the same. They sell gold coins with the Pope’s face on them, they don’t market them as granting eternal life, but we all know the message. I quote Matthew 21:12, picture Jesus flipping over these gift shop displays like the tables in front of the Temple. I think of Martin Luther and the 95 theses and indulgences.
To get into the Notre Dame, we waited in line. It moved fast enough that it was almost enjoyable, taking a moment to admire the outer architecture from a far. Carefully sculpted details absorbed our eyes as we recalled knowledge from our art history class. An older woman stumbled slowly alongside the line, begging for spare change. The tourists rolled their eyes and gripped tighter to their bags. They made sure to not get her in their pictures. I thought of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Lexi reached in her purse and pulled out what change she had. She dumped it in the woman’s plastic cup. The woman nodded and proceeded on. Lex realized only after that she had accidentally given her American coins. We both shook our heads, eyes guilty.
I think about the past me, eleven years old, arguing with my father over the kitchen table in his little post divorce apartment. It was the same year I drank holy water at school to make my friends laugh. I had my first kiss at Sunday’s youth group. I stopped taking communion at school. I would not swear by something I did not believe in. It was the Taurus in me, bull headed as always. In the end, I got my way even if my father’s face was boiling red. I would not receive confirmation in the Catholic Church instead I insisted I would be confirmed a proud Protestant. Forget transubstantiation, if I was going to believe in any of this I knew damn well it was symbolic at best. So just like that, I stopped being a Catholic. I still believed in Jesus just not the Catholic kind, where is that faith now?
By the time we go to Barcelona, I am long over religion. I don’t know what I believe and I have given up trying to figure it out. Every time I find myself praying in these places it feels more like habit than anything that actually means something, still the internal dialogue is there with the proper addressee.
Renaissance art class has forced me to re-familiarize myself with all the iconography that I spent the last year and a half trying to forget I ever knew. It has made me fall into hate of the Catholic church all over again. In Barcelona, I go in more churches in 48 hours than I thought I would ever step in in a lifetime.
On the steps of each church are the real people of Jesus, crippled and poor. The ones he, according the the bible, spent time with and lived amongst. They are begging and often crying, still they are ignored by the same people praying to statues in the name of god. I notice one woman sitting too exhausted to even ask for change. I pull a granola bar from my bag and hand it to her, then follow my class reluctantly through the ornate door of the church.
Inside, we observe and analyze and admire. Artistically, the Catholic church is praised for following the pagans with statues and paintings. There is excess everywhere you look, all in the name of worship. It is beautiful, sure, but it feels empty. I try to listen to my professor, try to understand the purpose of all this grandeur in the name of the lord, spending so much when people still have so little. But this is an art class not a religion class, so there is no need to morally justify any of it.
I remember the first time I attended the church that almost made me believe. It was Christmas Eve, and a family friend was singing in the choir. I was about eight years old, and it was the first time I’d seen God as something not inherently Catholic. I finally saw religion as more than a pale statue that I prayed to every morning at school, less rigid and hell raging. There in that Evangelical Lutheran church with the squeaky pews and the cute boy who played the drums and the female Pastor, I fell in love with a rendition of “Mary, Did You Know?” Even now, if I try hard enough I can almost begin to conjure back the magic of that moment, the way I felt a belief in something just a breath away from tangible, as strong as the music floating through the air. Maybe, it was because their choir had drums and a guitar and sang songs that seemed more like something I would download on my iPod rather than sing on a Sunday morning.
Over the next eight years, I tried to buy into it all. I spent the weekends at youth groups volunteering at soup kitchens and nursing homes, and I spent the summers at “Jesus camp,” signings songs and telling stories. I joined the “youth band” and made friends that I would hold onto much longer than my faith in the biblical Jesus. I don’t know if any of us ever believed in everything they told us, but we believed in music and each other. We shared a love of loud songs sung full bodied and laughing full bellied long past lights out. We talked about high school and boys and girls and Tumblr and poetry.
At every event we would always join hands and do “highs and lows.” Once, when I was with the band at a middle school retreat, I remember a little boy spoke up. He was young and timid and kept to himself at the start of the weekend. But suddenly, holding hands with all of us, he stood a little taller. He said, “Thank you god for helping me make friends.” And I couldn’t help but squeeze the hand of the person next to me, I felt my eyes welling up with tears. The moment stuck with me long after. It wasn’t the first time I had cried at a retreat, at every event there was usually one speech that left most of us red faced with tears streaming down our face. The speeches that did it were always the same to some degree, usually they always centered around a reminder that we weren’t alone. I always took it as an offer that church could be a safe space to hold hands with strangers and feel some of the weight of life’s struggles lift just a bit. That little boy expressed exactly what I liked best about church and youth group, it functioned as a safe space where I could be me and still make friends which seemed like an especially big feat particularly when I was a teenage girl who wore too much black and took everything a little too seriously.
Making friends at church was easier than making friends at school, I was always a little louder, less scared. As a teenager, especially a teenage girl, I was often overwhelmed by the weight of needing to fit in and be pretty. I was okay with being the “weird girl,” but I always had to be the right type of “weird”; the cool kind like my friends. I had to listen to the right music wear the right clothes, make fun of the things that they mutually decided weren’t “cool.” When I was at church or away on a retreat, I didn’t think so hard about who was judging me, I didn’t put up a front. And, we always talked about things, real things. Our problems, big and small, were taken seriously.
Weeks spent at camp always went too fast. We weren’t allowed to bring phones or iPods or other devices, instead we were expected to embrace the opportunity to “disconnect from technology and connect to each other.” I think it worked because even though I hid my phone under my pillowcase, I was always too busy having fun to bother texting home anyway. We spent the days outside singing and playing silly biblical games and taking long walks around the lake. We went canoeing (and tipped the boat), we tried out archery and rock climbing. We attempted challenge courses built to promote team building and trust, one of my favorites included the “flying squirrel,” where you leaped into the air suspended by ropes held by fellow campers. I always volunteered to go up without any fear. I always had faith, in my friends at least.
Camp was one of the first times I remember falling in love with being outside. One summer we even convinced our counselors to let our cabin sleep outside for the night. We fell asleep on the grass in our sleeping bags whispering into the dark of the night and staring up at the stars. We woke up covered in a layer of dew, and the next summer we laughed again about the outrageousness of the whole thing especially when we heard about nearby bear sightings.
For a brief moment, when I was still a barely teenage child, my youth group leaders even tried to convince me to follow deeper, to become a Pastor. I spent a few summers teaching Vacation Bible School and even a semester of Sunday school classes. However, I quickly realized that the only thing I really loved about the prospect of preaching was the idea of being able to use words to help others. I spent weeks trying to read bible passages every night before I went to bed, trying to see the magic in them. But, I knew that I preferred the words of great writers and poets and my own words not the ones their god had written for me. At this time my religious identity itself began to move somewhere on the spectrum closer to the lyrics in Brand New’s “Jesus Christ”(“Jesus Christ, I’m not scared to die, but I’m a little bit scared of what comes after.”) And somewhere between high school and college, my ability to believe in those ancients texts disappeared entirely alongside my Hot Topic band tees and old diaries.
I don’t remember the day I decided I didn’t believe, or perhaps the first day I realized my faith has always been more about the comfort of being in a communal space talking about the commonality of life’s struggles than worshiping any sole divine being. Maybe it was too many years of Catholic schooling that soured the idea of any religion, or too many mornings of reading bad news and seeing the way religion was used to hurt and shame. Maybe, it was the last time I was in that old church when I finally realized the warmth within came from the love of my hometown and friendships and a reason to meet every week and share food and stories and a shoulder to lean on.
If you’re going to be a believer, I must admit the ELCA is definitely a good way to go. Before my confirmation, our Pastor had us complete a research project to create our own personal creed and see how our beliefs aligned with that of the church. For me, the idea of creating a personal creed is an ongoing battle. During my research, I learned that ELCA is LGBT+ friendly and is credited with having the first openly trans minister. The personal experiences I’ve had within the NJ Synod division have led me to meet selfless and caring Christians, people who actually practice what they preach. As a whole, from what I’ve observed of the denomination, the social justice work and policies they are creating is truly admirable. I remember when I attended the 2012 ELCA National Youth Gathering in New Orleans, I had the opportunity to see Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speak. The badass tattooed Pastor truly reaffirmed some of what I had already come to know about importance of acceptance within the church as well as in our personal lives. This is one of my most important takeaways from my time in the church, the essential task of religion to operate as a safe space and to welcome outsiders.
These are the things about religion that a part of me will always still love, the times when religion can be used to unify instead of destroy. The comfort during a time of loss, the place to go to feel a part of something, the desire to help thy neighbor, to love thy neighbor. These reasons force me to want to give a second thought to religion, less out of the duty or tradition like the Catholic church once tried to make me believe, less out of an unshakable belief in a divinity, more out of a baseline desire to see the good in it. Because, I’ve seen the good right alongside the bad. I just can’t decide which I believe outweighs the other anymore, I just can’t stop some last resort praying to something that it must be the good goddamnit.
“This is the prettiest place I have ever been.” I know it as soon as I see it. I am in the Scottish Highlands, one of the many roots of my heritage. I look around watching the white snow meet the perfect blue sky and the river waves brush against the mountains edge. It looks like a movie. It doesn’t feel real. The land and the sky and the water are making love and I am watching. “It’s magical,” Lexi says. I nod in agreement. This is magic, this is god, the god I believe in, the culmination of every poem I’ve ever tried to write. If I have to say, I suppose this is my creed, I believe in creation and the beauty of people all around me. I believe in this moment and the friends I share it with. When I pray, I think, these are the mountains I am praying to and writing about. It’s not cut and dry, it doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes things happen, and I don’t know why. But, I must still believe in something, because in Scotland I saw that something.