I’m not a super religious person. I used to be, but I’m not anymore. Well, I don’t know that I was ever SUPER religious. I only ever did slightly more than the bare minimum of what was required. What I mean to say is that religion—or rather, adherence to the tenets of one—used to be more important to me than it is now. I like to joke that I am a recovering Catholic. But this post isn’t about the complicated (and not so complicated) reasons I left the church or even about what I believe (and don’t). This post is about why I still pray.
When I was eight years old, I was in a catechism class meant to prepare me for my first communion. The teacher of the class was a short, balding man with tufts of brown hair over his ears. In the blurry memory that lingers in my mind thirty years later, he looks like the actor Shawn Wallace.
Once, he spent a whole session on the importance of prayer. The kind of prayer he was talking about is not the private conversation that you have with your god about what you’re grateful for and what you might need help with that most people may think of when they think of prayer. No, this was about spending time with God via the ritual of one Our Father and three Hail Marys. I mean, sure, if you wanted to throw in something like “God, so and so is sick and could really use your help” at the end, that was fine. But what Shawn Wallace-ish really wanted from us was a promise that every day of our lives, no matter what, we’d close our eyes, do the sign of the cross and recite one Our Father and three Hail Marys. That was it. That was all.
Un Padre Nuestro. Tres Ave Marias.
Being the eager-to-please (especially-when-it-came-to-teachers) child that I was, I did exactly as this man said. Every day, before I went to bed, I would close my eyes, do the sign of the cross and pray silently, to myself, one Our Father and three Hail Marys. It became such a ritual for me that I didn’t have to think much about the fact that I was doing it. I’d put my brain on auto-pilot as I got myself ready for bed, and the prayers hummed in my head like white noise.
Un Padre Nuestro. Tres Ave Marias.
I never deviated from this pattern except once, when I was maybe 12 years old and my dad went on a day-long fishing trip. He was supposed to have been home before dinner, but when he hadn’t returned at bed time, I did 10 Hail Marys instead of just three. He was back before I fell asleep. Imagine if I’d only done nine.
Much later, as a young adult, I made the conscious decision to stop saying my prayers, no longer eager to please every single authority figure in my life—and especially not the Catholic ones. So I stopped praying every night before I went to bed. At least, I tried. Apparently, though, when you do something for 15-odd years of your young life, it becomes a difficult habit to break. It was easy to walk away from the church. It hard to stop praying. The thing that I eventually came around to is that I like praying. As someone who has had trouble sleeping her whole life, this meditation-adjacent practice always helped calm me at the end of the day. It helped focus my brain energy on something outside of the stresses of the day and put me in the frame of mind to at least consider sleep. It wasn’t emotional, the way properly religious or spiritual people pray about specific things, but rather a mental massage that set me at ease. So I did away with the sign of the cross, but I went back to praying.
Un Padre Nuestro. Tres Ave Marias.
I still do it because it offers me comfort. Whether the worry is big or small, personal or global, I pray for a few minutes to feel better. When my kids are sick. When my job is frustrating. When my husband is in the middle of a particularly stressful work time. When I worry about the presidential election. When another black person dies that shouldn’t have. I don’t know that it does anything except calm me, but sometimes the calm is just enough to get me going again, to help me feel like everything will be OK, to get me to focus on doing something about the things that are wrong with the world that isn’t just praying.
I don’t kneel while praying, mainly because I don’t want people to know I am praying. Outwardly displays of faith have always bothered me. So have outwardly displays of patriotism. (I’ll come back to patriotism in a minute.) There’s nothing wrong with pride in what you believe, who you are or where you are from, but there’s a fine line between pride and self-congratulation. And in religion, there is a lot self-congratulation.
Remember “Tebowing”? That became a thing, I think, because people wanted to tell the relentlessly earnest former college football star/one-time Denver Bronco/possibly future New York Metropolitan/virgin, Tim Tebow, “We GET IT, dude. You’re Christian.” Whenever he kneeled down to pray, it felt less like he was wearing his faith on his sleeve and more like he was wearing it as a brand. That said, though, as someone for whom prayer is an important element of self-care, I’d be remiss if I didn’t empathize, on some level, with his need to do it so often, even if he was more public about it than I am. There’s also something about Tebow’s prayerful pose—down on one knee—that suggests that he approached prayer with humility, the very thing that, to me, separates pride from self-congratulation.
All of this is a long preamble to the point of this post: I am honestly puzzled by the furor over people choosing to kneel for the national anthem. I get it, I guess. But then, I don’t. Putting aside the very real issues that Colin Kaepernick and those who have followed his example are raising awareness about—the myriad and heartbreaking ways our justice system and other aspects of society have failed the black community—the method of protest is beyond reproach.
- It is non-violent. This is a fact.
- It puts no one at risk—not bystanders, not police officers, not other protesters. This is a fact.
- It is highly visible and, therefore, extremely effective. People are talking about it. This is a fact.
- The consequences are entirely on the person kneeling and no one else. This is a fact.
- And it suggests humility. This is my opinion.
I’m also of the opinion that patriotism is important, but it must be earned. It cannot be required. If you require it, it isn’t patriotism. Maybe you don’t agree, reader, but I don’t infer disrespect from kneeling. I infer humility. And I feel humbled by the stain of racism on our society. I also feel empathy for the mothers who have lost children—actual children—for no clear reason other than their blackness felt threatening to a white person in a police uniform. I feel outrage when police unions respond to a peaceful protest with threats that would endanger public safety. And I feel proud that the young people leading the #BlackLivesMatter movement have taken the totality of these tragedies as an opportunity for positive change. I hope that they succeed. I hope that I am not part of the problem. And I pray.