By Dana Gornall
Growing up Catholic, prayer was a big part of life.
Watching my grandmother kneel on the vinyl upholstered thin bench, that I often tried to use as a balance beam while passing time in church, she’d bow her head, a rosary entwined between her fingers and her lips would move in memorized mantra, Hail Mary Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee… In some ways it almost seemed mysterious, or magical—like something reserved for adults, even though we were sent to Cathechism around first grade.
I’d watch her put a couple of coins in a box, light a long wooden match and bring the flame to one of the many candles laid out in an alcove in front of a painted Mary. She’d murmur her wishes and smile.
Eventually I found my own prayers. At night I would lie awake still filled with energy from the day. Bedtime seemed unfair, hearing my parents still up and watching television. After lying awake and wishing I were Wonder Woman, or thinking about the day at school, I would settle on my list.
Please keep my grandparents healthy. My parents healthy. Please keep my stupid brother healthy. Please keep my friend Jennifer and her parents healthy. Please keep my friend Angela and her parents healthy. Please keep me healthy.
With each request I could see their faces: my grandparents and their thinning skin, their glasses that framed their faces, my stupid brother and all his annoying ways, my friends. I didn’t know at the time but I was practicing metta. While I didn’t have any candles, I did have a rosary tucked away somewhere in a drawer, but I just chose to lay in bed and read out my list from my head.
Sometimes the list would change. And over the years, the requests sometimes changed too. Please don’t let me fail Algebra. Please help me make the cheer team. Either way, it was a nightly ritual.
As I grew older I also grew more cynical. The smoke and mirrors faded and I saw that the church wasn’t so magical. Priests and nuns were humans and made human errors. People were not always good. Prayers began to feel like thin wishes and candles were just wax and rope and fire—nothing more.
I remember sitting in church with my husband and children on an Easter Sunday morning with many of the women in dresses and skirts and men in suits, ties or Target polo shirts. I remember my children fidgeting. I remember the growing invisible wall that had grown up around my marriage and the utter sinking loneliness I felt. I clearly remember glancing up at the stained glass windows that framed the perimeter of the church and gazing off into the images of saints and angels. And I remember noticing a tear that had fallen onto my brightly colored floral skirt.
Please let me be happy again. Please keep my children happy and healthy. Please shelter them from…everything.
Ironic that in some ways I have felt more atheist than ever Christian. Ironic that I have sat in women’s circles chanting prayers, that I have meditated on stacked couch cushions and repeating Om Mani Padme Hum over and over. Ironic that I identify somewhat Buddhist but also somewhat lost.
And then there were the nights when I felt I have failed as a parent—so many of those. The nights when my son chose to not come home for the night, no text no call. The nights when he let me down and I worried so, so much. The nights after the fights and the tears, the glares, the mean words directed at me. The nights after I grounded teenagers and then questioned if that was right or if it should have been a harsher punishment. The night after one child was in a car accident, and thankfully okay, but the car was totaled. There were those prayers.
Please help me make the right decision. Please let him/her be okay. Please keep them healthy. Please help them make the right decision. Please let us get through this alright and out the other side. Please shelter them from…everything.
I don’t know if God is real.
Everything inside my rational brain says no. I have argued the fact that there is no mythical being that is in control of anything and that religion was created to control large groups of people. And yet one day my yoga instructor told me that she knew God was real. She said she knew it for a fact.
I wavered, shook my head, considered coming back with an opposing side of how he was a created, imaginary being, but let it go. Truthfully I was envious of her firm understanding—envious of her complete belief. I’ve always walked the line of neutrality, maybe, maybe not, and not really fully picking a side. There is safety in neutrality.
And yet on sleepless nights which seem to be plenty lately, I lie awake, sometimes wishing I was Wonder Woman, or sometimes just thinking about the day, and I start my list—my prayer.
Please let my children be healthy. Please let my children’s friends be healthy and their parents. Please let my parents be healthy. Please let my stupid brothers be healthy. Please let my boyfriend be healthy and his parents and his children. Please keep me healthy so I can see grandchildren and please let them be healthy. Please shelter them all from…everything.
And once in awhile…Om Mani Padme Hum.
I don’t know if anyone hears.
I don’t know if there is anything that comes from it or whether it means anything. I don’t know if it is just me and the silent, darkened room with my softly breathing dog at the foot of the bed, whispering thin wishes to a universe filled with chaos or an imaginary being.
I repeat my mantra—my prayer—and hold out for a little hope.
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