We lived on the second floor of an old house full of people. The family below us was led by a powerful matriarch. We all called her Miss Lucy. She had a heavy body and uncooperative legs, which made her movements labored but meaningful. When she was motivated enough to stand up, you knew that she meant something. There was a constant bustle of her children, the children of her children, and the children of others left in her care. Silence was impossible. Even when most of us were settling into sleep, the floorboards creaked mysterious sighs. The house seemed to always be readjusting itself, perhaps preparing for the next activity. I was around seven years old. I listened to the sounds of the house and imagined them into the voice of God, dutifully responding to my prayers.
My mother told me that in the Bible, Joseph heard the voice of God as a child. I found it remarkable how vocal God seemed to be in the scriptures. I was certain that my mother would be proud of me if I was one of the rare humans of the 20th century to whom God spoke directly. I knelt before my bedroom closet, dutifully reciting prayers and waiting for a sign. I hoped that the murmurs of that house would somehow gather and blend into a sacred voice.
Back then, I had no doubts about prayer. Prayer was the channel, as legitimate as a radio or television station, for projecting our little human hopes and dreams to the divine. My grandmother prayed habitually, before bed every night and at noon, in between the Price is Right and the CBS soap operas. She told me that that, because I was a child, my prayers were particularly potent. I had an express line to God's hear. I could skip the hold music. This made me feel powerful. I used that power to get things that I wanted. Most memorably, I stopped my grandmother's smoking habit by insisting that she repeat my prayer to God pledging never to smoke again. She claimed that cigarettes subsequently made her feel sick. I basked in triumph.
Only years later, during puberty, did I come to question prayer. Most of this change stemmed from the messages about sex and gender that I was receiving, which didn't jibe with my own growing curiosity and desire for freedom. It was around that time that my mother, grief-stricken from the sudden death of her brother, joined a very strict and incredibly small storefront Pentecostal Holiness church in Jamaica, Queens, which forbade everything from premarital sex to makeup and nail polish. This church presented a far more extreme and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible than the more joyful Southern Baptist tradition from my grandmother that I had known and was baptized into. Often I was one of the only young people at my mother's church. In fact, many in the congregation was a good 50 to 60 years older than me.
What is prayer in its purest form after all but love projected?
I watched unmarried congregation members pray away their urges for sex. Visitors would come and tell us about the effectiveness of camps where they were sent to entreaty God to make them stop being gay. Many things I seemed interested in, like music and art, were condemned as “worldly.” I felt cloistered away from life among people grimly focused on the passageway to death. Meanwhile, I was reading books about womens rights and beginning to think of myself as an activist. I was not only unimpressed with my mother's new faith, I was turned off from Christianity and, consequently the act of public prayer. Later, in college, I developed a personal meditation practice but I no longer felt any compulsion to join others in prayer or call myself a Christian. I wavered between feeling agnostic and ambiguously spiritual.
As I grow older and face more life-changing experiences, I find myself again in the presence of prayer. And with the unflinching determination to channel energy into anything hopeful, I have become far less cynical. When faced with inexplicable and dire adversity, who can reject any positive force that might put a wedge in the misery. What is prayer in its purest form after all but love projected? Why should I not find my own way, however secular, to contribute to a collective appeal for cosmic mercy?
Last year was a time of brutal reminders of mortality. Within a few months, there was a friend around my age who developed an inexplicable brain infection and fell into a coma; a tearful memorial service for a very beautiful but tragically ill baby girl born to one of my closest friends; a contemplative funeral for my mother's 98-year-old mentor from that same storefront Pentecostal Holiness church; and a sudden health crisis that threatened the life of my 34-year-old first cousin.