Missives to an Imaginary Dad, or, What Is Prayer without Belief?

by Anne Moore

When I was twenty-two, I quit drinking and, as instructed by the community I found who seemed to know something about that process, began trying to cultivate some kind of spiritual life. This was hard at first, since I had the hostility to organized religion that is the natural consequence of majoring in Anthropology and unofficially minoring in Women’s Studies. In other words, I’d spent a lot of time thinking very carefully about the ways that organized religion had been fucking up the world for what seemed like forever, and how it showed no sign of stopping anytime soon.

But the inner truth was darker, at least for me. I said I didn’t believe in God when I was in college because only idiots and losers would, right? But at the same time, I was terrified of an idea I’d secretly carried around since I was a kid, that God was the scariest Sky Dad of all time, just biding his time until he could dole out my long-deserved punishment for being too weird, too fat, too thirsty, too much. There was plenty of rhetoric to assist me in that cause floating around in the mid-nineties, especially as the queer movement lurched toward the mainstream. According to talk radio, every thunderstorm was a sign of His Wrath at my dirty lesbianism, and as the months and days counted down toward the millennium, I braced myself for something truly awful.

So when I got sober and started attempting to get my faith to decamp from my unconscious into my conscious mind, that faith was still steeped in a crazy set of ideas about causality. Instead of everything I saw being evidence of how I was in for it once Sky Dad got home, everything was instead proof of Sky Dad’s benevolence. I’d be having a terrible day, torn between curling up under the bed and putting my head in the oven and, miraculously, I’d run into someone I knew from meetings. In a town of thirty thousand people, when I couldn’t leave my house without running into someone I knew. Miracles, everywhere, I’m telling you! Look at what the Lord hath brought unto me!

I didn’t necessarily feel closer to God (whom I was still pretty afraid of), but I did feel like I was part of AA. In the Victorian era, the notion of “muscular Christianity” was really popular (and it still has its poster children—Tim Tebow, Eric Taylor, etc.), and my relationship to prayer felt like that: a sign of how hard-core my addiction had been, how I needed prayer to survive. I would kneel on public bathroom floors in early recovery, feeling that my willingness to expose myself to the muck must be proof of my seriousness. I still find bathrooms an ideal place to pray: you’re on your own, needing something to think about, and poop is the stuff of mortality, after all, reminding us of our own animal nature and tendency toward decay.

The ongoing process of drying out eventually tempered my zealotry, but the habit I carried with me from those first brutal months of my recovery was constant prayer. It turns out that prayer works as a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or at least it does for me. Every time I feel my mind making its way toward one of its unfriendlier byways, I can start reciting all the prayers I’ve memorized, one after another. The Third Step Prayer, the Seventh Step Prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis, the steps themselves, the Serenity Prayer. If I kept it up, eventually my mind would turn in another direction, less focused (at least for a few minutes) on that moment ten years ago when I did something really embarrassing.

Things went on like this for about six years, and my life slowly improved. Until it didn’t. I’d first shown signs of having ulcerative colitis when I was seventeen, but had kept my terrifying bloody diarrhea as a secret—even, on some level, from myself. When I passed out in the shower one morning, it never even occurred to me to tell my doctor that I’d been bleeding for months. The bleeding felt like it was happening to someone else—the real me was just reaping the benefits of the lowest-effort weight loss plan in history. When I went to college, I started smoking a pack a day and my symptoms disappeared. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that smoking was good for my health, but quitting turned out to be the thing that nearly killed me.

All told, I was in the hospital for about six weeks in the summer of 2005. Two weeks of ever more Herculean efforts to stave off my disease through medicine, two weeks of recovery from surgery and detoxification from that vast pharmaceutical panoply, and then another two weeks in after I got an infection on the site of the surgery. One of the many unexpected and weird things about being hospitalized is how much praying there is. I’ve come to be unsurprised by unsolicited prayers from well-meaning nurses/phlebotomists/what-have-you, but this ecclesiastical energy came from much more unexpected places as well. My hard-left girlfriend at the time, for instance, had a friend in South Africa who asked her church to say a Mass for me.

After my surgery, as I was detoxing from the high-dose steroids they’d been using to treat my colitis, I drifted further and further from reality. When I was first in the hospital, I re-read Pride and Prejudice, feeling comforted by its familiarity and a little smug regarding the Height of my Tastes. But the longer I was there, the less able I became to engage with anything outside the labyrinth of my own anxiety. I convinced myself that I wanted to read The Count of Monte Cristo, but I couldn’t make it past the first few pages. The book just sat on the table next to my bed, taunting me as I lost more and more of my ability to engage with the world. By the time I’d been in the hospital for three weeks, I couldn’t read the clock on the wall anymore, nor could I keep hold of my train of thought for long enough to have a coherent conversation. I was physically healing at a great rate, but my mind was getting progressively worse. Every day, the doctor would give me the same dementia test, and every day I’d fail it and presumably lose my chance to go home. “What month and year is it? I’m going to give you three words to remember: pencil, globe, clock. Spell ‘world’ backwards. Can you tell me the three words?” I could get two, but left the hospital without being able to name the third word.

When things were at their nadir (my PICC line had gotten infected and I had spiked a fever overnight), my mother went to the hospital chapel and prayed to the Virgin Mary, and the next day my condition began to improve. My mom has always been religious, but this was her conversion experience–her house is now covered in angels and little shrines, and she maintains that I was Saved.

For me, the moment worked in the opposite way, though. When faced with what was being described to me as the Miracle of my recovery, all I could think of was the people all around me in the hospital who had received no such miracle. They had people praying for them, too–why would God hear my prayers but not theirs? I couldn’t buy it anymore. It wasn’t that I felt I’d been abandoned by Sky Dad–after all, I’d been saved, and I even made it back to lucidity and was able to enter graduate school the following fall. But when I’d gotten to the end of the line, it was clear to me that the resources I needed to muster were within myself.

My actual survival seemed a lucky fluke of timing–I’d made it to the hospital in time, and was in the care of highly skilled doctors who were able to successfully stitch me up. Making it back to myself was another story entirely. At some point in my hallucinations, I became fixated on the idea that every task or decision before me offered me a kind of test: if I offered my finger up in the right way for the nurse to check my temperature and O2 count, I’d pass, but otherwise I’d fail, and I never knew what the right way was. After about a day of this, I just started opting out of all the “tests,” refusing to do anything because I already knew I’d fail this latest measure of my worth. After a few days (I think–the timing of the whole thing is still pretty fuzzy), I had a dream where the two nurses who were trying to teach me how to care for my stoma and colostomy bag were there, assuring me that there were no tests–that I’d always already been perfectly myself, and that this was all I needed to be.

I know this sounds like a conversion experience (in my dream, the nurses were even all in white), and I suppose it is, of a kind. But what I was being converted to was someone who no longer believed that she had to suffer to prove to her Sky Dad that she deserved to be saved. On the other side of real suffering, it became clear that all my tests of faith were just fabricated opportunities for me to come up short. I didn’t have to prove to anyone that I deserved to get well, or even apologize for getting sick, I just needed to pay attention to the world and people around me.

And yet, while I no longer give credence to the comforting ideas that “everything happens for a reason” or that there’s some Great Consciousness presiding over all my decisions, I still pray, and do it consistently.

But why, really? I know it works as a way to crowbar my thoughts out of well-worn and damaging tracks. “Remember that thing you did in the tenth grade when you looked like a total idiot and made someone else feel awful all in one shot? Jackass. I want you to take the next ten minutes and think about what you’ve done–feel free to make connections to other moral lapses while you’re at it.” Going through my prayer litany is a reliable way to shift my attention away from that, if only for a moment.

I have always thought that the whole point of the spiritual element of AA is as a kind of anodyne to the pathological self-centeredness of the addict. More than other people, addicts need something to put at the center of our thinking–something beyond our own specialness, be it good or bad. A higher power comes to fill that space. Since my illness, my definition of my higher power has shifted to AA itself–I don’t think there’s any Greater Consciousness or Grand Design holding us all together, beyond the structure of the steps and the group of people who have gathered around it. Another way to put this is that it’s the language itself that makes the whole endeavor work. Our responses or interpretations shift, but we share a connection to the central texts, which gives us a common framework through which we understand our experiences.

Of course it’s easy in AA, where, besides the irritating 1930s folksiness of the style and intermittent sexism, I don’t find much to object to in the language. It’s another story entirely in the Christian tradition in which I was raised. I’ve been back to church a few times as an adult, and I always have a similar experience, one in which I’m simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the content of the service. Since I’m almost always going with my parents, the churches are usually in Dallas, so the more problematic elements of Christianity become impossible to ignore. Every Bible verse or prayer that gets read feels like it offers a choice: you can see threads of the Radical Jesuit Priest version of Christianity, where you emphasize nonviolence and charity and social justice, while at the same time the seeds of the George W. Bush version of Christianity and its emphasis on saving people through getting them to see the One True Path is equally present in every word. The act of interpretation itself is the challenge that the language sets before me–am I going to pick up the thread that leads me to connect with other people across difference, or the one that isolates me within a small group?

W himself is a member of the church my parents attended until very recently. I’ve never seen him there, but his smug ghost serves as a stern reminder of the consequences of a specific kind of Christianity, and has kept me from being able to connect with that tradition. But I think the interpretive challenge that Christianity (and all organized religion) offers is central to how and why prayer works for me, even though I don’t think there’s anyone on the other end of the line. When I step into the form of an established prayer (let’s say the Prayer of St. Francis), it shifts my attention, but I also have to make a choice as to where my attention gets shifted. Here’s the text of the prayer as it’s reprinted in the chapter on AA’s eleventh step, for reference:

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace
That where there is hatred, I may bring love
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness
That where there is error, I may bring truth
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith
That where there is despair, I may bring hope
That where there are shadows, I may bring light,
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted,
To understand than to be understood
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.

So of course I’m put off by the final line, which it seems like the whole prayer is building toward—I can’t even find a metaphorical stand-in for “eternal life” that makes much sense to me, much less gives me any kind of existential comfort. But I love the rhythm of the prayer and the way I can time it with my breathing, and I love how in doing so I shift my attention away from the detritus of my daily life toward the world at large and my place in it. And the act of saying the words to myself is in itself enough to remind me that I’m not alone in the world. Not in the sense that I’m talking to someone, but in the fact that I’m saying words that have been said before, taking an action that’s been taken before, among a potentially endless but always anonymous group of fellow fuckups trying to mend their relationship to the world.

Throughout my dementia at the hospital, my tow line to reality had been the language of AA. My friends brought meetings to my hospital room throughout my time there, and even when I was too out of it to be able to form coherent thoughts in response to the meeting topics (which I remember being weirdly dull–“people pleasing” or “staying in the moment”), I could recite the steps to kick off the meeting, and still knew the words to the third step prayer. My sponsor told me later that this fact deepened her faith in AA like nothing before had done. That even when I was so out to lunch that I was hardly recognizable as myself anymore, I still remained grounded in the central ideas of AA.

The challenge of prayer as someone who doesn’t believe in God is the same for me as the challenge of reading: seeing my incommensurable difference from and distance from the rest of the world even as I’m drawn closer to that world by my recognition of the beauty in it. What I mean is this: part of the joy of reading is the singularity of my experience of a text—when I am moved by a piece of literature, it’s because I recognize something in it, and that moment of recognition is uniquely mine. I can (usually) trust that another reader will take the same basic meaning from the text that I have, but the extra piece, the part that makes it special and shiny (or awful), is all mine. But my challenge as a reader is to keep going, to take the text seriously on its own terms and see what different kinds of beauty or challenges might be there, even if they don’t match my taste, even if they exist alongside things I find distasteful or even destructive. To know that it’s possible for something to be good and bad at the same time, in every sense of the word.

The best example I can think of this came when I went to the weirdest Easter service of my whole life this year with my parents. As I mentioned, they live in Dallas, and they’ve recently switched back to an Episcopal church, but not the High Church of my youth, with its robes and uncomfortable pews and imposing stained glass scenes. While the language of the service is still High Church, the aesthetic is all Southern Megachurch, from the office chairs with optional kneeling cushion to the Johnny-Cash-meets-Journey house band and the television-ready priest with his affable chatter to the giant screens that project the text of the Book of Common Prayer, complete with Christian Rock clip art in the background. At the service, all my standard feelings of alienation were amped up to 11, and when the off-center Helvetica topic of the sermon appeared on the screen as “Are you a believer?” I wanted to raise my hand, give a quick “no,” and hit the road.

I followed along, but mostly just out of habit and good manners, looking for the pause when I could stand up and go get my daughter out of the church’s day care. When I got to the door, they were saying the Rite of Penitence, which is the bit I waited for every week when I went to church as a teenager—you list all the different ways you’ve fallen short in the eyes of God, and then you’re granted blanket forgiveness. As soon as it started, I stood transfixed in the doorway, reading off the giant screen along with all the other penitent megachurchers, reaching back in time to the girl I was, the one who was so convinced that she had “sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what she had done and by what she had left undone.” As I follow the form of the ritual, it’s an opportunity to take my former self seriously, and on her own terms, offering her love and hopefully some kind of relief.

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