That first week I was like a Roald Dahl principal on the lookout for religious icons, phrases, and other clutter in my life as if they were contraband. Saying things like “Oh, my God” and “holy—” became as ill advised as cursing had once been. I even at one point attempted to introduce “god damn it” into my vocabulary, trying to break the phrase of any power over me and put it on the same level as “mother fucker” or “son of a bitch”—harmless and yet deliciously horrid. When it didn’t take, I told myself maybe it was just a bit too early. After all, I’d been taught not to say that my entire life, it was a hard habit to break. I’d gradually ease into it, like icy cold water.
Any sort of prayer was also now obsolete. Why pray to Something that wasn’t there? I could talk to myself all I wanted without it doing any good, no reason to pretend Anyone else was listening. Out the window went the half-hearted habit to at least thank God for living through the day as I fell asleep at night. It wasn’t a conversation or even a plea, it was a rote register to Whatever would pay attention, a notice that life was still imperfect and things still weren’t going well.
It was strange to find how many corners even the rote registers had crept into, though. For as long as I can remember, I’ve talked to myself. Not, I’m fairly sure, because I’m insane, but rather because I’m better at solving problems when I can work them out through brainstorming out loud. It has a good portion of my family worried about my mental health, but there it is. When I’m in trouble, such conversations naturally tended to turn into prayer, beseeching God to help me work something out. It was a very lonely day indeed when I was talking and suddenly realized that I had to stop myself from addressing God. It was as if I’d hung up on my best friend.
I tried not to think too hard on the implications of being dismayed by that.
When I drove back to my mother’s house from college the first Saturday of Lent, I found myself throwing out a quick prayer for a safe drive. What was I doing? If something happened to me, something happened to me. It would be my fault for not paying attention or the other guy’s fault for not knowing how to drive. There was nothing supernatural about that.
And tests? If I didn’t study for them, I didn’t do well. It was as simple as one and one being two; where on earth had I picked up this habit of praying for an A? Besides, wasn’t that kind of cheating, to invoke some all-powerful Being for a simple geology exam? It was time to stand on my own two feet—they were the only real things, the only things I could rely on, anyway.
I remember one instance, about two weeks into Lent, when I lost my college ID card. I was hunting around my room for it and automatically offered the beginnings of a prayer for God to help me find it. I had done this thousands of times before, and whether it was God or sheer luck, I usually found what I was looking for. (Usually.) Here, though, I forcibly reminded myself of my eradication of God. How could I invoke Him as a supernatural lost & found if I was busy refusing to acknowledge His presence?
I mentioned at one point in a phone call with my mother that I was having trouble finding my card; she offered the suggestion that I pray to Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost items. She gave me a catchy little phrase to utter; “Tony Tony, come around/something’s lost and can’t be found”. Try it, she urged me, it works—even my atheist sister got it to work. After a week of hemhawing about whether or not to invoke the celestial dead in order to be able to eat, I gave in. Whether through my lack of faith or whatever, all I ever found was a lost highlighter. Now I was left with an even bigger dilemma; I had broken my Lenten promise. I knew all the penances for breaking a Lenten promise, the prayers, the Hail Marys, the Our Fathers, asking for forgiveness. But in this new Godless world, how on earth was I supposed to do penance? All of the normal routes would go as much against my practice as the original “sin” I had committed. It seemed ludicrous that I would care, but I was taking this seriously. How could one reprimand oneself for going back to God when the penalties were going back to God?
A few days after my attempt to contact St. Tony, I went to dinner with several of my (Christian) friends. Somehow or other, my newfound lack of religion came up. I hadn’t yet told them, so they were fairly confused; they’d taken my cultural Christianity as faith like theirs. My friend Seamus, though, took it in stride. He, I knew, I would have some of the most trouble with, as we had had long discussions about religion and God and such before (surprise surprise, he’s a pastor now).
“Are you going to chastise me now for being a heretic?” I asked him.
“Nope. I’ll just be here when you get around to asking questions.”
How irritating. “I already know all the answers, Seamus. I grew up in the church,remember?”
He wouldn’t bite. He just kept that smug look of wisdom on his face, as if he knew that at some point I would give in and come back to the fold. I hated him for it momentarily, because there was absolutely no malice or arrogance in it; it was rather a sort of love for the wandering and lost sheep I was to him.
My friend Charity was of no more help. Someone had just made a joke about all of us Christians sitting around and I protested, “But I’m not a Christian.”
“You don’t fool me,” Charity said over the rim of her Coke glass.
To be continued…