by Catherine Roberts
Catherine is serving this year as associate producer at Interfaith Voices, a public radio show about religion.
Every night before I go to sleep, as my head hits the pillow, I think, Dear God…
For most of my life, I followed that thought with a prayer. Usually I would try dutifully to pray as I was taught in Catholic elementary school, incorporating praise, thanksgiving, repentance and petition.
In middle school and high school, most of my prayers were petitions: “Dear God, Please let me make friends at my new school.” “Dear God, Please let me get into a good college.” “Dear God, Please don’t let my boyfriend break up with me.”
In college, I still offered plenty of petitions (“Please make me a nicer person.” “Please let me not fail differential equations.” “Please let me wake up tomorrow and find my term paper miraculously finished.”). But I also started asking a lot of “why” and “how” questions: “Why can’t I find fulfilling friendships inside the Catholic student community?” “How can you expect me to adhere to what the Church says a woman should be?” “How can you be a loving God and still condemn some of the people you created?”
Sometimes I wouldn’t bother to get past the “Dear God.” Sometimes I would be too tired from studying or partying or putting together that week’s newspaper, and I’d just fall asleep instead.
Three quarters of the way through my Loretto Volunteer year, I never get past the “Dear God.” My head says it out of muscle memory before the rest of my brain catches up.
The reason for this is both the biggest gift and the biggest challenge this program has offered me.
Experiencing the Loretto community has allowed me – and it feels like, finally – to embrace those Whys and Hows. I have finally allowed myself to let go of the assumptions underlying those questions: That my most fulfilling relationships should be within the conservative Church community. That God expects what the Church hierarchy expects of me as a woman. That God condemns.
But letting go of those (and many, many more) assumptions for me also means letting go of everything I told myself that God is. And that includes a heavenly father figure who hears my request for an A in DiffEq and acts upon it (even presumably in a way I don’t understand). Once that is gone, what is left? Certainly nothing to which it makes sense to say prayers of praise, thanksgiving, repentance or petition.
A recent guest on Interfaith Voices described himself as an “Apathist.” He doesn’t know whether God exists, but more importantly, he doesn’t particularly care. The question of God’s existence doesn’t strike him as an interesting problem.
I like this idea. For this guest, an evolutionary biologist, an interesting problem is how to explain moral behaviors observable in some animals. For me, an interesting problem is how to ensure all members of our society are able to live with dignity. Facing that kind of challenge, sometimes – often – I don’t particularly care whether God exists, or what God’s nature is. It’s not a question I suspect that any human has the capacity to answer conclusively, and especially not for anyone but themselves.
So when my head automatically says Dear God before I go to sleep, I stop myself, because it seems laughable to continue that sentence before something so incomprehensible, something I’m not even sure I believe is there.
Frankly, all of this appeals to my own propensity for cynicism. And it’s refreshing to allow myself to dwell for a while in that headspace.
I do hope that my sense of spirituality will eventually evolve beyond cynicism. With every interview we conduct on the show, I glimpse another person’s perspective on God or understanding of the divine. It’s helping me to rebuild my own spiritual life one tiny piece at a time.
And as scary as it is to lose the handholding God who frowns if I miss church and nods approvingly when I say a prayer nine days in a row, it also feels, somehow, right.
It feels like growing up.
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.