Gail Gallant is the author of The Changeling: A Memoir of My Death and Rebirth, My Haunted Childhood, and My Education in Sainthood and Sin.
As a child, I remember my siblings and I squinting in the Easter morning sun wearing our very best spring outfits, and piling into the family car to head off to St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church. Easter couldn’t hold a candle to Christmas for sheer mania, but it had its own sense of joy. Easter meant much more to me than the waxy, milk-chocolate moulds of rabbits and eggs lying in wait for our return from church.
That was when an all-powerful, all-loving God ruled the world. He was grey-haired and bearded and softly draped in winter white, the compassionate father of a billion children. He saw their tears and heard their cries. My mother’s included. She had lost a baby girl named Gail in a car accident, and when I was born the following year, she believed I was God’s answer to her prayers. I was her dead baby, brought back to life. And so I believed it, too. Then, as a young adult, I began the protracted and painful ordeal of losing my religion. In the process, I almost lost myself.
People lose their religion for so many reasons. Perhaps they become too clever or cynical. Or maybe too scientific or rational. Or simply too honest and disappointed. Eventually, the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving God who sometimes acts in the personal lives of some folks – but not others – just stopped making moral sense to me.
If you find that you can no longer believe in the God of your childhood, your whole religious tradition can become collateral damage. Losing all those trappings of your faith can leave you feeling even more bereft. What some people miss most is the sense of a community, the familiar faces, the subtle smiles and nods at church service and the bake sales. For others, it’s the hymns, the candles and statues, the rituals and sacraments and scripture.
The hardest part for me was not being able to pray. I could no longer pray for a favour, for a miracle, for a sign, for guidance, for a cure, for strength. Not for myself or for my loved ones or even for the planet. I missed being able to make that most private appeal directly to God, or in my Catholic case, to God, Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary or any of those specialist saints. Not only begging, pleading, “pretty-please” prayers for anything from small favours to life-saving rescue, but also prayers of gratitude.
I still find myself wanting to send a prayer, say a prayer or, everybody’s favourite, offer up “thoughts and prayers,” but it’s awkward now. If there is no God to pray to, praying feels dishonest, like wanting to have your cake and eat it, too.
But there is one territory of my religious past that I haven’t quite relinquished. I could survive losing God and my church, but I didn’t want to lose all that accompanying supernaturalism, or as some would call it, magical thinking. Who can blame me?
For instance, miracles. What’s not to love about a miracle? Who doesn’t want to experience the wonder of seeing the rules of gravity bent, of physics defied, of mathematics broken? Like feeding a crowd with only two loaves and five fishes. Who doesn’t want that magical cure that contradicts medical science? Is there anything as inspirational, as life-altering, as a miracle? It reassures the discouraged masses that there is still something unpredictable and unfathomable about life, even at its most bleak. We all hope for a miracle. I know I do.
As well, I like the idea of having a little supernatural input regarding life’s decisions. As a child, I used to look to the sky for signs and omens all the time. I still pay attention. Some decisions are simply too important to leave to mortal judgment, any more than to the toss of a coin, and guessing makes me nervous. There is something so appealing about a helpful hint, a nudge in the right direction or a little warning about what lies ahead.
The trouble is, when I was young, I lived in a world crowded with invisible people, not only God and Jesus and Mary and the saints, but a host of angels, too. And then of course there were the people you knew who had died and were now in heaven. It really adds up. On a bad day, these invisible persons could be looking down on you, shaking their heads disapprovingly. On a good day, they might be standing by you in the midst of some difficulty, offering invisible support. Either way, I was never alone. Now, those invisible people don’t exist for me any more. Well, with one exception. I still have a thing for the presence of the dead, the lingering souls of the dearly departed. The belief in ghosts is ancient and universal, so I’m in good company. I haven’t encountered a ghost face to face yet – but I’m always on the lookout.
Then there are all those magic charms that I can’t seem to manage without. I grew up surrounded by icons, statues, holy medals, rosary beads and scapulars, and it’s something I continue to indulge in, in my own way. Don’t even ask how many objects I discreetly carry around in my purse on an average day. (The old dog tag of my beloved Irish wolfhound, a Blessed Virgin Mary medal that belonged to my mother, my son’s baby teeth, to name only a few.) They all mean something to me, and I feel safer keeping them close.
I know I said I can no longer bring myself to pray, but there’s one exception there, too. You could say it’s my mantra. Of all the pantheon of Catholic characters, Mary is the one who still has a hold on me. Mostly in the form of that little prayer that I used to repeat some 50 times while saying the rosary. I recite the Hail Mary in my head in lieu of counting sheep on sleepless nights. It can calm me down when my stress or fear gets out of hand, especially if I slow down my breathing as I pray. It works well during airplane turbulence, too.
I wear these traces of my childhood faith like scar tissue, and they have a stubborn resiliency I’ve learned to appreciate. But maybe that’s because they’re older than Jesus. Prayer, after all, is primal. As ancient as human culture, it springs from poetry and meditation and dance. Even an atheist should be able to get away with occasional therapeutic recitation. And perhaps praying can sometimes have an effect that goes beyond therapy. Don’t ask me how or why, but it worked for my mother, didn’t it?