Last time I shared a prayer that I printed out for a certain someone who doesn’t want me to write about her here. I hope it helps her. You might think sharing that was an odd thing for an atheist to write about, but I don’t. I think it opens the door for me to share what prayer meant to me when I grew up.
First of all, excuse the simplistic format and words… I came up with this when I was around eight or nine years old. This was more or less my standard prayer every night:
Bless Mommy, Daddy, Christopher,
Toby, Honey, Cheeky and Chirpy,
And me, if that’s the way it should be.
Thank you for [this changed every day]
Please can I [this changed every day]
There’s one thing that jumps out at me from those words: I did not believe I deserved to be blessed. And that’s a problem. (But that’s what Christianity teaches. We are born in sin and shame and are unworthy. That’s precisely what makes Christian beliefs harmful and that’s why so many humanists call Christian indoctrination a kind of child abuse.) My format was based on a book I’d heard someone read aloud at school – the name long since forgotten… In the book, a boy prayed in this format where he blessed everybody and left himself for last. Something like, “And lastly, bless little old me”. But I changed it and added the bit about not deserving to be blessed. Also I changed the words slightly over the years, but those are the ones I remember.
Here’s what I take out of this:
- If you look at the prayer I printed for my partner, her Christianity must be quite different to my former beliefs. I would never have considered reading a ready-made generic prayer and inserting the subject I wanted in it, like a template. Never. Everything always had to be in my own words, and I’ve been comfortable expressing them in writing since I was seven years old. It would not feel sincere to read out someone else’s words.
- I never did get my head around praying to Jesus, let alone infant Jesus.
- Toby was the family cat. He was a kitten born to a cat we had when I was five years old and he died when I was sixteen. In fact, I took the day off school because he wasn’t well, and my father was meant to come take him to the vet, but he died, in my hands, before that could happen. Honey was a golden Labrador, obtained from a school friend’s parents who emigrated when I was eight years old. Cheeky and Chirpy were budgies, and I don’t remember exactly what year they lived, but I am guessing at around my ninth year.
- Cheeky and Chirpy were the first pets I remember dying. (Cats like Toby’s mother had died before then, but those don’t register as memories for me. Maybe I hadn’t gotten my head around death and mortality until then.) I changed the words of the prayer, but their names stuck in my head because I’d been saying it that way for over a year. Thereafter changing the names in each prayer required conscious effort.
My prayer wasn’t just a religious thing. It was my link to my childhood. It kept those pets alive in my heart and mind. Also, this is a reminder of something else… Christopher became Chris sometime in high school, because other people called him that. If it had been me, and people called me Jay instead of Jerome, the name would not have stuck. My brother was always different to me in certain way related to peer pressure and outside influences. There was a phase where he went to someone else’s church and picked up their ideas, which upset my mother. I, on the other hand, even used her religious belief as an excuse (when I was 12 years old) to avoid going on a school outing to other churches. In truth, I would not have been influenced by other churches. More likely I would have rejected them all sooner. I think I knew that deep down. Catholicism, and prayer, had sentimental value to me. They kept me childlike and helped me not to forget my love for lost pets, and kept Chris as Christopher in my mind.
I didn’t want to let go of my childhood. I didn’t want to grow up. But also, I felt guilty if I didn’t pray at night. Now this might not make sense, but I continued to pray for several years after I stopped believing in god. It’s hard to explain, but the guilt kept me from being able to stop, even if it meant that absurdly I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in. Just like, for whatever unknown psychological reason, it took me over ten years to begin thinking of my brother as Chris, it took even longer for me to let go of prayer.
Maybe it isn’t only about indoctrination and guilt, but also about my own reluctance to change, but I found it especially difficult to let go of prayer. It was the most difficult part of my personal journey into atheism.
My brother is my only link to those days now, since all those pets are long gone and both parents too. Funny how it works… my changes and my journey through the years feel natural to me, so I still feel like the same person – I am the same Jerome who was the child who remembers all these things as an adult. But it’s different now and I don’t perceive others as being the same. My brain has compartmentalized Chris and Christopher almost as if they are two different people. Christopher is my baby brother, the one I would lay down my life protecting. Chris is… someone else. It’s really difficult to explain, but at least we are closer now than we were a few years ago, since I (rightfully) lost his trust in my years of addiction. And then got it back, but it took some time longer than I expected. Maybe that’s a subject for another day… when we stop using drugs, we expect too much of those who know us, we expect them to know that we have changed long before there is any way they can possibly know.