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November 7, 2023

The religion of stillness

When I was a kid, my family went to a Baptist Ukrainian church on Parr Street in Winnipeg every Sunday. Like many kids taken (dragged) to church, my experiences there were mixed. On the one hand I struggled to get my young mind around the overwhelming concepts of sin and damnation and being pure of heart. On the other, I found comfort in the way the old ladies smiled at me and complimented me on my dress, the dusty-ancient smell of the carpet, the meatballs at the potlucks after service.

I always found comfort in prayer. As a little kid, it made sense to me to ask some other, bigger, wiser being for the things I needed. I would squeeze my eyes shut and pray as hard as I could when we drove through whiteout blizzards, or when my dad lost his job. It seemed that the act itself was the important part. I didn’t really have an idea of what I was praying to.

When I got a little older, I became frustrated with the lack of answers in Sunday school. Why would a loving God put us on earth, where we would obviously mess up constantly, just to pray for forgiveness? God was obviously a narcissist. I stopped going and donated my bible (it had a cool funky cover because church could be fun!).

Of all the things on my 2023 bingo card, praying and church were the last things I would have guessed for myself. After all, religion is responsible for the most terrible things in this world, and — I didn’t like to say this part out loud — people who believe in God seem just a little bit out of the loop. How can you believe in something so hokey when there are so many other, more reputable things to put your faith in?

I promise this is not a declaration that I’ve converted to Christianity or something like that.

What I’ve realized is that whatever I want to call it, this past year has made it imperative for me to believe in something bigger and better than me. I’ve spent my entire life feeling as though the weight of my life is on my shoulders, and when I look back, I realize how untrue that is. I’ve never been able to control a single outcome, and things have only backfired when I tried. The things that have happened in my life over the past two years have forced me to take a seat, and to surrender. But to what? I’ve been trying to understand.

A few months ago, I went to an Anglican service in a beautiful cathedral, which included a lot of singing and scripted prayers that I couldn’t bring myself to say. It seemed blasphemous to try them out if I didn’t believe. I was hoping to feel blessed, or seen, or comforted. Instead, I felt incredibly sleepy and went home and got stoned.

This past week I wandered into a Unitarian service on my way home. The sandwich board on the sidewalk said that the service began at 11, and it was 11:08. When I walked in, I found a room full of people whose median age was about 60. I was offered a cup of coffee, and a woman explained what Unitarianism is. I listened with the interest of an ethnographer, as if I would take my notes back to my office and stack them on a mahogany desk.

The thing I was most interested in was the topic of the week: suffering. That’s what I told the friendly Unitarians.

“Seems like a topic I should understand better,” I said with a rueful kind of laugh. Everyone nodded like they understood what I meant.

There was a forum, and everyone sat in a circle and told stories and asked questions. I hoped that I wouldn’t be asked to say anything, but mentally tried to prepare some talking points just in case. Suffering, oh yeah, plenty to say about that. Suffering is my middle name. I wasn’t asked to speak.

Everyone in that room had obviously been through unimaginable things: losing children, losing spouses, losing homes. One woman described her experience with an autoimmune disease that left her paralyzed for an entire eight months, after just having given birth to her first child. It had happened when she was 34, she explained. She hadn’t known how long it would last. The neurologist told her it could be years. But amazingly, she saw it as a blessing.

“It gave me so much time to think,” she said. “About my life, my ideals, what I really cared about. And 34 is a good age to do that.”

I fought not to cry openly in front of these lovely strangers. It would seem that 31 is probably also a good age to stop and think about everything, I thought, instantaneously gathering up her experiences and turning it into something that could apply to me. Very on brand.

I have always had a hard time with sitting still. I just want to know what to do, because then I will go and do it. Doing is the easy part. To trust in not doing means to trust in something much bigger than myself. I haven’t been able to reconcile it any other way. I’ve been praying again.

In the past, doing for the sake of doing has set me back.

There are plenty of ways I could keep myself busy and trick my brain into thinking that I’m making headway. I’ve done it before. Losing interest in my journalism job, I did the always-commendable thing of going back to school. Burdened by the emptiness of my days after a break-up, I jumped onto dating apps far too soon. I took jobs that I would inevitably have to quit or get fired from. I moved into apartments that made life way harder than it had to be.

I’ve been running, and I’m out of breath. I’m looking for places to sit, whether they are cathedrals or rec centers with a cup of coffee in my hand or my own couch with Abraham Hicks playing on YouTube. I think a lot of people that I know are tired too. We all seem to be working really hard at the things we want, or at least at filling our time. When presented with a seemingly impenetrable block in the way of all the thing we want, we feel punished and powerless.

If your entire life is on the other side of that wall, then isn’t this a good time to pause and think about everything? Not just for a minute, but for a good long while. Isn’t 25, 33, 41, and 67 a great age to be forced to stop and be still?

It’s all coming together for us. I think we can just go ahead and believe that. We just have to be still for a little while.

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