Last night I came to a conclusion about prayer and my own spirituality that I hadn’t previously reached. First, some background:
I’ve always known that praying aloud makes me anxious, but I never thought about it beyond acknowledging my shyness. Ever since puberty I’ve dealt with self-image issues and a crippling fear of doing things where people could notice me. Part of the fear came as a result of hating it when I made mistakes in front of people – I wanted to do and say things perfectly so that I didn’t look silly or stupid. Part of the fear stemmed from how I uncomfortable I was in my own skin due to hormonal imbalances that went un-diagnosed for years (that’s my way of saying I was unpleasantly plump and had trouble with acne). And then, you throw in my religious background of Christian fundamentalism, complete with patriarchal teachings and a constant demand for holy perfection. From family devotions to school to prayer meetings, the demand for praying aloud was pretty frequent. I very quickly came to the conclusion that there was little to be accomplished, spiritually, through praying aloud in those situations. Some prayers were genuine and perhaps powerful, but often it seemed that praying aloud was just another way to show how Christian you were. The young people were particularly guilty of this, with some teens even having a special voice they switched to whenever they started talking about spiritual things or were praying aloud (which I found sickening).
So… praying aloud really wasn’t my thing. Perhaps the most bizarre and anxiety-inducing reason was a thought I heard taught in church from the time I was a small child: be careful what you say aloud, because Satan and his devils might be listening. For whatever reason, this thought terrified me. The idea seemed to be that, if you spoke aloud about your struggles, Satan would hear and then know how to better target you with temptation and attacks. After internalizing that teaching and all the ramifications that went with it, I developed anxiety over the thought of speaking anything aloud that might help Satan and hurt me/the cause of Christ. I’m not sure what the Biblical basis for this misguided teaching was… but it did serious damage to my mind as a child.
Now we jump to the here and now, with me relearning how to approach prayer. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Paganism is all about speaking things aloud. Why? Because saying something out loud makes it more powerful than simply thinking it silently in your head. Making a statement where it can be heard is taking a risk, because once it’s been heard it’s harder for you to back out of what you said. Make a statement where only you and the Divine can hear it, and both your body and the Divine knows and you will feel more obligated to stand by what you said. Spoken affirmations during meditation helped me realize this, and also were the gateway to a few spiritual experiences. Affirmations required me to set aside my anxiety and choose to speak my thoughts and what I wanted/needed to hear/say – it was very empowering. I have yet to participate in a group ritual, but I can imagine that speaking things aloud in the company of others requires even greater courage but produces equally greater results. When I pray in my own home, around my husband and step-son, I find myself riddles with doubt and worries about how I sound. Some of that harks back to the factors from my past that I’ve already described; some of that is due to the newness of praying as a non-Christian and wondering if I’m going about it correctly. Then, there’s the aspect of my gender.
In the fundamental Christian world, women are not hailed as spiritual leaders. Women can teach Sunday School, work at a Christian school, be saintly mothers and grandmothers who are powerful “prayer warriors” in their own homes… but women are not to be leaders. I once heard of a college-aged couple who broke up upon the realization that the young lady was the spiritual leadership in their relationship. Men are supposed to be responsible for/in charge of the spiritual leadership of the home while women are to answer to/defer to their husbands leadership. If a women “usurps” this position in any way, she endangers herself and her family by tempting God’s wrath. In my relationship with my husband, can you guess who is more spiritual and likely to wind up in a position of spiritual leadership? Yup… me, the wife… the woman. We both know I’m the spiritual leader, and Hubby is fine with that, but it’s something I’m still struggling with due to the patriarchal teachings from my upbringing. In general, I tend to look to my husband for guidance, approval, and even permission for every day things – it’s hard to not do that when it comes to spiritual things as well. I’m making progress in my ability to function as an independent person, much to Hubby’s relief and joy, but it’s slow. Anyway. I find it interesting that patriarchal religion deviates from what seems to be a historical norm of women being the spiritual leaders in their communities. Hubby and I were discussing just last night how we’ve both found it to be true that women are usually the more spiritually-minded gender. We both could recall the lament of many a young Baptist woman who couldn’t find a man who was more spiritual than she was. It’s ridiculous that we were taught that spiritual leadership was a gender role exclusive to men.
When I heard the story of Deborah told in church, it was told in such a way as to shame men for making it necessary that a woman step up and fill the shoes of leadership. Now, I find myself stepping into the shoes of spiritual leadership for my family. The importance of spiritual leadership becomes more apparent with each day, as our extended family seeks to Christianize my stepson. Buddy now asks about praying frequently, and yesterday he was confused that I didn’t mention Jesus in my prayers. With the birth of my son looming in the very near future, I feel all the more need to get my act together so I can provide him and Buddy both with the atmosphere they need. I want to show them what an empowered woman looks like – I am the queen and high priestess of this house. So many things I want to teach and share. Hopefully this is the start of a beautiful new future for us as a family. 🙂