by Eileen Brunetto
In the Beginning
Latin words, rhythmic and mysterious.
Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.
Christe eleison. Christ have mercy.
Dona Nobis Pacem. Lord, Grant us peace.
This was Mass where I prayed with my family each Sunday. My brothers, sisters and I, tired and cranky, having been woken at six-thirty, filed into the last pew of our parish church for 7:30 a.m. mass. Thank God my mom stopped at Muller’s Bakery on our way home for cream donuts and sticky buns, reward for having tolerated the previous hour.
The crowded church, brimming with congregants, minimized oxygen supply and fostered the desire to nod off. If I had been a fainter, I am sure I would have done so.
Coached by the nuns in the art of sitting still, I should have been better at it, but scanning the crowd seemed much more fun. Body heat from all directions created a pleasant buzz, but mostly I was dying to get the heck out of there. I distracted myself with a nudge to my sister, “see the cute baby!” or “that woman’s hat looks like an overturned bucket.”
Our class attended Mass on weekday mornings where my friends and I gossiped and whispered dirty jokes. We came up with the most disrespectful notions imaginable within the confines of our pew. Our bodies shook with uncontrollable giggling, this forbidden kind of laughter still the best kind I know.
As the class prayed, our voices lifted and dipped in singsong unison. I couldn’t help wonder what my classmates were really thinking while we prayed. I thought about how my beanie pinched my temples, which seemed like a form of penance in itself, and I wished my mother would buy me a new one that didn’t hurt as much.
During the Stations of the Cross each First Friday, Michele Jacquot and I braced ourselves as Father Magee drew nearer to the tenth station where Jesus is stripped of his garments, and we would snicker. “What is wrong with me?” I’d think. “I’m a disgrace,” but I couldn’t help myself. We sweated through, hoping Sister Jean wouldn’t call us out for the heathens we were, punishment at such irreverence, well – I don’t even want to think about it.
Perched on the edge of my bed, my mother taught me how to pray. This made me feel safe, and I loved the sheer closeness of her as we asked God to bless our family and the world, and make me a good girl. Afterward, she anointed my forehead with the Sign of the Cross with her thumb. As a Catholic, I didn’t learn the prayer about “dying before I wake, asking the Lord my soul to take” which I think is more Protestant actually, and such a dismal way to go off to sleep. I was glad for my rote prayers, more upbeat and way less scary.
I learned the usual Hail Mary and Our Father with the rest of my first-grade class, and gradually discovered that prayer came in handy when I wanted something. I learned it was okay to ask for things like healings or extra grace; but prayer evolved into something more personal as I grew older.
One night, my mother, father and I were sitting around our dining table. My mother always made a pot of tea after dinner and whoever wished to linger for conversation was welcome. As we passed around the milk and sugar, my dad told my mom (with me as witness) that he had discovered a lump under his arm. I froze. A lump was bad news. Don’t ask me how I knew. Maybe I read about it in the “Reader’s Digest” or saw a TV special. All I could think was “Please please please don’t let anything be wrong with my dad,” this “please” directed to God, or the Universe, or Mary, or in every direction the wind blew. I wasn’t taking any chances. This prayer needed to be heard.
A few days later, the three of us were again the last ones gathered at the table after dinner.
My dad spoke up, “You know, that lump under my arm just disappeared!”
“That’s because I prayed for it to go away,” I said.
My mother beamed, “Did you hear that? Your daughter prayed for you.”
A Slight Regression
After this, I sensed there was more to healing than just asking and praying. I was only ten, not quite able to define the phenomenon, but I was certain my dad’s healing had something to do with me. There was a reason I had witnessed my dad’s testimonial. He could have easily told my mother about it when they were alone, but every time I looked back, I felt certain I had been blessed with an inside glimpse of how the universe works. I sent out my prayer in innocence and purity, and the results empowered me. From then on, I believed I could have or do just about anything if it was important enough and I really wanted it.
Years later, when my dad was in his fifties, he went to the doctor for his yearly check-up. He came home in shock. His doctor told him he might have prostate cancer. I remember sitting across from my mom at the dining room table. She couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t want my dad to be sick, and I didn’t want her to feel sad. I took on this worry for my entire family as if it were part of a job description. My dad instinctively sought retreat for the weekend at my parents’ future retirement home in the country. Weeks later, he saw a specialist who confirmed he didn’t have cancer after all, but the waiting almost killed me. Morbidly distracted, I barely ate or slept until I got the good news. Where was my faith then?
Primer in Religious Philosophy
Repetitive prayer, such as the rosary, has a way of settling the mind. I compare it to Buddhist prayer beads or a mantra one chants in Transcendental Meditation. I attempted to parse out the words of prayers, hoping to connect emotionally or spiritually. I never could, though I realized the words told a story that supported a belief system or dogma – “Hail Mary” (that was the Angel saying hello when he brought the news she would give birth to Jesus.) “Full of Grace” (that seemed obvious enough.)” Blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (meant she was carrying the Baby Jesus like any pregnant woman). The words rang hollow and polite and offered little comfort or inspiration. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem reasonable to completely negate these prayers because they caused me to think, and thinking ultimately turned me into a proper seeker.
Desperation and Fear vs. Open 24 Hours. Prayer is often accessed as a handy last-ditch pull-out-all-the-stops call for help. My prayers originated in rote teachings and grew into habit. Then I discovered prayer helped when I felt distress, or there was trouble. “Why wait to access my faith?” I thought, instead, why not live an “in-your-face attitude,” no grasping and begging required. I could pace myself, sort of like prayer insurance or maintenance. This might cost me on a daily basis, and it would certainly take effort and mindfulness on my part, but the payout might be greater in the long term.
I stopped going to confession because it seemed an oddly cruel concept. Children were chastised for slight failings, such as the traditional rite of passage – stealing a pack of gum. I had the same three sins lined up each time – I used God’s name in vain, I talked about others, and I argued with my brothers and sisters (which I rarely did, but it rounded out the confession nicely, though it could have been considered a lie, a sin within the no-sin.)
When I finally sinned big, petting in a parked car, it took me weeks to muster the courage to confess. The priest added his advice, that parking wasn’t a good idea, now, was it.
One Saturday afternoon, I stepped out of the confessional to find two older girls lying prostrate on the altar. When I say they were older, I mean seventh grade level to my fifth. What could these girls have done to warrant such public shaming? Were the girls praying – or crying – or wishing they would disappear so no one could witness their humiliation?
I’ll admit sometimes I slum it and murmur a prayer as I search for an available parking space, and I doubt I’ll ever reach a point where I don’t believe God or the universe won’t respond favorably to my request that the traffic light remain green until I make it through.
My friend, Terri, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. Three years later, she had a second scare. Before her tests, she negotiated with the Blessed Mother. Terri told Mary that if her test results came back negative, she’d swear off booze forever. Now when we get together, I order Malbec; she orders “O’Doul’s.”
It appears the saints are open to making deals.
It Started With a Maple Tree
In my mid-thirties, while I lay in bed one night, I heard the maple tree outside my window quake in the late spring breeze. Most of the traffic had subsided for the day. A sense of calm came over me in appreciation of the mild evening. I savored the quiet and felt compelled to toss back my cotton blanket. I rifled through my nightstand for pen and paper, and began to write about trees – their scent, my appreciation of their strength and age, and the way the night air and quiet soothed me. When I put my pen down, I felt a sense of completion that I’d never achieved with ordinary prayer; instead, I had written a prayer to a tree.
Free Your Mind
Around this same period, my constant reading began to include books on personal growth. My children were now teen-agers so I had time for more of my own interests. I haunted local bookshops, drawn in by their window displays that advertised new releases. I strolled the spiritual, new age, and self-help sections, brushing my fingers along the spines while I examined the title, size, color and texture of each book. I read the intro and back cover, then assessed my purchase on any or all of these features.
I read Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav and Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain.
Unlike catechisms that posed questions such as, “What does it mean to be a child of God?” or “What makes me a child of God?,” these books spoke to me as if I were a person rather than an automaton, which confirmed my suspicion that prayer is a living, breathing entity – a practice that comes from within and merges with the natural world.
The Celts and Others
I studied Celtic spirituality and discovered that Christianity synchronized with Pagan customs. The first of November is All Saints Day, feast of the dead, according to the Catholic religion. This feast originated in Samhain, when the Celts honored their dead. It also marked the beginning of winter. May 1 is Beltane when the Celts acknowledged spring’s arrival. They believed that on this day we, as humans, were free to visit the spirit realm that exists beyond this world. This corresponds with my belief in the possibility of Heaven on Earth, a return to Eden and integration of body and soul.
I saw life differently than many of my friends, and I didn’t believe quite the way my family did. I needed less ornate, more real. I needed to strip prayer down to the authentic. I wanted to connect and integrate religious foundations, my maternal instincts, my feminine powers, and love of the natural world with the hope of attaining a more holistic approach to prayer.
My thoughts wandered from one theory to another as I read about Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. I considered Quaker belief with its silences and space for sharing, as well as pagan religion and my own connection to nature. I reflected upon all of this while I kept my faith of origin in mind with its stringent rules. I discovered there were similarities among them. The Golden Rule consistently surfaced, although this was not a rule I could compare with any religion. It seemed more like a way of life. There was no mortal sin to contend with if I missed mass, no banishment to hell, no risk of excommunication, and anyone could follow this Golden Rule of kindness and respect for others and self.
As a child, I freely walked the woods alone. I trekked through open field, surrounded by maples and oaks. This felt more like church to me with its open space, vibrant colors, subtle fragrances, trees, birds, and wildlife. I sensed the sky as limitless – a place where anything was possible, the place where I learned heaven existed. The ground represented foundation for belief in self. The breeze felt made me feel anything was possible.
I occupied myself for hours as I listened to rock and roll music on the transistor radio my father had given me for my eleventh birthday. I rode my bike around the graveled streets of our town. I came from a loving family and had many friends, but I also thrived in generous amounts of solitude. Sometimes I would head to my place in the woods as if I were on a date. I’d check out which shorts I wore, and picked just the right jacket. These were only play clothes, but it was as if I was keeping a date with nature, or myself, or perhaps even God.
When my kids must travel in bad weather, they have a job interview, or I sense they feel a bit down, I pray for them. I’d like to be able to add here “then I give it over to God,” but I can’t because there’s that teensy little part of me who wants to throw herself to her knees, put her head down on her bed and beg. I reserve this right on behalf of my parents and children, and realize when I pray this way, that it is for my own needs as well. I want the option to say as many rapid fired Hail Mary’s as I can manage.
I murmur the words and begin to breathe deeply. I calm myself in an attempt to make sense of my angst with the intention that I will act and move forward, for in a crisis it does no good to crumple in a whimpering heap.
A friend once told me we should visualize our kids content and happy instead of hedging our prayer bets on impending disaster. The energy we expend in worry does nothing to keep them safe; in fact, quite the opposite – negative thoughts defy the very purpose of faith.
Prayer in Action
I never turned away from God because it would have meant turning away from myself. Instead, I turned up the volume on prayer. I pray in breaths the way yogis do. Sometimes I sing in the car whenever spirit moves me. I’ll hum along to my favorite acoustic guitar music. I once sang “Twist and Shout” with my daughter and her friends as I drove them home from a school dance. Surprisingly, no one reported our earsplitting chorus to the police.
Praise in song doesn’t only occur in church, which reminds me of lyrics sung by Sting in his song, All This Time “. . . Men go crazy in congregations, but they only get better one by one.”
I enter spirit when I clean, cook or bake, as monks do. Purposeful and Zen-like, I measure, mix and wait. The senses immerse in the process. Scents of vanilla, cinnamon and melted chocolate merge with heat from the oven. The final product is a treat for the eyes, and not only to eat, but as nourishment that extends from one soul to another.
I can offer up those difficult days that shake my faith, and remind myself to be grateful for good work that also sustains my livelihood.
Many years ago, I began to hold bonfires in my backyard each year on Samhain and Beltane. Most years, it’s a huge bash with pizza and wine. The flames from our fire warm us and light up the dark like an altar’s constant flame; the ashes symbolize purification, much the way a priest anoints with ashes on holy days.
Conclusion – Letting Go
As I approach the age of sixty, I am fortunate that my parents are alive. I was talking on the phone with my mom the other day. We talked about plans for the future, and I referenced life ten years henceforth. In her no-nonsense tone, she said, “Oh come on, Eileen.”
She is what they call, “ready,” but she’s not depressed about it, nor does she give up because she is nearing the end of life. In fact, she recently had her sofa reupholstered. I wonder, though, if she ever feels afraid, and I am certain she is worried about my dad, whose health is now frail in earnest. No more guessing or unexpected diagnoses – no more praying a lump away.
I hate the thought of them being gone, but I no longer dread it as I did when I was younger; and I am grateful to have had them with me all these years. I pray for a happy death, that they will go in peace. I pray for a different kind of miracle, but I’m certain the universe is still listening just like when I was a child, when all I asked for was an answer to my prayer.
About the author:
Eileen Brunetto writes essay and memoir. She is coordinator for geology at Middlebury College, and is certified in holistic massage and Reiki. She holds a graduate degree in creative writing from Goddard College. Eileen lives in Vermont with her husband, Charlie, and three cats. Read her blog at Jerseysauce.blogspot.com