I have the same relationship with God as most liberal white people my age. We all tend to clam up around religion like we are in the presence of a grandparent who hasn't seen our nose ring yet. Eventually we chime in passively: "Oh yeah, I believe there's something greater, but I don't know what it is."
I was a firm believer in the white-haired, white-faced, cloud-sitting, patriarchal overseer version of the Christian God right up through high school. My mom took us to St. Claire's Catholic Church near the Original Pancake House every Sunday, and while I couldn't understand much of what Father Don said in his sermons, there were always buttery doughnuts in the meeting center afterwards. I wasn't going to argue with a religion that had doughnuts.
My prayers were identical night to night. I composed them like an obsessive-compulsive letter-writer before I went to sleep: "Dear God. This is Sophie Lucido Johnson, of earth." I had considered the possibility of multiple universes, and didn't want to just assume that I was the only Sophie Lucido Johnson out there. I wanted to simplify things for God. He probably had to go through TONS of prayers every night. "I am thankful for my pets, family, and friends." Always in that order. My priorities were STRAIGHT. "Please bless my pets -- super-especially Tony, because he's getting old. Also please bless Mom, Dad, Alexis and me. And all my friends and family. And if you have time, bless all the people in the world."
And in his own way, God delivered; because Tony lived an incredibly long life, and everyone in my life did relatively well for themselves. I liked the simplicity of Catholicism: I liked the golden-gated heaven and the clear-cut rules around sainthood. I liked, "This is good and this is bad and good will always win." This religion was easy, and I liked easy.
I lost God when I was raped, basically immediately. I felt like I was outside my body in that moment, staring at myself from above. I wanted to shout down to myself, "HEY. Where is your God right now? This happens to all KINDS of people. Worse things happen to better people. Where is God then?"
God never came back. I even went through this very narcissistic, dark period where I thought that everything that could be discovered had already been discovered. I completely discarded the idea of any sort of unknown magic in the universe. I wore really dark eyeliner and smoked cigarettes and quoted Nietzsche at parties where I was not welcome. No one wanted to have sex with me except boys who were really into Bright Eyes.
But then I started paying closer attention. If you pay attention for just a moment while you're outside -- I mean, if you really sit still in the grass and take note of the sun and try to describe to yourself the blobby shapes of the clouds using human vocabulary words -- there is this glorious sense that no one has anything figured out at all. Suddenly, people look so silly, just wandering around trying to explain their own lives. Pay attention for just a moment, and there's this wonderful realization that overcomes you: nothing can be explained. Our explanations are always going to fall short. We are small, and the universe is big, and there's nothing saying that this is even the only universe there is.
None of this is religious in the Western sense of the word. Really it's just BIG. The feeling of understanding that comes when you realize that you can't hold all the explanations in your little hands is like sinking into a warm bath. It's a sort of letting go that feels exactly right.
On Thursdays, I have family dinner with my two roommates. We've lived together for four years, and we are so crazy about each other that it's probably annoying to other people. We alternate cooking days, and we accommodate for whatever hippie diet one or all of us may be experimenting with on that day. Right now my roommates are on the paleo diet, which I dislike, because, organ meat. But I cooked around it. My friend Alex sent me a box of produce from the Hollygrove Market for my birthday so I threw it all in a pan with a bunch of olive oil and no one complained.
Before we eat together, we "pray." At least, it looks like prayer, and I haven't found a better word for it. What I mean is that we all hold hands and sit still for a while. Then you're allowed to do whatever you want in your head. The practice is borrowed from the Quaker tradition, and so I think it counts as a "traditionally" "religious" type of "prayer." We sit there quietly for upwards of a minute (and then the food starts to smell too good, so someone squeezes someone else's hands and then we eat). When people come to our house to share dinner with us, they generally act really uncomfortable around this rite. I think a lot of us are terrified of anything that looks like it might be religion. We're not sure how we're supposed to behave around it.
Here is what I do with my silence: First, I notice it. I think, "Wow. I haven't had silence or stillness all day. What a wonderful thing, to have it for just a moment, right now." Then, I look at the table. I look at the hands and the little jar of flowers we usually have in the middle. Last night, a breeze passed through the kitchen and I saw the flowers on the crepe myrtle shake. Finally, I breathe. I say, "I am breathing." I let the warm-bath-letting-go sensation creep up around my ears. I call this "prayer."
Of course, human beings will always want more than this. We will always demand answers. I'm not immune; I love science podcasts and conspiracy theories and definitive Buzzfeed lists. But there are moments -- small ones, but they're there -- when, if you are lucky, you can just stop. Be with your nebulous God. Listen to the unknown. Breathe.