Recently, my mother sent me a video of a prayer saying “It is well.” She does not do this often, forward prayers, so I responded “Amen” and felt for a moment the staggering bliss that was the thrill of my days of faith. I’d just moved back to the United States and was tottering under the weight of my needs, bills and deadlines clutching at my throat, and she was all the way in Nigeria, hands full of responsibilities. Sharing this with someone close by–their father, Igbo like mine, also sent them encouraging prayers on WhatsApp–I wondered why our parents seldom asked about the details of our lives, wondered why they chose the relative safety of prayers over the often necessary messiness of difficult conversations. But even as I asked, the answer to my question stared back at me: that prayer, all eight minutes of it, was perhaps the only way she knew to say what she needed to say, that she wished she had the means to alleviate my discomfort, and that she was thinking of me.
I do not come from a praying family. This would be a shocker if you grew up in a vastly secular society and were to peek into the windows of my childhood: you would surely find me kneeling, praying for my sick sister, or you would see my brother curled up beside me, whispering a brief Nunc dimittis before bed. But your shock would only be a result of your own upbringing—I often slept off to the rumble of tongues at night, a church keeping vigil or our neighbor rebuking a bird that had cried too strangely over our roofs; and I woke many mornings to clapping and singing, nearby families saying “Good morning, Jesus. Good morning, Lord.” In our house, prayers were said quietly and sparingly, and especially during periods of trial, such as when my little sister had convulsions at night, throwing my mother into panic and pandemonium as she called her friend the nurse, her mother, Mma, and me, her little prayer warrior.
Prayers worked, I believed, if said with faith and in accordance with God’s will, and I had faith like a mountain back then, faith in God and in my anointedness. When we knelt holding hands in front of the television one evening, we believed that God would intervene in the football match between Nigeria and Tunisia. “Those people, they do not know you,” a friend from church prayed. “They bow their heads to the sun and moon in the east. Do not let them laugh at your children.”
Nigeria lost to Tunisia. We said it was God’s will and went out to play.
I stopped praying when I turned 18 years old and stopped believing in God, having seen the scope of suffering around me and the rot in the church of my birth. I rejected prayers, also: if you said to me in those days, “It is well,” I would look at you with rage or disgust, and I might have said, “Stop telling yourself that.” And yet, these days, I sometimes find myself thinking “Chukwu kelu uwa” in exhaustion or thankfulness. Fleeting through my mind, the image of a priest, hand raised to absolve or to bless. When, alone and afraid, I sigh, “My lord, my lord, I remember Gethsemane, of sweat thick as blood, the anxious plea, Take This Cup Away.” Futile prayers, que sera sera. As I get older, I become more at home with the uncertainty of life and the limitations of my own will. I pray as a reaction to the tragedy and loneliness of this reality. I pray because I sometimes miss the certainty of the rituals of my childhood, God in the dark, sad chords of a psalm, love in the hymns (I haven’t sung with a choir since the pandemic began). The gold-plaited cross lifted high during the procession, all eyes on it; behind, the choir in red-and-white robes. The altar, decked for Epiphany Sunday, glorious whites beckoning. The reverend saying, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as he blessed the grave. Only yesterday, he’d intoned in that same voice, “We receive this child into the congregation,” signing the cross on the baby’s brow. (Perhaps missing God is really missing you.)
The staggering bliss I felt after listening to my mother’s forwarded prayer, I often feel it when I have said a prayer alone. It is serenity descending, that feeling when you are deeply understood, hands energized to act, mind decluttered. At the arrival of adulthood, we find ourselves struck by the fastness of the world, sometimes retreating into ourselves for fear of being used, judged, or misunderstood, lonely in our apartments or in the busy subways of our minds. We are entering or coming out of our mid-twenties, and our private demons are growing with us, some easy to obliterate, others enduring, to face squarely and truthfully, and we do not always trust that our friends will understand. And so we struggle alone. For some, prayers become like text messages, sent with full assurance that there is someone at the other end to receive it, response expected. The window open for disappointment. For others like me, it is a message in a bottle sent out into the vastness of the ocean. We do not know what will happen to it – Will the waves destroy it, or will it arrive safely on shore? And will anyone find it, and would they be kind? – and we do not care. All that matters is the function of the action, words off our chests, burdens surrendered, briefly, to the wind. But we are under no illusions, and we know that a day must come when we will sit down for an encounter, brother to brother, mother to child.