The Quiet Ecstasy of Nothingness

I am 16 when I realize there is nothing listening to prayers. Not just my prayers, but all prayers, whispered, or sung, or screamed at the top of exalting lungs to any of the multitude of deities. Funny enough, I’m on a pilgrimage to see the Pope in the fields of Germany—not a terribly convenient time for a realization in this vein.

My fellow pilgrims and I are on a pilgrim’s air-conditioned tour bus, on our way back to our pilgrim hotel room in a town outside of Köln, still a couple of days away from our rendezvous with the Holy Father and thousands of other Catholics. A paramedic, one of our adult chaperones, a tyrannically pious man from rural New Brunswick, is leading us in a full round of Hail Marys for a reason that isn’t immediately clear to me.

Hail Mary, full of grace…

This same man once told a congregation of young teenagers that when he and his wife were in a dire financial predicament, they prayed, and $5,000 miraculously appeared in their bank account. Even at the time, this struck me as an irresponsible claim to make to a group of impressionable children.

The Lord is with thee…

At that moment though, as a bus full of young Catholics, led by this man, are saying their 50th Hail Mary in unison, it strikes me how ludicrous this all is. This sudden understanding washes over me as I mumble along, how these words fly out into nothingness. This is something of an anti-epiphany, and the scariest part is that I’m not even scared. I’m comforted.

Blessed art thou amongst women…

As far as Catholicism in my life went, I was always something of a devoted left-centrist. I went to Church every week, and Sunday school. I was baptized at birth, took communion as a child and was confirmed in early adolescence. I taught a babysitting version of Sunday school to pre-k kids, but that was mostly for the added benefit of getting out of church to teach. I prayed infrequently, and when I did it was never in the form of Hail Marys.

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…

Prayer, to me, was a one-sided conversation. I would outline the issue, and then offer a resolution. I was something of a hypersensitive child, often feeling extremes of anger, or sadness, or joy, or frustration, and no one felt it necessary to explain those feeling were just a part of the human experience. I had always felt too much, so I often prayed to stop feeling anything at all. A prayer that went unanswered.

Holy Mary, Mother of God…

At sixteen, I love Germany, in spite of the abundance of Catholics from all over the world. I love seeing the picturesque countryside, and the ancient churches of Köln. I love buying my first rosary, allegedly a light wooden set made by a cabal of nuns in Bethlehem, though just as likely made in some less holy Asian sweatshop, stamped with the Bethlehem brand and hucked off to gullible spiritual tourists. I begin to realize the material world, in all its messy, dirty, freaky, scary, dark, crumbling glory is more fulfilling than the ethereal. Running your hands over the dingy walls of a 600-year-old cathedral is much more transformative than praying in it. I remember pretty German boys.

Pray for us sinners…

I grow older, and queerer, which does nothing for my Catholicism, but does wonders for my sex life. I find peace sharing a bed with sleeping, naked lovers. I learn to luxuriate in the ritual of putting on my drag face. I hold on, figuratively speaking, to the rosary, which currently occupies the same cubby as my sex toys. The closest thing I have to a religious experience is dancing to “Like A Prayer” with a bunch of friends, homos and trans folk at the end of a queer dance party during my second year of university. I study queer identity religiously, crave profanity for my communion, ward off the dreadful blasphemy of normativity.

Now, and at the hour of our death…

I seek out moments of divine stillness, silence and aloneness; under the surface of the lake my family’s cottage sits on, gazing up at sunbeams filtering through the murk; in my living room with a cup of coffee cradled in my hand; standing on a rock looking out over the stormy Atlantic; on a rural New Brunswick hillside, staring up into creamy opacity of our galaxy. I clutch the feeling of insignificance and smallness to me tightly, worrying the knowledge of nothingness like so many beads.

I am 16, sitting at the open window of our hotel room in a German town, marveling at how many little lights are sparkling below. I say no prayer, because I realize there is no need to. Nothing is listening, and I take comfort in that.


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photo of Irene Poole and Richard McMillan by Cylla von Tiedmann

Michael Lyons

You can catch Michael Lyons in his regular column, History Boys, in each issue of Xtra along with his historical coconspirator Jeremy Willard. Follow him on twitter at @queer_mikey

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