I and my family converted from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy when I was almost 15. I was certain it was the right move, that God was calling us toward it, and we had finally found the One True Path. I was also secretly excited about having female role-models who I could commune with. I didn’t know the stress it was going to place on me.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 reads, “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”
I liked the familiarity that ritual provided. I liked the candles and the incense. I liked the icons. I liked feeling that all of my senses were involved and stimulated, and the idea that I was worshipping with the whole of myself.
I followed Daily Prayer to some extent. I did Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, and when I could, I did Afternoon Prayer. I kept my prayer rope on me to say the Jesus (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) prayer whenever I could.
All the lessons growing up of submitting to authority and a world of black and white had sunk in. I had to be perfect – anything less was a disappointing reflection on me, my father, eventually my husband, and my faith.
And yet, I still struggled with depression. I was trying so hard to do what was expected of me. Everything was supposed to be easier with prayer. I had God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the Theotokos and a whole slew of saints I prayed to – what more could I ask for?
The answer was always the same. You’re depressed? Go to Confession. You’re stressed? Go to Confession. You’re hurting? Go to Confession. You’re confused? Go to Confession.
So, I went dutifully. I would go about every other week, and every time the priest would tell me the same thing (whichever priest I confessed to, it did not matter). Pray. Pray more. If you’re stressed, pray. Say the Jesus Prayer. Have faith. Be patient.
You’re moving across the country? Pray! You have no friends, pray! You have no job, pray! You don’t know what to do about school, pray! You think your spouse is controlling – you need to pray and acknowledge his headship.
Oh, how I prayed. I wanted to cry, to scream, to ask why it didn’t make a difference. I wanted to know why nothing changed. I confessed my sins. I prayed, and I fervently meant every word. I didn’t sit back and expect things to be magically better – I worked at being a better person.
Did I not pray enough? Was there some sin I was hiding that I did not confess?
I exhausted myself trying to make things work, and telling myself I just needed to trust in God, to have more faith. I felt frustrated and confused. I tried going to my priest with problems, and yet, I was told to just pray, and all things would be revealed in God’s time.
I was working two jobs, and failing a full college load. I was scared of my husband, and scared of what that meant. I felt like I was in a spiral dwindling down, but I didn’t know how to break free. And so I prayed. Nothing changed.
I was falling apart, and I didn’t know what else to do to hold myself together. I slowly stopped praying as much as I had been – I didn’t see how it would make a difference. I don’t remember when exactly I stopped altogether; I only know that I did.
I grew up with the belief that prayer would make things better. The realisation that nothing had changed whether I prayed or not – and trust me, I believed it would – was terrifying, and gripped me in a way nothing else could.
As I broke out from the chains of religious fundamentalism and spiritual abuse that bound me, I realised there was a freedom when one took personal responsibility into their own hands. I realised that it was okay to feel hurt and depressed and stressed – it didn’t mean that I was sinning and had to go to confession. I was able to turn to people who could look at the issues and help me see the roots of them, so I could address them. Someone in pain doesn’t need prayer, they need help. Kyrie eleison, indeed.