By Hannah Wheelwright
I heard my own voice for the first time the other day. I know that probably sounds weird. I’m not talking about my physical voice; I’m talking about something much deeper and thus much harder to describe without sounding cheesy. Bear with me.
A few months ago, I prayed for the first time without pre-supposing that God was there and would respond. I still prayed with an open mind; but for the first time, I didn’t hold the default view that of course he would respond. I left it open that he might or might not- and I didn’t get a response.
It made me realize that my religious experience as a Mormon has been somewhat contrived. I’ve been taught to expect to feel the Spirit when I pray- which I understand for many people is a logical conclusion, but it also causes a different religious experience than if one prays without their mind looking for those specific feelings.
When I was about twelve, my Sunday School teacher mentioned briefly in his lesson that when we all die and go to heaven, our friends will turn to us and ask why we didn’t share the gospel with them. This concept hit me really hard for some reason, and it provided the push for me to gain my own testimony. I recognized as I pondered that I wasn’t incorporating what I was learning in church with how I acted at school and during the week.
So at twelve, I started seeking earnestly to actually feel and recognize the Spirit. I wrote in my journal and read my scriptures and did so every night all throughout high school. I got my patriarchal blessing at 14 and cherished the way it made me feel important (it uses that word repeatedly) and unique. When I went to boarding school, I was the only Mormon, and from Sunday to Sunday I often had no contact with the church except for seminary, when I could get a ride, and my own personal study. I tried very hard to consult the Lord in prayer whenever I made decisions. I had many experiences where I felt prompted to make a decision that then put me on a path of deep pain and loss; my initial reaction was to feel bitter for being forced to go through the trial, but I trusted that it was for a reason. I spent many lonely nights praying and praying and praying and felt like I was being comforted, like there was someone there beside me who knew what I was going through and knew that I would emerge a better person because of it.
But when I prayed without assuming that God existed; when I took a step back and simply said, “God, I don’t KNOW if you’re there, but if you are, please help me hear you,” and then I waited for that feeling of having a warm blanket wrapped around me that I normally felt and had attributed to the Spirit and I waited for some kind of whispering like I had heard before and I waited for a rush of emotion that usually happened when I prayed so fervently and with such longing. And none of that happened. Instead I just felt normal, status quo, nothing remarkable. And I realized that I’m not sure anymore if everything I felt came from an outside source or from myself. I can easily imagine how my religious education and my own personal desire to feel a connection with God could have caused me to over-anticipate the kind of reactions I wanted and expected.
The thought that maybe I just made it all up is not bitter to me per se; I don’t know if maybe all religion is supposed to be that way, if it’s supposed to come from within. But I refuse to fake a religious experience just to bring myself comfort. So from that moment on, I stopped trying to understand the world through terms of God and prayer and spirituality and just took a break. I’m not calling myself an atheist. I just took a break.
It’s been very difficult because I never realized how much I prayed until I didn’t think God was listening. Then I realized that I pray constantly. I constantly thank God when something is going well or ask for his advice when life feels like an avalanche. I used to view my life through a lens of God and myself working together to figure things out because I believed that I would be more effective and successful, more able to help people as detailed in my patriarchal blessing, if I lived my life as a partnership with God. I had thought that it was going well and was successful. It’s painful to extricate myself from this partnership that now feels like it was only in my head, because it brought me such comfort and a feeling of accomplishing my divine destiny at the time.
But when I turned off that switch of constantly talking to the empty space around me that I assumed God inhabited, I found that I have a voice. That my own spirituality and connection of body and spirit that makes up my soul is powerful and real, and I don’t think I’ve ever explored it before because I didn’t need to when I could just focus on my partnership with God, on seeing the world through that lens of united spirituality with deity.
And the first time I heard it really happened in a very mundane way. I was standing in my kitchen working a hand mixer through cookie dough as I daydreamed, and I heard my voice as I mused with myself. This probably sounds really ridiculous; maybe it’s not very important, maybe this sounds like a silly recognition, maybe this shouldn’t stop me from still believing whole-heartedly in God. I don’t know. I just know that now that I’m not listening for other voices inside myself, I can finally hear my own. And it’s brought a greater strength and understanding of my own character and morality than I could have anticipated.