[Nonfiction] Hearing Voices
I am an atheist, but I remember the first time I felt the presence of God. It was the summer of 2001, and I was kneeling on the wood plank floor where we gathered every day for our meals, sermons, and four-part harmony acapella worship.
Camp Naha was the Bible camp run by my church of origin. It was two hours away from our small town by fishing boat, and then another two-mile hike into camp on slick boardwalks flanked by mud, skunk cabbage, and spruce trees. The small group of buildings was nestled into a clearing along the eroding bank of the Naha River. There were black bears in the woods and salmon spawning in the river. From the age of eleven, one week of every summer was spent seeking Jesus in the pages of my Bible at this idyllic remote camp.
It was dark and late enough that the caretaker had turned the generator off for the night. We were tucked deep enough into the mountains and woods to hide the last vestiges of a late summer sunset. The bats crowded in the attic were waking up and flapping out into the camp sky.
I was nineteen and majoring in Bible at a small Christian college in the Midwest. I had volunteered to spend that week at camp as a Bible teacher to a small group of teenage girls. I had obeyed the Gospel myself at this camp just four years earlier, buried in baptism in the snow-fed waters of the Naha River. This camp was more of a church to me than any building. It was the place where I got saved, and where my story began.
We sat on the floor in a tangle of boys and girls. The older adults were also there on the margins of the room, seated on benches pushed against the walls, a hedge of safety, protectors of our young hearts and souls. All of us, young and old, sat in the dark with our eyes closed. We prayed. Some prayed quietly, in our hearts, in our brains, words on endless silent repeat. Others prayed out loud, deep voices repeating familiar refrains. These were the phrases that wrote my childhood and teenage years. I heard them at camp every summer. I heard them at church on Sunday mornings, and again at Bible study on Wednesday night. They were words spoken by men. We thank you for the sacrifice of your Son. Please help us to read and understand your Word. We are nothing without you, Jesus.
This was just the way things were in my church circle. College girls taught teenage girls. College boys and their teenage proteges prayed out loud for us all. The adults watched, listened, and waited for us to finish our adolescent mumbling. They waited for us to give up our bruised knees and shuffle off to cold cabins, to start fires in iron barrel stoves that would burn out before morning, leaving us to wake in the chill.
The room was heavy, like a fog that rolls down the mountains and settles over the channel, thick enough to obscure safe passage. The silent prayers rotating through my brain were getting louder. They were in my throat. I clenched my teeth and pressed my lips together, relying on years of pressed lips to keep the words inside. I didn’t know what this feeling was, and I didn’t understand why this moment felt so different. I didn’t understand the yearning. I didn’t know why I was afraid, or what I was afraid of. I just knew that I wanted something I could not name.
A single voice rose in the dark, soft and with a higher lilt. She prayed, out loud. She prayed for men and women, for boys and girls, for adolescent urgings and crying girls and for adults who never understood. And when she was done, another voice spoke up. Another girl. Then another, and another.
Then I spoke, and, in the darkness, the fog began to lift. I heard my own words, vibrations in the air. Audible. When my own gasping stopped me from speaking more, another girl picked up the call and spoke out loud. And when she was done, another voice spoke up. Another girl. Then another, and another.
It was not the first time I heard women pray out loud in the presence of men, but it was the first time I heard it here, in this room, on these wooden floors, on these bruised knees. It was the first time I prayed out loud in front of my own father. In front of our preacher. In front of teenage boys who were always above me in the hierarchy of the church, no matter my age or experience or education.
In that moment, I felt the presence of God. It was bright light even though all I could see was darkness, the shadowed outline of my own hands before me, starlight through the windows the only thing that made me visible at all. It was the feeling of lightness, too, of a heart that had spent its nineteen years clenched in anxiety and suddenly realizes it does know how to beat after all, that not every moment must be spent holding things in with tense muscles. It was the feeling of blood pulsing through veins, warming fingertips and toes. It was the feeling of breathing when I didn’t even know I had spent nineteen years holding my breath. It was God, and He was good.
For years, that was the memory I returned to during every moment of doubt, and there were many such moments. I have prayer journals filled with them. They repeat the same refrain: I am nothing, I am nothing, I am nothing without Christ. Later that same year, I would write, “Father, I want to apologize for leaving you out, for neglecting you, for desiring books instead of your word, extra sleep instead of your presence. Forgive me for my lack of prayer, my lack of devotion.” Yes, I apologized to God for reading books instead of the Bible, for sleeping when I could have been praying. I was absolutely sincere. I was the chief of sinners.
In the years that followed, I asked God if he was really there. I asked him to fucking do something, anything. I begged for his audible voice, hurt that he seemed to speak to so many others, but never to me. So many others claimed to hear God, claimed to know his will or his mind, to understand his word in special ways, to know what God wanted from them.
When I heard only silence, only the beating of my own flesh heart, I thought of that night in the dark. I thought of that feeling of God’s presence, how it lifted the heavy burden of darkness and gave me something light and fluttering, the feeling of a bird escaping bars. I told God I would continue to believe, to trust, to follow. I accepted the silence. I told God I would wait, I would wait. I would wait forever.
I waited on my knees at the front of a different church. People crowded around me, murmuring syllables that ran together in incoherent paragraphs of prayer. I prayed, out loud, in front of a man, in English. He prayed for me in unknown tongues. He put a hand on my forehead. He increased in volume. I was the only one in the room who hadn’t received this gift of the Spirit, this prayer language. And as the congregation pressed closer to me, as their mumbling grew louder and echoed in my ears, this man told me to stop. Stop speaking English. So, I did. I stopped praying because English was the only language I knew. It was the only language my lips could form. And then the man, hand on my forehead, the heat between us creating beads of sweat, began to repeat a short series of syllables that meant nothing. He repeated them more slowly. He was teaching me to speak in an unknown tongue, to repeat after him. His hand on my sweating forehead was the tongue of flames that rested on the heads of the apostles. And here was God’s voice, so close. But all I could hear were nonsense syllables strung together and repeated. All I could hear was a crowd of people trying to force God’s words down my throat, to use me as proof of God’s existence and God’s goodness and God’s Holy Spirit. They needed me to prove their faith as much as I needed God to prove himself to me.
I said nothing. I pressed my lips together, relying on years of practiced lips pressed together. The man was disappointed in me. He took away his moist palms, withdrew his blessing. He prayed to God, asking him to help me open my hard heart to him. As if I didn’t know God. As if I hadn’t felt God that night on the floor, with the bats flapping their wings in the night air.
For several years after this, I asked God for this gift of tongues. I asked for it in other churches, alone in the prayer chapel across the street from my dorm, in the pages of my prayer journals. This kind of seeking was a departure from my church of origin. They didn’t practice these kinds of manifestations of the Holy Spirit. They spoke against them, convinced that these gifts died out with the original apostles. But I was willing to try anything, anything to feel God again. I wanted a tangible or audible experience with God. I wanted proof.
I crossed the threshold of many churches in search of something real. I believed in God, but I felt an intense kinship with Thomas. I wanted to put my hands into Jesus’s side, to feel the wounds in his wrists, flesh against flesh.
Seek and ye shall find, but I never found it.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Literature just two years after I felt God for the first and only time. As an atheist, I’d like to think of this as a degree in Ancient Literature. When people ask me about my degree, I hesitate. I don’t want people to know. I don’t want their automatic assumptions. I don’t want to explain my Bible degree to believing evangelicals or avowed atheists or people who believe in other gods, or other iterations of the same god. I want to hide these facts in my prayer journals, in the backs of closets, in the bottoms of drawers.
I waited twenty-eight years to hear him, believing all the while. I believed despite the silence. I believed despite a limited and confusing book. I believed despite my unanswered questions. I believed even though I was unworthy to speak or pray or read the Bible out loud on a Sunday morning.
I broke the edge off a dry cracker and washed its crumbs down with a thumb-sized cup of grape juice. I was faithful, though in my prayer journals I despaired over my unfaithful and wandering heart.
I believed when I was too young to be saved, too young to need saving. I believed even when it didn’t make sense. I believed in four-part harmony and acapella music. I believed in songs sung in the same four chords. I believed in repeated refrains. I believed in unanswered questions. I believed in a silent God.
I had given my life to him completely.
The morning after my touched by God moment, I woke up in my down sleeping bag in the cabin where I bunked with the cooks. At breakfast, drowsy teenagers stumbled into the room. Once everyone was seated, a man prayed for the meal. Then the campers formed a dutiful line to claim their eggs and biscuits.
After breakfast, the staff met for a short meeting. My father, the Camp Director, began with prayer. Then he brought up the event from the night before. It would not be repeated. Women were not permitted to pray out loud with boys or men present. It had made someone uncomfortable. More specifically, it had made the special speaker uncomfortable, and he said he would not preach for the rest of camp if this was going to be allowed.
Who needs this guy to preach? I’ll do it—was my immediate reaction, but I didn’t dare say it out loud because I knew it would never happen. I had given up on the idea of preaching long ago. But prayer was something I could fight for, prayer was something I wanted. And I did fight for it that day, sitting in a circle with my elders. I fought for the right to pray with tears, with lamentations. How can it be wrong for me to speak to God out loud? These people despaired over the rights of children to pray in schools, but they would sit there and tell me that my right to pray did not extend to this particular situation. They reassured me that no one was saying I couldn’t pray. I could pray. Silently. God would still hear me.
I pleaded with my father again after the staff meeting, asking him to reconsider the decision. He was unyielding. “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak.” 1 Corinthians 14:34a. This was the verse that scaffolded my church tradition and my identity within the church.
My father didn’t understand why it was a big deal to pray or not to pray. He was never told he couldn’t speak, or lead, or read scripture out loud in the presence of the opposite sex. He was expected to do these things. They were required of him, never forbidden.
There were not many times in my life when I asked my father for something, and never so desperately as I did that day. And I asked for such a small thing, something he had the power to grant with one sentence from his lips. But my father’s answer was a resounding no. There would be no more praying, not for the girls, at camp this year. Do not cause your brothers to stumble.
But what about my sisters?
People often ask me what led to my deconversion. How does a girl raised in the church, a woman with a Bible degree, become an atheist? There is no single answer to that question. It was a slow process that took well over a decade of deconstructing the beliefs that encompassed my worldview. I didn’t leave the church because they wouldn’t let me pray out loud. I didn’t give up on God because he never granted me the gift of tongues. I didn’t stop speaking to him because he never replied. I didn’t leave the church because I was hurt, though I was hurt many times. I was willing to put up with a lot of silence and pain and abuse, though I regret to say that now.
I didn’t leave the church because I didn’t get answers. It wasn’t about contradictions in the bible or the atrocities committed by the church throughout history, though those things did trouble me. I was conflicted by the idea of a good God who sent people to eternal torment. And, as a young mother, I was disturbed by the idea of teaching my own children that they were born sinful, inherently evil in desire.
It was none of those things. It was all of those things. It was never any one thing.
I didn’t lose my faith. I walked away because there was nothing for me there. It was too heavy a burden to bear. It was claustrophobic. It was my story, but I didn’t want my story to end there.
That night at camp, knees pressed against the wooden floor, I did not feel God. That night, eyes closed and hands to my face, I heard my own voice for the first time. My voice was the heat that burned the fog away. It was my voice that created that experience of goodness, of being able to breathe. It was my voice and the voices of my sisters. It was my story. It was the stories of my sisters.
Aurelia Kessler is a creative writing student at the University of Alaska Southeast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Women Speak, Tidal Echoes, Wildheart Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, and Cirque. She lives in Juneau, Alaska with her family.