You are a freshman at Calvin College.
You’ve been here for almost two months, and you’ve learned some things. You’ve learned the difference between the Spoelhof Center and the Spoelhof Complex. You’ve learned what a B-qiv is and where the tunnels are. You’ve learned that you don’t like the dorms, but you expected that. You don’t like being able to hear people surrounding you.
You know that you need to make friends here. You have gathered that the way to do this is to socialize with The Floor. The Floor is an exaggerated parody of friendliness, but the attempt is earnest and you are willing to play along. You go to dinner with The Floor and try to remember their names. You like some of them. You will forget most of their faces within a year.
The Floor meets once a week to chat about Jesus. You don’t really like Jesus, and haven’t much since you met your new friend, Clinical Depression. But you realize that Clinical Depression is kind of a jerk and you’d really rather be friends with Jesus, so you tag along. It’s fine. Your Barnabas is cool and has an industrial piercing.
But Barnabas is not here this week. This week your Jesus chat is being led by a Charismatic member of The Floor. You like Charismatic, so this is also fine. She starts out by showing The Floor—you say The Floor, but it’s thin this evening—a book of cataloged ministry successes and telling them about friends who spent the summer converting Australian witch doctors. Charismatic tells you that you’re going to be doing something a little different this week, and it might be uncomfortable.
It is difficult to make you uncomfortable, so you are not yet alarmed.
Charismatic tells you that you are going to listen to the Holy Spirit. You are going to let the Spirit guide you in prayer and each member of The Floor is going to pray for the others.
You begin to feel uncomfortable.
Prayer was one of the first things that Clinical Depression stole from you, before filching your emotions (or was it around the same time? You don’t remember exactly how it went). You used to enjoy praying out loud, because praying out loud was writing spontaneous poetry at God, and you used to think you were pretty good at that. You have not enjoyed it—have not done it—in years.
You can’t hide from them, though. With only you, Charismatic, Sophomore 1, Sophomore 2, and Other Freshman at Jesus chat, they’ll notice if you don’t. You have to tell them. So you do. You tell them about Clinical Depression and how you don’t pray for things anymore. You’ve learned that it doesn’t bother you when other people know.
Charismatic nods. She does not look like she understands. She asks, “Can we pray for you?”
You don’t want them to pray for you, but you don’t know how to say no.
They shift closer, closing their eyes and opening their minds to the intervention of the Holy Spirit, as Charismatic told them to earlier. You sit in a silence broken only by the creaking of dorm furniture and the occasional awkward—or knowing?—titter. They ask God to put words in their mouths, the words that you need to hear.
Charismatic speaks first. She prays for healing. She prays for peace. She prays for you and you hate it. She says that the word God is telling her you need to hear is “berryblossom.” Sophomore 1 and Sophomore 2 join her. Their words are heavy on your shoulders and meaningless.
You’re crying now, damn you, and you can’t tell them why. You don’t know why, yet. Your tears elicit understanding nods and more fervent pleas for divine intervention. After all, wounds weep before they’re healed.
The minutes they’ve been praying at you feel like hours. Charismatic finally turns to you. Her eyes are shining and full of faith. She says, “I think God is telling me that you need to laugh.”
You stare at her. You don’t know how to tell her that you would rather pitch yourself out of her third-floor window than laugh in this moment. Honest to whatever God she thinks she can hear. So you don’t. You just do what you do whenever Clinical Depression makes a play for your life. You fight pain with pain. You punch your fingernails into the skin of your thumb, not deep enough to bleed but deep enough to leave four white crescents. And you shake your head.
You might apologize—for not being able to laugh, not being able to fake it. The expectant silence stretches off past awkwardness and into eternity.
They move on. They have no choice. They pray for Other Freshman’s scoliosis. They pray the words the Spirit brings to their lips. When it ends, you can tell from their satisfied faces that they are full.
You go back to your box-like room. It’s dark. Your roommate isn’t there. You can hear The Floor moving in the walls in like mice. You don’t know what to do. You call your mother. You tell her what happened, because you need to tell someone. You don’t know what you need to tell them, but you need to tell them. You’ve never been hurt by prayer before.
You don’t remember what your mother says. But you remember that she listens.
Maybe if you were then the person that you are now, you would have confronted Charismatic about it. Maybe you would have told her what she did to you. Maybe you would have told her that you know she meant well and you aren’t angry. Maybe you would have told her that your mental health is not a vehicle for the spiritual edification of strangers.
Either way, you don’t. You begin to avoid The Floor. You stop going to dinner with them. You stop going to dinner at all. You never have another conversation with Charismatic. You never go to Jesus chat again. You don’t first hear the phrase “spiritual abuse” until you talking to a pastor friend about it years later.
It does make you feel better to know that their prayers also failed to cure Other Freshman’s scoliosis, in the same way that it makes you feel better when an anti-vaxxer’s kid gets measles.
You think about it more than you should. You’ve tried to write the experience before. You’ve tried to write it as memoir. You’ve tried to write it as fiction. It’s never worked.
You’ve tried again. You still don’t know if you’ve gotten it right.