The first time I went to church as an adult, I had been up all night drinking in a friend’s living room. Tumbling home as the morning mist enveloped the common near my flat, almost nothing was visible but the church spire on one corner. Going to bed seemed a let down: I had finished a book on the bus and felt wired and awake. Instead, I crept into the church and sat at the back, intermittently burning myself on a hot radiator and feeling the effects of the unholy volume of wine I had drunk drift away. The bell rang, the congregation stood and a cloud of incense delivered the priest. The next hour passed in a haze of kneeling, chants and actions built into my muscle memory.
Growing up in south Wales in the 90s, religion had not been of great importance to my family. Catholicism was little more than a duty to baptise the babies and something you did to widen your school choices. It was a slight background hum that only grew louder for births, weddings and deaths.
At university and throughout my 20s, I hadn’t really bothered with God, too consumed by books, politics and socialising. On holidays, I would visit cathedrals, dip my hand in the holy water and light a candle, but I never attended mass or spent any time wrestling theological conundrums at night when I couldn’t sleep. When asked, which was rarely, I would describe myself as vaguely agnostic, with a shrug: atheism was something fervent, a performative macho sphere populated by fans of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that prevented me from tipping over.
Then, in 2017, just after the general election, Grenfell Tower caught fire. In the days that followed, I spent hours talking to locals, those who escaped and the families of those who had not. Local churches opened their doors to receive donations and offer support and refuge.
One evening, speaking to a woman who was close to tears because her friend was missing, she grasped the pendant around my neck – a Miraculous Medal I had been given by a family member – then fixed her eyes on me and asked me to pray for her. I was sorely out of practice but not remotely in a position to say no.
Taking a few minutes to pray for someone in need, centre them in your thoughts and focus on hoping their hardships and pain would lift seemed such a small thing to do. We were surrounded by piles of toys, clothes and food, too many to be used: people were doing what they could to feel as if they were being generous to people in a desperate situation. Offering a prayer for someone seemed materially inconsequential but weighted with significance: it is easy to give money without any thought, or volunteer time without too much emotional investment, but a prayer genuinely prioritisies someone else over your own emotions.
All around Grenfell, people were praying for others, themselves and victims they didn’t know. I felt hollowed out for many reasons, not least exhaustion from working every day for months and seeing people for whom faith was a grounding influence awakened something in the back of my mind. The idea that people owe nothing to each other because we are simply active piles of flesh is the thinking of a sociopath: you need an order for society to function. For some people, that is a philosophy, or a political ideology that creates a system through which we can connect and sustain each other. For me and others, it turned out to be faith.
After that period, I started going to church regularly. There were other reasons: I was bored with my life and feeling emotionally bruised after a drawn out breakup. My mind wasn’t to be outdone by my body, however, and a back problem that causes tumours to grow in my spinal cord flared up, my epilepsy worsened and endometriosis continued to imitate an overexcited set of knives in my abdomen. Painkillers helped to some extent, but going to church, kneeling and focusing intently on prayer became a form of meditation, an exercise in forcing the mind to overcome immediate physical discomforts, but also brought clarity in emotional terms. The calm you feel in a church is unmatched: silence filling the high ceilings, the candlelit warmth leaving you feeling far more settled.
Outside of this individual experience, the biggest change for me was in the communities I was pulled into: locals with different political views and jobs I would never normally encounter; far-flung friends made online who feel a connection with you purely through faith. It is far easier to construct an echo chamber in your social circle than it is to make friends with people very different from you. Faith communities force you to do that, but also offer unflinching support without being asked.
All we share in common is what we do for an hour each Sunday. Life still remains difficult, as it does for everyone, and certain periods and calamities make each day harder, but a small routine – a universal pattern of chanting, praying, kneeling and sharing bread – has given me a framework to focus on and a regularity in an otherwise chaotic life.