Every so often I find myself in a loving little Lutheran church on Sunday mornings. A friendly usher stands next to our pew as I flash her my best “I’d love to but, you know, food allergies and all” smile and wave her on. But it’s not just the food allergies.
A few months back, because I was feeling exceptionally brave, I closed my eyes in an attempt at reverence and meditation, mentally opening up a box I’d kept super-glued for years. The label on the box read: Pre-Communion Prayer.
Suddenly, as if I’d crashed through an emotional wormhole, I wasn’t sitting in a pew next to my husband; I sitting in the youth group portable with my tiny plastic communion cup and itty-bitty cracker balanced on my thigh, crying.
The evangelical church I was raised in only did communion once a month, so when we did do it we made a pretty big fuss about it. The lights were often turned down low, the worship band would sing a soft chorus about our utter wretchedness and lack-of-even-a-speck-of-goodness on repeat. And we’d be instructed to wait to ingest our tiny cup of grape juice (we didn’t serve wine, that would’ve been too Catholic for us) and tiny square cracker until we’d patched up our relationship with God.
In a way, communion was like the religious version of when your parent says, “I just want you to sit there and think about what you’ve done.” Everything had to be confessed, even the sins you didn’t remember committing because those showed that you didn’t take breaking God’s Law seriously enough to even bother paying attention.
If communion was being served at the front of the sanctuary (rather than being passed around on a plate) and we were told to come when we were ready, I was usually one of the last people out of my chair. I’d pray so much; I’d pray so hard. I’d feel so guilt-ridden that I’d always cry. At the time if anyone had noticed they might have thought of it as piety, but looking back I can see where my religious trauma came from.
There was a lot of guilt, shame, and self-hatred hanging in the air.
The official Christian term for “Just sit there and think about what you’ve done” is meditating on your depravity. And unfortunately, it was a spiritual discipline I made a point of incorporating into my daily devotions from the time I was young because I knew communion once a month just wasn’t enough time for me to confess my sins and meditate on my wretched state.
Total depravity, the doctrine that I was completely bad to the bone, shaped not only my quiet time with God but how I viewed humanity generally and myself specifically.
To this day if someone says, “You deserve [insert a good thing that just happened]” part of me flinches because I’ve been told so many times that I don’t deserve anything good. If I were to truly get what I deserve, children’s Sunday school teachers and pastors and parents taught me, I’d be damned to do the backstroke in a lake of hellfire for all eternity. When someone says something kind like, “You’re a good person” a heresy-shudder runs down my spine, even though I don’t believe it is heresy anymore. When someone says I’m perfect just the way I am, I can’t help lowering my eyebrows at the beautiful but spiritually suspicious words.
This is my self-worth, broken for You. This is my self-esteem, poured out for You.
I forced my eyes open as my heart raced, my self-worth crumbled, and my eyes began to fill with the all too familiar guilt-ridden tears. The moment of reflection was over. Not a single person sitting around me in the little Lutheran church was crying. There was no pre-communion guilt-tripping by the pastor like I had experienced growing up in toxic church. There was no guilt-inducing mood music. The lights hadn’t even been dimmed. But I felt as if I was going to start shaking.
“This is my body, broken for you,” the pastor recited in his warm, friendly voice as we moved on to communion. Just breathe, I told myself. Just breathe. “This is my blood, poured out for you.” Just breathe.
This originally appeared on Kelsey’s blog KelseyMunger.com where she regularly writes about many things, including spirituality, religious trauma, and healing.