The worn hinges squeak as I pull the heavy wooden door open. Inside is a cavernous room, its walls made of stone. Looking back at me is a fireplace with a wrought-iron log holder that reminds me of an overgrown spider. The stone surrounding it is scarred with black ash.
It’s dim in here; two small hexagon windows let in only a fraction of the sunlight on this relatively bright November day. A chalice rests on each sill. A few stones stick further out from the wall; on them, the remnants of candles.
Though the chapel has a vaguely druid quality, it too closely resembles a church from the organized religion I gave up many years ago.
I came to give thanks, but the chapel asks me to kneel, to pray, to light a candle, and that no longer feels authentic to me.
How does one give thanks outside of religion?
I thank my friends, family, strangers who make my coffee. But I am also thankful for a goodness that can’t be assigned to mere mortals ― a goodness, I feel, that is bigger than we are. Sure, I’ve accomplished things myself that contributed to my happiness, but I don’t feel I can take all the credit. So what deserves that credit? The universe? The energy around me? The earth? It’s not clear. But what is clear to me is it’s not a deity.
I came to the chapel to say “thank you,” but instead, I say, “No, thank you.” I close the door, turning my back on the stone structure built into the side of the hill.
The chapel is just one of the many religious markers on the 60-plus acres of this property used for retreats that I travel to several weekends a year. There are statues of Mary or Joseph peeking out from under bushes, but also Buddhas sitting quietly next to benches. There are crosses that seem to pop up out of the grass, but also symbols of other faiths and ways of thinking. This place celebrates sacredness in whatever form you like.
I prefer neither the Christian symbols nor those of any other belief system. I no longer believe in a superior being, much to my mother’s disappointment. She is a devout Catholic and tried to raise her children to be the same. Our Catholic community was a meaningful part of my childhood; for those memories, I will always be thankful.
But thankful to whom? No one, I guess.
“I don’t believe pop stars win awards because they pray more than others. I don’t believe football players make touchdowns because God has chosen them to.”
As a child, I would thank God. I would kneel on the ground, fold my hands together, and look up to the sky. “Thank you for keeping me and my family safe,” was part of my daily evening prayers. The other part was my asking for something: more protection, more love, more patience. “Please, God, help me to...” I would say. If I didn’t receive what I asked for, then I would feel it was my fault. I had failed to please God. I wasn’t worthy to receive what I desired.
In America, God and thankfulness are often intertwined. When people are thankful, they frequently use the word “blessed.” God has blessed them, blessed their lives, has chosen for whatever divine reason to shower His good graces on them. And in return, they worship Him ― unless they are ungrateful, and then, we’re often told, they deserve to go to hell.
I don’t use the word “blessed” anymore.
Instead, I say “lucky.” I don’t believe in luck, exactly, only the arbitrariness of my good fortune. My life is merely a smattering of circumstances. If any of those circumstances had been changed in any way anywhere along the way, so would my life be changed.
I prefer this view. I will not believe in a God who gets to choose which people suffer. If people suffer, it’s because circumstances of life happen, and whatever those circumstances happen to be either end up causing suffering or they don’t. Likewise, I do not believe that good people get rewarded for being good. I don’t believe pop stars win awards because they pray more than others. I don’t believe football players make touchdowns because God has chosen them to.
I don’t think there was a day where I woke up and decided that I was an atheist. It happened over time, as I experienced more inequalities in the world, as I learned more about science, as I witnessed more suffering. My parents mourn that I won’t one day join them in heaven, but the only place I’ve planned on going for a while now is the ground, where my body can nourish the earth and my energy can give life to something else.
We believe in what gives us the most comfort. For my parents, eternity is their comfort. I personally like the idea of a more definitive end. It gives my time here on earth more meaning to know I only have the amount of breaths I take every day to be the best person I can be. And since I’ve given up God, I feel more satisfied being the best person I can be for me instead of following anyone else’s instructions for living.
Now that I’m in my 30s, I often reflect on who I’ve become and where my life is going. I’m lucky to be privileged enough to have the time and means to visit this beautiful property a few times a year to clear my head, do some writing and commune with nature.
I wish to show my appreciation for everything I have and all the things I’ve learned so far. But how? And to whom or what do I give thanks?
As I hike across the prairie, away from the stone chapel, I consider the upcoming holiday designated to giving thanks. I think of my family — my brother, our spouses, our children, and my mother — soon to be gathered around a table full of delectable foods.
Our Catholic upbringing ingrained in us since childhood that dinner is off-limits until we hold hands, bow our heads and my mother recites “Bless us, O, Lord, and these, Thy gifts,” or my brother offers a freestyle list of how we have all been blessed by God. I hold their hands, but instead of bowing my head and closing my eyes, I simply wait. I appreciate that they are thankful, and I’m thankful for the same things they are. But sitting at the table, eyes open, mouth closed, I appear ungrateful to them.
And then Christmas arrives soon after. Some people go out of their way to remind us that “Christ is the reason for the season,” and insist the proper way to greet people is with a “Merry Christmas” instead of the more inclusive “Happy Holidays.” Their insistence that all gratitude and celebration must be devoted to a Christian God excludes not only people of other faiths, but atheists like me; it inflicts a guilt of sorts on those who just want to enjoy the snow, the trees, the twinkle lights. They dismiss our perspective by telling us it’s not enough to wish each other a happy holiday season ― thanks are always owed to God.
But my experience after leaving Catholicism proves otherwise.
Even when God is gone, gratefulness remains.
“Without God, I’m more aware of how my actions affect others and affect my surroundings.”
Without God, I’m more aware of how my actions affect others and affect my surroundings. I don’t expect God to save our planet, so now I’m more careful about what I throw away and I eat less meat. I don’t expect God to save humanity, so now I speak out against hate and try to be more patient and loving with my fellow humans. When tragedy comes, I don’t send thoughts and prayers; I give hugs and meals and help where I can.
I sometimes mourn not being part of the big Christian community in this country. It usually feels like I’m in the minority rather than the majority. But then I remember that now I’m part of a bigger community — the human community, the earth-dwelling community. Since I’ve cut God out of my life, I have so much more room for everyone else.
I turn onto a gravel path that takes me to a valley. In that valley, a labyrinth has been carved out in the tall grasses. It’s the perfect autumn afternoon to meander through the maze.
As I walk, crispy stalks of hay sway in the breeze, brushing my hands and my cheeks. I collect dried leaves on the toe of my shoe and kick them so I can hear them rustle. I feel my cheeks glowing with redness from the nipping air, so I stop and turn to face the sun. I raise my face, close my eyes and let the sun’s rays thaw my chilled cheeks. Then I continue on, a smile across my lips.
When I reach the clearing at the labyrinth’s end, I find a bouquet of dried flowers tied together with twine resting on a rock. An altar.
I feel compelled to kneel before it, to wrap my hands together, to give thanks for this splendid day of perfect beauty, for being allowed to observe it and appreciate it.
I do fall to my knees, but instead of folding my hands, I plant them on the earth, then allow my forehead to follow. I hug the ground, and instead of sending my prayers up to heaven, I whisper them into the grass.
Jennifer Furner holds a master’s degree in literature and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and daughter. She is a freelance writer and editor, works at a library and is working on publishing her first memoir. You can find more of her writing on her website, jenniferfurner.com, and on her Medium page.