By Meisaan Chan
It came as a surprise when I started hearing Lake Michigan pray the Hail Mary, as I had left Christianity a long time ago. I live in Chicago, across the street from Lake Michigan, who I have come to regard as a dear friend. I have a best human friend who is Latina, and originally she and I had debated furiously about the lake; the lake is male, she insisted: el lago. “El” signifies masculine. I do not care what the Romantic languages label the lake, I retorted. She is feminine. She changes every day, sometimes multiple times within the day. She goes from ice to water to vapor to water again. Her waves can explode in massive anger or gently lap upon the shore. She is pulled by the moon. She can take any shape. She is feminine.
Begrudgingly, my friend acquiesced.
I regularly go to the lake, where Spirit has slowly taught me how to be present to the numinous. Additionally, Spirit has not just taught me how to regard the lake as an observer, but how to enter into her as a lover. One day, as I was walking along the shore, my feet in the water, I became entranced by the rhythm of the waves and allowed myself to enter deeply into the gentle pulsing of the water against the earth. But this time, I suddenly heard something else, something surprising and confusing: I heard the Hail Mary.
This can’t be true, I said to myself. I’m no longer Catholic. I must be imagining things.
But I listened more deeply, and it was irrefutable: The words of the Hail Mary were aligning with the rhythm of the waves. The words-beyond-the-words resounded out across the water and into the pulsing of my blood:
Hail Mary, full of grace, [crash] the Lord is with thee [crash]
blessed art thou among women [crash] and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus [crash]
At first, I was embarrassed. How could this rejected part of me sneak back into my prayer time? I had to be imagining things. I had to be wrong. I stopped walking and gazed intensely out upon the lake, watching the waves roll in. Listening.
It was undeniable. The lake was praying the Hail Mary.
This deeply troubled me. I had so vehemently rejected anything having to do with Christianity, I had walked away so clearly from anything with the faintest whiff of it – how could it be that now, the lake, my dear friend, was re-introducing me to the Hail Mary, not in any sort of Catholic setting but within the very essence of her numinosity?
The next time I went to the lake, I apprehensively listened for it again, and there it was: The Hail Mary. How dare she do this to me, making a safe prayer time suddenly unsafe with Catholic vestiges? As the days and months went by, though, my resistance started to soften. If there was any safe prayer partner, it was the lake. How could she be dogmatic or injurious? Perhaps she was showing me that a safe practice of praying at the lake had not turned unsafe with the Hail Mary; on the other hand, perhaps she was turning an unsafe practice safe.
As I kept returning and kept hearing, it gradually started to make sense. The lake is praying the Hail Mary. Is that not one of the reasons why people all over the world, across time, have been drawn to the prayer? The rhythm? The comforting and soothing pulsing of love that washes over them? Perhaps this gentle pulsing of love is not only like the gentle pulsing of waves upon the shore, but also the gentle motion of water within the womb. In that sense, the Hail Mary, when aligned with water, returns us to our primal knowing, our elemental existence: The loving throb of water, the womb, the endless circulation of love. I had never been taught this take on Catholicism. But here, my friend was reintroducing me to Catholicism through the side door, outside of any sort of church setting, outside of any sort of authority, hierarchy, prescribed ritual or dogma. Instead, she was showing me one of her secrets, praying the Hail Mary not in any way that humans prescribed, but in the way that she herself has claimed, where the Hail Mary is embedded within the elements and accountable only to Spirit.
I soon found that any time there was a definitive wave pattern, there was the Hail Mary. Even more so, I found myself even praying out loud the Hail Mary in rhythm with the waves, aligning myself with the water, the wind, the pull of the moon. In this, I found a new freedom. I never prayed the Hail Mary outside of my new prayer partner. But whenever I did pray with her, this new way of praying now granted a deep, wordless solace and an alignment to the earth in a way that the church never taught. In that, there was healing and the acceptance of the path. My religious roots influence my spiritual experience but do not contain it. My religious roots provide only the beginning of my experiences, and the beginning can look very different than the end.
Experiencing my prayer with the lake leads me to think of other things. Which came first, the water or the prayer? Water, clearly, is older than prayer. So when prayer aligns with water, it’s aligning with something ancient, something wordless, the nameless spirit that puts form and human utterances to the rhythm set in motion by divine force. The moon, water, waves, and Hail Mary – all are deep feminine power with an elegance that can be both tremendously terrible and tender. When prayer aligns with water, it’s aligning with something close to God, a form and substance of the numinous that is aligned with the deeper source. Likewise, the four elements – air, water, earth, fire – are older than prayer. Learn from them, our mentors. And aligning our prayer to the elements is knowing our place in the world and knowing the beginning of our relationship with them.
One August morning, I awoke early and decided I would go to the lake and watch the sunrise. As I approached the beach and the blush of dawn, the crescent moon and north star hung elegantly in the sky. The gulls called in triumph, and the waves were gentle and steady. As the waves gently caressed the pier, I breathed slowly and entered into the Hail Mary. As the water rolled on and the words softly rolled through the mouth, I disappeared into the sky, the substance and the ether, whispering the words until the words ceased, until the rhythm continued to pulse within me until even the pulsing ceased. The golden sun slowly rose and caressed the rolling waters, and I breathed until my own breathing ceased, until all was substance beneath the substance, space within the void.
Meisaan Chan is one of SDI’s New Contemplatives and an activist in the realms of justice, compassion, and spirituality. She posts daily spiritual haikus, parables and embodied movement meditations on her website www.curvingtowardthecenter.com. Under her English name, Crystal Chan, she is an internationally published children’s author through Simon & Schuster. She can be found on Facebook, encouraging people to walk the way of compassion.