"Let us remember, that we are in the holy presence of God."
I hear this seven times a day, five days a week. At Saint Mary's College High School, every class starts with prayer.
This unfamiliar practice used to irritate me every day, a pointless ritual that wasted time and turned students into mindless robots. As a freshman, I pointedly looked bored or stared ahead defiantly, hoping to scandalize the teacher.
Before Saint Mary's, I didn't have much contact with religion. Christmas was about presents, carols and Santa. Easter was about eggs and candy. But my family's lack of religion didn't mean a lack of values. I was taught to treat others with respect and kindness through example -- no holy book required. My secular middle school emphasized helping others.
In my mind, "religious" meant uneducated, childish and bigoted. I associated it with people like Pat Robertson, who use religion to condemn, rather than Martin Luther King, who used it to inspire.
It wasn't until my junior year that I considered the benefits of prayer. I started to really listen, and I began to see what it was all about. In the middle of prayer, the leader will ask, "Are there any intentions?" meaning, "Are there any special prayers?" Some prayers are silly and shallow. But others make me realize that my classmates think more about other people than I would have guessed. I've heard prayers for the victims of natural disasters, the unemployed and the homeless. I've heard prayers of gratitude for health, family and opportunities.