When I was younger, my family did not really understand my growing interest in anime, video games, or table top role playing games (TTRPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons. Those were the things that I did “on my own time.” They were interests that my church didn’t share either; most people considered such hobbies child-like and inappropriate for a “mature person of faith.” And so my nerd life was always separate from my faith life, sometimes even set up directly in opposition to it.
It should be no wonder then—even though I now have wonderful friends and connections who support my love for nerdy things, I struggle to pray. I have struggled to feel connected to a God whose representatives in my earlier phase of life shunned the things I got excited about, the things I cared about, the things I loved. And so my faith has developed along a more intellectual route, leaving the rest of me behind.I was writing some backstory for one of them (a female half-orc captain of my city watch named Anakar Razoreye) … and something popped up into my head: “Andrew, you are praying.”
Ideally, I think prayer is more than simply telling God what we want. I have no problem with that. I think that prayer is primarily about entering into the presence of God and about opening ourselves up to the work that God is doing around us, in us, and through us, that we might learn how to participate in it. As a person of faith, let alone a clergyperson, it has been difficult for me to feel as if I cannot fully access this connection.
Kneeling beside my bed doesn’t engage me like I feel it should, plus I feel like I am just talking to an empty room. Contemplative prayer, it turns out, is actually a lot harder than most people let on. I have tried Eastern Orthodox “breath prayers” as I was told they were a good way to focus my attention on the present moment and ease myself into God’s presence meditatively. Yet I still felt as if I wasn’t feeling what I was supposed to. I have used the guided reflective prayer model of St. Ignatius’ daily examen and while this was interesting as far as guided reflection on my day goes, I can never seem to get through it without being interrupted. I have even begun an exploring Christian and Jewish mysticism and meditation, trying to push beyond where my intellect and consciousness can take me in prayer, but that takes years of practice and patience and self-cultivation.
There is a very good possibility that I am just going about all of these things the wrong way or that prayer is a “discipline” for a reason (i.e. it takes practice and hard work), but part of me has longed for something that just “clicks.” I long to feel connected to God, I long to feel God shaping my heart, I long to know that my sense for living out the life of love I feel called to is growing stronger. Until now, that longing has been largely unanswered.
Something changed this past week when I was prepping to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for some friends and attempting to craft up some compelling NPCs. Nothing kills buy-in to a campaign than weak, two-dimensional NPCs. I was writing some backstory for one of them (a female half-orc captain of my city watch named Anakar Razoreye), thinking through the contours of her life, her strengths, her brokenness, and something popped up into my head: “Andrew, you are praying.”I have struggled to feel connected to a God whose representatives in my earlier phase of life shunned the things I got excited about …
I couldn’t wrap my head around that at first, but here I was, engaging in something that brings me joy, creating characters with complex and life-like backstories and motivations, and I was feeling the peace and contentedness that I had been attempting to tap into in my convoluted attempts at a prayer life. This got me thinking: if prayer is about entering into God’s presence and allowing the ourselves to be more aware of God’s work in, around, and through us, then maybe I was praying. After all, isn’t this what we are “supposed” to experience when we are in God’s presence (i.e. peace, joy, contentedness, etc).
I was pouring my all into shaping this character, into writing them into existence, all of their faults and their triumphs, the things that they enjoyed and the things that they feared, their hobbies and their work. And as I was getting to know my character, as I was thinking deeply about the complexities of their story, or the fact that they didn’t truly feel real until they had hurts and anxieties and actual concerns in their life, wasn’t God shaping me through that to be a more empathetic person? Forming my heart to seek after the stories of the people around me rather than reduce them to two-dimensionality? If I understood the need of empathy to make my character human, why would I not extend the same courtesy to those around me? And maybe, in the same vein, I would be able to understand the pain and struggle in my own life as a part of my story that makes me a compelling human being or, more importantly, that makes me “me.”
When I look over player characters that I have created, I see different facets of myself in them, facets that always came into play during campaigns. The characters became extensions of my own person and through play—I was engaging in self-reflection. Through play, I was inviting my faults and strengths to be exposed, I was laying my heart out bare (even if only in the sight of God), I was learning what I wanted to be like and what I didn’t want to be like in every encounter.
Character creation has become the form of prayer that I have been searching for. Sure, I am not actively telling God what I want or thanking God with my words, but I am certainly entering into God’s presence and being shaped towards being a better version of myself, a more loving version of myself, I am being made into a servant of peace who sets aside snap judgments in favor of recognizing the complexity of personhood, and I am expressing thanks to God by engaging wholeheartedly in the things that I love.
Looking back over last 10 years during which I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons and creating characters, I can see how I have changed and developed. I can see the fingerprints of God on my Player’s Handbook and on my heart. And, if I am honest, I am surprised. My nerd hobbies have always been something that have felt divorced from my faith, things that were happening over there that I had to leave behind when I went to church and participated in the community of faith. To see now the presence of God in their very midst is both startling and sort of a “duh” moment. Of course there is nowhere that I can go where God is not present and working. It is obvious now, but was shrouded for so long by the words of others, the silent judgments, the implied minimizations of my hobbies’ importance in the eyes of my fellow people of faith. And yet here I am, looking at feats that might fit my next character’s story well in my newfound prayer book.
If this is true for a nerd like me, it makes me wonder if it is true for nerds like you. Maybe your thing isn’t D&D. Maybe it is becoming your favorite character by making an awesome outfit for cosplay. Maybe your thing is creating hospitable places in video games full of toxic people and building camaraderie based on encouragement in the midst of that. Maybe it’s diving deep into a story and saturating yourself with the characters’ arcs, memorizing all the details and paying close attention to their growth in adversity. I don’t know since I can’t speak for you. What I do know is that in my journey to find God in prayer, I found out that God meets us in the midst of these things that we love. I learned that God is a nerd too.