Another Scholarship-Winning Essay!

The following essay was a second-place winner in our Second Annual Scholarship Contest. It was written by Kieran Hogan, a high school senior from Pensylvania. Kieran was among 450 applicants from 44 states who wrote about a personal prayer experience and how that experience impacted their thoughts about our national tragedy of school shootings. He will be using his scholarship at the University of Vermont. This essay has been slightly edited for punctuation and space considerations.

Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, one year before I was born, we, as a nation, have slowly come to accept and normalize this unacceptable behavior. Is anyone really shocked when they read about the latest attack in the newspaper?

Do you scan Exits, like I do in a public assembly, in case you might just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? I do not have the perfect solution to this nightmare, but I think that if the young men who are, by and large, the biggest offenders, felt more connected to their community, and had a positive outlet for anger, these senseless killings would diminish. This problem is multifaceted but I truly believe the power of prayer, and a connection to God and community is as good a place as any to start to dismantle this crisis. I believe my own experience in finding God and prayer in my everyday life has given me peace, connection, and purpose, and that this is possible for anyone who wants it. They just need to look.

I come from a strong Catholic background. I have made four sacraments: Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist, and Confirmation; attended Mass, and studied scripture. It is who I am, it is what I did, and never questioned it, but I also never felt a complete connection to God until my grandmother was sick when I was fourteen. She was in the hospital and while I was wandering the halls, I stumbled into an empty chapel, softly lit with candles. I was spellbound. I knelt and prayed for my grandmother. I started with some standard Hail Marys and Our Fathers but then felt moved to just “talk” to God. My heart opened up; I was vulnerable. It was serene, and for the first time I can honestly say, I truly felt God’s presence. I was comforted and connected to God in that chapel in a way that I never had been before. I’m not sure if it was being alone, just talking to God without the repetitive back and forth of prayers from the congregation, my grief over my grandmother, my own budding maturity, or just being open to the gift of God’s presence.

What I do know is that in that moment in the hospital chapel, my relationship to God and prayer was forever changed. I no longer think that God only exists in a Mass with 500 people. God is everywhere if you just take a moment to look. Right around that time, I was also learning to row at my grandparents’ house in upstate New York. After a day of rowing on the Susquehanna, I had the same sense of peace, mental clarity and renewed connection to God as I did that day at the hospital chapel. It is on this river, punctuated by the beauty of nature all around me, that I find myself in a state of reverent flow where anything is possible. After that, I began to look for it.

It is in these moments that I now feel closest to God; nature has become my church; this is where I pray. Mihlay Csikszentmihalyi described this phenomenon in 1975 as flow : when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. He was not the first to talk about this practice; Eastern religions have been doing it for centuries. Now as a young man of eighteen, I think of myself as someone who is faithful, and values prayer, but realizes that God does not “live” in a church building. God is all around us and ready to listen when we are ready to speak.

My hope is that everyone could feel God’s presence the way I do when I am in nature. For now, I will focus on my peer group of disenfranchised young men, specifically, school shooters. They share a host of characteristics: social isolation, a history of blame, frustration, failure in school and relationships, and ugly posts on Facebook about hurting people. According to Scott Thompson of the Barrow News-Journal, for these boys, mass shooting have become a “weird, disturbed ritual”, which has become contagious. Mental illness is not contagious, but its symptoms are. If you have kid who feels alone and depressed and can get his hands on a gun: Disaster.

Society expects boys to be heroic and to disconnect from their feelings when they are in pain; this can lead to toxic masculinity. Often, when boys are upset, they turn it outward and say it is the fault of someone else and feel the need to get revenge. How many times are little boys told to stop “acting like a girl” when they are crying, as though it is a travesty? Truth be told, women are better at dealing with their emotions because it is socially more acceptable. We, as a society, need to do better and help these isolated, hurting young men express their anger in a healthy way and, just feel more connected.

How do we do this? Well, if the solution were easy, the problem would have concluded after Columbine. Society needs to stop pressuring young men to be tough and void of emotion - it is killing all of us. Little boys need to know it’s okay to be vulnerable, to talk about feelings and to feel a connection to something greater than themselves. In addition, a physical outlet like sports and exercise, rather than video games where the body count is all that matters, is critical. When young boys see the example of strong men in their lives, whether it is their dads, coaches , teachers, or public figures who are not afraid to be sensitive, caring, and introspective through prayer, it gives them permission to do the same.

Since my own epiphany with my relationship with God at fourteen, I have tried to do a few small things in my own life. I sit with students at my high school who are alone, make eye contact and just smile a little more. It takes little effort, and I may be the difference in someone’s empty, lonely life. During the summers, I am a counselor at a rowing camp on the Susquehanna and during the school year, I invite guys from high school whose invitations are few, to spend a day on the lake with me rowing. I enjoy mentoring, and as the oldest of three boys, it is a natural fit. I know something magical and spiritual happens on the lake; I can see it on their faces and because I can see myself in them. I do not have a crystal ball, but I am fairly confident that these young men will not try to solve their problems by shooting up a school, if they feel part of something. They may not fully understand that they are praying, or forging their own relationship with God in nature, or learning to connect with peers, but in that moment, they know something is different and they like it - and they begin to look for it. My hope is that everyone can find their own rowboat.