I used to pray the rosary every time I flew.
I seemed to have been born with a fear of flying. I stayed behind at my grandma’s house when I was 10 while my family went to Mexico for a wedding because I was too afraid of the airplane ride. I took my first flight when I was 19, and I prayed the rosary every day for at least 10 days before it. I prayed it on the plane, secretly beneath the jacket over my lap, afraid I’d offend the Jewish friend I was traveling with. I prayed it every night of the trip, beneath the hotel blankets, in preparation for the plane ride home. And of course, I prayed it on that return flight.
I don’t know exactly when I stopped praying the rosary on flights, but I think it was around the time I got married. After that, I clutched my husband’s hand in lieu of the rosary beads when I started to get anxious. Dropping the in-flight rosary habit had less to do with my marital status and more to do with my gradual move away from an unholy union in my spiritual life between Catholicism and superstition. Even though I knew it was illogical, deep down I believed that my safety depended on my rituals, that I was making some kind of bargain with God, that each flight I took arrived safely because I prayed those rosaries and not because air travel is incredibly safe.
My fear of flying hasn’t gone away with exposure, nor the fact that I’ve now survived dozens of flights. After returning from my most recent trip, I conducted an informal survey of my friends’ attitudes about flying. I was surprised to learn that my rosary-clutching style was more common than I thought. One friend admitted that she needs Valium to get through flights. Another said that she doesn’t mind flying, but that she “prays like crazy during take-off and landing.” And over beers, a third admitted, “I’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t have to pray the rosary when I fly anymore.”
This makes me wonder how many rosary beads flight attendants see in the course of their work.
I write this on the eve of Thanksgiving, and one of the things I will always be grateful for in my faith tradition is the dozens of prayers I’ve learned by rote so that my mind and my heart have something to say when panic creeps in. And I feel grateful for all the places I was able to see, the opportunities I was able to take, and the alcohol and valium I was able to avoid because the rosary was my faithful travel companion.
The pastor at my church grew up in the Baptist tradition, and she used to feel dismissive of faith adherents who used memorized prayers, who didn’t pray “from the heart” or “as the spirit moved them.” When she made a comment along these lines to her Episcopalian grandmother, her grandmother responded, “These words are like a window, and when I look through them, I can see God.”
Perhaps this is the secret behind all those rosaries on airplanes—that they give us a glimpse of something beautiful and familiar and safe, at a time when it feels as though we’ve left all that 30,000 feet below.