Thursday, January 06, 2011

Spiritual Journeys

I shan't open this post with promises to post more. Unfortunately for my fond desire to become an internet blogging sensation, I am only occasionally moved to post- occasionally, apparently, being once a year. But here I am again!

I have been asked by my Meeting to present at a new institution for us: the Spiritual Breakfast. A member is to come and speak about their spiritual path, over breakfast and coffee provided by Ministry and Counsel. Mine is the second of these events, and I did not make it to the first, so I have no idea what is expected of me. I have, however, been given a list of questions to respond to. At first I thought they were frustratingly vague, but after putting them away for a while and then returning, I have found them more fruitful.

I have an hour and fifteen minutes, including questions. In order to fill it in, I have been working through the questions provided. My first thought was to create merely a rough outline of what I might say. I seem, however, to think in conversational essays. Which are the stuff blogs are made of.

Here are the questions:

When did you first identify that your life was/is a spiritual journey?

What are the important elements of your spiritual process now?

At this point in your spiritual journey can you identify some patterns/ways in which the Spirit is leading you?

Do you have a favorite(s) passage, reading, poem, hymn or image that is meaningful to you to share with the group?

Who has been a spiritual role model or mentor? How and in what ways?

This is a rather formidable list, especially as I took the first question as an opportunity to describe my journey thus far. I also found that my answer to it encompassed my answer to the fifth question. Here is what I have written thus far, edited for a blog audience.

Conversational Essay #1: When did you first identify that your life was/is a spiritual journey? and Who has been a spiritual role model or mentor? How and in what ways?

I've always believed that life was a spiritual experience. I was born Catholic.  However, I didn't see it so much as a journey. It seemed like a home, the final destination. I don't remember a moment when doubt first began, but I do remember a moment on the school bus when I said, 'All right, God, I think you don't exist, but if you do, you should give me some big sign, like a bolt of lightning, so I'll know.' And He didn't. Faith then seemed very black and white to me: God was or He wasn't, and there was no room for doubt. So that was that.

Years went by.  I never lost my sense that there was Something Bigger, be that the Goddess or Ethics or humanity's accomplishments, and by turns I tried neo-paganism and atheism and Unitarian Universalism. I believe I even attended a Quaker Meeting once or twice.  Nothing stuck.

I feel as if I talk about my conversion experience all the time, so I apologize if you've heard this before. However, this story remains central to the narrative of my faith today so I'm going to tell it anyway. A version of this story was published in the on-line edition of Friends Journal this summer: Christ Stopped Me on the Highway.

In college I dated an abusive man, whose main technique for keeping me in the relationship was convincing me that if I left him I would be a horrible person, that my only personal value was in dating him, and nothing that I wanted to accomplish independently in life amounted to much, etc. Understandably, I was miserable.

A little bit of advice for those who may know folk in similar situations- be very careful about slamming the abuser in front of the abused, because unless the victim is quite ready to admit that she is a victim- and most aren't, right away- you will shut out her confidences. This is what happened to me. I felt that I could not confide in my friends because they would only say bad things about my boyfriend, and I was not ready to face those truths. Since my boyfriend was simultaneously trying to keep me from spending time with my friends, whom he called 'a bad influence,' I felt increasingly isolated.

During all of this, and almost out of the blue (or at least that's how it seems in retrospect), I came to rely on one friend in particular. He was one of approximately three conservative Christians on my very liberal college campus. He didn't approve of sex before marriage, and I was sleeping with my boyfriend. I was studying evolutionary biology, and he didn't really believe in evolution. I hadn't known him very well prior to my crisis.

Nevertheless, the first time I turned to him in a moment of lonely desperation, he was there for me. He would stay up until dawn listening to me if I needed an ear, once drove two or three miles through a blizzard to come hold my hand in the middle of the night, and eventually, when my boyfriend grew physically aggressive, stepped between the two of us to protect me.

I would ask him all sorts of question about his religion. For instance, I was concerned that he might think less of me for having sex before marriage, although I never felt judged in his company. I can't remember this conversation exactly, but I seem to recall that he looked at me like I had two heads and said something along the lines of, 'Just because what you do wrong is public doesn't make you a worse person than I am, when I make mistakes all the time in private,' or words to that effect.

I also asked him how and why he had done all of that for someone he barely knew at the time. He told me, “I don't have the strength to do this. It's not I who is doing this for you, but Christ through me.”

This was the single most important moment in my conversion, although it didn't end there- in fact it barely began there.

 I had thought religion was a matter of intellectual belief. You either thought that Jesus was raised from the dead or you didn't, much the same way you thought that a^2 + b^2 = c^2, or you didn't. And if you couldn't believe in a set of religious propositions the way you believed in a set of mathematic or historical or scientific propositions, then there was nothing traditional religion could do for you.

This one moment changed everything for me, because it was my first glimpse of transformative religion, a religion not about accepting propositions but about letting oneself be utterly changed and made new by the love and grace of God. I think, also, this was my first taste of what I would later come to call redemption.  Although I felt worthless in my terrible relationship, the love of Christ redeemed me, gave me worth again.  In His eyes, as I could see them through the eyes of my friend, I knew I was worthy of love.

Sister Helen Prejean said to the men she was ministering to on Death Row, “No one should die without seeing a loving face. I will be the face of Christ to you.”

I decided that whether or not I could accept propositions (deciding I could accept them would come later), I wanted to be that face of Christ for someone in need, and therefore I wanted to be a Christian.

The question was, what sort of Christian would I be?

That summer I had an internship in a biology lab in South Carolina. All of us interns shared housing in nearby apartments. My room-mate, and indeed most of the other participants in the program, were conservative Christians. Several of them attended the same church and Bible study, and I was invited to attend as well, but I felt too uncomfortable to accept.  My friend from home had (and still has) a remarkable capacity for showing the same love to a person no matter how deeply he disagrees with their actions or beliefs.  The people here, while pleasant, did not have that gift, and I felt like an outsider.

So I was lonely twice a week when my room-mate left for Bible study and church.  I called my mother to complain, who wisely suggested, “Try looking up the Quakers.”

I grew up about 20 minutes from Old Chatham Monthly Meeting of New York Yearly Meeting. You might know it- it's held at Powell House, which is also NYYM's retreat center. Anyway, I had been there a time or two (as mentioned way back in paragraph two), it was lovely, and my mother's suggestion fell on fertile ground.

There is a strong unprogrammed Quaker presence in South Carolina, including a meeting in Columbia, where I was living. Although all the attenders knew I was only there for the summer, I was taken in warmly. I went to Meeting, Worship-sharing, a lunch or two out at an Indian restaurant, and a long march against nuclear weapons with a pair of Buddhist monks and attenders of this meeting.

The silence of that Meeting held me.  Not only were the attenders gracious, but the worship was deep, some of the deepest I've known.  That summer, I felt as if every Meeting for Worship was the pulse of my heart, propelling me through the days to return, each week, back to Meeting.

One couple in particular stood out. They had been called to prison ministry, and exchanged letters with a mentally ill and imprisoned man.  I gathered that he had been imprisoned for crimes related, more or less, to being mentally ill and homeless. When he was released, they took him in, arranged for his housing, and drove him to and fro, including to Meeting where he seemed to be welcomed by all. As my friend had, they seemed to take their good works for granted- an integral part of their faith and life, not something extra that they deserved praise for.

And that, I believe, is when I decided that of all kinds of Christian, I would be a Quaker.