I met this weekend with a wonderful creature who drove from out of town for our gathering.
We’d connected briefly weeks ago, and something had sparked. So, nestling over tea and a perfectly whipped cappuccino, our conversation soared first, then spiraled, then finally came to rest on the topic of religion.
My visitor was a reverend, and I’d asked her what called her to ministry. The story she related, of moving with her family through church after church, looking for one that both honored the values they held dear without cleaving to archaic beliefs about– say– the position of women in service, had lead her first to a more distant denomination, and then, after that, to a school; it was this path that she followed ordination. Listening to her was heartbreaking– both to hear the experiences she’d undergone within the churches she’d first explored, and to recognize the way it mirrored a similar, if perhaps more broad, journeying in my own life.
And so it was this that we ended up discussing, and it was this that led me to write.
I was raised with no religion. I was raised with no formal education, either, and thus, as a small part of a schooling that consisted nearly wholly in books, was exposed to a feast of stories and texts, from the tales of the Greek and Roman and Norse gods and goddesses, to the nature-rich mythologies of Native America, to the panoply of wonderments from India and Africa and Asia. Amongst all these were included certain Christian and Judaic tales, but they were no more and no less revered than the magical beauty of the others. This was the extent of my exposure to any doctrine or church, and the result was a polite, if well-informed, agnosticism. Religion was lovely, I felt, but I was enchanted by the bigger questions, and in general it seemed optional, and not for me.
Aside from a passionate commitment to meditation through high school–a longer story, that–it wasn’t until college that things shifted. A professor of mine had assigned The Idea of the Holy in an elective introduction to religion, and (why is this still embarrassing to admit?) I remember, reading, late at night, and sobbing tears of recognition at this stilted Germanic articulation of the numinous.
I cried because it was so familiar; because so much of my wild and outside childhood had been characterized by a wide-eyed enchantment with a certain nameless Holy Other that moved through the world, that quivered in nature, that leapt up to surprise me with a poignant and painful awe at something so beautiful, so powerful, so wholly indifferent that all I could feel was awe, and wonder, and love. I cried because this was my secret, this was my love, and to see it written like this, described so perfectly, was both a relief beyond imagination, and humbling. This was what religion celebrated? This is what I was cherishing alone, when I could be, could be, with others?
I eventually ended up taking a graduate degree in Transpersonal Psychology, a field with a nondenominational openness to spirituality, and in the process was exposed even further to different religious beliefs and different paths. I was still meditating. I was still highly, painfully sensitized to the sacred, and still embarrassingly prone to rapture. And I was still without a church, without a faith, without a home.
My companion looked expectant. And?
And that’s where I am today.
I told her I envied her, a little, her path toward ordination, and her home within a more enlightened Christianity. I told her I envied, in some ways, all those who were raised within a particular tradition, all those who had both ritual and lineage, who could share what I too-often experienced as an uncontainable and overwhelming reverence or awe. I told her I tried, for the most part, not to think of it.
So why not choose?
They are all so wonderful, and so rich, and so true; they are all so bloody and so broken; they are all so beautiful, and so terrible. I could not possibly. I could not possibly. I would feel as though I have no right to take up the burden and the blessings of one over another, and would not want to pick one at the exclusion of the rest. And so I’m in this pathetic position of limbo, unable or unwilling to choose, wholly dissatisfied with the banality of the growing ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ crowd in this country, and wondering what to do next.
We talked, then, more, of universals within religion (including the universal subjugation of women within the five prevailing), and what the future might bring, and ended with no resolution save a hug and the promise to connect again soon. The whole conversation made me wish I were more brave about the topic in general, and made me wonder what I was missing in being so shy, and so embarrassed about, this wretched and sorry struggle. It made me think, too, about what I was denying others; I have read and heard countless stories of angst about being raised within a church, but few express the flailing of what it is like for those of us who are left outside.
This story, obviously, is unfinished. This story remains that of an ungrateful areligious mystic, enchanted and humbled by the glorious and brutal panoply of choices, and aching to believe them all.
This story, again, is unfinished, and I do not know what will happen, or where to go, next.