EFM, YEAR ONE
MY SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY
I was baptised as an infant in the first United Methodist Church in Richmond, Kentucky.
My preschool churchgoing days were happy. I liked the potlucks and the singing. I do, however, remember sitting in a Sunday school class listening to the teacher tell a story and feeling with every fiber of my being that what she was telling wasn't the truth. I shifted my gaze from her face to a shaft of sunlight coming through the window. That was the first time I felt myself stand gently to the side of the Church.
When I was seven, my mother who has been a church organist since the age of 12, took a substitute job at the Episcopal Church in town and had a conversion experience. She came home and told us that we were Episcopalians now. Shortly thereafter she accepted a full time position at a small interdenominational church led by an Episcopal priest. My brother and I were two of about six children who attended the church. There was no Sunday school, no formation. Our priest was a brilliant theologian and a phenomenal preacher but he wasn't an easy person to talk to.
As I moved through childhood and adolescence and into my teen years I increasingly felt isolated and set apart from religion. I had a lot of questions that no one could answer or wanted to answer and I couldn't help but notice that I never saw a woman at the altar, I never heard a woman in the pulpit. I didn’t imagine that Jesus had female followers. I didn’t know there were Desert Mothers. I heard only the language of the patriarchy and as a female I wondered what my place possibly could be in Christianity.
From the time I started going to church - which would be the time of my birth - until I was 18 and moved away to go to college, I heard a woman mentioned in a sermon as anything more than a supporting character, exactly twice. Once was a Christmas Eve sermon in which we were told that the word virgin did not mean what we thought it meant. The second was about Mary Magdalene and how we know that she is important because she is identified by her own last name and not through her relationship to a man. I became extremely interested in Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles, as someone who understood the teachings of Christ, stayed with Jesus through the crucifixion and was instrumental in helping to spread the story of the resurrection.
I was confirmed as an Episcopalian as a teenager mostly because my mother wanted me to be. By the time I was confirmed, I already felt separate from church. I want to be clear that I never felt wounded by church. I have so many friends who have been, and who tell me horrible stories about things that happened to them in church, and those are the reasons why they now can't be religious. Those stories never happened to me. I've always been a little bit obsessed with God and the ritual of God, but what I couldn't find in church was myself or a sense of belonging.
I eagerly explored, mainly through reading books, different spiritual paths and ways of thinking about God and communing with God, and I was very open to anything that I came across that sparked my spiritual interest, so by the time I was confirmed as an Episcopalian I was already struggling with my place in Christianity and feeling fairly certain that I didn't have one, although I do remember hoping that the moment of confirmation would be sort of magical event, that something would happen and that I would be changed and transformed in some way.
I went to way to college for my first year to a women's school and somehow ended up meeting a friend who was the daughter of an Episcopal bishop. She took me to church with her. She led me upstairs to the suite where the college aged parishioners hung out and it was a warm space, but I sat there thinking, This is a clubhouse and I’m not a member of the club.
A few weeks later I was in the dining hall at school and I noticed that the rector of that church was sitting at a table surrounded by young women, who I assumed were the Episcopal students. I looked at that table and felt a sort of longing. I wanted to be sitting there and I wondered if I should go back to that church, if I should try to enter into this community where a priest cares enough about your spiritual life to come have lunch with you in the cafeteria, and just as I was having these thoughts, the person I was sitting with saw where I was directing my attention and made a comment about the money at our private school and the priest sitting among the daughters of wealthy people and I felt sort of stupid.
I finished up my college career in Lexington. I would go to church with my mom on Christmas Eve but I was an outsider. My feelings were, This is not for me.It's lovely and and it's holy but it isn't mine.
After I graduated from college, I moved to New York and I lived there for ten years. I did eventually go to graduate school, but for most of that time I was floating around and trying to figure things out - which I never did.
During this time one of my favorite activities was to peruse the metaphysical section of every used bookstore I could find. I explored intuitive development and esoteric teachings. I learned about Goddess based religions and spiritual practices that seemed more affirming to my femaleness, that seemed more liberated to me than the church I grew up with.
I also had a great desire to learn everything I could about Mary, the mother of God, and I started my collection of Marian books. almost everyone I knew in New York was either agnostic or atheist or quite hostile toward religion. It certainly wasn't something I could talk with anyone about, and yet I had a push and pull feeling about church and would sometimes find myself wanting to go. I visited St. Mary the Virgin in Manhattan, where I attended the most high-church-incense-laden liturgy I have ever been to in my life. I can still remember how thin the veil felt inside that church. When I moved out to the suburbs to to go to graduate school, I visited the Episcopal church there.
When I look back on what I'm about to say from my current perspective, it sounds petty and immature and silly, but the truth is, even with all of my deep deep conflict about Christianity, if at any of those churches I visited one person had expressed any sort of interest in me, or said, We hope you come back next week, I probably would have gone back, but that never happened, and everytime it didn't happen it just confirmed for me that I wasn't meant to go to church that church wasn't for people like me.
It was during this time period that I stopped making art, which is significant because art making was something I had always done. This decade of my life is defined by the extremely unhealthy relationship that I was in. No one knew how unhappy this relationship was because the other person involved could be extraordinarily charming to everyone else in our lives, so this decade of my life was one that was filled with self-doubt and confusion.
I had an older friend who had been raised as a Roman Catholic but was no longer religious. His parents were deceased; his sister, also deceased, had been a novitiate nun. One day he handed me a box and said, "I cannot have these things in my house anymore. I don’t want to throw them away. I think you’ll know what to do with them."
Inside the box were rosaries and prayer cards and other sacramentals that had belonged to his mother and his sister. At first I was overwhelmed by this box, but I also felt honored that he thought I should have these things, so back to my book store I went to find out how to pray the rosary.
Some of the prayers were difficult for me to say because they were out of alignment with things I believed to be true and not true about God and hell and sin and being a woman, and yet something I read in one of the books really struck me. It was this - whenever you hold the rosary, Mary holds the other end. So I started to carry one of these rosaries with me. I kept it on my bedside table and when I couldn’t say the prayers the correct way, I would just hold it and pray my way.
I can’t explain to you how are why this happened but that practice of praying the rosary and feeling myself in communion with Mary helped me leave that relationship that I knew was soon going to become violent. I knew that I was in danger that no one else knew I was in danger or would even believe me and I somehow had to find the strength to get myself out, I did that with that rosary in my hand.
I moved back to Kentucky.
I eventually entered into a healthy relationship with someone I had known since high school.
My spiritual life was rich. I felt close to God.
After so many years of being removed from religion and not really even knowing very many people who were religious, my idea of Christianity was filtered through what you see on the news, and it didn’t seem at all appealing to me.
I became involved with spiritual women’s groups you could classify as neopagan or new age - although I’m not crazy about either of those terms. Those groups were really wonderful and supportive. I learned a lot, but I had two problems. The first was that I always felt like I was pretending to be something I wasn’t, and the second was I had a running mantra in the back of my head that kept asking, But what about Jesus?
About five years ago, something mystical happened. In my daily meditation I began to see an image in my mind's eye of a cross with light shining through it. The first few times this happened, I jerked my eyes open. I didn’t know why I would be seeing this or what it could mean but that image kept coming up for me and soon it also had with it a feeling or a message. The message was that I was gonna go back to church.
Now you may have noticed that I am someone who has no problem arguing with God, so every time I would feel that message I would just say, No that’s not gonna happen, but that message got stronger and stronger and it began to follow me around, not only when I was in meditation but all the time. This little voice in my head that would say, "You’re going back to church..." and then it started saying which church and then it started saying which day.
My brother and sister-in-law had been attending Good Shepherd for a while and one day I was out on a walk I ran into them and heard myself saying, "I’m coming to church with you on Easter."
That Easter was actually frightening to me. I’d been away from church for so long, I thought when I walked in the door everyone was going to turn to stare at me - that there was gonna be some big neon sign over my head that said, Burn the witch, or something, but I went and I sat down. It was, of course, crowded because it was Easter and everyone was dressed up and the church smelled like lilies and I was so nervous and I felt so out of place but when the service started, I had that body memory that you have as a liturgical Christian and I started to feel that familiar feeling.
I remembered that church is beautiful and that beauty is something that speaks to me, and then Father Brian stood up to preach. He told a joke or two then he said, "What does an evangelist look like? If you ask Jesus, she looks like a woman," then he proceeded to preach an incredible sermon about Mary Magdalene and I sat there in the pew with my mouth hanging open.
If I were the sort of person who believed in signs, which I am, I would’ve thought this is my sign, which I did.
I was still unsure about my place in church, but I started going to Good Shepherd and I made an appointment to see Brian. I think what I wanted to do was preempt the heartache of rejection, so if what was gonna happen here was that this church wasn’t going to want me, I just wanted to go ahead and hear that and get it out of the way, so I sat in his office and just rambled about what I believe in what I don’t believe in what I will never believe in what I do and what I’ve done. He listened to me very patiently and then said, "Welcome. I’m glad you’re here."
Something else happened at exactly the same time. I started painting again, only this time I wasn’t painting to try to be something. I was painting as myself, and my prayer life and my art making life became intertwined.
The past five years have been years of tremendous spiritual and personal growth me and that is 100% because of the loving community of Good Shepherd and Father Brian's pastorate. I began to learn how to integrate all of the pieces of me and be my whole self - the exact opposite of what my non-Christian friends think happens when you go to church.
Christianity for me over the past five years has been about expansion and freedom. It’s been about my heart opening, about me becoming a more compassionate person, and using my voice instead of denying it. It’s been about doing or attempting to do or at least wanting to do the real work of love in the world.
Brian not only welcome me here, he created opportunities for me to teach and to speak and be a part of worship, and I just still sometimes can’t even believe that happened and I don’t feel ready for Brian to no longer be my priest.
But he is no longer my priest. *
So that heartache I tried to head off came anyway. The way it does.
I am a devout person, but I’m also a person who exists on the edges of the Christian tradition, which is fine with me because maybe from here I can still reach out touch those who have been wounded by organized religion, and maybe on my good days they can see me and think well, she’s a Christian and she’s not so bad.
Sometimes I feel like I’m standing on a bridge between my Christian friends and my non-Christian friends, and I hear the wisdom on both sides.
Sometimes I feel there is a cord that connects my heart all the way back to that infant baptism and that no matter how far I fly away or how much I struggle to get away, that cord is always calling me back to the baptismal covenant.
I have an insatiable desire to study theology. I need church on Sunday morning. I love being a part of this community, but I will always be a little bit of a troublemaker. I will never accept any authority or doctrine that teaches fear, that tells me I’m less than because I’m a woman, that tells anyone they’re less than for any reason, that asserts anything that makes God small or mean.
I don’t believe Christianity is the only pathway to God or the only way to be a good person.
I Believe that God is a God of love and mercy and that love and mercy are infinite and vast.
I don’t believe our journey with God ends at our death. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I know that it’s good.
I’ve taken my seat at this table and finally I know that I belong here because the table is so much larger than we give it credit for being and there’s a seat here for everyone.
I believe we are here to learn how to love one another and that is not always easy.
But I also believe in boundless forgiveness.
Because above all in every moment even in the dark garden of doubt, there is grace.
*He left our parish when he was elected bishop of another diocese.