It's fitting that I post this today, being the Feast of the Epiphany and all, but I've had some personal spiritual insights recently that I want to share. I don't have answers, but I'm asking new questions.
I believe in something.
I'm open to the possibility that there is more going on than I understand, than anyone understands. I'm not talking about God specifically. Just . . . something.
Sounds simple, sounds easy, sounds obvious. But it isn't. And it's been a long time coming. Sort of.
So this is going to be something of a spiritual biography, starting at the beginning. Because in reflecting on where I've been, I realize that I've been searching for and seeking this "something" for a long time, even if I would have said that I hadn't been (incorrectly remembering just monolithic doubt) . . . because I would have said there was nothing to find.
I've been told that when my grandmother Bammie died, one of the first things I said was that when I died I wanted to come back as a dog. I was four. They had no idea where I picked up that notion. We weren't a religious family. At all. No church. No religious affiliations (both of my parents had been raised Methodists but that's as far as it went). No spiritual beliefs. Which I'm guessing is why I didn't plan to go to heaven when I died. We celebrated Christmas and Easter but secularly. Except my dad insisted on the reading of the biblical Christmas story each year before we could open presents.
In childhood, I was much more interested in the Greek gods than the Christian one. I read all the mythology books I could get my hands on. Once I even built a temple to Poseidon on the beach. My Aunt J, the only churchgoer in my extended family that I knew of, asked if I really believed in mythology. Being precocious, I told her I found it as likely as anything else and that the Greeks didn't think their stories were untrue myths. In fact, the Greek gods made sense to me--each one in charge of a few facets of life, with their own very human personalities and stories. Just larger than life. I especially identified with Athena, goddess of wisdom.
I was also fascinated with the paranormal, always getting books on ghosts, ESP, or unexplained mysteries from the book club or watching similar shows on Atlantis, Easter Island, and Stonehenge on tv. I also watched that HBO special on Nostradamus (which terrified me). I had the whole Time-Life book series Mysteries of the Unknown. And I remember believing it all.
And I went to church some in elementary school. If I spent the night with a friend, I'd go to church with the family on Sunday, didn't matter where. Methodist. Presbyterian. Catholic. Southern Baptist. When I spent the weekend with my great-grandmother, we went to her church, a small, small-town congregation of, well, I can't recall if it was Lutheran or Presbyterian or Methodist. I do remember one service though, a fiery, hellfire and damnation, "come to Jesus" sermon at which I was almost moved to go up to the altar, save for one thought: my parents would burn in hell and we would be separate. At ten-ish years of age, that was scarier than brimstone and so I stayed put. I actually attended a Southern Baptist church for about a year, again around 5th grade, enjoying the instant camaraderie of classmates who went there and liking the school-like atmosphere (I loved school!)--I went to Saturday retreats, a daughter-father dinner, Vacation Bible School, and even sang in the choir's production of Come, Messiah, Come (ask me, I can still remember the songs!). I loved the weekly bulletins and had a white zippered Bible I thought was pretty. It wasn't about God for me, really, but about community. At some point I quit going. I don't remember why, especially as I think I came very close to being baptized. I was instantly ignored by all my "friends." That was the end of church for me for a long time.
Then in high school, I joined the Atheists of America and was fascinated with Madeleine Murray O'Hare and the court case against school prayer. Especially because by this time I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because of the "Under God" part. I became fervent in my atheism.
In college, I went to chapel once, for the Christmas Eve service, because I thought you had to attend it to go to the all-school holiday reception afterwards. By sophomore year, I knew you could skip it. And so I did. I took a history of religion in America course to meet a requirement and enjoyed learning about the waves of religiosity in American history. I even enjoyed visiting services as part of my coursework--a Catholic mass in Spanish, a reformed Jewish shabbat, and a three-hour evangelical (but unaffiliated) service of a predominantly African-American congregation. Also, some LDS missionaries and a Wiccan visited class. I was the only atheist and didn't talk much in class. But I still got an A. I was more interested in religion as history or art or theological differences or culture. Not as spirituality or belief. Otherwise, the only churches I went to were in Rome during my summer abroad (in 1992, where I met Lambeth, who was in the same program, along with his wife--20 years ago!)--I loved visiting churches there to enjoy the art work and architecture. I would sometimes even pretend to pray so I could visit the special side chapels reserved for that purpose. I noticed that Italians had a very pragmatic approach to mass--many would show up just in time for communion, standing in back by the door, and leave right after, so it "counted." I was even blessed by Pope John Paul II three times (once in an audience and twice in St. Peter's Square) and have some rose rosary beads from the Vatican gift shop. I was strangely drawn to the Vatican, to all things Catholic that summer, but not in a spiritual way, I was especially fascinated by all the nuns in their various robes. My mom laughed that I would probably become a nun because I liked costumes and I liked joining groups! (Coincidentally, one of my cousins, also non-religious in his upbringing, did become a Catholic monk in France. And that side of the family wasn't even Catholic!)
The decade or so that followed college is spiritually empty, with no church, no exploration, only the continued belief that there was nothing else out there, nothing paranormal or metaphysical or spiritual. And that when you died, you were dead. This last bit occasionally saddened me--I would have liked to have believed in something more and was sometimes disappointed that I didn't believe. I couldn't fake faith, though, and so had none.
Mama had a more traditionally religious upbringing, in the Catholic church and 12 years of Catholic school, encouraged by her Buddhist parents who saw Catholicism as just another variation of a spiritual path. Mama liked talking about religion with her friends, who were often Orthodox Jewish women. After coming out, however, she left the Church but without giving up what she characterizes now as her Chinese ancestor-worship/Buddhist polytheism. But being casual in her beliefs, she didn't mind my lacking any.
As a member of a tight-knit lesbian community in Chicago in the later 1990s, I met people of a variety of faiths--some Unity, some Metropolitan Community Church, and several Wiccans. I was a member of a chorus and we sang several Earth Mother songs and I began to read about paganism--Starhawk, Diane Stein, Z Budapest, and others. Mama and I experimented (oooh, that sounds like Christine O'Donnell) with observing the sabbaths in our own way and tried some rituals but never really felt comfortable with spells or potions. It was my first adult attempt at engaging in spiritual practices and I liked the connection to the earth, nature, the seasons, and history. I think you could mark this as the beginning of my spiritual journey as an adult. But, imbued with feminism and a tinge of lesbian separatism (still popular with my friends in Chicago who were activists in the 1970s), it was still decidedly anti-church and anti-God.
Five years later found us in Connecticut at a Unitarian Universalist church, the suggestion of a lifelong UU friend, though I honestly don't remember how she came to suggest it and us to listen in the first place. This was pre-children (though I don't remember if it was pre-thinking about children. I mean there is that joke, "Show me a UU and I'll show you an atheist with children."). I vaguely recalled that my mom had once said I might like Unitarians, because they read the Giving Tree and didn't talk about God. And she was right, I loved UU. I've posted here several times about how meaningful the principles are to me, how important the community. And as my church has faltered, I've been bereft. But for me, spirituality wasn't really a part of church, which was securely secular humanist in nature.
Eventually, through UU, I came to learn about meditation and finally happened upon Buddhism (this might be a family tradition--I understand my paternal grandfather became very interested in Buddhism), which has provided me great insight into life. Of course, Buddhism can be studied philosophically--there are books about atheism and Buddha and Buddhism without Beliefs. And that's how it started for me . . . .
Until recently. Until after this 18-month journey of injury, pain, and disability. I had been meditating and praying, more as a personal practice. I was adapting and redefining spiritual language to fit my liberal religious UU faith. I was becoming more comfortable with so-called "God talk." And then this whole PT thing started, with healing energies and actual profound changes. Nothing the allopathic doctors have done has helped; there is something about my mystical, magical PT and her various techniques--osteopathic manipulations, cranio-sacral, IMT (Integrative Manual Technique of Sharon Weiselfish), chakra healing, acupressure--that I can actually feel--her slightest pressure literally sends shockwaves coursing through my legs. Qi. Chakras. Diaphragms. It's not rational, explainable, quantifiable, scientific, but it does happen And it does help, the only thing that has. She says I don't have to believe for it to work. If I am healed through energy, do these energies exist? Or, put more dramatically, "If my back gets better, is there a God?" Everything came together, a lifetime of vague wanderings coalesced. And people who have had spiritual experiences witnessed to me and I listened with an open heart and non-judgment instead of my usual cynicism and rational explanations. And I realized I liked thinking about believing in something, even something as vague as energy or connection. It has promise and possibility. I've obviously been looking for something for a long time.
Sure, I worry that I am gullible and vulnerable, grasping at straws to get better. Sure, I imagine this could all be explained more rationally. Sure, it might be in my mind, a placebo effect. Sure, the spontaneous healing could be the result of 18 months of other treatments coming together. I'm not joining a cult or shaving my head. I'm just entertaining some adjustments to my worldview, refining what I believe in, a mind-body-spirit paradigm shift, if you will. These ideas are not harmful or dangerous to me or anyone else. Whether or not they are true probably doesn't matter much (isn't that what Karen Armstrong says in The Case for God? I haven't read that one yet). I think they call that faith.
Does this mean I believe in God? No. Still no. Not in the traditional sense. I don't believe there is a omnipotent creator with power over us all. I do however sense more of a connection between us, perhaps what Buddhists call the universal consciousness, or some people call source energy. In telling a few people (mainly my spiritual friends) in the last couple of days (it actually only came together for me late Tuesday night!), I compared this experience to being a new kitten or a rosebud--fragile, new, a beginning, beautiful. I can't really find the words to express what I'm not sure I'm talking about. I'm still not sure what it all means. What I believe. What effect it will have. What I'm going to tell the kids. Even what I'm telling you . . . and mind you, "coming out" with even this bare minimum of belief is more challenging for me than being a lesbian because it speaks more to my core identity of being secular than being straight ever did. Especially because I doubted and yes, laughed at and denigrated the other side frequently enough. I'm ashamed of that now. Maybe a little fearful of being in that position myself. But not enough not to say something.
And so I keep walking this very meandering path that I have been walking all my life, just taking another turn and seeing some new scenery. It's a lovely journey. And it feels great.