Monday, June 9, 2008

On Being a Spiritual Goldilocks

The first Friends' Meeting I attended was in a very small university town neighboring my own rural community. The people meet in a room in one of the university buildings. There are very few members. We sat in a circle and meeting after meeting was completely silent. When people did speak, it was profound and gentle. Almost without fail in these services I was affected so profoundly that tears would roll down my face. I learned to speak in this meeting and found myself spiritually charged and changed by the experience. I relished the "Quakerism 101" classes we shared with this group and felt immediately useful in the business meetings. Because there were so few, I mattered right away.

They are an intimate group, however, and outside of our worship service, I felt like an interloper. My children were the only children present. There was no First Day School and in fact, no room at all where the children could retreat during Meeting. In summer months, either their father or I would take them outside to play on the college campus grounds but in cold weather, we wandered the halls of the college building trying to be very quiet. There were no rooms available to us. We were told that to open a room for First Day School (actually a place where I could read to my older children and nurse my youngest) was an insurance issue for the university. "This meeting is too small," I said and looked for something else.

The next Meetinghouse we tried was in a nearby urban center. These Friends were a far more diverse group. I marveled at their number and at their collective vocal ministry. While weeks could pass in the college town Meeting without a word spoken, each Meeting for Worship in the urban center included several messages. And here too, I felt the Spirit so strongly tears would roll down my face. They had a thriving First Day School and a very active membership.

But it takes almost an hour to travel to this city and it is stressful for us since we are not used to urban settings. Additionally, I felt lost among so large a group. While I could not put my finger on it, I found that I felt like an interloper among them as well. For some reason, although their political and spiritual beliefs were so close to my own, I felt a strong lack of connection. Beyond shared liberal political opinions and an openness to unorthodox spiritual perspectives drawn from indigenous, Eastern and Pagan traditions, we don't have much in common really. They are "city folk" and leave me behind in their conversations that include references to too many things that are well-outside my experience and needs.

My goodness, it is not as if I have never left the farm, why the heck did I feel so uncomfortable? At first I thought it was because they were unfriendly then I realized that the fault was in me. I was prickly and shy in their midst. Two weeks ago, after pulling up in front of the meetinghouse after an hour's drive, we turned right around again as I began to have an anxiety attack at the thought of entering the building. "This Meeting is too big," I decided and looked for something else.

So yesterday I tried out my third congregation. I heard they had a thriving First Day School and a wonderful historical tradition which I find very attractive but I had resisted for some time because it was a Christ-centered and I was afraid they could not accept me. Also, I was hesitant about a programmed service since I have come to deeply love silent worship.

The meetinghouse is not on a college campus or on a city block. It is a plain, white church among farm fields similar to the little rural Methodist and Congregational Churches my father served all through my childhood. We are greeted at the door by an elderly woman with a vase of flowers. We sit down in one of the pews (pews! not chairs) and enjoy the breeze coming through open windows on this hot summer day. As we sit, several other elderly women approach us and shake our hands to welcome us. And I feel welcome. Truly, honestly welcome in this place.

The service is very Christ-centered and at times, I find my intellectual self resentful of what I consider the minister's simplistic interpretation of scripture and wonder if she has ever even bothered considering the rich diversity of spiritual metaphors available to her since the advent of scholarly feminist spirituality. I feel disappointed that the silent periods are so short. There is no time to settle into worship before we have to hop up again to sing a hymn in an impossibly high register. I should be feeling the urge to rush out of this Meeting and never, ever return. And yet, I find myself wanting to come back next week. What is wrong with me? This is a bad fit. I should abort this experiment. Why does this Pagan feminist feel so relentlessly "at home" in what should be a hostile environment?

And then it hits me. Friends in college towns and cities share my educational background and intellectual approach to theology (shall we discuss the merits of non-theistic, heterodox and pagan philosophies anyone? lol), but I do not belong to them. I was reared in the country church and that is where I am comfortable. I love the peonies at the front of the church. I love the elderly women in their pearl earrings. I love the usher in his neat dress pants and shirt and the children who sit quietly in their Sunday best (not dismissed 15 minutes in). I even love the hymns. More than anything, I love how they love each other. As the breeze caressed my face on that hot day, their voices, laughing and loving, caressed my soul. God, how I have missed that sound!

And God, how I have missed the church of my childhood! Missed it so much that as I write this, my eyes well up with tears. As I sat there, I felt such relief. Perhaps this is only nostalgia, merely a yearning for something I can never have again. Could I really stand to be around people who would in all likelihood reject my Pagan panentheistic interpretation of spirituality? As the minister gave the benediction and walked down the aisle, I wondered if I could really tolerate this "high church affectation." Do Friends really need this? If she must talk at all, can't she just sit down when her message reaches its end? Does she honestly need to progress out of the building setting herself so profoundly apart from the ministry of other Friends? Can I really tolerate the fussiness and formality of a church service interrupting the silent gathered worship that has become so powerfully meaningful for me?

Back home, I told my father of my experience and said that at the other meetings, all the beliefs and practices were "right" but it felt all wrong. And here, at this country church, all the beliefs and practices were "wrong" but it felt right. While I was like a scared rabbit in the urban meeting, among these country Friends, I found myself beaming at them and shaking their hands warmly. They said I was welcome and I felt welcome. I could imagine coming back week after week just to see them. I could imagine loving them in their imperfection (as I love my imperfect family) whether or not their theologies match my own. What to do? Where do I belong? I want to fit into an intellectual, liberal congregation comfortable with my intellectual Paganism but"I was socialized for country churches," I said wistfully. This place was too small. This place was too urban. This place was too christocentric. Is no place "just right" for me?

Dad listens but he knows me too well. He raised his intellectual daughter among country folk. These are the communities he loved and the people he served. This is our foundation and our sustenance. More than anyone, he knows what I mean when I, even in my most non-theistic moments, continue to speak of Jesus and Christianity as if I still carried the label. He understands why I still love to study the bible. He knows that despite our leavetaking from orthodox Christian worship, there are still times when "Christian" for us remains a synonym for a disciplined ethics and abiding compassion supporting the highest, deepest, most unconditional love.

I have learned to call this Love, this Spirit, by many other names. As a Neo-Pagan, I am more likely to look to the natural world and to my own woman's body for spiritual inspiration these days. Is that the problem? Are those who continue to call themselves "Christian" missing the benefit of a multiplicity of spiritual metaphors? And how can they still believe in a man-God? I did not use the word "unsophisticated" but I may as well have.

My father, the Always Right Rev. Atheist, cannot resist teasing me. Cutting through my scholarly objection to their "sloppy theology" and with a twinkle in his eye he suggests that maybe I'm just too elitist to allow myself to admit that I feel at home with a group of country Christians.

To this I did not have an answer.


Hystery said...

Update: Since writing this post, I have received a lovely handwritten note on pretty stationery from the Country Meeting thanking us for visiting them, telling us that they enjoyed us,and hoping that we will join them again.

Lone Star Ma said...

This reminds me of a time when I was in college and my mom and little sisters and I got stranded, having neglected to notice that we were running out of gas, on the highway in the middle of nowhere in rural Louisiana on our way to NOLA. A couple came hiking out of the woods and brought us gas. They were so nice. Then they went back behind their David Duke sign. I was stymied and tried to have this rural-urban conversation with my mom. I, too, wanted the intersection of the education and the people experience, but that's hard to find. Although I doubt there are any David Duke supporters in any sort of Friends Meeting(:

kevin roberts said...

Go where you feel God in the clearest way. You will continue to be surprised at it, I'm sure. His ways are often not what we want them to be, in my own case usually not what I want them to be at all.

My own experiences with programmed meetings, whether they call themselves Quakers, Baptists, or Buddhists, have not been useful to me except as preparation for where I am now. But I have different baggage to unpack and different garbage cans to empty.

Sometimes we find that our cherished spiritual beliefs are merely preparation for a more comprehensive-- or focused-- metamorphosis.

Jeanne said...

hystery, this is the conflict I have, though in a different way! I want to worship in the manner of Friends but with a far more diverse (class and race) group that understands deeply that difference enriches us.

So good for you in searching for the right place for you. I hope you find it.

Bill said...

Are you trying too hard to find something? Do you need to let it find you?

Hystery said...

Thanks for such warm and helpful comments.

Lone Star Ma, thank you for that story. That kind of thing happens to me quite a bit (although not with David Duke supporters). I was raised in a very left wing home surrounded by very right wing neighbors. The same people who shower me with love then say horrible things about those they consider outsiders. Hard to understand how people who are so loving in one context can believe such hateful things in another.

Once when hearing about the attitudes of my home community, a person asked why the heck I stayed there. And I was actually offended. I stay there because it is home.

Kevin, I think I feel the Divine presence most clearly in the first meeting that is so unfriendly to my children. I'm so uncomfortable there after meeting and not at all sure what to do, on a practical level, with my little ones. We can't just wander the halls! lol

I am thinking of finding a way to incorporate both meetings in my life. I give up too easily, I think, and demand perfection when I should have been offering love.

Jeanne, your blog and call to pay attention to social class issues is important to me. We talk lots more about social class in my family and my classroom these days! It is a good conversation to have and to keep having.

I also long for diversity, especially of the spiritual variety. As a Pagan person from a small, rural liberal Christian background with a working class/college-educated family, there are all kinds of goofy "conflicts" in my personality. I'm looking to find a community full of people like that- one full of odd, surprising people with lots of stories to tell. I also long for people who laugh lots too.

Bill, I think your question is really so important for me to hear. It is perhaps the most important question for me to hear these days. I want to control everything. And see where it gets me?

Violette said...

Hystery, I have not visited for quite some time, being caught up in my own spiritual struggles and life in general. Once again, as I read your blogs, I find myself wishing I were up in the Great White North, where there seems to be so many things I relate to or wish I could experience as you are doing. I, too, have felt an attaction to the Quakers, and just recently (i.e., in the last few days!) heard that there was such a thing as Pagan Quakers. But for now at least, my Path is taking various twists and turns and I'm not sure where I'll end up. I'm finding your journey has deep meaning, even for me here in Mississippi. I can relate to your spiritual yearning and need for a spiritual community, even while feeling like an outsider. I hope you find a place to call your spiritual home that loves and accepts you and allows you to remain true to yourself.

Hystery said...

Violette, what a wonderful gift to "hear" your voice again. You have been missed.

Today I went back to the country programmed meeting and found the people warm and friendly. I felt the way of nostalgia as I wandered around the Sunday School rooms and saw the old picture, the headshot of Jesus with the long hair that my sister and I always thought looked like a high school senior picture- "Nazareth Class of 18"

And all was well as I sat in that lovely simple building nestled in the green hills. Then the minister spoke in a breathy saccharine voice.

"Good morning, God!" And from there it got worse. She just kept talking and talking pausing only briefly after saying, "God, take away my voice and replace it with yours." If only she would shut up and let that happen. I found the sermon uninspired and unnecessary. It had all the spiritual power and moral courage of a Family Circle article. I found the use of the King James version of the Bible questionable. I found the service interrupted my connection to the Spirit.

So that was it. I decided that I would not return except as a visitor. While this community will continue to be an important part of my connection to the larger Friends' family, I do not belong there.

My original meeting is small and full of prickly personality. I do not feel welcome there...yet. I will feel the embarassment the prodigal son must have felt when I return but I don't anticipate a welcome feast to follow. I might just need to suck it up and deal with the awkwardness I find there. With them I have felt the strongest spiritual calling. They gave God back to me. That they don't seem to like me much seems a small thing next to this fact.

Oh, but I liked the country ways of the Friends in the country! I love the way they shook my hand and smiled at me like they meant it. It would have been so nice if this sweet little country church could be home, but I cannot pretend that I can be Christocentric, at least not in the King James way. I cannot pretend that I can make use of the programmed meeting. It is not for me and no amount of nostalgia for the past can make it work.

I feel only slightly sad this afternoon as I realize that another door is closed to me. It is a gentle okay kind of sadness because I closed the door myself without anger and without rejecting the people behind it. I know I can go back to them whenever I need to. They seem to enjoy their minister. Perhaps she is good for them. But she is not good for me. They are a good group full of Spirit. We can be friends and neighbors. I can enjoy their hospitality but their home is not mine. At the end of the day, I need to go home.

But where is home? *sigh*

Violette said...

Hello, hello again. It was wonderful for me, also, to "drop in" on you and see where you are at presently.

I'm so sorry to hear about your experiences. Having gone through this several times myself- and in fact, am going through it now- becoming disenchanted rather quickly with a group I'd hoped to find a spiritual commonality with- I can only offer you a big hug of commiseration.

What do you think about creating/starting your own contemplative group/Path? You don't know, maybe other women in your area who would welcome the creation of a truly contemplative spirituality, coupled with the simplicity you admire in the Friends. This is just a thought.

In the meanwhile, do be at peace as much as possible. I will be thinking of you & your quest.

Hystery said...


Funny how well you know me although we have never met on the physical plane! You cut to the heart of my problem and illuminated something I needed to articulate.

Ordinarily I would just leave (as I have done with other groups before). I'm a solitary sort of person by nature and would personally prefer to keep away from other human beings as much as possible. Gosh, that sounds awful! I don't mean it bad but I am shy and frankly, people scare me to death.

I chose the Friends because they believe essentially what I believe and having a truly wonderful history that resonates with my historian-self. Other groups also fit the bill. I like the UU church very much for the same reasons. But I would be dishonest if I didn't mention the most profound motivator to keep company with the Friends for me: terror.

Since I first conceived my first child, I have lived in terror that my children would be swallowed up in a war. Friends are consistently clear in their message of pacifism. Other groups and individuals have also stood for peace but the Friends and other peace churches have a special status in this regard. The wider world commmunity understands and to a limited degree, respects and offers social and sometimes even legal acknowledgment of this stand. So that's a powerful corporate statement. I wish to be a part of that statement. I want my children to be a part of that historically rooted statement too. I may not be able to protect them completely but it seems to me that as a mother, I must do all that I know I can do to immerse my children in a pacifist community both so they have pacifist credentials and so they learn to walk the walk.

I've considered starting my own community of spiritual seekers on many occasions, but I am growing to feel that my voice will be more powerful, my intentions more schooled, if evolve within a disciplined community. I know what I know and believe what I believe (that won't change because I'll never be a "joiner"), but I it will all descend into histrionics of Voice if I don't learn the necessity of Listening.

To stay among the Friends, for my children's sake, I have stumbled upon a profound lesson which I cannot fully articulate now. I'm getting there...

Violette said...

No need to explain your need of solitude or your "fear" of people. You know I've been there for a long while. If you are like me, it's not that you "dislike" people, only that the noise of the world tends to distract you from what you find most meaningful.

Also, I think your reasoning concerning your children is justifiable, although I don't know if we can ever really protect our kids from the big bad world. Sometimes, the world comes looking for you, even when you are living as peacefully as possible (for a recent example, consider the Amish tragedy just a few years ago). Still, I think it is wise to give your kids a solid grounding in pacificist living. Importantly, being pacifist means being taught to forgive, because the world at large has traditionally run ramshod over those inclined to more gentle paths, which it perceives as weakness. Getting legal recognition of a pacifist stance may or may not spare your kids, though, should war come in their lifetime. I say that because I think after the Vietnam War, the government's views on pacifism hardened a bit, given that so many anti-war youths were using pacifism to avoid going to Vietnam. And presently, the Bush administration would almost certainly encourage the turning of a cold eye toward any such sentiments.

However, I am a bit unclear on how this works from a legal standpoint.

I have some other things to say, but I have to go now, as hubby is waiting to go for a drive.

Ember said...

Hi Hystery,

I indentified very much with your story, the tensions and pulls you felt.

Something that helped me is the thing in the New Testament where Jesus says ‘I am the way the truth and the life’.

These three things: way (daily practice); truth (ideology/reality/authenticity); life (events/energy/circumstances) had looked to me either like ‘how things are’ that I couldn’t argue with, or doctrinal propositions and moral imperatives that made me feel coerced and tired.

But I got to imagining a way in to them through this ‘I am’ saying of Jesus, considering truth… way… life… as a person to get to know.

With any person, there would be emotional weather and idiosyncrasy. As with any friend, I might love the sense of humour but hate the table manners. Maybe then in truth, in life, in the way my feet are going, there might be some that is repellent mixed in with some that draws and delights me.

If it can work like this, then I am relieved from always having to check everything to see if I agree with it or not. I can just make friends with how things are, and get to know them that way.

Just a thought :)

Hystery said...

Ember writes: "With any person, there would be emotional weather and idiosyncrasy. As with any friend, I might love the sense of humour but hate the table manners. Maybe then in truth, in life, in the way my feet are going, there might be some that is repellent mixed in with some that draws and delights me.

If it can work like this, then I am relieved from always having to check everything to see if I agree with it or not. I can just make friends with how things are, and get to know them that way.

Just a thought :)"

Ember, a very good thought and one I will reflect on. Thanks.