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.