Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Anteroom of Faith

It's a weird hot, humid, cloudy day today but it's the fourth day of an awesome week. I hit the ground running with the new semester, and a lot of really exciting things are underway.

One of the most exciting things is one of the simplest -- I have taken the dog for a substantial walk every day this week, which is good for him and really, really good for me. I find that my mind is so much clearer when I have that time to let my mind wander and Gunther and I walk up and down the road and through the neighborhoods.

Something that rolled through my mind earlier this week was how much I wish there were a sort of "junior member" status that you could take on for a given religion or denomination. I am currently attending a Lutheran church, and while it is a good organization, I don't feel any particular calling to be a Lutheran. After the sort of wrenching process of leaving my previous denomination (Roman Catholicism), I feel very skittish about being a joiner, especially when it comes to religious things. In the moment in the pantry when my will to stay Catholic snapped like a string, my love of orthodoxy in any form -- following rules for the sake of following rules -- snapped as well, and suddenly (very suddenly, for someone who could have carried the entire meaning of "goody two-shoes" within her person) I did not care one tiny bit about toeing the line. Or any line at all.

It's a strange position to find myself in. I've been here for a long time now, in this sort of spiritual borderland. It's an unfamiliar place, but I am learning a lot about it:

1. I am a kinder person when I am spiritually homeless. The less "sure" I feel about what is and is not, the more compassionate I am to my fellow humans, who underneath any exterior are all just bumbling around like I am. Sureness, at least in my case, tends to breed judgment and coldness. I didn't enter into spiritual homelessness on purpose, but it has taught me a lot, and really enriched my experience of life in general. Being relieved of the burden of constantly judging everything and everyone around you (which I was basically doing, for years) is incredibly freeing. There is so much more room for learning and joy and experience and friendship and love when I don't have to constantly consult my rule book to see who is better and worse than me.

2. I feel more integrated as a person. I don't have a spiritual self, and a friend self, and a wife self, and a mother self. Instead, self is all of these things, and infinite other things, and they are all bumping down the dirt road together. Spiritual things express themselves in the objects and interactions of my daily life, and spirituality becomes more tangible as well, in a way. It's like that moment when you clean out your purse and you realize that you really only need to carry about five things, ever. It's just so much simpler.

3. Nobody really cares much. I don't mean this in a poor-me angsty kind of way. Instead, I mean that when I was deeply Catholic, I had a sense that other people had a stake in my Catholic-ness. So-and-so would care or be affected if I did or didn't meet this requirement, etc. I felt a responsibility to other people to be the best Catholic I could be. Now, I do not get the impression that anyone else is biting their nails over my spiritual journey. This is just one way out of many ways in which being spiritually homeless has helped me to take a huge step backwards from being frankly self-obsessed to being a lot more connected with the world and the people in the world instead. No one else is as concerned with this whole journey as I am, and thank goodness. What a gift. (This point might be hard to understand if you have never been deeply into a rigid rules-based system of some kind, but being free of this heavy burden of representing the goals of the group perfectly within your own body is a huge, huge thing.)

4. Life is more raw, and that raw place is where real life comes from. A lot of things have happened in the past few years that have forced me to keep the door open to the world -- to stay unfinished, unsanded, and unvarnished. To not have "steady footing" in any particular place, to not breathe a sigh of relief and feel like I am finally "done struggling." Instead, life keeps me perpetually off balance, and because I no longer have the balm of observing rules perfectly to smooth over this rawness (because for me, Catholicism allowed me to play out a sort of spiritual OCD, soothing myself with perfect observance of this or that rule in order to Feel Okay and keep those messy human feelings at bay), I have to actually experience it. And that messy, raw, shifty-sand state is the planting ground of such amazing life. For example, late last semester I was feeling this terrible antsy, unsettled feeling. I could hardly sit still, and I felt so jittery, like I was suddenly full of this huge amount of life energy that didn't have an outlet. It was driving me crazy. I couldn't find any way to calm it down. I am normally a fairly steady person, without any great extended periods of elevated energy. When I thought about what was making me feel this way, I realized that I had been neglecting my writing. That off-kilter jittery feeling pushed me right back to doing some creative work, and now the energy is focusing to help me push that work forward. It's very exciting, and it's something I would not have experienced if I had had a quick fix to just get rid of the jitters -- to avoid that raw feeling of being unsettled and not knowing what to do next. I am learning to actually really value that feeling of shifting sand under my feet, because it sort of pushes me in the direction I need to go.

So as these developments slowly take place, I find myself wishing for an authentic way of expressing them, on Sunday morning. When I worship with the Lutherans, I feel united with them in so many ways, but not in the need to Be A Lutheran. I like to visit other churches sometimes, worship in different ways (and sometimes on my own), just to keep it a little mixed up, to keep Sunday worship from becoming something I just do by rote. I find myself wishing there were a way to institutionally declare that I hope to remain in the outer borders of organized religion, until such time that I feel called closer in to the center, if that day should ever come. And if it never does come, then that is fine, too. I like being a second-class citizen, spiritually speaking -- not fully initiated anywhere -- because it keeps me open to other people in the world who are similarly homeless. What I am finding is that really, we all are.

This Sunday I will go and worship with the Lutherans again, but maybe I will sit on the end of a row in the back. Maybe I will feel restless and jump out to the church library for a few minutes to flip through a book or soak up some Quaker silence on the sun-soaked couch in the corner. I will continue my dance on the edges of the sanctuary, with one foot in and one foot out in the great unknown. I am in good company here in this place.