Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Elizabeth Gilbert-envy

I have a feeling I've already said something before now about how I avoided reading Eat, Pray, Love for the longest time. Like for months and months, maybe for more than a year after it first hit the bookstores and became a big hit, I refused to buy it.

I wasn't interested. Couldn't imagine it could be as good as everybody said. Everybody being the New York Times best seller list, and bodies like that.

My disinterest was part snobbery--"I'm not going to fall for that popular, best seller hype"--and part aversion. Especially to the word "pray" in the title, and the word "spiritual" that got hitched to it here and there. "Rich in spiritual insight," says Anne Lamott on the front cover. And on the back there it is again: "memoir/spirituality" it says.

And this of course all at the time when I was more or less in flight from "spirituality" and "spiritual" books. When someone in a painting class with me raved about The Power of Now, I recoiled. "No can do," my insides were saying.

Outwardly I said, "I've read so many spiritual books in my life that I'm not interested in reading another one." My painting colleague looked at me weirdly. I didn't tell her I was a religious refugee.

So it was the word "pray" and the picture of the prayer beads on the cover of Eat, Pray, Love that kept me from reading it for a long time, until I heard from too many trusted friends too many times in close succession that I just "had to read it". I think I finally bought a copy, still a little embarrassed to be doing so, in the fall of 2007.

And when I did, I found myself enjoying it in spite of myself and my persistent inclination not to. At least I loved the Italy section--the vicarious pleasures of pasta and gelato and those lovely, beguiling Italian words.

But I was really really wary of the India section, which was of course the Pray section. I was afraid I'd feel bad about myself for not having a guru and going to India and sweating it out in a meditation cave. And maybe that happened a little--her spiritual experiences like the pulsing blue light were a bit over the top, after all. But even in India, I read some things that moved me, that spoke to me about my own religious-spiritual struggles. And Richard from Texas made it bearable.

I even forgave her for the fairy tale ending, because there was so much in the book that seemed to encourage me to keep going on my own journey. To inspire me to imagine and to grow into being that kind of a friend to myself as it seemed she became on her journey. Never mind that I was happier not to have to deal with the word "God" being used so seemingly happily and without conflict.

So what's the envy about in the title of this post, "Elizabeth Gilbert-envy"? Well, what's not to envy? Let's see. There's the fact that her book is really the kind of book I want to write--am in the process of writing--honest, poignant, funny.

I know some found her book "self-indulgent", to which I say: "what's the difference between telling the truth and being self-indulgent?" Maybe it's always a judgment call. I have a feeling I have to risk being called self-indulgent, which is akin to being called selfish or self-centered--cardinal sins!!--in order to dare to be honest and to write from my gut and heart and not just my head.

I could of course envy that her book is already written and became a New York Times Bestseller (and her next one is following the same path), but it's not really that. Or not only that. (I will be the first to acknowledge that she has paid her dues as a writer, worked hard for many years before this particular success. While I was writing sermons, she was writing books, articles, and more.)

Maybe it's the fact that the healing journey of her life that became her book happened in the course of one year. One year! That's not long at all for such a journey! And she was able to undertake those travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia with a book advance.

So here I am, writing a much longer, in many ways less dramatic (though that's always the perspective from within oneself, is it not, that others' stories are somehow more interesting than my own?), more drawn out and more redundant story. That is to say more embarrassingly hampered and hindered and slowed down by fear and self-doubt, decision and indecision, and twenty more years of not fully being myself than she had lived.

My story's not a neat one year of traveling trimesters of self-discovery ending in romance and stepping into the sparkling waters of an Indonesian island.

And some would say that's why my story might actually have a place too. Might be more "real" and accessible for other ordinary women at midlife like me.

But that's not the end of my Elizabeth Gilbert-envy. About eighteen months ago when she came through Portland and spoke as a benefit for the Telling Room, a local educational non-profit that offers great support for young people to tell and write their stories, I went to see and hear her.

And that's when the final facet of envy became evident to me. It wasn't just about her book. It was about her standing on that stage speaking to hundreds of people (most of them, of course, women) from her own experience. Inspiring. Encouraging. Giving permission. Talking about creativity, about authenticity, maybe even a little about God (though I don't remember that specifically).

"Ahhh, that's what I want to do when I grow up." Something like that. Not telling her stories but my own. Trusting that they will make a difference to people, a positive difference. And trusting those same people to use them as they will and as they are able, to be more fully themselves, more fully alive, more authentically and fully happy and grateful to be who they are here and now.

And that's what I've started doing, albeit slowly thus far. But you gotta start somewhere, right?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Upside-down and Inside-out: part 4 (final)

About a month or two after David and I had left our shared position at an Episcopal Church in Yarmouth, Maine, I wrote a poem that began with the words: "I am dragging around/ a ball and chain called God."

I didn't exactly "think up" those words; it's more accurate to say that they arose in me, kind of presented themselves to me and insisted that I pay attention to them, which then led me to write a poem. And the poem became the vehicle for facing the truth (my truth, not some universal truth) more fully.

Here's that poem, just to give you a sense of how it felt to be in my shoes at that time. (I consider this kind of an R-rated poem, unsuited to those of a tender religious spirit, especially those who like to think of clergy in gentle, pious, terms; so if that's you, take a few deep breaths. Or just skip this part.)

(I've posted this poem elsewhere in this blog, and in my other (now dormant) blog called "Freedom Diaries".)

Ball and Chain

I am dragging around
a ball and chain called God,
shackled to my right ankle,
thudding down the stairs
behind me, slowing me down
as in a dream when I'm trying to run
but make no progress. As if my legs
have forgotten how to run.

People keep shackling
the dead-weight ball of God
onto me. I don't want to keep
lugging their God; I'd rather be
godless, unburdened.

Terrible, lonely, leadball God,
hand me a hacksaw
and I'll cut you loose,
let you go free,
risk going on
without you.

It's time to start over--
to know what I know
and feel what I feel,
from earth to skin,
blood and bone,
blossom and leaf bloom.

I'd like to think we can part
on good terms, you and I.
I say.
We'll both be
better off this way.

I read this poem at a writing retreat a few months after I'd written it. I can't imagine why, but my small group companions seemed to get worried about me when they heard it.

We were off the coast of Washington State, so I figured all those new-agey west coasters would be fine with this kind of talk. But, NO-O-O-O.

I think I scared them; as they thought I was depressed and heading down a very dark and slippery slope toward some despairing black hole of atheism, or something.

I can see that the poem maybe sounds a wee bit desperate. But for me it wasn't really a song of despair as one of liberation.

(Sometimes the act of writing about or creating from desperation is what begins to transform it. Speaking the truth, especially a long buried truth, activates freedom, and often that's true not just for the speaker.)

Cutting myself loose from God, hacksaw and all, felt like a jail break! Emancipation! My best hope for a deep soul-level freedom to be myself.

Spiritually and theologically I wanted to be free of all the words, all the theological constructs, all the doctrine, the definitions, the whole towering superstructure of Christianity which seemed to threaten to smother me. I was bone tired of the tradition I have vowed to uphold, and I wanted to see what would happen if I scrapped the whole thing.

Where would I end up if I wiped the slate clean and started over, simply paying attention to life--to myself and my own particular life in conversation with the life of everything around me, to the amazing universe and natural world we are part of, and to my very own body without which I have no access to my soul, no way of being in the world?

I wanted a chance simply "to know what I know/ and feel what I feel,/ from earth and skin,/ blood and bone, / blossom and leaf bloom."

The morning after I had shared this idea at the writing retreat, I was visited by a hummingbird as I stood outdoors, naked and wet, in the process of drying off from an outdoor shower. The hummingbird hovered about a foot from my nose, paused there for several seconds, and then was gone. Thus began what I like to call my "Summer of the Naked Truth"--but that too is a topic for another day.

As best I could, back there in 2006, I began my "experiment", if you will, my living experiment of starting over to live my life "without worrying about God", without theology, just living, just being myself, an ordinary human being on this far from ordinary earth.

I honestly believe it was OK with me from the start if I never actually arrived at any sort of definable "religious" faith at all--and that's still the case. Terms and definitions like atheist and agnostic don't really interest me much either. This is not really a theological experiment at heart. It's about life, about being human, about being myself from the inside out.

I hoped when I started simply to arrive at a place where I could stand and speak, not with the authority of conferred on me by ordination or by any religious institution, but with the authority of my own soul, known and embraced first within my own body, and then shared with others.

I understand this soul-level authority to be the birthright of each of us--that we are invited to discover and to claim by virtue of being given life and breath and our own unique blueprint--so that we may offer the peculiar, unrepeatable gift of ourselves to the world while we're here. I have a feeling that's what Jesus often helped people to do (though in a very different social and historical context), and the Buddha, and Hafiz, and a whole host of others.

Though I hesitate to give away too much of the "results" of the experiment too quickly (and it is more rightly understood as an experiment that will only end when I die), I can say that I am delighted to have discovered (or rediscovered) a rudimentary, pre-verbal sort of faith--something that I trust in my bones and yet have very little desire to put into words. At least not yet.

It is enough to savor and enjoy the stirrings of awe, delight, and sometimes fear that mark this largely wordless "faith," a faith that has nothing to do with assenting to religious beliefs--
this sense that something--maybe just calling it "Life" is good enough! or the creative energy that infuses and inspires all of life--is here, there, everywhere, beckoning, engaging, animating, stretching, challenging, "calling" (though that's a word fraught with the baggage of traditional religious usage) me, you, and everyone.

Strangely, the words of a popular song by young country music star Taylor Swift come to mind. (She's presumably singing about a young man, but that doesn't matter--somehow it seems to fit.)

"I don't know how it gets better than this,
you take my hand and drag me headfirst, fearless;
and I don't know why but with you I dance
in a storm in my best dress, fearless."


While the particulars of this journey, this experiment, are uniquely mine, it's not only about one women's journey through mid-life. It's also in large part a broader human story, which is why I dare to believe it is worth offering up to more than just a few of my family and friends.

Most of what I've spoken today has to do with the "before" side of the story, all the stuff that led up to the day I renounced my ordination to the priesthood. Which means that I just might need to have another speaking engagement in order to tell some of the "after" story, although of course that story is still unfolding. There's no simple final destination for that one--just the ongoing adventure of being alive and being myself from the inside out.

But I would like to tell one story from the "after" side of the journey. Several months after I'd let go of my ordination, David's closest friend from childhood into adulthood died, and I went with David to Nat's memorial service, where David gave the homily. Afterward, standing outside the First Religious Society of Newburyport, Massachusetts, a venerable Unitarian Church, some of David's other old friends were asking me what I was up to these days, and if I was still "in the ministry."

"Actually, no," I said. "I've left that behind. It just didn't work for me."

They began to ask me more questions, and I began to feel nervous, with a familiar anxiety about how to explain what I'd done and what they would think of me, and all that sort of nonsense. In my restlessness, I turned my head to glance away briefly, as if to collect myself, and there over my right shoulder was one of those posters so common outside Unitarian Universalist churches.

The poster broadcast these words from George Eliot: "It is never too late to become what you might have been."

Maybe the UU Church failed me back in my teens; but I've decided that that one sign at that moment more than made up for it.


Since I began with a poem by Hafiz, I'd like to end with another poem by Hafiz. This one's a lot shorter! It's called, "The God Who Only Knows Four Words".

Has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don'ts,
Not the God who ever does
Anything weird,
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
"Come dance with Me."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Upside-down and Inside-out: part 3

OK, so I may have overpainted the serious and boring self-portrait at the end of my last post. That's certainly not the whole of who I was.

But religiously speaking, a "scared escapee from life" who also happened to love to sing hymns and was drawn to the aesthetics of Episcopal liturgies--that's pretty accurate.

And my "deal" with God to protect me from heartbreak if I stayed away from intimate relationships and sex--well, let's just say that was more the ideal in my head than the reality in practice. The reality involved some pretty confused and confusing romantic relationships--some of them more or less platonic, some of them half-platonic (i.e., from my side of the table, not from the male side), and some of them more or less non-platonic except that sex was a contested arena, a kind of battleground, both within myself and with a male partner in those days.

Suffice it to say that this was not the most healthy or wholesome way to approach ordination to the priesthood. And how did that even come into the picture?

Well, let's see . . . . I was a new "convert", a religious devotee, as I've said. And I was a comparative literature major with no clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life as I approached my graduation from college in December of 1976. I believe it was during the summer of 1976, just before my final semester of college, that the Episcopal Church voted to allow women to be ordained to the priesthood.

There I was, a new Episcopalian wondering what to do with my life, when that news about women's ordination reached me, and a light bulb went on. Hmmm. . .  could it be? could this be my path? That's how my "vocation" started--not from any experience of active engagement in ministry, not from any significant involvement in the life of the Church apart from worship. Just an idea, a question, a maybe.

I thought about ordination for a couple of years while I pursued odd jobs--nine months as a cook on a schooner between Maine and the Virgin Islands; a summer at Mystic Seaport (during which, for the first time in my life I actually stood in front of large groups of people speaking fluently and entertainingly--not about the Gospel but about aspects of maritime history--and was surprised that I actually enjoyed myself!); and then a year as a prep school evangelist (which, in contrast to the work at Mystic Seaport, I did not enjoy at all).

When I look back at who I was and how green and naive I was when I entered seminary and first approached the ordination process in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, I am astonished that I made it through the selection process. I believe it was only because the Church's discernment process at that time was rather loose and lacking in rigor (and also rather still functioning as the "old boys' network" now having to figure out what to do with women).

There was still plenty of confusion, mixed messages, and what might, at least in retrospect, seem like warning signals that I did my best to ignore.

The discernment committee suggested that I do a year's internship in a church (five years in a non-church job might have been more appropriate!), because, they judged, that I was "too sweet and inexperience, at least in appearance". While the bishop in charge of the ordination process told me to "go on being your own sweet self"!

Meanwhile, when the shrink I saw for a mandatory evaluation concluded that I "had issues with death, sex, and authority," I figured I was cooked. But the bishop, who would later ordain me, only replied: "Welcome to the group."

While I am reasonably clear that I probably never had an honest vocation to ordained ministry in the church, I don't regret the years that I spent engaged in that life. For better or worse, that was the path that I chose to travel, and there's no point wishing it were different. I believe I did my best--even if much of the time I felt I had no clue what that meant!--I know I made a positive difference for a number of people and was blessed by being part of the lives of many.

Some days I marvel and am glad that I didn't leave a worse trail of damage behind me. God knows there was enough!

Much of the "damage", if that's the right word for it, was internal to me and carried largely in private, in a near-constant interior hunch that there was something wrong with me because I just couldn't seem to make the priesthood "fit" or make myself fit the priesthood, assuming that it was through some failing on my part that I just didn't feel cut out for it.

Rather than wonder if there had been something lacking or unclear in the discernment process, I bore that sense of unfitness like a shameful wound, blaming myself for being inadequate in one way or another (too introverted, too insecure, too self-centered--you get the idea), all because I believed I was under the holiest of obligations to fulfill the commitment I had made to God, the Church, and a couple hundred assorted parishioners, and everyone else I chose to lump into the picture.

What never seemed to enter the conversation and never occurred to me to ask was what kind of holy obligation I owed to myself. 

And for most of those years I found it hard to affirm, not for others but for myself, that the holiest obligation each of us has (whether understood as being an obligation to God or to the world or simply to ourselves) is to be as fully and wholly and unabashedly ourselves as possible. To express fully and robustly the unique and unrepeatable version of life that we are and that we have been given to embody and to carry forth.

Still, I can say that I received many, many gifts through my years as a priest in the Church, for which I will always be grateful. Without my ordination, I would not have met, fallen in love with, and married David, and that means too that without my ordination there would be no Bekah or Anna in the world. And the absence of those realities is just plain unthinkable!


Perhaps you noticed that I didn't say I thought that "God was calling me" to leave my ordination behind. And perhaps you may be wondering something like: Did I believe "God" was calling me to renounce my ordination, the way I had once believed God was calling me to be ordained? Or, did I believe it was "just my soul" talking?

To which I have three answers:

First, that would depend on what you mean by the word "God"--which is a lot like Bill Clinton saying, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." But that's another topic for another day.

Second, I believe that what you probably mean by "God" and what I mean by my "soul" (and everyone else's soul too, for that matter) are actually so interconnected and so similar in their make-up as to be almost indistinguishable from one another, at least when we are reasonably healthy and doing our best to pay close attention. And there are times when getting tripped up in definitions and distinctions, wondering where "God" ends and your own soul begins, is just another delaying tactic of the ego, one that I am very familiar with!

And third, I have to confess that in the year or two leading up to my  decision to renounce my ordination I had kind of taken a vacation from God, or at least from the whole idea of "God". I had finally given myself the total, absolute freedom and privilege of not worrying about God.

This was a liberation and an unburdening of immense proportions, one I had entertained off and on but, as you can imagine, found difficult to consider seriously while I was still actively practicing ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. Still, "taking a vacation from God" is putting things a bit more low-key and casual than it felt at the beginning.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Upside-down and Inside-out: part 2

As you can imagine, this decision to renounce my ordination had been brewing for a long time. Make that a long, long time.

It had been considered, suppressed, ignored, and muddied; reconsidered, re-suppressed, re-ignored, re-muddied so many times by so many "shoulds" and "oughts" and my high sense of responsibility and obligation to God, the Church, and my ordination vows--And did I sometimes manage to confuse the Church with God and God with the Church? In a word, yes.--until finally the yearning break free enough to ask the questions and find answers became a fierce compulsion. A command.

An order, if you will, from my own soul. Perhaps even a holy order.

Looking back I can see clearly that my psyche and soul had really been working over time for years, waving red flags, ringing alarm bells of various kinds, trying to get my attention.

If my soul had chosen to address me directly in words, it might have said: "Look, I've given you all kinds of signs and signals--dreams, posters, hand-lettered signs, coincidences, disasters, even messages from Facebook, for Pete's sake! How long are you going to sit around confused and paralyzed, waiting for more signs and signals?

"THIS IS URGENT! A matter of life and death. This can't wait any longer. It's time for you to act. NOW."

Finally I got the message and acted, wrote to the Bishop, handed in my priesthood and started over.


How had I come to this?

I suppose the answer reaches far far back into my childhood and my family history, and although I've been excavating and discovering and writing about my finds, there's nowhere near enough time to go into all of that today. (That's what books are for, right?) But a little back story seems in order.

I'll save for another day the full exploration of such oddly intriguing (at least to me) tidbits like the fact that in my recurring early childhood dream of being left behind by my family, it always happened on our way home from church (way back when my family actually attended church together)! And the dreams usually began in the somewhat creepy basement-level nursery of the dream-church, in which my dream-self was dwarfed by oversized stuffed animals. I remember a lion most of all, like a guardian just inside the door.

But as I said, that's for another day.

Some time in late 2001 or early 2002, I was reading along in a book when I came upon a line that opened up a good sized fissure in me. It was a book of photographs and essays by Jim Daniels; the book is called Lives of Service: Stories from Maryknoll, about missionaries of the Maryknoll Order. Many, if not most, Maryknolls work in parts of the world where Christianity is not the dominant religion, and service, modeled on Jesus' compassionate self-giving, is the primary expression of their work. In other words, they are not trying to convert anyone from some other religion to Christianity, not even secretly!

One essay follows a Maryknoll sister who works with Cambodian women with HIV/AIDS, a predominantly Buddhist population. She spoke of how her cross-cultural, cross-religious work has taught her so much about the meaning of compassion and service. And then the line that struck me like lightning: "Before you are a Christian," she said, "you must be human."

Oh my God! Suddenly I knew: I got it backwards, inside-out, way back at the beginning. Starting all those years ago, I put being a Christian before being human, perhaps even took on being Christian as an escape from being human.

Could it be that I had undertaken much of my religious journey, perhaps even including my ordination, as a flight from life and a shortcut to having a recognizable identity?

Once again, maybe a little background would be helpful here. I was raised a Unitarian (though the church with the creepy basement nursery in my childhood dreams was an Episcopal church that my family attended for a while). Intellectual freedom and a kind of wandering, uncommitted religious inquiry were givens in my family.

I was proudly Unitarian in my early adolescence, chuckling smugly at the joke my father used to repeat about how at the Unitarian Church the only time the name of Jesus is invoked is when the janitor falls down the stairs! (I heard that recently on Garrison Keillor's joke show, but I know it has been around at least forty years.) I remember looking down my nose at my Episcopal and Catholic friends who actually recited creeds!

"How could they possibly believe that stuff?" I scoffed and wondered well into my teens.

My decision eventually to "try Christianity" in my late teens was partly motivated by a spiritual/religious curiosity, and in that area the Unitarian Universalist Church of the early 1970s failed me. At least that's how it felt at the time. I wanted someone to tell me something about God that related to my life, and all I heard were sermons about Vietnam and one notable one if which the minister said he was "no longer comfortable using the word 'God'"--a sentiment I can understand now with sophistication and nuance.

Back then I simply thought: "Well, you're no help; I guess I'll look elsewhere."

But my religious journey was also fueled by a badly broken heart. The first really big love relationship of my life had ended--I was dumped rather abruptly and ineptly--and I, being a very, very serious, sensitive, introverted, introspective teenager, thought maybe that God and I could work out some kind of a deal to protect me from this kind of heartbreak ever happening again. This wasn't an entirely conscious undertaking, mind you, but I can trace its contours now with confidence. I also was kind of a nerd--not into parties, beer, or pot--and tended to hang out on the edges of various social groupings, not very sure where I belonged, or if I belonged anywhere at all.

I was in college--a college with a beautiful English Gothic-style chapel, staffed by an Episcopal priest, with a big pipe organ cranking out those lovely Episcopal hymns I knew and loved from a summer camp, school assemblies, and other nostalgic occasions. I loved that chapel and it organ and was drawn to it, sometimes sitting outside in its sunny courtyard where I could even hear the organ being played, and other times sitting inside on its carved wooden pews in light muted through stained glass.

So when most of my peers were busy expanding their horizons, exploring all sorts of wild ideas and experimenting with various substances, I contracted, retreated, ran for cover. And religion seemed to offer just the right kind of solace and safety that I sought.

Because I'd been raised Unitarian and decided to "become a Christian," even to be baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, I told myself that my Christianizing was actually doing something rather exotic, bold, and even rebellious in a quirky way.

But with the clarity and honesty of hindsight, I can see untrue that was. I really kind of did my best to rope "God" into a terrible bargain. (I put "God" in quotation marks because I believe this was basically a good of my fabrication and imagination, although a version of God all to readily accessible in much Christian interpretation.) The bargain was this: I'd give this God of my imagination--a super-parent of shoulds and oughts, rules and regulations and rewards--my fullest possible devotion and obedience, continue being the basically "good", tame, and risk-avoidant young woman I already was, avoide future love and sex (at least for a while--and it's not like I had enjoyed a whole lot of it before then!), and find a tenuous sense of belonging in the chapel liturgies and among the odd assortment of college kids in the Christian fellowship. God's part of the bargain, as I saw it, was to protect me, to keep me safe from further heartache. That's all I asked. That, and I suppose forgiveness for my many (to me obvious) sins and good old guilt and shame.

Perhaps I should have been suspicious early on that "God" wasn't really in on this bargain with me, when the student organist at the college, a leader in the Christian fellowship who also happened to be dating my roommate at the time, made a pass at me while showing me the inner workings of the organ!

As a sign of just how uptight and naive I was, I didn't see the humor in this at the time. Nor did I allow myself to contemplate the total sleaze-hood of the guy! Can you believe it? This guy put moves on my while showing me his very big, impressive organ!

As I said, I didn't catch the humor at the time. In fact, I was really a rather humorless creature in those days: very serious, very religious, and very unhappy. (And you might imagine, also very boring.)

Still, I bravely soldiered on and stuffed my native spiritual and intellectual curiosity and playfulness in a closet for at least the next few years while I doggedly pursued my new identity as a Christian and as a religious devotee, a scared escapee from life.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Upside-down and Inside-out: part 1

It has been almost two weeks since my "coming out party" and I've been promising to put the text of what I spoke that day into my blog. Today I begin.

Because it was fairly long, I plan to post it in sections--just kind of feel my way along and pause when it feels right and sensible to do so. I may add some extra stuff, too--some of what I left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. I imagine that I will write other posts in the midst of it, so to follow the continuous text from two weeks ago, look for the sequence of blog posts sharing the title "Upside-down and Inside-out."

OK. Here's part 1.

First, I'd like to being with an invocation, and for that "invocation" I'd like to read a poem by the 14th century Sufi poet, Hafiz. The poem is called "Tired of Speaking Sweetly"--translated by Daniel Ladinsky, though I've taken a few liberties with his translation, mostly with personal pronouns.

Tired of Speaking Sweetly

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved Her choice, some nights,
She would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.

Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth

That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,

Causing the world to week
On too many fine days.

God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us into a tiny room with Herself
And practice her dropkick.

The Beloved sometimes want
To do us a great favor:

Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.

But when we hear
She is in such a "playful drunken mood"

Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.


I began that day much as I do most every day--with a cup of hot tea and time to write in my journal.

It was Friday, April 4, 2008. And I wrote this: "Today I start a new life. Today I start a new life."

Yes, I actually wrote the same sentence twice (and then promptly stopped writing for a while). And while I wish I could say that the repetition of that sentence denoted enthusiastic confidence about this new life before me, that's not really how it was. I wrote it twice precisely because I needed reassurance. I was feeling really really terrible.

The next thing I wrote was: "I am so, so tired--deeply exhausted in my bones. I feel like I've been run over by a truck, or as if someone dear to me has died."

Which was pretty close to the truth. Someone dear to me had died. The day before I had formally renounced my ordination as an Episcopal priest, which had been the core of my professional and even my personal identity for almost twenty-four years. I had been ordained even longer than I had known David, my husband, and several years longer than we'd been married. And if you count the four years that I had spent preparing to be ordained--three in seminary and a one year internship--it had been twenty-eight years, more than half my entire lifetime!

Just for the sake of clarity, "Renunciation of the Ordained Ministry" is the Episcopal Church's official, canonical name for quitting, for hanging up your vestments and clerical collar for ever, giving up your license to practice as an ordained minister of the church.

In taking this step you are "released from the obligations of the Ministerial office and deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority as a Minister of God's Word and Sacraments conferred in ordination". To complete this action you are required to sign a statement, in the presence of the Bishop and assorted members of the Standing Committee of the Diocese, declaring that you take this step freely and voluntarily; and they in turn sign other documents, one of which will broadcast to a thousand different entities in the whole Episcopal Church the fact that you are no longer a priest.

The business of renouncing your ordination is both remarkably simple, and yet not simple at all. Enormous, in fact. Way way bigger than one individual person's inclination. (My guess is that the dynamics of renouncing my ordination are closer to those of getting a divorce than to anything else I can imagine, but since I've never gotten divorced, that's only a guess.)

And renouncing your ordination is essentially irreversible. This is not stated with absolute clarity in the Canons of the Church, but it's pretty well understood, and borne out by the facts, Mother Church isn't apt to hold open the door to clergy who jump ship and then have a change of heart.

So, back to the story line:
That morning, the morning after I had signed my way out of the ordained ministry in the presence of David and Bishop Knudsen, and Maine's next bishop-to-be, Stephen Lane, members of the Standing Committee, and several of my friends, I felt at least half dead. Half dead and full of questions. Scary, exciting, wide open questions.

Who would I be without my ordination? What would I do with my life? Who am I, anyway, stripped down to the essentials of my being, just myself in conversation with life in all its beauty and complexity on this extraordinary planet?

I know these sound like rudimentary questions, even like things I asked, but maybe never really answered, as a teenager and young adult. (I don't suppose we ever really answer such questions finally and fully in one lifetime, but it's not a bad thing to ask them now and then.)

But there I was, almost fifty-four years old, and I might as well have been an adolescent again, except that I had a husband, two teenaged daughters, and a lot more maturity and life experience than most adolescents. At least I hope so!

In many ways I felt as if I had no clue, like Dante coming to himself in the middle of that dark wood where the way was lost. I only know that I deeply deeply yearned to honor those questions, that if felt like a life or death matter to find the freedom to explore them, and I hoped that I would find some answers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Is your God too small? (or, Let God be all that God Is)

So here's where things stand. (Somehow that makes me think of the part in "Peter and the Wolf" when the narrator steps back a moment and describes the situation--where all the characters were in relation to one another: Peter, the bird, the cat, the wolf. Although this post has nothing to do with that!)

Here's where I am discovering that blogging can get more interactive. Out of the comment box and into the blog.

There have been some conversations brewing in some blog comments of late, and I am delighted that some new readers of the blog are entering and in some cases starting those conversations. Thank you!

This morning I read the following provocative comment from my friend Meredith:

Count on me to jump in and muddy the waters by saying things people may not be ready to hear. But let's try an idea on for size (and I know I may sound a little Michael Dwinell-y* in saying this, but someone has to carry the part of the Questioner).
What if...whatever we call "God" also wants to renounce who or what (we think) God is supposed to be? What if God is chafing too, finds it too confining to be (our idea of) God? What if God needs to throw off the robes so God can grow into all parts of its God-Self, just as you, Sukie, need to be faithful to ALL parts of your greater Self?

Perhaps it's not just priests who are too confined by what we expect of them, but "God" who is too confined by what we expect of God? And in being true to your call, you are reflecting for all of us that it's time to let God be all that God is, which may not look at all like what we believe.

In the end, I still draw the same conclusion: God is Mystery, and the only thing we can do is bow before it.

As always, Sukie, I honor your courage to speak your truth and be faithful unto it, for that is where the Mystery is most alive in you.

To which I wrote the following reply, which will now become the rest post: 

Well now there's something to chew on! Thanks, Meredith, not so much for muddying the waters as for stirring them up a bit.

I do believe that I wasn't just trying to be witty when, in my poem about cutting myself loose from "the ball and chain called God"(that link takes you to my other, currently inactive, blog, called "Freedom Diaries") that God and I would "both be better off this way"--that is, unshackled. But I didn't push that idea further--at least not in terms of how God might be better off. And what the unshackling might really be about, beyond my letting go of my understanding of God which eventually led to letting go of my life as an Episcopal priest.

I remember a book title (not sure I ever read the book) back in my college and/or seminary days, called "Your God is Too Small". Whatever/whoever "God" is is certainly way way bigger than our minds and our language can ever fully encompass or adequately describe. Hence, Jesus' tossing questions back to questioners and his wacky, puzzling parables; and the tradition of Zen koans to confound the mind into "breakthrough", and a mystic poet like Hafiz doing everything he can to stand our ideas of God on their heads, to break all our quaint definitions and ideas and stand us on our heads, too--"to shake all the nonsense out"!

(My current best efforts at "naming God" are: Mysterious source of all that is; or Big Reality; which leads me to . . . Big Mama!)

Maybe that's one of the key messages in all the searching, spiritual and otherwise, that is going on these days, assisted by the internet and global communication and awareness of so many varieties of religious and spiritual traditions: that "God" truly can't be fully comprehended, boxed in, defined, "owned" by any one of us, nor by any one tradition.

T. S. Eliot spoke of "only hints and guesses". That's a modest, humble appraisal of the glimpses we are given to experience and enjoy-- of this Big Mama!

*You can read the colorful description and tribute that I wrote to Michael, who died last year, at this link, "Remembering Michael Dwinell."

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Intertwining Strands

When I wrote to family and friends in April 2008 to tell them I had renounced my ordination, I felt I needed to offer some kind of explanation for why I had taken this immense and unusual step. Explaining myself was not easy to do, in part because I could think of so many reasons, or categories of reasons, for why letting go of ordination seemed to be the right thing for me to do at that time.

Here's what I put in that letter:

"Of all the variety of reasons I could articulate for letting go of ordination--psychological, theological, ecclesiological, ecological, anthropological--front and center is my conviction, born of experience and reflection, that being ordained gets in the way of my being freely and fully myself as a human being on this earth. I have likened my being ordained to a piece of old clothing, once a favorite, now well worn and rather ill fitting, even constricting, and best retired or recycled. Perhaps it 'worked' for me when I was first ordained; perhaps not. Now it no longer allows me sufficient freedom and room to be myself. I no longer wish to be a "professional religious person," at least not a spokesperson for any particular religious entity; when I speak or write or make art, I want to speak or write or make art wholly and freely as myself on behalf of myself."

There's so much more I could say about that one paragraph (and the rest of that letter) now, from the perspective of nearly two years later. I see some things more clearly now; while some are still pretty muddy! But I've been thinking especially about that list of reasons: psychological, theological, ecclesiological, ecological, anthropological.

I remember making double and triple sure that I was being honest there, rather than simply trying to be clever or witty. So I went back through that list many times to be sure that I could authentically give at least a brief amplification for each term and how I understood it in relation to myself and my action. Almost as if it were a check list:

1. Psychological: "check" (that was the easiest one, since it was obvious that somehow I just couldn't make it work for me to be a real person and a symbolic religious one at the same time)

2. Theological: "check" (that was pretty easy too--in fact that's probably the one that got me started in the first place--chafing within the confines of traditional, credal Christianity, even in its more progressive forms)

3. Ecclesiological: "check" (that too was almost a no-brainer, and it relates back to both 1 and 2 as well as to an Episcopal priest's sworn commitment to "conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church")

4. Ecological: "check" (although I don't quite remember how I got that to fit so neatly--I think it goes back to number 2)

5. Anthropological: "check" (this was the most "out there" of the reasons--it had something to do with something I had read about the anthropological distinction between the role of priest and the role of shaman. Not that I considered myself a shaman, but I knew I didn't like being in the role of priest, anthropologically speaking--was not even sure I believe it ever serves the best of human purposes)

Over the months since April of 2008, I have veered back and forth in my efforts to simplify and summarize my reasons into one basic reason, so that I could more clearly and effectively tell my story. But I have a feeling that to boil it all down to one reason, or one primary reason is to risk serious distortion in order to run from ambiguity.

That my quirky personal story and my psycho-emotional development (and lack thereof prior to ordination!) form the primary reason behind renouncing my ordination, I have no doubt. And yet to say that it's only my "quirky personal story" tempts me to minimize the potential significance of my story for others and thus to conceive of the telling of it as a personal, private extravagance.

Would any art or literature or music ever come into being if every creative impulse got undervalued, edited and muffled in that way?

As I move along step by step, it is becoming increasingly obvious that my theological and ecclesiological questions represent issues that are very much alive right now for all kinds of people and for nearly every traditional religious community wise enough and awake enough to wonder what it will mean, and what changes will be required, to continue to exist in meaningful life-giving ways. (And my psycho-spiritual questions certainly highlight some of the issues and challenges for ordained people of all sorts.)

Perhaps it would be more faithful and more honest of me (and more courageous) not to force some over-simplification of my story and instead to honor the intertwining strands of it. Maybe they will sort themselves out more clearly as I go along, and maybe they belong together, forever intertwined.

At least one person has suggested to me that a holistic, interconnected understanding of life would push that question even further. "It may well be," she said to me, "that you find yourself desiring to express yourself and your story right now because there are so many people out there hungering for just this kind of story." In other words, it's not just about me and my story and some self-centered, self-serving love of creative expression (though maybe it's partly that!).

Hmmm. A kind of quantum physics meets Carl Jung's "collective unconscious" sort of idea? If we are none of us isolated creatures and all things are connected, both by shared atoms and molecules and by the energy-matter continuum, on some fundamental level, how could it be otherwise?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Momentum in March: Handling the "Right Way Worries"

I don't know why but for some reason this year I am enjoying this month's name being "March". Not that I'm much into the martial, military flavor of "forward march!" sort of commands, not to mention that if March is derived from the Roman god Mars, the god of war, then the martial and military associations are full on.

But I like the sense of momentum that "march" implies. Which has set me pondering momentum a bit. I'm afraid I am more fully acquainted with impediments to momentum and momentum's opposite, inertia. Which my American Heritage dictionary defines as "the tendency to do nothing or remain unchanged"--and it cites the bureaucracy of government as an example. Ouch! That hits home! How much time I can waste thinking I'm not sure what to do next (or afraid to try something and find out I was wrong), thus resulting in doing nothing and remaining virtually unchanged, except perhaps more frustrated and annoyed with myself.

And momentum? "The impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of events." Aahhh. That's way more appealing, isn't it?

In my brief ruminations about March, momentum, and inertia, I am aware of the roles played by fear and perfectionism (which may mostly be one of fear's clever disguises). I put off blogging because I worry I don't know the "right way" to blog--is it OK to make my blog be a catch-all for the writing of my memoir as well as present day observations about the process of doing so? "Should" it be one or the other rather than both?

I put off all sorts of things, or get all tangled up when I try, because of the "right way worries"--am I doing this right? am I going to look stupid, the way I did that one time in first grade when I got called on to read and had been daydreaming and didn't know where we were in the book?

Really. I only think that happened to me once. I was a near-perfect student ("ahhh...that's her problem!") and I remember that one moment of embarrassment--can feel my face burning red with mortification!-- with my beloved first grade teacher, Mrs. Phillips as if it were almost only yesterday instead of 50 years ago.

Is there no cure for this momentum-stopping, wheel-clogging perfectionism? No antidote for the right way worries? Well, yes, in fact there is. Christine Kane, a friend and mentor and momentum master (I just made that title up), talks a lot about perfectionism and encourages deliberate imperfectionism as an antidote. So does Martha Beck in Finding your own North Star. And Karen Fagan, local "empowerment expert" and life coach.

And, come to think of it, so did David Barney, my former "boss" back at Trinity Episcopal Church in Concord, Massachusetts. He was the first person I know to have quoted the line: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." And I remember thinking he was crazy! I have a feeling he got a lot more done than I did.

Sometimes the cure for inertia is a Nike-ad-style pep talk: just do it. Sometimes it's a bit more thorough an investigation of just what's going on in there, recognizing the "right way worries" and saying, "Oh, yeah, that again. Not going to let you keep me from doing what I really want to do."

Sometimes it's a matter of talking back and saying: "Look. Let's get things straight. There is no one "right way" to do this. There are all kinds of possible right ways, and the best of those right ways is the one (or ones) that works best for me; the one that gets me to do something, that gets me to take action, to get moving again. It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to get you unstuck."

Which is how I got myself to sit down and write this blog this morning. And right now, I am very glad that I did.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Coming Out Party

Yesterday was a little bit like a coming out party for me. With the generous help of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Luke,  I hosted an "event"in the cathedral's parish hall. I called it "Upside-down and Inside-out: Stories from a Mid-Life Journey," and about thirty-five people were there!

And that's what it was--some of the stories (there are so many more!) from my journey out of Episcopal parish ministry, through the process of getting clearer within myself to my decision to renounce my ordination as a priest. What's quirky about my journey, and what had the "coming out" quality for me, was that I really had to give myself permission to take a vacation from God, to start living my life without concern for the idea of God, in order to hear my soul.

One of the things I love about writing is that when it "works", I learn things in the process of writing that I didn't know, or at least didn't know quite so clearly, when I started. Or I find better, more compelling language for understanding myself and my life and hopefully for helping others to connect to their own lives, too.

One particular gift that came to me in preparing to tell these stories was to see that "cutting myself loose" from God and letting God go on without me and me without God was much much more than a theological experiment or project, if you will. It was, and is, about life, about being human, and especially about being myself from the inside out, trusting my own unfolding relationship with my soul in conversation with the life around me. As the "Two Books" story reminds me when I get fuzzy, it all boiled down to a choice between "death in holy orders" and "living free".

"The Two Books", c. Sukie Curtis, 2009

Another gift was the realization that, not unlike the way so many women learn to put other people's needs and wants before their own and sometimes do not even acknowledge that they have any needs or wants at all (a lesson that I witness again and again spending time with my ninety-year-old mother!), I was doing exactly the same thing. Only my list of "more important" claims included not only my children, and David, but also God and the Episcopal Church! My ordination had all the fancy language signaling a "holy obligation". But what never occurred to me to ask was what kind of holy obligation I owed to myself.

Over the years since leaving my ordination behind, I have come to believe more and more that each of us has a truly holy obligation, a sacred duty, to be fiercely committed to (which also means taking responsibility for--sorry!) our own happiness, our own deep, soul-level happiness.

That's not a simple process. It takes commitment, diligence, awareness, attention, patience with the learning curve, courage in the face of pressure to "revert". And it brings with it much joy and freedom and lightness of heart!

I got asked some good questions at the end of my talking, and in retrospect I wish I had allowed more time for letting that conversation unfold some more. Maybe I'll bring some of those questions and some written comments into the blog for an expanded conversation.

And while I'm at it, I might as well post the text of what I spoke in the blog too. It was pretty long, so that  will take care of several days' posts, and might actually help me to get back in the swing of blogging!

Let's hear it for coming out parties! And thank you to everyone who came to St. Luke's yesterday! And to David for lots of support and tactical assistance.