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.