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
Terrible, lonely, leadball God,
hand me a hacksaw
and I'll cut you loose,
let you go free,
risk going on
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.
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
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
"Come dance with Me."