I was about 20 years into my born-again Christian career when I dropped the dogma briefcase. I couldn’t carry it anymore, even if I wanted to. It was too heavy and the contents were all tangled and shredded. Or to use another metaphor: The theology I’d been trying to wear for decades didn’t fit. The waist was too tight and the pants too short and there was a lot of extra fabric in the arms.
It was terrifying, though, to step out of my long-practiced faith tradition and find myself—where? I didn’t know. I had become a Christian as a teenager, under the kind eye of Mrs. Marks, who led me to the Lord one spring evening my junior year in high school. In college I was part of an evangelical student group that went in for open-air preaching and dorm Bible studies. I married my husband just after graduation and together we spent our 20s and 30s involved in high-commitment, high-discipleship Christian communities. Faith was a transaction between me and Big Sky Daddy: If I did The Stuff (church, incessant prayer, good deeds) he would love me in return. It was my way of tamping down the almost constant panic I felt about whether I was worth anything.
The problem with transactional faith, though, is that when the deal falls through—and it will—you’re left with what feels like … nothing. (Well, and a lot of righteous anger about how the other party didn’t hold up their end of the agreement.) By the time I was 35 my husband and I had a couple of kids and a church home that felt like a perfect fit, but then the community hit a wall over a hot-button social issue and fractured into camps. My naivete and the limits of seeing my relationship with God and God’s people as a kind of business deal set me up for a precipitous fall. I felt betrayed not only by the community, but also by God. The feeling was, You mean I washed all these dishes and now you’re closing the restaurant?
Instead of developing a permanent and unshakeable core of faith out of which I could live, I had built scaffolding around a shaky building. Sure, the faith communities I’d been part of may have overpromised, but I also hadn’t done the work needed to create an autonomous, spiritual self formed by both inner and outer wisdom. I’d leaned too heavily on other people’s definition of God and what it meant to have faith.
I began a time of heavy discernment, undertaken in part through a spiritual direction relationship with Mary, a woman who was co-leading an iteration of the Ignatian Exercises at a local church. The Spanish Catholic priest St. Ignatius of Loyola developed the Exercises in the 1500s as a month-long retreat for clergy, but in modern times they are offered to laypeople as a months-long course that fits into most work schedules. The Exercises consist of meditations, prayer, and contemplative practices meant to draw pilgrims closer to God in an active, living way.
Over three months of these Exercises, culminating in Easter, I met with Mary for hour-long sessions during which she listened carefully to my description of the movement of God in my life and my confusion about my faith community’s apparent implosion. She was a committed Christian, a woman in her 60s with grown children, who generously offered me space for my own spiritual exploration and was not judgmental when I began to lean toward leaving not only my church community but even the faith itself.
In the end, I left both my particular church and the Christian tradition and spent the next decade exploring 12-step programs and Buddhism, both of which I found offered a way to accept reality with some form of equanimity. In particular, I resonated with the wisdom of American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, in whose writing I found solace. Over and over, Chödrön’s words invited me back to what she describes as “cool loneliness,” a state where I could be with my own flaws and limits (food addiction, ego worship, pridefulness and judgment of others) without panic and instead surrender to what was actually true about myself and the people around me.
I continued to learn about what recovering addicts describe as being “right-sized”—that is, no better and no worse than anyone else—and that perspective helped me let go of judging myself and other people. It occurred to me that, if I was unable to hold myself in “unconditional positive regard,” as psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, I wouldn’t be able to imagine that God was doing that as well. I began to move through the world with more realistic expectations, needing less and less external affirmation about whether or not I was okay.
And I read. Books were my dear companions as I walked a path toward a new spiritual home: Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach; When Things Fall Apart and The Places That Scare You by Chödrön; At the Root of This Longing by Carol Lee Flinders; Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd; The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham; and When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone, to name a few. These books and others expanded my imagination about what faith could be.
The irony is that the experience of feeling betrayed by my faith community and by the Christian God is exactly the kind that led me to more spiritual maturity. Out of a distressing rupture and my ensuing exploration of my own brokenness, I learned again and again how to return to compassion for myself. I began to see the spiritual life as a dance rather than a transaction, one that originates from Higher Power and includes inner knowing integrated with outer wisdom so that it becomes the ground from which we “live and move and have our being,” as St. Paul writes in the book of Acts.
The further irony is that, as I built a new spiritual home inside myself, I started to consider the Christian tradition with fresh eyes. After not having been a practicing Christian for more than a decade, I started to attend a Mennonite church my husband had found and was delighted to discover a group of people committed to living out of deep compassion rather than rigid rules (the inclusive God language the congregation used also helped). I faced cancer, survived, and realized I wanted to be of greater service to others through the same attentive listening Mary had given me all those years ago. I enrolled in a certificate program in spiritual direction at a Christian seminary. After years of meditation, I found myself returning to intercessory prayer, not necessarily to God the Father but to Christ Sophia, the root of all wisdom.
After years of spiritual exploration, it would seem that I’m at a very different place from where I started. My spiritual toolkit is lighter now than that old briefcase. The theological garb fits better. And I’m finding a new home in my old tradition, built on trust in myself to ask questions, to listen to my intuition, and to set boundaries, as well as a better-honed ability to recognize the movement of Spirit in my life. But in fact, the “new home” was there all along—I just had to grow up before I could move in. As T.S. Eliot writes in his 1942 poem “Little Gidding,”
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.