My dear friends in Christ,
Here is the next installment of my Spiritual Autobiography. As I mentioned in the introduction to Part 1, I’m sharing these details of my spiritual journey from childhood to priesthood and to All Saints Episcopal Church not (with all due respect to Walt Whitman) to celebrate myself, but in an attempt to begin (at least) to make up for time lost to the Covid-19 pandemic, time we would otherwise have been able to spend getting to know each other and building the close relationships that are so important to the life and health of a thriving parish.
This chapter that I’m sharing this week may strike you as … a little strange. It is not an episode of my journey that I’ve shared with many people ~ it is certainly not one with which I would ordinarily begin a conversation with someone I’d just met. To be honest, I had considered being a bit more selective with my storytelling and only sharing certain excerpts (read: probably not this one), rather than the entire narrative, for this newsletter column. But upon reflection, I realized that I would rather y’all have a chance to get the whole story, as it were. If nothing else, perhaps my sharing an experience like this one might serve as an invitation to some very interesting follow-up conversations!
On that note, if anything here sparks your interest, if you have questions, or if you’d just like to connect and talk about something else entirely, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 920.266.9262. I look forward to hearing from y’all!
Call Story, Pt. 2
From the age of 13 until my late twenties, I pursued that goal of discovering and understanding whatever it was that I actually believed, both informally, on a personal level, and to an extent formally, getting my bachelor’s degree in anthropology. (I had, early on in high school and only very briefly, entertained the notion of becoming a theoretical physicist and studying “reality” in that way, but a couple of higher math classes quickly disabused me of that error! But I had always had a love so social sciences, anyway, and when I took Anthro 101 at Georgia Southern in the spring of 1990, I was hooked.) I spent time reading about all sorts of religions and belief systems, from my native Christianity and its cousins Judaism and Islam, to eastern faiths such as Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, eventually exploring belief systems of various non-Western, non-industrial, indigenous cultures and “alternative” nature religions, so-called “New Religious Movements,” like Wicca and Druidry. And I spent even more time in conversation with as many different people, from as many different backgrounds, as I could find.
In hindsight, it seems a bit odd, but throughout this period of intense and wide-ranging exploration, I never considered myself to be anything other than Christian, though admittedly I rarely attended formal services during those years. Only once did I seriously entertain the idea of actually leaving the Church. That moment of consideration was another formative milestone on my spiritual journey, and it deserves a bit of description and explanation.
It happened one evening during my junior year of college at Georgia Southern. I had been doing field research for a term paper in my cultural anthropology class, studying a group of Wiccans (they were more common that you might expect in south Georgia in the early ’90s!) as a religious sub-culture. It had struck me more than once, over the course of that research, that, although it would have taken me a lot of adjusting, I could in fact have found a spiritual home amongst the people I was meeting and interviewing. It was shocking, in fact, to realize how fully and completely I would have fit in with and been welcomed into their community.
I found especially compelling the degree to which the people who practiced this religion integrated their spiritual beliefs and religious rituals and practices into the ordinary business of their everyday lives. For me, that way of living their religion was a bit of contrast to what I’d experienced in the tradition into which I was born, which all too often relegated religious concerns and practices to one or two designated days out of the week and, also all too often, left one wondering what connection the religion even had to the actual business of living day-to-day.
At any rate, on the night in question, I was thinking pretty hard about that idea of really living the faith, about one’s entire life being a continuous act of religious devotion and expression, and about the realization that I could potentially find a spiritual home in this new tradition … when I had what I’ve only been able to describe afterwards as a vision. I happened to be looking into my bathroom mirror and, instead of my own reflection, I suddenly saw the figure of Jesus, smiling at me kindly.
He didn’t speak out loud, but I was given to understand that I was perfectly welcome, if I liked, to choose the change in direction that I was considering, and that if I did choose that change, there would be no wrath or punishment from Him because of it. I was also shown, however, an image of myself as a Wiccan, and then an image of His slowly turning around and walking away from me until He vanished in the distance, and I was left staring at my own image in the mirror once again.
The experience was devastating.
The utter finality I perceived in that that image that struck me like a physical blow. For the first time, I caught a glimpse of what my Baptist friends from childhood had described as a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Watching the that possible future unfold in which Christ allowed me my free choice and stepped away, never to return, I felt a sense of loss that goes beyond expression in words. And I knew—suddenly and completely—that, though I was free to choose my own path and that I would continue to build friendships with people of all sorts of faith backgrounds and to learn as much as I could about as many different belief systems as possible, I would never, could never, choose a path that led me away from my relationship with Christ Jesus.
It was in that moment that I discovered that that relationship, that His presence, had always been with me, though I had only just embraced it fully consciously for the first time.
To be continued…