Thanks to my experienced readers I was reminded that the word for this type of biography is called a testimony. Thank you, readers!
Let’s continue my testimony. (You can read part one here.) In this installment I get personal and talk about things I’d rather not.
We last left off as I approached college. I considered myself a Christian, but was wary of Christian culture and of people who grew up in youth group. So you can imagine my enthusiasm when the summer before leaving for college (leaving Alaska to go to Washington) I got my roommate assignment in the mail. Her name was Jennie, she was from Washington. Her phone number was listed and I called. Turned out she was very active in her youth group. ‘She’s nice,’ I thought, ‘but we’ll never be good friends.’ When I arrived at our dorm in September I noticed her tape collection held the delights of Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant. I was not impressed.
I like telling that story because my randomly placed roommate ended up becoming my best friend and within weeks we were inseparable. I can probably blame Jennie for my deepening my activity in mainstream Christianity. She had had a great, trauma-free experience growing up Christian and she wanted to continue to seek that out in college. I followed her lead as we checked out various campus Christian groups, eventually joining Campus Crusade for Christ rather regularly. Yes, you read that correctly. I attended CCC, which I used to jokingly call KKK. I was not the most mature wit, I will admit. CCC was, surprisingly, the middle path for Christians at my uni – neither the most conservative, nor the stereotypical mostly social youth group on campus.
I can also blame Jennie for showing me how open, ‘normal’ and healthy a practicing Christian could be. Her entire family was a revelation to me. Her parents honestly enjoyed their kids and were interested in them as individuals. Her parents came from fascinating religious backgrounds: one raised in the Cameroon by missionary parents, the other raised by a pastor who taught in Lebanon and in the deep, segregated South. And yet, this family was not afraid of difference, of non-Christians, of questions, of the wider world. Instead, they were genuinely interested in people and ideas. This family was a safe haven for me and an example of what a fully lived, healthy Christian life – and just straight up healthy family – could look like.
My spiritual experience in college was much like my experience in high school, only more so. Personally I was seeking a deeper connection. I woke most mornings and read a passage from the bible and prayed/pondered over it. I think I did this regularly for over five years straight. I’m grateful for this as the daily practice of quiet, meditative reflection is nearly universal and has been perhaps the single most beneficial practice to growing my ‘faith’ and spiritual strength.
I also continued to seek knowledge from books. I shuffled around my majors. I went from vocal performance to history, emphasizing religious history, with a minor in religious studies. I wrote papers looking at the influence of the Sermon on the Mount on Gandhi, on the influence of the Catholic Church on the Solidarity movement in Poland; I gave a 45 minute presentation on the works of CS Lewis and a workshop on how Mormon’s weren’t Christians. I also read pseudo-intellectual books, such as More Than a Carpenter and stuff on Pascal’s wager, stuff that now would make the academic in me cringe, but at the time I thought was well-reasoned writing! I had absorbed the idea that if not the Christian god, then nothing.
Socially, I struggled with insularity and us-vs-them ideology. I struggled with Christian culture. I remember one time early on in my first semester of school hanging out with some people from one of the youth groups. One of the guys asked me what church I went to. ‘I don’t go to church,’ I said. ‘Are you a Christian?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘But you don’t go to church?’ He was terribly confused. ‘No.’ ‘Have you read the bible?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, beginning to get defensive. ‘I’ve read the entire New Testament a couple of times, and most of the Old Testament. How about you?’ That shut him up. It also reflects a lot of what I experienced as a type of ‘outsider,’ a status I both could not escape due to my upbringing and one that I cultivated by choice by not joining in. I still wasn’t comfortable with the Father God prayer language or the waving of hands during praise songs.
I shouldn’t play down that I went through waves of evangelical fervor of my own. My faith was important to me and I wanted other people to know God too. In the mid to late ’90s Alaska was debating whether or not to amend its constitution to say that marriage was between a man and a woman (it eventually did so). I remember having a debate with a friend’s gay brother that marriage was just that: between a man and woman. Oh, the irony (which you’ll read about in part 3).
The summer between my second and third years of college I had a what I can only describe as a ‘dark night of the soul,’ also known as a depressive episode. It didn’t help that I spent the summer in a crappy almost-relationship with a dude that later date-raped me and then refused to talk to me for the rest of the summer. I spent that summer feeling spiritually numb (that started before the aforementioned event), reading through Psalms for solace. Before then I had hated the smarmy poetry of Psalms, but I gained a new appreciation for them. David too had struggled. In fact, some of the Psalms involve him wondering just where God was. He got angry! Depressed! And he lusted. Just like me. I also loved the nature themes and the rejoicing themes. I particularly loved Psalm 98.
When I returned to school for my third year I was restless. I lived in a house with other Christian women and we all attended the same church. The church had started as a 50 person church, split off from one of about 200 people, which I had attended once or twice pre-split. Two years later the church had hundreds of people and was meeting in an old department store space. I sang with the short-lived choir. I joined bible study/small group. It was all very nice, but I was restless, wanting more. I thought about transferring schools again (the year previously I had applied for and been accepted for transfer to the Berklee College of Music, but backed out at the 11th hour; this time the all-girl Smith College sounded fantastic). Instead I got hooked into YWAM, an international youth ministry. Their entry-level program was a 5-6 month program of classes, small group and ministry training, usually culminating in a ‘mission’ to a second location (usually a third world country) to ‘save the lost.’ I think I equated ministry with mysticism. I was wary of the evangelizing and ended up choosing to go to Ireland, where instead of going to a different country, that branch stayed put and assisted the local church.
To complicate things, shortly after signing up for the program, I fell in love – with a non-Christian of course. Before leaving for Ireland for 6 months we got engaged. It was spur of the moment. I crazy about the guy, and he asked. I said yes. No one else thought it was a good idea. In retrospect it was stupid. But I didn’t know any better.
My time in Ireland was truly amazing. Again, I was the odd one out. I didn’t quite mesh with the program. But I gained a lot from all the time to read and pray and think. I met incredible and diverse people from all over the world. One Czech woman, with whom I’ve long since fallen out of touch, was a devout Roman Catholic with a devotion to the Virgin Mary. I didn’t know too much about Mary then. My friend went on a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, a mountain that she hiked up barefoot. She brought me back a rock, which I still have and it sits on my altar today. Overall, while I was deeply uncomfortable with the evangelical aspects of the organization, I loved the social aspects and the ways that YWAM supported young people’s personal faith and growth and gave them skills for some sort of future in the religious world. I really wanted to stay on as staff in the west of Ireland. I think my desire to stay was mostly the pull of the land, which spoke so deeply and intensely to me. But I went home to get married.
During my time in Ireland my issues with anxiety came up in full force. Again, I prayed and prayed and cried. I thought something was just wrong with me or that maybe I wasn’t listening right to God. More than one person suggested that I not marry an unbeliever.
After my wedding I fell into a profound depression. I was married, back at school and struggling with anxiety worse than ever. I forgot all the lyrics to my audition piece for the excellent concert choir – the choir which I had sung with for two years! This devastated me and I retreated more deeply, spiraling into a depression that I didn’t come out of for more than two years.
In fact there’s not a lot I remember from those two years.
I do remember feeling frustrated with church after my return. I stopped going to Christ the King. I was distrustful and uninterested in the conflation of culture and religion. Being a ‘good’ Christian often looked like being a certain kind of man or woman, but I knew that wasn’t actual Christianity. Bible studies were often separated into men and women, the women’s studies often talked about being a good wife. I think this was the period where I discovered feminism.
After my positive experience in Ireland, living with both Catholics and Protestants, I started attending a Catholic church. I love me some liturgy, so it was a good fit. I remember flippantly dismissing a family friend’s suggestion that I check out the Episcopalian Church, saying that it’s origins were dubious. Oh, what an ignorant smart-ass I was. Now I think it would be a pretty good fit for me, were I to remain in the Christian fold. But Catholicism was Grand and had History and Theologians and was There First. I read the entire catechism, cover to cover. Because that’s what I do. I wasn’t very impressed with the Church’s opinion of women, and yet parts of the catechism were so beautiful.
My husband and I moved back to my hometown after we finally graduated from college. I joined the local RCIA (Rites for Christian Initiation for Adults, a study group for adults considering converting to Catholicism) and realized around the same time that there was an older strain of Christianity – the Orthodox Church! And there was one in my town! Alaska has a long tradition of Orthodoxy.
All of this time I was still reading scripture and praying every morning. (At least I think I was, the last few years are hazy, remember.) My depression was severe, even though I wasn’t aware that’s what it was. I was seeking. I was miserable. I remember sitting at the computer, going through the Sacred Space daily devotional and just sobbing. I sat and prayed over and over and over again to God for help. I didn’t know what to do. This was the only time I have ever ‘heard a voice.’ I heard an immediate disembodied response. It said ‘You need to choose. You need to make a choice.’ And I realized that God couldn’t help me if I was refusing to act. I either needed to get help and fix my marriage, or get help and leave. I had to choose to stay or choose to leave. The wasting away I was doing wasn’t actually choosing. But either choice was terrifying.
What happened next takes us into part three.
In my next post I’ll write about my re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s The Cost of Discipleship. I wrote my college senior thesis on him and I haven’t read his works since then. I remember being impressed by him and have kept this particular book in my collection since college, even though I’ve never opened it since. We’ll see what I think it of now.