Today was the final day of the International Christian Retail Show, held this year in Atlanta. I attended all four days of the trade show; made all sorts of contacts for the Abbey Store and a few personal contacts (to promote my writing and/or this blog) and, best of all, made some new friends.
ICRS is the “evangelical” Christian trade show, in contrast to RBTE — the Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit — which is the “liturgical” show. Many of the vendors (publishers, record labels, artisans, jewellers, t-shirt makers, and so forth) at ICRS come out of the Baptist, Reformed, Neopentecostal, Megachurch, and related streams of Christianity, while RBTE is more of the natural habitat for vendors who cater to Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and the like. The Abbey Store has never before sent buyers to either show; usually our buyers have attended Catholic-only shows or non-sectarian gift shows. The only reason I attended ICRS this year was because of how close it was to us. Of course, the distinctions I’m drawing between the two shows are hardly absolute; a number of Catholic or Catholic-friendly businesses were exhibiting here at the ICRS. But overall they were definitely in the minority. And they all asked me, “Are you going to RBTE next year?” So I think I’ll have to.
But here’s what’s neat about my experience at this evangelical business event: It didn’t weird me out. Given my long-standing history of defining my spirituality in terms of what it is not: not evangelical, not-fundamentalist, not-neopentecostal — I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that I could spend four days in this environment where those kinds of spirituality are very much in the mainstream, and I enjoyed the experience. I didn’t recoil or feel revulsion or judgement, reactions that likely would have characterized my experience had I attended this show while I was still Pagan-identified. For that matter, even during my Episcopalian days I put a lot of energy into a self-identity that was not-evangelical. But at this point in my journey I’m able to accept the evangelical world with equanimity. Granted, just as I didn’t feel a need to distance myself from the evangelical tone of this event, neither did I feel any compulsion to engage with it. It simply is not how I choose to define myself or express my faith and my relationship with Christ. No emotional hookage, which is a place of freedom. By not allowing evangelical expressions of faith to hook me (either positively or negatively), I am free to simply be present with it. Is this something akin to what the great mystics define as detachment?
I credit Catholicism for this newfound spiritual equanimity. The entire time I was an Episcopalian, I was pouring lots of my psychic energy into being a “not-evangelical.” My sojourn as a Pagan simply solidified that negative-identity even further. But now, as a Catholic, it’s as if I am secure enough in who I am that I no longer need to invest so much of my juice in defining who I am not. And that seems to be most liberating.
I’m not saying Catholicism is the be-all and end-all. But it does make me wonder that if somebody is putting a lot of energy into asserting who/what they are not, this could be a sign that they have not yet discovered who they really are. For, once that discovery is made (and internalized), the energy of what-I-am-not pretty quickly loses its allure.
I suspect it may be a common mental strategy for us to put a lot of “not-energy” into defining ourselves in contrast to what we have personally left behind. For years I was a fervent not-charismatic because I had a bad experience with charismatic Christianity during my high school years; and I think my not-evangelical and not-fundamentalist mentalities grew out of that. It’s comforting to think that we can heal our woundedness, even if (as in my case) it could take the better part of thirty years! But these days, I have two other “nots” to gently and lovingly release: my identities as a “not-Episcopalian” and as a “not-Pagan.” Thankfully, my “divorces” from both the Episcopal Church and the Pagan community were relatively irenic and drama-free, which in itself has enabled me to be less triggered by expressions of those faiths. Episcopalianism, in particular, I maintain a very positive relationship with, as several close friends of mine are Episcopalian. With Paganism the separation has been a bit rockier; for a while, I was adamant about describing myself as a “former Pagan.” True thought it may be in a strictly descriptive sense, I’m thinking I need to be more gentle in how I name my relationship with Paganism. Perhaps a less elegant but more spiritually honest description like: “for a seven year period that ended in 2004 I identified as a Pagan” is in order. After all, if it is a blessing for me to find equanimity in my relationship with Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism, I can only find a similar empowering in maintaining a balanced emotional center in regard to the Earth-based traditions.