750 Words

Here is one way of describing my spiritual journey — in 750 words:

I was born into a very typical white, suburban, middle class, late twentieth-century American family. We were protestants and attended our local Lutheran Church. When I was sixteen I had an amazing spiritual experience that transformed my relationship with Christianity from conventional to charismatic. I began to participate in the highly experiential and emotionally hyper-charged world of neopentecostalism. Initially I felt blessed by God, but eventually I experienced charismatic religion as controlling, dualistic, and even abusive. Disillusioned, I gave up on organized religion and became a spiritual and intellectual seeker. In the heady climate of progressive politics in the early 1980s, I embraced feminism, environmentalism, and multi-culturalism. I began to think of Christianity as patriarchal and controlling, but meanwhile I couldn’t shake my spiritual way of looking at things, which often put me at odds with my secular leftist friends. As a sort of compromise, I became an Episcopalian, thinking that particular church would be a safe haven for people with my values. It was, and I began to explore contemplative spirituality more deeply.

But I was also drawn to the new spirituality of the Goddess, as an ecofeminist alternative to mainstream religion, and so I began to explore neopaganism — Wicca and Druidism — at first just by reading about it, but eventually feeling a desire to actually practice Pagan ritual. Soon I was trying to juggle being an Episcopalian with a growing attraction to neopaganism and its related new religious movements. As liberal as the Episcopal Church was, I just felt angrier and angrier at what I saw as its many flaws, including its “country club” atmosphere and noblesse oblige ethics. So I became a full-time Pagan, and as this was also when my writing career was beginning to blossom, I wrote several books about Paganism, always from the beginner’s perspective. But I soon realized that whatever it was I couldn’t find in Episcopalianism, I wasn’t going to find in Wicca or Druidism either. As I saw it, the church’s oppressive social structure was mirrored by Paganism’s antinomianism and chaotic social structure. Christian clergy privilege was mirrored by self-aggrandizement and competition among Pagan leaders.

My sense of religious disillusionment and disorientation spiraled — not out of control, but enough to the point that I felt spiritually parched, while emotionally I just kept getting angrier and angrier — at myself, at religion, at God (or the gods). In the midst of all that, an impulse that seemed utterly irrational kept presenting itself: for me to abandon Paganism and enter Catholicism — yes, Catholicism, the most sexist, patriarchal, oppressive, dogmatic and authoritarian religious structure I knew of. The absurdity of it all! I fought it for months, and yet the impulse wouldn’t go away. Becoming a Catholic would mean abandoning my rising star as a Pagan writer, and yet I felt that this was something I had to do, even if it meant trainwrecking my career. Finally, and with the support of several trusted friends and two gifted counselors, I came to see that, despite all my intellectual angst, on an emotional level I just simply wanted to do this: I wanted to explore the devotional mysticism of Catholicism, and that everything I “hated” about Catholicism on a mental level was actually necessary for me to face as part of my continued spiritual growth. Just as Luke Skywalker had to face Darth Vader in order to become a Jedi Knight, so I had to face down my anger and hatred at the institutional church — by immersing myself into the biggest and baddest church of them all.

So I did. Six months after entering the Catholic Church, I was offered a job at a monastery bookstore: a vocational ram in the thicket to replace the writing career I had tied up and was prepared to sacrifice. My job has given me access to monks who are teaching me in both big and little ways about the contemplative life and the mystical tradition. Now, thirty months after becoming Catholic, I’ve made some wonderful friends, fallen in love with Christ all over again, embraced a daily practice of contemplative prayer, and struggle mightily against what I see as the limitations of the church. I knew it would be hot in here, and I must admit that it’s hotter than I thought it would be. But I’m not getting out of this kitchen — at least not until I’m convinced my work here is done. For now, it feels like it’s barely begun.

Like I said, this is “one way” of describing my journey. There are others.

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  • http://fruitfulenvironment.wordpress.com/ fruitfulenvironment

    Thanks Carl! It’s a blessing for me to read your 750 words journey! I am a young man trying to become more Christ-like (hopefully) :) and experienced some similar things in my upbringing. So Thanks again for sharing! Now you can say that even people in Belgium read your stuff!
    Ef

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks, Ef. Glad to have Belgium on board. :-)

  • http://epiphanygirl.wordpress.com/ girlwhocriedepiphany

    Thank you for this description of your journey. I was born in a Catholic family and spiraled off into Paganism in college (a Jesuit institution – calling yourself a witch there was even racier than it might be at your typical liberal arts college) as a way to assert my individualism and newly realized feminism. Ten years later, after noticing that I was talking about the Goddess more than I was talking to her, I realized a similar sense of constriction in the pagan ethos. I felt I was defining myself more by what I did not believe than what I actually did. It all started to feel so narcissistic; an in-club I no longer understood.
    It wasn’t until I was introduced to mysticism and specifically Teresa of Avila that I realized all that I was missing in tossing out anything that seem to reek of Christianity. This was at a conference I attended with my mother; in talking to her that weekend I realize that I turned to magic and the create-your-own-ritual world because I was never exposed to the mystical tradition of the Church. Now I am synthesizing my childhood Catholicism and Eastern traditions that I have been introduced to through my yoga and healing practices with the love of the Earth that Paganism gave me.
    Guess I was trying to match your 750 there! I look forward to exploring the rest of your site. Blessings.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thank you for sharing. I think synthesis is very important. If you’re interested in integrating eastern and western streams of wisdom, you might enjoy reading Bede Griffiths, Abhishiktananda, Raimon Panikkar and Sara Grant (on the Christian side) as well as Ken Wilber (who isn’t really on any “side” at all, as he is attempting to integrate all wisdom traditions). Many blessings to you.

  • Peter

    In most stories like this that I have read–you’ll have to acknowledge, Carl, that there are enough ‘conversion’ or ‘spiritual journey’ stories around to form a virtual genre of their own–there seems to be a common thread of leaving something in the home church that is hollow, abusive, harmful, empty in some way, finding an authentic personal spirituality that is experientially alive, and then going on the long road to synthesis of this experience with the primal subconscious beliefs, the “pre-individuation” assumptions that we all have, to come up with some form of spiritual life and expression that we can live with.

    Pardon my single long sentence.

    Pardon my Hegelian structure here too (thesis–antithesis–synthesis). I really am more of a Kierkegaardian than a Hegelian–the two are virtually opposites–but this neat story-structure just seems to fit quite nicely here! I think it’s important to take the stories as we find them, perhaps to notice typical story-structures like this one, but not to take them too seriously or make them normative….

    I have been amazed at the different places people end up. When I found the Jesus People and those more or less like them as my authentic spiritual home, having left Catholicism and the Jesuit order as my personal abusive past, I was totally unable to see how anyone could end up like Carl or Bear in a more highly organized religion as their home rather than a less organized, more free-form charismatic structure. But the testimony of dualistic charismatic control and country-club Episcopalianism strikes me as authentic, and I have seen Real People (who have been irreversibly transformed by experiencing the overwhelming sovereign grace of God) in nearly every corner of the church (and non-church or emerging church scenes), leaving me with the convictions that 1) there is no one Ideal Perfect church structure that successfully keeps all the good stuff In and shuts all the bad stuff Out; and 2) God in His grace and humility puts up with a lot of our human foolishness in His passion to give Himself to broken human beings, wherever He finds us, with far less concern for how we organize or theologize things than we seem to think necessary or important.

    Welcome to the living, organic Body of Christ! In Carl’s terms, welcome to the world of Christian mysticism!

    Thanks for this post, Carl. You are getting pretty good at telling your story.

    Yours in Jesus,
    Peter

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks, Peter. One of the more humbling facts of telling my story over and over again is that I become more aware of my own blind spots. This helps me to see that the “dualistic” charismatics or “clubbish” Episcopalians are both at least somewhat monsters of my own making. That’s not to say there wasn’t some truth in my experience, but the piece that was missing — that I really, only now in my late 40s am beginning to get — is that ultimately we have to choose to love and serve others in spite of their sinfulness and their foibles, because after all, we ourselves are sinners. I’m not saying we should condone each other’s flaws — part of being a healthy Christian (in whatever corner of Christ’s body you might be) is working for healing and growth and true repentance. But I think we so often leave a faith community because “it doesn’t meet my needs” when really only God can meet our needs, and meanwhile, we may be in a less-than-perfect setting because that’s where God needs us!

  • Peter

    I noticed that I was approaching 750 words too–I counted 411 in this last post! And I wasn’t even really telling my own story, just commenting on others.
    I also noticed that my later sentence beginning “But the testimony…” is actually a lot LONGER (126 words) than the sentence I apologized for at the beginning (only 105 words).

    Sigh.

    Back to Strunk and White: “Omit needless words.”

    I hope I do succeed in getting some editing work! I think this will help return my prose to the concise simplicity that may have reached its peak during my return-to-college days at the age of 40, when my excellent writing coach gave me some magic advice: “VARY SENTENCE LENGTHS.”

    Thanks (to all who bother to read this) for your patience with me!

    Peter

  • Peter

    Well, leaving a faith community (your gentle label) or church structure (my harsh judgmental label) is sometimes the only right thing to do. I know some young Christians now who are suffering great pain in abusive structures that might be fine for some other folks but (as far as I can see) are not at all where they belong, and if they asked me (which in these cases they are not) I would not hesitate to advise them to leave, because it looks to me like the damage to them (and probably to their families and friends too) seems like it will be less if they leave and find their own way (as you and I have done) than if they try to stay and continue to be stifled and suffocate (sorry for all the parentheses!!!).

    Having got that off my chest, I wholeheartedly affirm our calling to work for healing and growth and repentance, for that reconciliation and spiritual unity that Jesus has paid such a total price for and has put so high on His agenda for us. It’s just that we have to come to KNOW HIM and LOVE HIM authentically, first-hand, in order to have a basis from which to work for that healing and growth.

    To put it as succinctly as I can: we don’t start to GROW until we are first ALIVE!

    Your servant in Jesus,
    Peter

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    You are right, of course. Leaving a church or faith community is like getting a divorce. As a sign of a broken relationship, it is a sign of our brokenness altogether, and so it is always a cause for lament. And I think church relationships, like marriages, are worth fighting for. Having said that, when one is in an abusive situation, one must make the most loving choice, which usually involves leaving the situation altogether. Holds true whether the abusive situation involves one “other” or an entire community of “others.”

    Many blessings,

    Carl

  • Peter

    Well said. The analogy fits all too well. God dwells in our brokenness, and he loves to heal the brokenhearted, to bind up our wounds.
    Joy to the world.
    Peter

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat Chapin-Bishop

    Wow! I am deeply impressed by your self-discipline! A 750 word spiritual journey? And here I am, still hung up on part Umty-teenth of mine. (I would hang my head in shame, but that makes it harder to type.)

    In spite of the fact that I have not left Paganism, I’ve been grateful many times for the instinct that kept me from writing about many things I once was interested in writing about. When I was leading a coven, for instance, I really wanted to write about that… but it seemed a bit, er, unlucky. And since I did eventually “lay down” the coven (to borrow the Quaker phrase) I think it’s a good thing that I never did get around to putting myself up onto any pedestals I couldn’t live up to… Having written a series of pretty good books while still what you call a beginner (though an awfully well read one, mind you!) must have made it harder to move on when the leading came.

    Maybe it’s because I’m such a mystic at heart, though, that I can’t quite wrap my mind around the idea of leaving a church or faith community as being like a divorce. I do dearly love my faith communities, but the primary relationship is not with the institution or the humans within it, at least to me. The religious community, to me, is more like where I turn to live out/live up to the inspirations that have arisen in the context of relationships with God/the gods.

    To stretch an analogy to the breaking point maybe it’s less like divorcing a marital partner to me than it is like having more than one child with the man you love, and sometimes feeling closer to one than to the other?

    Or maybe I’m better off thinking of myself as polyamorous–spiritually, at least–and feeling it quite natural to add new partners without leaving old ones?

    That might fit better with your sense of Pagans as antinomians…if by that, you mean pitchin’ too much woo. :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I think the divorce analogy works for me on two levels: first, I see a functioning spiritual community as an incarnation of the God(s) the community worships. Christianity has the doctrine of the church as the Mystical Body of Christ, but I think it’s a truth that transcends mere religious dogma. Meanwhile, I see marriage (or any deeply loving/intimate/erotic relationship) as sacramental: as a means by which the grace of the Divine flows into our lives. My wife is my wife, and yet insofar as God is love, when she loves me, she brings God to me (and hopefully I do the same to her). So, a functional/loving faith community likewise functions to bring the Divine into our lives in very real and visceral ways.

    Having said all this, I like both of your alternative viewpoints very much as well. I have long said that the only model that comes close to explaining my dual love for Paganism and Christianity is bisexual polyamory. Meanwhile, the idea that our faith communities might be children we bear out of our passion for the Divine — wow, that has all sorts of unpackable treats to explore. Thanks!

    Yes, it was hard to move on. But also exhilarating. When I think about how all that I learned as a Pagan informs who I am today as a Catholic, I am profoundly grateful. My new book contract is with an editor who worked with me on two of my previous books, so even there I feel a sense of integration and inclusionary transcendence. One of these days I want to write a book about my faith journey, and I’d love for the subtitle to be something along the lines of “How Being a Pagan Made a Better Christian Out of Me.” Postmodern contemplative that I am, I believe my “conversion” only makes sense in a context that affirms both traditions (at least as much as it criticizes both).

    Thanks for commenting. I’m so pleased that you stop by for visits as often as you do.

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat Chapin-Bishop

    Hi, Carl,
    “I have long said that the only model that comes close to explaining my dual love for Paganism and Christianity is bisexual polyamory.” Wow–now you’ve given _me_ some “unpackable treats to explore”! It’s a good metaphor, and adding the element of bisexuality makes it work very nicely for me. I love both my religious communities and ways of experiencing–but in a way that has differences as well as similarities. At least at the moment, acknowledging and living as both is very important to my sense of integrity. Thanks for a useful way of reflecting on that!

    I also love the phrase “integration and inclusionary transcendence.” Not sure I can put my finger on why, but somehow, it “speaks to my condition,” and I think it’s part of what I seek in my own writing on my spiritual journey.

    I would love to read a book about your faith journey–I rather suspect you’ve got way more than 750 words worth to write about! At the same time, while I can respect and appreciate the idea that _your_ subtitle might be “How Being a Pagan Made a Better Christian Out of Me,” I am reminded of how irritating it is when interfaith contacts with well-meaning Christians proceed under the assumption that it should be the subtitle for _all_ Pagans’ life stories; even those who attempt tolerance and open-mindedness so often behave as though the proper course for our journeys is completely obvious–to them, though not to us. That lack of humility in the face of the astonishing Mystery of lived spirituality (never mind the condescending attitude toward modern Paganism) is breathtaking!

    I’m not accusing you of that, by the way. And I’m pretty sure that one of the things that keeps me coming back to your site is the way you write of your relationship with Spirit with the humility of someone who knows he doesn’t know everything there is to know.

    And how can anyone who has actually lived in the life of Spirit think they know everything! Holy Herne and Hecate, Batman! *Cat grins*

    As always, thanks for writing as you do.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I don’t feel “accused” but I certainly appreciate your perspective. It’s a toughie: my subtitle idea comes out of a major anxiety that I have: I don’t want my journey to be co-opted by conservatives who might want to project onto me a “from-darkness-to-light” paradigm. I think my story is only worth telling to the extent that I insist on honoring both traditions. Yes, I have criticism of both traditions, too. But I don’t think we have any authority to criticize that which we do not love. So if I dare to criticize Paganism — or Christianity — I think I can only do so with integrity if I am clear that I love that which I critique.

    Your point is an important one for me to remember: that in my zeal to speak to one community (conservative Christians) I need to be careful that what I say is not unintentionally harmful to others (i.e., the Pagan community). When I was writing Embracing Jesus and the Goddess, a Jewish friend sat down with me and patiently explained how Christian perceptions of the Pharisees can so easily be offensive to Jews. By doing so, she illuminated a huge cultural blindspot I had been carrying pretty much all my life. I think we all have all sorts of these blindspots, and we have to continually be careful — and be in conversation with others — or else they can bite us.

    So thanks. If/when I do write this book, I may be pleading with you to be one of my readers. :-)

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat Chapin-Bishop

    No pleading required!

    I have an analogous concern. There is no doubt in my mind I could never have learned to “hear” the silence in meeting for worship without the time I spent learning to scry, to dowse, and (of course) to attempt to hear the voices of Pagan gods in that very different context. Furthermore, since becoming Quaker, I find that Quaker practices are much more satisfying and productive for me than Pagan ones are… and, though I was never what might be termed a “hard polytheist”, I’m also more monotheistically-tinged in how I see the world than I used to be.

    It would be so easy to see my Paganism as mere steps along a path to the One Right Way. I’m grateful to those who know me that they usually do take the time and trouble to pick up the nuances I feel that make that characterization so unwelcome to me… but I think that my story, too, could easily be distorted if anyone cared to do it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Cat, do you know Patricia Monaghan? I’m pretty sure she is (or has been) a Quaker. It’s funny, the last time I attended a Quaker meeting here in Atlanta, I ran into someone who knew me from the Pagan community. So I think the Quakers are almost as Pagan-friendly as the Unitarians. If I weren’t such a hardwired sacramentalist, I think I’d love hanging out there; I’m looking forward to writing about George Fox and John Woolman in my forthcoming book.

  • Peter

    George Fox and John Woolman are two of my favorite true-mystical heroes, with their authentic first-hand experience of God the Divine Spirit and their daily walk in response to that experience. I read a lot of Woolman while I was in college, and I cherish the treatment of Fox in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experiences.

    By the way, in addition to the fiction works of Jessamyn West (which may be caricatures but which do have a depth of character development, and the theme of the conflict of the inner witness with the temptations and values of the world), another truly delightful treatment of Quaker spirituality of some 150 years ago or so is Hannah Whitall Smith, particularly her lovely little autobiographical work called The Unselfishness of God, which I am reading chapter-by-chapter to my youngest kids for bedtime reading these days.

    I don’t live where there are likely to be many Quakers around, but I think I would enjoy visiting them and waiting in silence (if that is what they still do). I wonder whether whoever is stirred by the Spirit still has the authority to speak among them what the Spirit seems to be saying…

    Blessings to all,
    Peter

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I’ve only been to two different Quaker meetings — in Washington, DC and here in Atlanta (actually Decatur), and both are unprogrammed: meaning that the meeting time consists of an hour of silence wherein anyone is permitted to speak briefly, as the Spirit leads.

    It really is a lovely model of worship.

    It’s my understanding that another branch of Quakerism exists that has evolved into a more traditional evangelical style of worship. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that’s the kind of Quaker that Richard Foster is.

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat Chapin-Bishop

    Oddly, I’ve never met Patricia Monaghan, though we do have friends in common. I know a few other outright Quaker Pagans, so I know I’m far from alone… though one difficulty I have is that many other QPs look for ways to bring some of the Pagan sacramentalism they love into Quaker settings. On the other hand, not only do I find unprogrammed meeting for worship deeply satisfying, but I was growing away from outward ritual long before I became Quaker. Even in Pagan ritual, I prefer as much silence and simplicity as possible–how can we hear the gods if we’re doing all the talking? So I think I’m sometimes a bit of a disappointment to other Quakers with Pagan leanings, because I’m really not drawn to things like calling quarters or casting a circle before engaging in Quaker worship. The closest I come is a fondness for holding worship outdoors, surrounded by trees and sky.

    There are a lot of Quakers at my meeting who are what I might call “Pagan-positive”, who have read this or that that Peter or I have written on Pagan topics, or come across another Pagan writer they like. These folks often tell me how interesting they find Paganism, and how they would love to be invited to a Pagan ritual some time. The trouble is, I don’t hold large public rituals anymore–the bells and smells and props and costumes can be very moving, but they are certainly not “simple” and they just don’t feel like me any more. I love the community aspect, and I still go to local Beltane or Samhain events, and Peter and I observe the full moons on our own at home, lighting a candle and greeting the Goddess. Not a lot of pomp and pageantry there.

    I’m not putting the pomp and pageantry down, by the way. It was necessary and even good for me at one time. Just, it’s an obstacle to me now. Things that still work include very simple full moon circles (happily, our tradition of the Craft is about as simple as you can get, so I have a good feeling of continuity there), trance journey a la Michael Harner, and silent waiting out in nature. Which is fine for me, but makes me a lousy Pagan envoy, I’m afraid. I sometimes think I must be very disappointing to those Friends who develop an interest in Paganism through contact with me, as my Paganism is now so integrated in my heart as to need little outward show. (Am I making sense?)

    As to whether Friends still practice silent waiting on Spirit, Peter, you bet we do. Though about half of the Quakers in the country have some level of programming in their worship, and, indeed, a substantial number of Quakers meet in a context that would be hard to tell from a Protestant church, others continue in the unprogrammed worship that is familiar to readers of John Woolman’s diary, or Jessamyn West, for that matter.

    More, even those Quakers who have seemingly little in common with the old, unprogrammed style of worship generally attempt to practice what Quakers call our “Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business”: Quaker decision making is done in worship, and follows processes of corporate (communal) discernment that aim to allow us to be guided by Spirit in making our decisions together; the goal is to discern the will of God for the Society of Friends at that time. And if the words “business meeting” cause your eyes to glaze over, I can confirm that, on the one hand, the process of watching a Quaker meeting decide whether or not to paint the meeting house is a lot like watching paint dry… but on the other hand, the deepest experiences of worship I have had, ever, in any context, have also happened in Quaker meetings for business, as, for instance, when we met in New England this summer to try to discerrn a way forward in our relationship with a Quaker body which sees homosexuality as sinful, which Friends in New England overwhelmingly do NOT.

    If you’re curious, my husband and I have written a little about our experiences with Quaker meeting for worship, and worship for business. You could take a look at New England Yearly Meeting , about last year’s meeting, or Peter’s experiences last year. I’d also recommend a look at Waging Peace in All Things, for a look at how one body of Quakers who, at first glance, might look more like any group of politically conservative, Evangelical fundamentalist Christians, prove to be very Quaker indeed in grappling with the (for them) very uncomfortable issue of combining conservative theology with the peace testimony and listening spirituality. Despite my passionate difference of opinion with the current position of George Fox University on the subject of gay rights, they made me proud that day…

    Finally, if you’re interested in stopping by and experiencing that listening, waiting worship for yourself, you can find Quaker meetings online by visiting http://www.quakerfinder.org .

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat Chapin-Bishop

    Ooops–I meant not that it was the listening spirituality or the peace testimony that was troublesome for the Friends at George Fox University in “Waging Peace in All Things,” but the demands of that testimony around the place of GLBTQ Christians given their conservative interpretation of the Bible.

    Sorry if I was confusing. :)

  • Peter

    Thank you, Cat, for your information, reading suggestions, and invitation.

    On an earlier topic of discussion (with Carl, above), about changing faith communities, I want to point out the wisdom of Canon Williams in the following quote from this morning’s news:

    “A spokesman for the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, confirmed that Blair had been “received into full communion with the Catholic Church”.
    Murphy O’Connor, who took the ceremony at Archbishop’s House in central London, said in a statement: “I am very glad to welcome Tony Blair into the Catholic Church.
    “For a long time he has been a regular worshipper at Mass with his family and in recent months he has been following a programme of formation to prepare for his reception into full communion.
    “My prayers are with him, his wife and family at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together.”
    The leader of the worldwide Anglican communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, wished Blair well.
    “A great Catholic writer of the last century said that the only reason for moving from one Christian family to another was to deepen one’s relationship with God,” he said.
    “I pray that this will be the result of Tony Blair’s decision in his personal life.”

    Peace,
    Peter

  • Pingback: From Christianity to paganism and back again « Khanya

  • http://Christian.co.uk Super Christian 91

    743 Words !

    NOOB


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