By Barbara Alexander, Patheos Spirituality Contributor at Awakening What’s Next
As a child of the Midwest in the 1950s, religion was part of what I did. Mine was Methodist – reasonably benign theology and very strong community. The church was near our home so I walked or rode my bike to choir practice and youth group. I remember wishing we attended the Congregational Church because they had six choirs to our two! The church was central to our social life and I enjoyed the entire experience very much. To this day, certain hymns will transport me back to standing beside my Mother in that lovely sanctuary as she sang with joy.
Reflecting on my spiritual journey, I see that I began to part ways with the Christian tradition when my father died suddenly. I was nine, my brother five. The minister’s “comforting” words that “God needed my father” made me wonder what kind of God would take the father I loved and needed. My father’s Catholic family, (who had never recovered from his conversion to the evil Methodists), attended the funeral but refused to have anything to do with our family afterwards. Rather than asking my grief stricken young mother if she had enough money to raise her children, family members sent letters telling of the money they were sending to get father’s soul out of purgatory. I will never forget the afternoons I arrived home from school to find my mother in tears with a letter in her lap. Though unaware at the time, this experience deeply affected my view of religion and religious people.
At eighteen I went off to college completely unaware that it would change my life. By now it’s the late 60s, that heady time when everything was being questioned. I knew I was interested in religion and spirituality so took a World Religions and a Humanities class first semester. Both enabled me to crystalize the theological questions that had been swimming within me for several years. My attempts to discuss what I was questioning with the campus minister and even with the cool priest at the Newman Center, was met with “you have to take the stories on faith” and “it’s a mystery.” I couldn’t abide the mythic theology of traditional Christianity so I slipped quietly away, assuming as many still do today, that this was all the Christianity there was.
Years later I found I love the study and practice of spiritual traditions. If I’d found someone who could really engage my questions as a young woman, my career path may have been different. However without that engagement, I followed the fork in the road that led to my other love, psychology. Though mysterious in its own way, psychology offered clearer answers and so I spent the next two decades perfecting my craft, happily agnostic. Sadly I did not have the adventuresome spirit that led so many of my contemporaries to India and the Eastern religions.
Now I teach spiritual practices, so it is a bit embarrassing to admit that I didn’t become adventurous and delve into the Ultimate until I was forty. In my recent posts I’ve been talking about the Three Faces of the Ultimate. It is interesting, though not surprising, that the experiences that nudges me were from the First and Third Face perspectives. From the Third Face came the book Minding the Body, Mending the Mind by Dr. Joan Borysenko, a Harvard trained medical scientist and clinical psychologist. As she explored the interaction between body and spirit, I remember thinking there is more to the world than I’d ever let myself consider. Next came a First Face experience. Driving home one night in my little convertible, a summer breeze blowing in my face, a feeling came over me that I can now only describe as “oneness.” I suddenly felt a lack of separation between me the world around me. I actually had to pull over to avoid an accident. I sat in awe as I came to the realization that “I” am more than my separate self. Then I heard the words of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin: You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience. Had I heard his famous quote before? Perhaps, but at that moment the words felt both unfamiliar and deeply true.
From that moment my spiritual journey began in earnest. Delving deeply into esoteric and mystical Christianity and reading progressive authors like Bishop Spong and Marcus Borg, all helped me to see that Christianity is much more than the exclusive, mythical, faith of my childhood. Delving deeply into Buddhism and Hinduism deepened my experience and appreciation of the many facets of the Ultimate. Exploring astrology, past life regression and energy healing, opened up worlds I hadn’t known existed. Then last and most important, the work of philosopher Ken Wilber gave me a framework that weaves a creative tapestry that includes it all.
Meditation became a key ingredient in my life. Much to my surprise I began to hear “go to seminary” each morning when I sat. After several end runs that I hoped would satisfy this strong directive, I finally gave in and went off to seminary. With fear and trembling, I left my psychological practice and the rest of my life without a clear idea of what I would do with a seminary education. Twelve years later it makes perfect sense. Never before had I had the opportunity to simply study and practice. Three glorious years spent immersing myself in subjects I loved (including Wilber!) was a luxury for which I will be forever grateful. Finding the conjunction between psychology, theology and spirituality was exactly what I was wanted and found. The forks in the road joined and gave me so much more to offer the individuals and groups with whom I work.
Today I am a woman of deep faith – faith in the reality of an Ultimate that is deeply embedded within all living beings and surrounds us in a vast timelessness. I no longer stand in one of the world’s religious traditions, instead I am involved with those who are developing a trans-lineage path, one that includes but reaches beyond the dichotomies of Eastern and Western enlightenment, science and religion and psychology and spirituality. As I continue to grow and develop I work with others who seek Spirit’s prompting to move us into a more beautiful tomorrow.