A spiritual journey is such a personal thing. I was hardly aware I was on one until I had traveled far from the starting gate. I think there is a difference between a spiritual journey and a religious one, and I have been on both. For years I assumed they were the same thing and at times they are. For me, the experience defines the essence of each. But the experience also separates them.
Religion provides an established belief system complete with a calendar, and rituals prescribing what to do and what not to do, what to think and what to accept, how to pray and what to pray for. Often there is a special place dedicated to worship: great cathedrals, intimate chapels, shrines, temples, and mosques that all are dedicated to the glory of God. There are definitions of God, great schools, and incredibly beautiful music. Entwined in all this, there is the drama. In many ways, modern Christianity has become a big business and great theater; it has moved a long way from going into a small room and closing the door in order to pray. On the other hand, the spiritual experience is simpler and unscripted, often serendipitous. It does not require a system of doctrinal edicts or rituals, only the openness to welcome it.
When I was small, I attended a Lutheran Sunday school in the neighborhood and began to learn Christianity. This would qualify as my first religious experience. I loved the Bible stories, the simple hymns and prayers, the candles and stained glass windows in the church. After a few years, I wanted our family to attend church together, "like everybody else." I prevailed upon them until they gave in, and we began to attend the Unitarian Church of my paternal grandmother. That was fine. I enjoyed it very much, but I actually missed hearing the familiar hymns and the stories I had learned from the Lutherans, such as the ones about Jesus and the lost sheep, Noah’s ark, and Daniel in the lion’s den. So I was very eager to accept an invitation to accompany my Presbyterian girlfriends to their big church a block down the road. I loved it and attended faithfully. After Presbyterian church school, I would walk down Collingwood Avenue to the Unitarian Church and sit with my family in my grandmother’s front row pew. I was about 10 at the time. When I was 12, I announced that I had joined the catechism class with my girlfriends and soon joined the church. From that time on I was happy as a very active Presbyterian, and the family followed me there.
This is not to say that I believed every word of doctrine or creed; I did not. During some of the overly long sermons, I would let my mind and spirit drift up into the stained glass and meditate. Today I would say that I was going to my own meeting for worship. For quite a while, we went to church as a family. This was very important to me then, as it is today.
Of course there were other influences. Nature and music have always resonated deep within me from the time I was very young. My response is sensual, emotional, and spiritual. Then I went off to college where I tried on atheism and ended up as an agnostic. There were many other churches to try, religions to study, philosophies to ponder, and in the calm of nature, I’d try to sort it all out. Eventually I settled on the Presbyterians and was active in every aspect of the church: choir, fellowship, women’s circle, Bible study, youth work. I did it all. Bill and I were married there and had our children baptized. My experience was largely religious and intellectual. I loved it.
The times I would categorize as spiritual were nearly always private and personal. They would occur at the occasional retreat during long periods of silence, or they would appear as little epiphanies, totally unexpected. They would unite two souls in an intimate moment. They would etch forever in my memory the perfection of a single snowflake, the sounds of the loons in the north woods, and countless shore birds facing the wind. I would be enveloped in a sense of awe and gratitude that would give me the deep inner peace of knowing it was all part of God’s handiwork. I was and am drawn to things mystical.
In 1968, after we had moved to Florida, we intended to transfer our membership to one of the Presbyterian churches in town. I, having signed on as an elementary school room mother, accepted an invitation to Sarasota Meeting. This had come about when my younger daughter’s second grade teacher and the other room mother, who were both Quakers, had invited me to attend meeting for worship. I went out of curiosity, unaware that I was still seeking, but I found myself settling in to my first silent meeting for worship as if I had finally come home. I loved it from the start and have never looked back. It has changed my life.
The silence spoke to me, but in addition, I could unite with the testimonies of Peace, Justice, Simplicity, and Equality. Within the meeting there were both very Christ-centered Friends and broad-minded liberals who were universalists. So my own looser brand of Christianity was welcome. I loved the concept of continuing revelation and the immediacy of God within.
That what I believe is according to the Light that is in me at this moment, makes sense to me, and as George Fox admonished, I shall endeavor to "walk cheerfully over the Earth answering that of God in every one." Because of this standard, I am more able to accept others’ expressions of their faith, as being where they are at this moment on their own journeys. This is relevant and accessible Christianity. And to use a contemporary concept, it is interactive and profoundly spiritual.
About two years following the first visit, after reading voraciously, and experiencing both the local meeting and yearly meeting, I applied for membership and was accepted. Finding Quakerism meant finding a spiritual religion I could call my own. Friends’ way has brought peace to my soul. I am still on my journey but it is not so solitary and I am now more grounded. I’ve met companions, fellow seekers along the way. The depth and dimension of my experience is ever more spiritual. This simple form of Christian worship is authentic, pure, and honest. It is direct and intimate. It satisfies my needs for both individual meditation and corporate worship. Stripped of the trappings of ritual, it is deeply powerful, and I find that I live it both consciously and unconsciously. I seek to live it daily, not just on Sunday mornings.
I realize that in telling this story I have omitted one of, if not the most important, spiritual experiences of my life. So in all honesty, I feel a need to include it in this account. For the past 26 years, I have had the great good fortune to be active in a 12-step program. Because of its spiritual basis, its openness and honesty, and my Quaker experience, I took to it like a duck to water. As a result, I have experienced what a real spiritual community can be, and what a real spiritual connection feels like. I discovered the shift from intellectualizing to spirituality, and how to make it. I know what it is to practice the presence of a higher power within a committed group of fellow travelers from a wide variety of religious and nonreligious backgrounds. We accept one another as we are. I know the gift of a safe place where we all speak the same language, and are trusting and trustworthy. I have been sustained by a love and support that is reciprocal, solicited or unsolicited as determined in the moment. We have learned and grown individually and together through sharing our gratitude, our experience, strength, and hope. This is also where I learned acceptance, where I became able to forgive. Acceptance and forgiveness are the keys to serenity and inner peace. Profoundly spiritual, they are all about doing, not merely reading or talking about it. It’s about an action and the practice of a changed way of thinking. It is very simple and extremely powerful. It is akin to what we call transforming power in AVP, the Alternative to Violence Project. It is life on a new plane.
Many Friends meetings are capable of achieving such true community, and from what I have heard, many do. At this point, I must stress that I am certainly not suggesting that we become a 12-step group. They have their own place. However, we ought to reflect many of these positive aspects in our care and concern for one another. My own meeting has shown glimpses and possibilities from time to time in the past, so I know it can happen. All that is needed is a little intentionality and letting go. It is trust in that of God. May we risk that and flourish from now on. This is my prayer.