I was asked to present my spiritual journey at an adult forum after meeting for worship. My instructions were that I should explain what I believe and how I came to believe it. I started organizing my thoughts and getting them written out a couple months ahead of time, but I worried about it until the date of my presentation. Aside from feeling nervous about sharing such an intimate topic with a public group, I was very conscious of not wanting to alienate Friends, knowing that we come from such a variety of beliefs.
I made myself miserable about this for several days until one morning I remembered my favorite story about John Woolman. In 1763, Woolman visited the Native Americans in Wyalusing, about 100 miles north of Philadelphia. He held meetings for worship with them, with the help of interpreters, none of whom knew both English and the Delaware language very well. During a meeting one evening, he said he felt his "mind covered with the spirit of prayer," and he asked the interpreters to stop. He then shared vocal ministry without interpreters for the rest of the meeting. Afterwards an interpreter said that one of the Native Americans had commented, "I love to feel where the words come from." Remembering this story helped me to relax about what and how I was going to speak to the group, because no matter how I described my spiritual experiences, I could trust that each person would be able to discern the spirit of my words.
What I believe
I believe that we are all spiritual beings in human bodies, and that all living things are spiritual beings in their bodies as well. I believe that the universe is full of God, and that God is within us all. I believe that the God-energy of the universe is creative and supportive. When we are connected to that Energy, we grow and learn in Spirit, and that is the purpose of our lives.
The key is being able to connect to and receive that Energy, and I think of it as similar to how a cell phone or laptop or even a lamp needs a connection to its source of energy. We can make this connection with meditation, prayer, and moments of quiet listening. It can also happen spontaneously during the day or during an encounter of some kind, or we can just have the connection going all the time, as a general state of mind. It’s hard for humans to maintain that constant connection, but I’m convinced that animals, trees, and plants are connected most of the time. The more we connect, the more we can grow in Spirit.
I believe that it takes a very long time to learn all we need to learn in our individual spiritual development; in fact, I’m not sure it can be done in one lifetime. Since all of the created world—down to smallest cell—is made of complex, highly-organized systems, it doesn’t make sense to me that we would randomly have varying times on Earth and die before we could develop to our full potential. So I believe that there must be multiple opportunities, multiple lives in which we get a chance to continue our learning, like grades in school, until we have learned what we need to know on this plane of existence. Once we have achieved that level of development, maybe we become part of the Creative Energy in the Universe, and perhaps we help others in their journeys from our spiritual plane. Whether I’m right or not about what happens after death doesn’t concern me; it just makes sense for me while I am on this Earth.
I trust completely that there is a good purpose to all that has been created. And I am convinced that Love, as described in the Sermon on the Mount and in other sacred writings, is the most powerful force in the universe.
I believe we are each given our own path and our own gifts to discover and to share. We can’t create the path for others, nor should we judge another’s path. But we can help each other on our journeys. That is the gift and the challenge of community.
I grew up in Nashua, N.H., in a home that wasn’t overtly religious; my father didn’t attend church at all, but my mother and sister and I attended a Methodist church and Sunday school regularly until I was in the sixth or seventh grade. My grandfather and my uncle were Methodist ministers, and going to church was the norm for my mother’s family. We didn’t really talk about religion at home, but I do remember that my mother encouraged me to say my prayers and told me that God always listened. I accepted this without question.
When I was in first grade I asked my mother why God was a "He" and why all the prayers refer to "He" and "Man." My mother explained to me, in a matter-of-fact way, that in these special cases, the "He" and "Man" meant both man and woman and that it is meant for everyone. I was perfectly happy with that explanation for a good 15 years.
I was always very interested in God. As soon as I was given my own Bible (fourth grade), I spent a lot of time reading it, without any prodding from adults. I don’t know how much I actually understood from the reading, but I did get a sense of God being "active" in the lives of the people I was reading about, and I was comfortable with the idea that God would also be active in my life somehow. I had often felt God’s presence when I was outside in my backyard or exploring the nearby fields and brooks. Even when I was very young, I believed that animals were particularly close to God, as though they had a special connection. I felt that trees were also a direct contact. I had a more difficult time feeling that presence in church, with the women’s hats and perfumes and prescribed prayers and Sunday school activities. In my mind that was clearly people stuff: talking about God, rather than feeling God’s presence. I wrote to the minister when I was about 12 and told him so. After that I did not return to the Methodist church.
I did, however, keep searching for information and understanding about God. I continued to read the Bible, especially the four Gospels. I also read about various world religions, and I kept finding the same thing everywhere: that God was in the center of all of them, and that everything humans had created to worship God was just that—a human way to explain and communicate with God. I was comfortable with the idea that there are multiple ways to do this.
I had two important experiences in 1968 (I was 15) that impacted the direction of my life. One was a sort of mystical experience, and the other had to do with the Merv Griffin Show.
My early teen years were pretty rocky. My parents split up when I was about 11 or 12. My father disappeared from my life and my mother had to work two jobs so I was left to fend for myself—at least that was my perception at the time. The next few years were tough for me, and I felt lost and unhappy. I started skipping school and was planning to quit high school. I had no real plans for what I would do with my life. One afternoon I was having a crisis about something that I can’t even remember now, but I know that I was on the brink of real despair. I went out to my backyard and fell to my knees, crying. After a minute or so, I felt someone holding me. I opened my eyes to see who it was—but no one was there. I could feel those arms around me and with that sensation came a peace and comfort I had never felt before. There was no question in my mind that the "arms," the peace, and the comfort were from God. It was a simple thing, but it was profound for me, and its impact has never left me.
Looking back, I can see that my life changed direction soon after this experience. I decided to finish high school and to go to college. I had regained a sense of direction and hope about my life.
That same year, I was watching TV before supper one day (I watched a lot of television growing up.) It was a variety program called the Merv Griffin Show. On this particular day Merv Griffin had Joan Baez on as his guest. In his interview with her, she talked about a book she had written and referred to topics such as Gandhi, nonviolence, and antiwar activities. I hadn’t heard of Joan Baez, and I didn’t know anything about these issues, but I was immediately struck by this interview and I was convinced that it was very important that I learn what she was talking about. I bought her book that same week and soon started an earnest study of Gandhi’s life and writings, and I began to focus on nonviolence and to learn about what the United States was doing in Vietnam. The Merv Griffin Show started me on some of the most important issues of my life. Television can be an important part of one’s spiritual journey!
Nature as a Spiritual Teacher
Being in nature had always been comforting to me, and it became an important spiritual teacher during my teen years. Except in the most severe winter weather, I walked to school every day along a dirt path away from the main road. The path followed the route of Salmon Brook, which was an extensive waterway that flowed through my hometown. The brook was more of a marshland in certain areas along the path. I walked along the "swamps," as I called them, every day. I often stopped there after school to sit at some of my favorite spots and to "listen" by the water. I loved being near the birds, turtles, tiny fish, and little muskrats, and I observed the seasonal changes in the animals and the plants. The swamps became a very important place for me to be—a place where I could think, pray, write, cry, sing, or just enjoy the beauty of the place. The wildlife around me seemed to be filled with Spirit and I felt connected with all of it. I am convinced that my time in the swamps got me through my teen years. It was there that I learned to be quiet and to listen.
My last two years of high school, after coming out of my early teen confusion, were productive and positive. Along with being more focused in school, I was very strongly drawn to working to help others. It wasn’t something I thought about and decided I should do—I felt led, actually pulled in this direction. I remember writing essays about poverty and social injustice in our society for my social studies class. I volunteered for a year as a tutor for a first grader who lived in poverty. I spent Saturdays volunteering at the local orphanage, where 12 children lived. I also supported a little girl in Japan for two years through the Christian Children’s Fund with money I earned from part-time jobs. I was passionate about finding ways to provide hands-on support or service for those in need, especially children.
I was introduced to Quakerism in my American History textbook. Each year, there was a section in which Quakers were mentioned. It always struck me that Quakers were special—they were the only people to treat the Native Americans fairly, and they believed in creating a society that took away the occasion for war. In my junior year of high school, I decided to follow up on that, and I read everything I could find about Quakers. I decided that Quakerism was the closest thing I had found to what I believed in. I chose and was accepted at a Quaker college: Wilmington College, in Wilmington, Ohio.
My college years (1971-1975) were a time of continued focus on Quakerism and on the war in Vietnam, which continued through my college years. I spent hours every day reading about the war and watching Watergate unfold. I did an independent study on war tax resistance and took courses that focused on Nonviolence, Gandhi, George Fox, and John Woolman. I attended meeting regularly.
During my second year of college, I decided that I wanted to be a physician. This might sound like a reasonable idea at face value, but for me it was a huge, bizarre leap. I was absolutely not a science/math person. I was a philosophy, religion, and music person. Biology was an exception; that did make sense to me. In fact, learning about the intricate, organized systems in living things reaffirmed my spiritual beliefs. But chemistry, physics, and math were not compatible with how my mind worked. I prayed about this, and I listened a lot before I decided. But I was clear, finally, that being a physician—if I could actually do it—was the best way for me to give service to others. To this day I have no idea how I passed those courses. I remember looking out the library windows on many days while I was studying, praying for the emotional strength to continue. There is no earthly reason that I managed to succeed. I am not kidding.
The summer before my senior year in college, I had the opportunity to go to India with a university group. It was my first visit outside the United States, and the experience of so much poverty and need, alongside so much beauty and history, was life-changing. Our group traveled to multiple cities and villages in the northern half of the country and we studied Indian history, religion, and politics for six weeks. It was a wonderful experience. After the student group left, I stayed and took a train to a Gandhian ashram. I spent two weeks reading, praying, fasting, and sharing in the daily work with others living or visiting there. I almost didn’t come home.
It was my trip to India, along with subsequent travels in China and Nicaragua, that inspired me to work in the developing world. That was my life plan—to finish my medical training and go to Asia or South America to work.
Years later, the next big focus for my spiritual growth was getting involved in the Catholic Worker movement. I had read about Dorothy Day and started to connect with a local CW House in Des Moines, Iowa, where I was living. I eventually moved in as a staff member during my internship year in pediatrics. I learned a little about living in community from this group, and I participated as much as I could (when I wasn’t at the hospital) in preparing meals, attending Mass, welcoming "guests" in the middle of the night, and participating in nonviolent protests. It was with CW that I was arrested the first time, and several times after that. It was a very exciting place to live—Daniel Berrigan, Martin Sheen, and Daniel Ellsberg visited there and spent time at the house. Nonviolent protest, service to the poor, community living, and my medical training, all fit together nicely during this time.
I learned about Catholicism by reading Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and briefly considered joining the Catholic Church. Through Merton I became very interested in contemplative prayer. I started reading the works of the mystics. I spent time in quiet every morning. During this period I was a member of Des Moines Valley Meeting. I still attended meeting, but I was so busy with all that was going on in the hospital and at the CW house that I wasn’t giving enough time to really be involved with the Friends community there.
Minnesota and the Third World
I moved to Rochester, Minn., to finish the last two years of my pediatrics residency. I attended meeting there occasionally. During the first year in Rochester, I met an elderly Greek couple in the laundromat one day. The couple owned it and the adjoining shoe repair shop. The woman reminded me of my great-grandmother on my father’s side (with whom I was very close when I was growing up), and I warmed to her immediately. We got to know each other and the couple became a loving support for me while I was struggling through residency. I started to feel a pull towards the Greek Church, primarily as a connection to my Greek heritage and helped by my longing for a sense of family away from home.
While I was in Rochester, I happened to be at a small gathering where I had the opportunity to meet and have a conversation with Cesar Chavez, who was visiting from California. He asked me about my plans, and I told him about wanting to work in the Third World. He paused for a moment, and I will never forget the serious look on his face when he said, "There is a Third World here in the United States as well."
When my medical training was finished, before I could actually go anywhere, I owed three years of service here in the States, to repay a scholarship. I chose to work with Native Americans for those three years. I moved to Minneapolis in 1983 and started working as a pediatrician at an inner-city Native American health center. Getting to know families and children in the Native community was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot about Native people, healing and healthcare, and about myself. I find myself working in the same neighborhood 25 years later.
Beginning at the Catholic Worker and continuing to the present, I’ve tried to be involved in activities that support peace and social justice. I see these as an important expression of spirituality. Whether it is nonviolent protests, war tax resistance, contributions to activist organizations, or writing letters to Congress, it’s important for me to be trying to do something. Before I had children I spent a lot of time in nonviolent protests and various peace-related travels. When my children were growing up I was more limited in what I could do. Now that they are both in college, I can look more openly to find where my energies can best be used during this part of my life.
I attended Minneapolis Meeting a few times when I first moved here, but my Greek heritage was still pulling me, so I joined the Greek Orthodox Church and tried to become part of that community. Although I met many wonderful people there, the liturgy was difficult for me. I could connect to the spirituality beneath all the words, but struggled with most things on the surface. I attended regularly for about five years, and irregularly for a few more. Then I just stayed home on Sunday mornings for the next several years.
Personal Worship and Community
One of the most important practices in my adult life has been spending time for quiet every morning—spiritual reading for about 15 minutes, then quiet "listening" for 15-30 minutes. It doesn’t feel like a discipline; it’s something I love to do. It has gotten me through some very rough times and it is my time to "connect" with the Spirit before the day starts. I enjoy reading spiritual material, often returning to John Woolman’s Journal and various other Quaker writings, along with the mystics and works from Buddhist and Hindu writers.
Although I’ve been happy with my personal spiritual practice, a few years ago I found myself feeling a pull to return to Quaker meeting. I started to notice the Twin Cities meetinghouse when I drove by. I attended a conference in Washington, D.C., and coincidentally found myself in front of the Friends meetinghouse there. The inner messages to return to Friends kept coming.
Except for the year I lived at the Catholic Worker when I was in my 20s, I have always been on a path by myself in terms of spiritual growth. I have come to a time in my life where I want to worship with and be part of a spiritual community. I attended meeting at Twin Cities Meeting for the first time about two years ago and I found what I was looking for. I am still growing and learning, and many members have already taught me a lot as I get to know more about the meeting and the individuals who are part of it. Joining this community completes my current story. I look forward to years of sharing the rest of my spiritual journey with Friends.