I Am Who I Am

[Moses] came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. . . . Then the Lord said, . . . “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.'”
—Exodus 3:1-2, 9-10, 13-14

In the Religious Society of Friends we often struggle with our true identity, with exactly who we are. Sometimes we even fight about it, in a peculiarly passive-aggressive faux-Quaker way, by imposing the least offensive spiritual language on the whole. Are we Christian or universalist? Nontheist or theist? Can we use Buddhist terminology, pagan terminology, Christian terminology, and still be considered Friends? When we do asanas on the lawn at Gathering, drum in the meetinghouse, or study with Thich Nhat Hanh, do we run the risk of parting ways with our Quaker heritage? Or should our spiritual experience and language be rooted in the spiritual traditions of the Friends who lived before us?

I’ve struggled with these questions, trying to discern the truth, alone and in the company of spiritual friends. In the end I have discovered (no surprise!) that the test of the discernment is in the fruit of the labor. I invite you to taste the fruit gathered from the orchard of my experience. See if it satisfies.

I am a Christian. I was raised in an exceptionally abusive household. An oasis in the desert of my childhood was a Catholic school, where I came to know about Jesus Christ. Later in life, it was the saving power of a personal relationship with Jesus that saved me from despair and suicide, all-too-common aftereffects of childhood trauma. I know what it feels like to be lost and then found, to be imprisoned and then set free, to be loved even in the absence of human love, to find an end to fear. This transforming and healing relationship has gone beyond any belief about Jesus I may have had. He has stood with me through challenges that I could never have faced alone—acknowledging deep wounds in myself and growing through them; finding tenderness for the deep wounds of others; coming to know the many ways I have failed my calling and the world—and the many ways I have been faithful to my calling and am a blessing to the world. I call him Friend, Lord, Beloved. I understand the fervor of a life placed in Christ’s hands, of the born-again Christian who wants everyone who suffers to experience the saving power of the Lord. And I continue to know the abiding presence of Jesus in my life.

I am a child of the Earth.The physical and sexual abuse my body sustained as a child left my body feeling numb and constricted as an adult. It is Mother Earth’s own body—her forests, rivers, lakes, and weather; her animals, insects, and birds—that is transforming my body and my sense of myself as a person who can use her own power. I have come to understand my human power and its right use through the shamanic practices of my ancestors, the Celts. So I welcome and am strengthened by the four airts, or directions, and the qualities that emanate from them:

  • by the generous, hospitable, and regenerating qualities of the East, flying into my morning on the wings of the eagle;
  • by the joyful, passionate, and creative qualities of the South, dancing in on the soft paws of the red fox;
  • by the deep, introspective, and visionary qualities of the West, swimming in to consciousness on the fins of salmon;
  • and by the wise, courageous, warrior qualities of the North, who conducts the interior battle, and who observes me, silently, with the knowing eye of snowy owl.

Through shamanic practice I have learned to connect deeply with the selves that populate my inner world, and I have been shown what I may have forgotten about myself, or what I may be hiding from. And these dismembered parts of myself have been healed.

I am a child of the Light. I experience the creative, conscious, enlivening, and transforming Spirit who breathes into and through all creation; who challenges, transforms, and renews all Life. I have sometimes experienced the oneness that mystics and poets speak of in their impossible language, experiencing the movement of the “burning oneness binding everything” described by Kenneth Boulding in the Naylor Sonnets. I also experience the healing and challenging Light Within, which restores and refreshes, which reveals the true nature of things, and from which I sometimes try to hide. And I understand that what I think I know or experience of the Divine is still a very small glimpse of a great and unknowable Mystery; that the Universal Presence is far more complex than the God of my understanding. While I will never have a complete understanding of this conscious, moving, healing energy that is Life and Light and Love, I trust that it operates in my life and in the world for the highest good of all, even when there are seemingly logical reasons to give up on the idea of Love or God or Spirit.

These experiences are each an integral part of who I am, as different from one another as my heart is from my hands, and yet part of the whole that enlivens my own “I Am.” I imagine my spirituality something like the beaches along Lake Michigan: there is great water across which one cannot see land; there is sandy and rocky shore, among which only small and hardy plants and animals can live; and there are the forested dunes, where mammals and birds can live. The edges of these places, where one “climate” meets another, are liminal. They are “betwixt and between.” This liminality is also present in twilight and dawn when light and darkness mix; in March when the winter meets the spring; in the winter solstice when the longest night of the year melts into a slightly longer day; in the condition of illegal immigrants who are present but not “officially” so; in the experience of transgendered people as they pass from one kind of body to another; and so on. My direct experience of the Divine is like this—betwixt and between the labels that define people as being of this spiritual tradition or that one.

I count this multiplicity of experiences as gifts from a multilingual God who heals and sustains me. And yet some people, even some Friends, try to juxtapose my experiences as if they are opposites of one another, accusing me of being an apologist for impossibly contradictory positions. Friends have referred to my experience of God as being “fundamentalist” and “anti-Jesus and anti-God,” and also as an “anything goes as long as it feels good” spirituality. Plainly, there are few places in our world where someone like me, who lives in the liminal places, can find a spiritual home. And yet, in spite of the difficulties, I have found a home.

I am a Friend. I have worshiped in expectant waiting for 23 years with other Friends, coming to Friends from the Catholic Church because of a dream. In the dream I was at Mass, where a beloved priest friend was giving the homily. Quite unexpectedly, surprising even myself, I stood from the pew where I was sitting and—unheard of!—opened my mouth to preach. But I could only make garbled, unintelligible sounds. I was horrified to discover that my tongue had been cut out. The horrible reality of this dream, in a church where women’s voices still are silenced, sent me looking for another place to worship. At my first Friends meeting, when I witnessed women standing to minister, I wept in joyful recognition.

So it was among Friends that I first felt the freedom to bring into the light the voice that sounded in the depths of my soul. It was among Friends that I yearned so strongly to belong that I strove to be a “good” Quaker, rather than an authentic one. It has been among Friends that I have learned from the fiery power of George Fox and the quiet courage of John Woolman. It has been among Friends that I have finally come to accept the diversity of my experience. And it is among Friends that I have gradually discovered my power as a human being, and the power of submission to “I am.”

I would like us to know these things, to help us understand something that is happening in the Religious Society of Friends. We are living in a special time, when it is not uncommon to wear jewelry from Poland, download music from Kenya, speak with computer technicians in India, eat chocolate from Belgium, sit on furniture made in Norway, sleep on a mattress made in Ohio, and drive a car from Japan. Now is also a time when the best of all spiritual traditions are being combined in new ways to create new approaches to the Divine. We have entered yet another transition, a spiritual transition. We live in a liminal time.

I know it is possible to live in the stream of these many traditions with spiritual integrity, commitment, and focus. I no longer feel torn between Christ, Spirit, or Mother Earth. Even orthodox Christians worship three Gods in one. In fact, as I live out this life that feeds all parts of my spirit, I feel more alive, more fully myself, and more committed as a Friend.

Here is another dream. I was walking along a steep cliff above a sandy beach, enjoying the wide open sky and the ocean waves that crashed so gloriously below. That crashing filled me with excitement, and I wished that I could find a way down to that wild water. Then I saw a few Friends farther along the cliff path. They were calling to me, inviting me to hike in the nearby forest with them. I ran to them, happy for their company and eager for the forest, telling myself that it was okay to delay the ocean visit for a little while.

As we hiked, however, I became discouraged. The “forest” was actually a park with well-maintained hiking trails and regularly spaced trash cans, and I realized that this park was not what I wanted. I yearned for the bigness of the ocean, and for its wildness. So I left my friends and found my way back to the cliff, where I was met by a wise and friendly climbing guide. He smiled broadly, looked intently into my soul, fully outfitted me with rock climbing gear, gave me a quick lesson, and sent me over the edge. As I rappelled down, I noticed some carving on the face of the rock. I felt that the large, letter-like figures were somehow important, but I could not understand them. Were they pictographs? A message in some ancient language? When I reached the beach I threw off my gear, forgetting the rock carvings, and ran into the water, where I was held by the swell momentarily and then crashed down by the waves, over and over again. This play continued for some time, and I was happy beyond understanding.

Two decades later I was telling this dream to a friend. As I remembered climbing down past the large letter-like carvings, I discovered I was now able to read them. The message that the dream had been saving for me all those years was this: “I am who I am.”

With that recognition, my world suddenly shifted profoundly. Like the voice from the burning bush, I can now say, 20 years later, “I am who I am.” I no longer feel the need to separate vital parts of myself into separate communities. I have begun to carry my whole self with me now, so far as I am able, wherever I go. And when I am able to be faithful to the wholeness into which I am growing, I am accompanied by a fiery vitality that continually enlarges my confined vision, carrying me forward into a future that is defined by God and not by my limited definitions or expectations of who God is, who I am, or what my future may be.

I am also painfully aware that for 20 years I unconsciously resisted this invitation to be spiritually authentic. My resistance created an internal struggle that was so intense I could not even guess at the writing on the wall. I responded first by clinging to historical (19th-century U.S.) Quaker practice as if to a lifesaver, as if the answer to my internal struggle lay in reforming myself back into the shape of earlier Friends—as if I could don their approach to God as easily as I might don their bonnets and long skirts. I spent another bit of time simply wanting everything and everyone to go back to the way things were when I first came to Friends, to fit neatly into the little boxes of “the good old days” when everything was more manageable, predictable, and safe. Then there were painful periods when, learning that I couldn’t force God back into my set of little mental boxes, I believed that I was too Christian, or too shamanic, for Friends. I struggled with speaking about my experiences, and I feared that I would have to leave Friends. Gratefully, when I am now led to speak truthfully about the fullness and complexity and depth of my experiences, I no longer struggle with the leading. I have learned that God does not require this struggle of me. Nor does God require me to leave Friends.

If other Friends are feeling the movement of the Spirit in this way, I suspect that similar struggles may arise for them. So I pose some queries that I have been carrying:

  • Is Spirit leading others of us in the Religious Society of Friends to experience the wildness of earth and waves, the saving power of the Christ?
  • Do we need to rediscover a balance within our meetings that includes more of the Spirit’s passionate transforming qualities, as well as the quietly transforming ones?
  • Has this invitation been held out to me as an individual, alone, or is it also being kindled in the hearts of other Friends? And if it is, what does this portend for the evolution of the Religious Society of Friends?

My own conversations and interactions among Friends have led me to the hope that the transforming power of the Spirit is breaking in upon us, as a people, in new ways. I dare to hope that we are being transformed by the power of Christ, of God, of the Great Mother, of the Holy Spirit, of that mystery of Beingness who lives as a fiery spark within the heart of each of us and who is so very ready for a new day.

I am coming closer to living the private and public life that I am inwardly prompted to live, no matter the risk. And I yearn to draw closer to a family of Friends that honors our predecessors while celebrating the diversity of our experiences. A family of Friends that says as a community, “We are who we are,” and that courageously continues the act of creation in our own time, with our own understanding.

Merry Stanford

Merry Stanford, a member of Red Cedar Meeting in Lansing, Mich., is a psychotherapist and shamanic practitioner. She currently serves Friends as clerk of Lake Erie Yearly Meeting, and as a Couple Enrichment leader with her husband, Peter Wood. She occasionally travels in the ministry among Friends and others.