So I left that writing workshop exercise feeling kind of stupid and small and story-less. If I wasn't ready to write about starting to live my life without God, then what the hell was I going to write about? We participants in the workshop were about to enter into 24 hours of silence so that we could go deep into our writing. It seemed to me of course that everyone else had a story firmly and clearly in mind. Everyone but me.
My story, the one I had tentatively tested in that exercise, didn't seem ready, or ripe. Or I guess it's more truthful to say that I didn't feel ready or ripe or brave enough to start writing it.
In fairness, what I had declared to myself and my workshop companions, though I wasn't exactly clear about this at the time, was more about how I intended to live than about what I intended to write. As I said before, it only stands to reason that in order to write about starting over to live my life without God, I was going to have to start to live my life without God. To cut the cord, saw off the ball and chain that were shackled to my ankle, slash the lashings of the sack on my back, to use my own rhetoric.
But I had no reasoned or reasonable plan in mind. I loved imagining that somehow I could go back to the way I was before I got ordained, and even farther back than that, to the way I was before I decided to embrace Christianity around age twenty (I wasn't born that way!).
And as much as I loved thinking that I could somehow return to my own personal era "Before Christ," to a time in my life without theology, without doctrine, without too much thinking--was that it? Without religion . . . was it that?-- I wasn't really even sure that such an enterprise was possible. And I certainly didn't have a clue how to go about doing this, living this, or being this.
You begin to see how tangled a matter this was for me--when the "entity" I wished to live without was really a massive knotted mess whose individual strands included the human concept of "God"; the religious enterprise in general; Christianity in particular; ordination; and most particular of all, my being an Episcopal priest. I even thought I'd love to go back to a time before words or behind, beneath, and beyond words, to reclaim and to dwell simply in experience, in the realm of my senses in this very sensory and sensual world.
Wasn't that what I meant, what I had written just weeks before?
It's time to start over-- to know what I know and feel what I feel, from earth to skin, blood and bone, blossom and leaf bloom.
As I walked out of our workshop meeting space and back toward the main house for dinner, I dawdled on the boardwalk that led through a graceful grove of alder trees. It was moist and marshy (the name of the retreat house is "Aldermarsh/Marsh House" in reference to and in reverence to this particular stand of alders with their roots in the wet). I got captivated by the lush moss and the greens of the ferns and other undergrowth and by the wild shapes of foliage, many of them leaves I don't see anywhere in Maine. To me they were exotic! There was birdsong too, thought I don't remember now which birds or what songs.)
The wind stirred in the branches above me; the light shifted. And something shifted in me. I stopped worrying about what to write. I had a new story, at least one to get me through the next day! I would write about my love for the earth, my rapturous connection with the natural world. It might not have been the story that I thought I wanted to tell, but it was a place to start.
In my tendency to fall into either/or, this or that thinking, I have often imagined since that day that my story was either about "going godless" or about my love for the earth. I now suspect--no, better than suspect, I know-- that they are simply two fundamental aspects of the same story. They are not in opposition to one another, nor in competition with each other, but in on-going conversation with each other.
When I search far back in my memory for traces of my earliest "inklings" of God, of the transcendent dimension of life (though I would never have thought in such terms), the clearest moments of my harvest have to do with my place, my experiences, my responses to the natural world, often in moments remembered as happening by myself. Seeing the moonlight on the ocean, knowing the tides and their rhythms, smelling balsam firs and fresh lake water and hearing the melancholy cries of loons while visiting a beloved island in Squam Lake, seeing a skunk cross our lawn in the middle of a hot summer night.
Whether I name such experiences as being "of God" or "of godlessness" hardly matters. (Oh, taste that delicious and delightful freedom once again!) They are what I know and have always known about my "place/ in the family of things" (from Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese").
These deep earth-body connections have often and over decades seemed extraneous to, incongruent with, and unwelcome in, the church's liturgical celebrations and most of my hundreds of sermons. While this may have caused me to overlook them and to undervalue them, they remain solid, faithful, and undimmed at the core of my being.
Image: photo by David (I think!), from Kidney Pond
I am a writer, speaker, spiritual director and life coach, and also a passionate painter and lover of the natural world. This blog holds both present-day observations of my life and pieces of the larger story of my journey from Episcopal priest to "free-lance human being". It's a midlife story of self-discovery and freedom, a "coming of age at 55" story, an ecclesiastical story through 24 years of being ordained and out the other side, a theological and spiritual story of an unexpected, evolving faith apart from religious beliefs, finding myself more grateful and having more fun with the ongoing adventure of being alive and being myself.