Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Tasting Freedom

I've written elsewhere about how I imagined (and hoped against all realistic hope) that I would experience an immediate sense of being boldly and radiantly set free in the wake of renouncing my ordination. But it just wasn't that easy. Nor that quick, which is really probably both appropriate and all for the best. Important, deep things usually take time, and that way they have a chance to grow from reliable roots.

(In addition to the above linked post are two others written in early April of this year looking back on that experience of renouncing my ordination: "Renouncing my Ordination Vows: One Year Out" and "Renouncing Vows: The Day After".)

But within a month or so of renouncing my ordination vows I began to taste one particular flavor of freedom on a regular basis. I would be walking Digory, our Corgi, around the block for our first morning walk after David and Anna had left home for the day, and after my bowl of cereal.

We tend to take the same route on these morning walks, Digory and I, heading left out of our driveway, then left again at the corner of our neighbors' yard, and continuing to travel counterclockwise around the short, not precisely rectangular block.

 Rounding the second left-hand corner I usually glance to my right toward the east-southeast and the salt water inlet of Casco Bay known as Broad Cove. In the winter with no leaves to obscure the view I might glimpse the water itself, but at all seasons there's always at least a vista of sky and the known and sometimes sniffed, even if unseen, presence of the water, mud, sand, sea algae, and various creatures. I guess I like to check in with the bay that way as we make our way around the block, and as Digory likes to pee on the neighbor's shrub at that corner, too, it works well for both of us to pause there.

After turning the corner we find ourselves on a street where the trees are more plentiful and actually arch and meet overhead so that we proceed through a spacious tunnel of limbs and branches and, for half the year, leaves of various seasonally appropriate colors. An old stone wall runs along the right-hand side of the road, a favorite place for chipmunks to scramble and dip into and out of crevices, and so on. I love being in the company of so many substantial tall trees, and I suppose they help me to notice things like the wind, the sky conditions through gaps in branches, and the songs of birds.

In roughly the same twenty foot stretch of road it would dawn on me, this particular taste of one particular form of freedom: "It doesn't matter any more what I think!"

Maybe it came to me there not only because of the stone wall, the trees, and the birds, but also because beyond the stone wall and trees stands a house belonging to neighbors who were members of the church where David and I had been co-rectors for nearly fifteen years. (They still worship there, they and three other families who live in our neighborhood; we're the ones who left.)

If I were to try to recapture the recurring sequence of semi-conscious actions and thoughts that led me to this realization, not on every walk but many, many times over, I'd come up with something like this:

I'm walking along, simply enjoying the scene, the morning, the trees, maybe some birdsong, the clouds and sun, breathing in the scents of the day, my heart and indeed my whole body swelling with delight and gratitude, pulsing with energy. And I think to myself or perhaps even whisper audibly or speak aloud, "Thank you!" Sometimes my thanks accompanied by a small bow to what's around me, sometimes with a spontaneous (but very small and contained) gesture of hands clapped together a few times.

I take a few more deep breaths, relishing the moment. And then I think: "Who or what am I thanking? The universe? The unceasingly fascinating and dazzling natural world of this planet? Do I believe in some kind of creator of all of this? And if so, would I call that creator or creative force 'God'? What do I believe?"

At that point a slight cloud would cover my sun, the cloud of thinking theologically and not having an answer and feeling a knee-jerk sense of obligation to know what I think and believe about God and to be able to articulate those thoughts and beliefs for others and to mold them in such a way as to fit, more or less, "the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church." A sense of obligation, struggle, and constraint (and a good measure of failure) I know way too well.

And then it would dawn on me: "It doesn't matter any more what I think!"

I am free of that obligation. I have slipped out of that noose, cut the tether to those vows, that "Declaration" to which I had once signed my name "in the sight of all present" and that sometimes haunted and taunted me both day and night.

"I solemnly swear that I do believe the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church."

It doesn't matter any more what I think or don't think about God. It doesn't matter any more what I think. It  . . . doesn't  . . . matter . . . what . . . I . . . think.

While I welcomed this clear taste of freedom, I will say that it was also just a wee bit unsettling. I had, for good or ill, largely defined myself for more  two decades by that feeling that it did matter what I thought about God. At the beginning of those decades I carried this charge mostly with harmony and eloquence, and in the latter half of those decades with struggle, resistance, and conflict alternating with reconciliation or at least with the quiet of exhaustion and a temporary truce.

If it no longer mattered what I did or didn't think about God, then who was I? and what was the goal of my life or the nature of my particular contribution to the world?

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