The very purpose of religion is to enable us to step off into the unchartered emptiness that is the spiritual life, freely but not untethered. We have under our feet the promise of the tradition that formed us and the disciplines that shaped our souls. We can then wander...religion gives us the structures that weld the habits and disciplines of the soul into one integrated whole. Those same structures can also, however, smother the very spirit they intend to shape...spirituality is a commitment to immersion in God, to the seeking that has no end.
No doubt I left church because the structure, dogma, doctrine, and practice of church was confining my understanding, my experience of God. I did a lot of wandering in the subsequent sixteen years. It's curious to me, actually. It would have been so easy to just wander off and never return. To just live untethered, and follow the whims of my spirit. I certainly was headed that way, down a "New Age" path of enlightenment. But even I realized that that path was like wandering into an abyss, I needed to be anchored by community. I needed a way to explore and question and search without being lost at sea.
Finding my way back to church has given me a new sense of structure, one within which I can journey freely, but safely. It's not without problems. Even this Church falls, from time to time, too heavily into the confines of human teachings, seeking to limit the expression of God. But nothing in the church requires us to follow that path of human-made limitations. The teachings invite us to explore. Unlike Chittister, limited by the maleness of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, in the Episcopal Church we can explore the female nature of God. But like the Roman Church we seldom do this. Chittister writes:
Key of David we had called God for over a century here and for centuries before that in Europe. We'd (the Benedictine sisters), been singing God's praises as 'Morning Star, rock and refuge of sinners, gate of heaven, dove of peace, wind and fire, and light,' for century after century. They were awesome litanies, time-tested and true tot he God who is everywhere...and, always, always, God was, 'God our Father.' we never, ever prayed to 'God our Mother.' God, the source of creation, God the Eternal Womb, was never - ever- recognized as a mothering God....where were women in these images of God? And, if they werent' there, what kind of God was this? (pg 32)I remember working with some of the supplemental liturgical texts being prepared for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. It was 1997 and I was in seminary. One of the images in a Eucharistic prayer spoke of the "waters" of creation "bursting forth from the womb" - and wow! Did that get a lot of push back from the seminary students. Too graphic, no one wanted to think about womb and birthing, not literally anyway.
And yet, isn't the spiritual journey often a messy process? A painful struggle that is also filled with some utterly amazing aspects? If you have ever given birth you know the physicality of the process, but also the emotional and spiritual. Every time I gave birth, I thought, "I want to do this again!" For immediately after the birth, the pain and struggle was forgotten, blessed in the mystery and amazement of new life.
And so Chittister continues:
What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with Gods; own. 'This is wrong,' I said to a sister beside me. 'We have to be patient.' she said back with a smile. I couldn't help but wonder if two thousand years wasn't patience enough for her. I also had to wonder what it said about a women's sense of self that she was willing to become invisible and patient about it.
Finding a God big enough to be God was a spiritual task of no small proportions.Searching for a "big enough" God has definitely been part of my spiritual journey. A big enough God and yet one that isn't just enabled to be anything "I" make God to be. Finding God as big enough within the structures of a tradition that provides a path through the woods and a compass to navigate the turbulent waters.
This, compass, this path, is for me at least part of why I am both spiritual and religious.