My Christian faith started evolving 25 years ago, but the kernel or promise of change was embedded in my heart since childhood. The catalyst for my transformation was the fire of grief, which cracked me open and left me exposed. Community, in the form of women’s friendship and wisdom, tended me, planted me deeply in cool soil, and gave me room to grow.
My father died when I was 18. I was in college at an Evangelical Christian school. In the following year, I attempted suicide. My family of origin slid into a state of alienation from each other. I was angry and bereft, rude and out of control. I struggled against everything and everyone.
Something essential in me prevailed and was witnessed. Other women saw it. I received compassion and insight from female professors at the college. They brought me to church, a woman-lead Episcopalian congregation. They taught me about feminism, new-to-me theologies, women’s perspectives and experiences conveyed by women authors in narratives and poetry. I learned about the entanglement of Christian religion with colonialism. I reached out and met other female students wrestling with the same ideas and stretching into their own awakenings. I prayed and played with God alongside the guidance of an eclectic and faithful spiritual director.
Among the many books I read, were Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. Those two books depict the life of Bertha, the first wife of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. He locked Bertha away as a madwoman, but before she met him she was free, roaming a lush paradise, beholden to no man and no other way of being. Ultimately, Jane Eyre tells us, Bertha burns down the house that is her prison, and her life ends in the flames.
This character captured my imagination as an icon for the divine. She was a depiction of God before and after men’s language and power structures locked the divine into dogma and authority. I started to perceive and honor the divine as the “Madwoman in the Attic.” I composed a story about hearing Her in the house made by men and sneaking up to her door.
After college, I struggled in the ways that many recent graduates do. Adjusting to the independence and responsibilities of an adult is challenging. The community that I’d known was gone, each woman to her own place and work and relationships. The books remained but a group that lived in response to those words, perspectives, and visions did not exist. There was no “there” there. I yielded to daily life. I found connection and fun with new friends. I misplaced the vitality and piercing perception of my early twenties. I harbored the icon of the Madwoman in my heart and lodged myself on the threshold of her room.
A few weeks before my thirtieth birthday I moved across the country to Seattle for graduate school. It was my fresh start, far from my family, my personal history, the church I grew up in, the politics I did not subscribe to. The Madwoman resurfaced in my graduate studies and occupied a central role in my thinking and writing. As I drafted my thesis I heard Her call. She did not reveal Herself to me in the upper room of the house, which I had hoped and expected. Rather, She bid me retrace my steps and meet Her in each person I met as I traveled back down through the house.
I had received a call. I had conviction and vocation. There was vitality and vision, again!
Within a month of receiving approval of my thesis, I married. Within a year of marrying, I gave birth to a son. Not long after that, I recognized that the marriage was over, but it was years before we separated and the divorce was finalized. Those were lean years of providing the single source of income for our family. Those were committed years of tending my mental health with therapy and medication. Those were learning years of finding spiritual community in a group of pagan women. I considered it a tentative descent from the Madwoman’s attic.
I am 45 years old. I’ve returned home to Seattle from Evolving Faith ‘19 and the Madwoman’s call is renewed boldly within me. Perhaps she is more precise, now, or perhaps my ears have cleared to hear. She says, “Perceive me in everyone you meet. Everywhere. Do not be bound by walls or ways or words. Burn down the house.”
I don’t believe that God is crazy. Nor do I believe that God is locked in conventional theology, dominant culture, or approved religious practices. Burning down the house does not threaten God, just like composing other narratives or engaging new-to-me theologies or participating in previously unfamiliar communities doesn’t threaten God. Burning down the house might set me free to meet God, newly; to honor God, newly; to meet and honor you.
There’s still no “there” there, for me. I don’t have a local community that I can simply join for resonance and support, teaching and service. I miss that. I understand, now, the best parts of a house of worship. Even so, I proceed. I am making it up as I go, one step at a time, down from Her attic and into the company of Her people, who are everywhere.
"Where is balance in your life?" the question is our homework assignment from the circus lessons coach. I've considered my answer and I'm happy with it.
I am seen, known, and loved for who I am. I dwell in my close relationships with my husband, son, and besties. I enjoy my home. My daily routine generates only a minimum of stress for me. My life is safe, secure, and stable.
Rooted in this place of comfort and warmth, I'm reaching out, stretching, and challenging myself. The vital tension between comfort and growth is how I'm balanced.
At 45 years old, my heaviest weight, and lowest level of physical fitness, I'm enrolled in circus lessons and enjoying them. I just received my A1C (blood sugar) test results - my highest/worst numbers to date. So, J and I have embarked on a focused and intentional diet to bring my blood sugar back within healthy boundaries and maybe shed some pounds in the process. I'm walking in the evenings, inconsistently but persistently. I'm tending to my body, my physical self care and presence, in new and supported ways.
I've planned a solo adventure. In October, I'm attending the Evolving Faith conference in Denver. The ideas, experiences, and emotions of how one's spirituality and/or religion may change over time is one of my passionate interests. Ultimately, I'll be traveling alone to meet and engage with strangers, pushing through the membranes of my introversion.
It's been almost a year since I created and hosted my first retreat. It went smoothly yet it left me exhausted and sensitive to all the areas for improving the event. It also reminded me of how much I value and enjoy small gatherings of women talking together about substantive, real-life, heartfelt topics. This year I'll host more of these group conversations in my home, starting with one this month. And, I'm revising the retreat for a new participants.
There are more ideas for stretching still percolating through my mind, but this is where I'm balancing, today. It's a vibrant, creative, growing space between the comforts of home and the unknown out there.
Now is a good time and place for me.
Here are a few things that make Now so good:
I’ve been learning and inconsistently practicing new habits to improve my health in the last couple of years. My naturopath, desperate to get through to me, once asked me if I wanted to “be here.” As in, did I want to be alive. I took the question home, thought and journaled about it for a week or so, and decided that yes, I want to be alive.
I wanted to be alive for my son, especially. Now, I add to that my partner and future husband. My friends. My garden.
Do you see the pattern there?
It’s a small and personal world that I live in and live for.
I wonder, is that really enough to make my life worth living?
See, I was raised an Evangelical Christian in the United States in the latter part of the 20th Century. And while individualism, trickle-down economics, and oat bran bear no resemblance to the Gospel, somehow religion was tangled up with the contemporary culture. In the midst of the dissonance, the religion identified itself through symbols of personal piety like, proscribing sex outside of heterosexual marriage, campaigning against abortion and anyone associated with them, and conflating the AIDS crisis with the so-called "abomination" of homosexuality.
But the text of the gospels, whether taken as a summarized whole or proof-texting parts, doesn’t provide a lot of instruction on personal matters. Rather, it dwells on issues that affect the collective and show up publicly. Issues like poverty and greed, genuine hospitality for society’s outsiders, and otherwise living one’s life in contrast to the dominant culture’s power structures and definitions of worth.
As a child, I accepted the faith and its religion in earnest. But disconnects between the words we said as a congregation and the way we lived in our homes and daily lives, occasionally broke through and concerned me. Those concerns developed into a heavy tension as I matured. If the spiritually faithful were in action unfaithful, what was the point of the faith? If the congregation lives according to the prevailing culture rather than its proclaimed savior, which demonstration of their faith is true? Ultimately, I judged culture the winner in this competition.
It was a relief. I cut loose from the tension. I freed myself of the obligation to follow Jesus’ example. I chose values like personal security, private property, physical health, and my immediate relationships.
But Jesus’s life, and that original tension, hovers around me.
Jesus didn’t preach about raising children, saving for the future, or delaying death through proper nutrition and daily exercise. Those things are cultural and they still matter to me. So I don’t measure up to his example. I’m making no effort to measure up and simply won’t. Is there a way to live within the tension of the dominant culture and the example of Jesus? Something more than financial donations and social media posts denouncing the powers that be. I really don't know. In the meantime, maybe I can register some faint shimmy on the Richter scale of practice. That, to me, is the path to a life worth living.
Out of the Attic
This blog started in 2006
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Out of the Attic.
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