The problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self. ~ Thomas Merton
Last week I delivered my 111th author talk since my book was published. (I love the symmetry of the fact that there were 111 people at the talk.) There is one question that comes up quite often that people seem to be reticent to just come out and ask it, given the personal nature of it, yet their curiosity gets them over any inhibitions they might have. The question is phrased in all different ways, but the meaning is the same. They want to know what religion I am now.
Until I had published my book, I often felt uncomfortable being asked about my spiritual beliefs by people I didn’t know very well. I had to get over that, considering I’ve been asked it so many times. The answer is not a concise or clear one, because I am still on a spiritual quest that I imagine will last the rest of my life.
When I left the Amish, I only saw what I felt is the punitive nature of their religion — one belief in particular posed a problem for me. I was taught, from the time I could understand the concept that because I was born Amish, God wanted me to stay Amish, and if I left, all hope of my salvation would be lost. This belief was reinforced with fire and brimstone sermons.
Though I would not have been able to articulate this at the time, I wanted to move beyond the fear of Hell fire as a spiritual motivator and focus more on mercy, grace, peace, love, joy, gratitude. The second time I left the Amish, I began a search for a church community that would feel right for me. After visiting many churches in Burlington, I found one that I felt at home in — a Presbyterian congregation — which is where David and I were married and where we attended for years. Then the minister — who I revered very much — had an affair with a younger woman in the church. She was the mother of two, and he was the father of five. That threw me for a loop and for the next several years, I felt more or less rudderless. I started questioning who God is and began searching for answers in the “New Age” realm. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of my search for universal truths and messages in various religions, mythology, and philosophy. I discovered Joseph Campbell and there began my love of mythology. These larger-than-life epic stories of gods, saints, and people throughout the ages speak to me.
Gradually, as my search continued, I discovered that I had an innate belief that there is something greater than us — our world and our universe just don’t make sense without that. The Native American idea of the Great Spirit (God) and Mother Earth (Nature) were the best words to describe what I felt this was. I also discovered that not all my spiritual nurturing comes from being in church. There have been times when I felt really close to God through nature, whether it was watching a male bluebird sidling up to his mate to feed her on one of the lower branches of the birch tree outside my window, watching an eagle soar above the Connecticut River, or seeing the grandeur of the Swiss Alps.
|Photo by me in Oberdiesbach, Switzerland|
Okay, so I believe God exists, but that still does not make me a Christian. Most self-defining Christians believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. And this is where I come back to the less punitive beliefs of my Amish roots. In my home community, we did believe that Jesus came to earth and died on the cross so that we may have everlasting life. However, it is Jesus on earth or Jesus as human with whom the Amish identify. Rather than going out and spreading the gospel of Christ, as many born-again Christians do, the Amish believe in living the example of Christ. I believe that Jesus knew his purpose for having been born on this earth and that he lived his life in accord with that purpose. I also believe we have the innate ability to know when we are living our purpose.
I find the Christ story a powerful and inspiring one from which I can draw life lessons and live my life accordingly. But I do not profess to be a born-again Christian. I think asking Christ to wash my sins white as snow again and again is avoiding my responsibility for making restitution for the wrongs I’ve committed (if possible) and for learning from these mistakes by refraining from repeating them.David and I continue our shared search for a spiritual community. Over the years we’ve visited churches in many denominations — Amish, Mennonite, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Church of Christ, Unitarian, Methodist, Congregational. If we could have aspects of these various communities all in one, we would choose the introspection of the Quakers; the joyful singing of the Episcopalian Church that had an interracial choir capable of raising the roof each Sunday; the contemplative quiet and music of the Unitarian Church, the sense of community of the Mennonites; and the humility of the Amish, symbolized in the age-old ritual of footwashing. But we cannot have it all, and so we visit various churches and continue our spiritual quest.Maybe next time I get asked this question, I should be more concise and use the term that a friend who was raised in a Jewish and Quaker home used — she described herself as “Quakish.”