becoming whole

IMG_5508.JPG

I went to church on Ash Wednesday. Back to that cavernous place I haven’t been in for a while. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent – the season of the church calendar which leads up to Easter. I hadn’t given Lent any thought until then, but at some point on that Wednesday afternoon I realised I wanted to go to church.

I drove into the car park a few minutes late. The service was supposed to start outside but I couldn’t see anyone, so I presumed it had already begun. I walked in the back entrance and saw people filing in the main door in front of me, past the minister and past something burning on the ground by the doorway. I walked round to the back of the line of people, and peered down at the metal bowl on the first step up to the entrance. It was a bowl of fire. A pile of flax crosses burning.

I’d never smelt anything like it. It was acrid and pungent and bitter. There were no base notes, there was no depth to it at all. It was not like the smoky sweetness of incense, which is rich and beguiling; or like the smell of charcoal burning for a BBQ, the promise of a good meal. It was sour and disconcerting, impossible to ignore. And as we filed into the church and sat down it followed us.

I used to go to church a lot. You’ve probably heard me say this before. I went to church every week, usually several times a week, for a long time. The church I went to was the kind of church where what you believed came in bullet points. Where belief was a concrete, absolute thing that existed outside of a person, and was either accepted and absorbed, or rejected. And it was the kind of church which categorised people accordingly. You either believed, or you didn’t. You were either in, or out.

It was a pretty ordinary church, as far as evangelical churches go. We believed in a literal heaven and a literal hell, and that you needed a conversion experience to secure your place in the former. We felt pretty grateful for our own said personal conversion experiences, and so we had a lot to be happy about. And happy and clappy go hand in hand, well they did in my case.  But we were also burdened. We were burdened for the world. Because we didn’t take our ticket to heaven for granted, and we wanted as many people as possible to come for the ride.

At best, this kind of evangelicalism is benevolent, shoring up a host of social programmes and charities just about everywhere you look. But at its worst, it quickly morphs into fundamentalism; which – as far as I can see – is nothing less than the scourge of our age. In fundamentalism those bullet points of belief come laced with fear and control, and the categories are iron-cast. There is no wriggle room, no tolerance for grey. If you are not in, you absolutely out.

If we mapped out a spectrum – benevolent evangelicalism moving to the benign and then through to toxic fundamentalism at the other end – my church experience would span almost the whole range. I know how attractive it is to be part of something big and thriving, and how strong the pull of conformity is in that environment. I can attest to the value of community, to the change that can happen when someone has the support and resources necessary to change. I was never ostracised, and never part of an actual cult. I was always “in.” And yet I’m only just now beginning to understand what it cost me to stay “in.”

One loss from those years was that I was disconnected from symbol and metaphor. Those bullet-pointed tenets of faith acted like a rigid layer of certainty over everything in our tradition which was ambiguous or open to interpretation. Anything less than absolute was rendered invisible. And metaphor; the great language of art, literature and the unconscious was wiped from the register. It was not a language we were proficient in. If anything, we were suspicious of it. Anything that was less than concrete was likely to lead us down the slippery slope to “out.”

I went to church that Wednesday night to get ash on my forehead. I knew that if I went to church I’d come home with a black-grey smudge in the vague shape of a cross. That was what I wanted. I wanted the ash. I wanted to be marked. I wanted to sit in that sprawling and beautiful building and think about my humanness. I wanted to own up to my smallness, to my need, to the dust that I am made of. And I knew that the smear of ash would mean something.

My insides haven’t always matched my outsides. I’ve been a master of disguise. Smiling but internally torn. A bundle of anxiety and nervous energy which made me look like a go-getter, a worker, a get-things-happening kind of person. I was on an endless mission to improve things. The things I was bent on improving were always external. Houses. Relationships. Organisations. Domestic functions.  Somewhere deep inside me was this nagging sense that something was wrong.

My search led me to explore Catholicism. Suddenly I found I had a voracious appetite for ritual. I wanted to cross myself. I couldn’t get enough of the incense. I was enchanted with transubstantiation – the belief that in the Eucharist ritual, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. I’d spent so long singing and praying about God being in me, that of course I wanted to eat God – it was an obvious progression.  Yet at the same time the idea of eating God was so natural, so ordinary. Eating being such an ordinary activity and hunger our most base need. The juxtaposition was thrilling. And I was hungry.

I was hungry for the saints. The way you could see them. The ones sculpted in white, watching the parishioners kindly from the back of the church. The small ones on cards you could carry around with you – pocket saints. You could touch them. The pocket saints came with their own prayer on the back, words that they (more-or-less) had prayed themselves. You could pray with them. And the saints felt real. Their stories might have been (more-or-less) fabricated, but that wasn’t the point. I knew that behind all the layers of story was a flesh and blood person. And I loved the women saints. There were so many of them. They led me to Mary.

I needed to know that God looked like me. I needed to know that God was soft. I needed to know that God had a womb. That God laboured, that God had breasts, that God comforted, that God hovered like a mother bird over her nest. Those images were all in the bible – which at that time I read like my life depended on it. But I couldn’t see them properly until I saw Mary. Mary was everything I missed out on in the male-dominated and performance-driven Christianity of my upbringing. Ever-present Mary, she who carried the divine seed and let it grow, patiently pregnant with God. She was my antidote.

Anyone who knew me could have seen that my crush on Catholicism wasn’t going to take. The fact that I would have had to be baptised again was a deal-breaker. In the midst of all the coercion and control I experienced as a teenager, both at home and at church, getting baptised was one of the first things I did in my life for myself. It meant something incredible to me then, and it does now. And then when you add the fact that the Catholic church doesn’t ordain women, and is probably about a thousand years away from being open and affirming of queer Christians, well… you get the picture.

But we should always pay attention to what we’re attracted to.  My attraction to the Catholic church was telling me something. It was telling me I wanted to smell God. It was telling me I wanted to look at God with my natural eyes, that I wanted to look in the mirror and see God staring back at me. It confirmed to me that I wanted a new experience of God – something grounded in ritual, something grounded in the simple movement of my own body.  I wanted an expression of faith that sprang from more than just the latest edict from the latest male to grace the pulpits of my youth.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I often wonder if I ever will. But the night I sat in my favourite ancient place, the air rank with bitter smoke, and came home with a grey smudge on my very own skin, I knew that I had found something. Every time I surprise myself by capturing the mystical and dragging it into the ordinary bounds of my very real life, I feel just like I did when I was sixteen and freshly baptised. Like the mystery I felt burning inside of me was lit up on the outside of me as well. I was one.

All the clocks

3salvador-dali-persistence-of-memory.jpgThe Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali

All the clocks in the house are telling the wrong time. Greer has lost her watch. I am in this funny surreal space where I feel like I am re-making my life. I know I said a similar thing a year ago, that I’m back at the beginning again, but it’s true. I actually do get to start again. Every week I learn something new, and it’s a process that continues to unfold. This ‘growing’ business is ongoing. Why would it ever stop?

I went up to Auckland last week and got a brain update. High school statistics, plus a few extras. My supervisor is gifted with the ability of teaching with the barest minimum of spoon feeding, and in the kindest and most gentle way spent almost a whole day explaining to me what comes as naturally to him as tying his shoelaces. The update was successful: I am now immersed in analysis of the data from my Master’s research, and there are numbers everywhere. I’m swimming in them. After previously having almost zero faith in myself as a mathematician, here I am doing maths.

I’ve never been more aware of the gaps in my brain. Great holes I’ve allowed to stay wide open for so long. Although it might have seemed otherwise, I’ve lacked confidence in my intelligence. Everywhere I looked there were people more coordinated, more organised, and more consistently performing than I ever was, and somehow along the way I decided they were the smart ones. They were the ones who studied law, or held down full time jobs at the same time as bringing up their babies, or had letters after their names. I thought I couldn’t do any of that. So I avoided my gaps and weaknesses – trying to escape the shame of them.

But it would be a half-truth to say that my lack of confidence was the sole reason for those gaps. My insecurities were well and truly enabled by the religious framework I was brought up in. A framework which conditioned me to see the right answers as situated outside of myself, which convinced me that others were the experts in my life, and which valued a body of knowledge that could only be accessed through those same experts. And more than that, it was a framework which denigrated reason and discouraged any learning that was not of a religious nature, and a very narrow version of religion at that.

I grew up in the bosom of Pentecostal Christianity.  Pentecostalism is the “happy-clappy” version of Christianity. It’s always evangelical and often fundamentalist. Its roots are blue-collar, and its emergence at the turn of last century was in part a push-back against the traditional dominant structures of religious power of the day which were strict, ritualised and top-heavy. It began because a group of ordinary, uneducated people wanted more than the current Protestant orthodoxy had to offer. They were convinced they were part of something bigger than themselves and that that something was available to be experienced; to be touched, felt, heard, and seen. Even more than that, they were convinced that such an experience should have an effect on their lives. Whatever their need was – physical or otherwise – they brought it with them. Their spiritual experience was borne out of the reality of need.

I think it’s important to understand that the birth of the Pentecostal movement, while it had detractors  both from inside and outside the traditional church, represented an important rejection of the racial segregation and sexism that prevailed at the time. Those ordinary people who came together to seek a tangible experience of God were from marginalised communities. The leader of the movement in its early days was William J. Seymour, an African American and the son of former slaves. Many of the people who joined him were from immigrant or lower-class families, and women were free to preach and lead. These were people without social status or wealth and in this new experience of God they found belonging, security and a new kind of freedom.

It’s not surprising then that the Pentecostal denominations which grew out of those very unstructured beginnings became staunchly anti-intellectual. The ordinary people who flocked to Pentecostal meetings were rejecting not only the orthodox church as it was, but the education that went with it. The education that was available either by becoming one of the elite ministers themselves (if they were male) or by sitting in the pews each Sunday. That, alongside the social class of the majority of those first Pentecostals, meant that the leaders and dominant voices of the movement were largely self-educated.  In itself, this was not necessarily a dangerous thing. But when combined with the power structures of the church – which ironically evolved to mimic the structures of the traditional church – it created a powerful minority who were suspicious of higher education. These leaders valued experience and personal belief above all else. This has been a hallmark of almost all Pentecostal churches up until the present day.

I realise you don’t want to read an essay about power and the church, so I’m trying not to write one. But what I do want to say is that the dominant theme of my religious upbringing was that experience outranked thinking and education by a long shot. I was taught to be suspicious of my own ideas, and to consider them automatically inferior to the ideas and teaching of those in power in the church. The experts were always right. If I disagreed with them, it was because there was something wrong with me, not because there was something wrong with them or their ideas.

It’s been fifteen years since I began my slow journey to the very outer edges of institutional religion, and it’s taken me that long to even begin to understand how damaging those early years were. I’m aware that the way I’ve described my religious upbringing makes it sound like I was in a cult. I wasn’t. But it’s very easy for a religious organisation (or any organisation) to have cult-like characteristics without actually being a cult. And being in a cult-like organisation is almost as damaging as being in actual cult, as far as I can see.

But here’s the clincher. My religious upbringing didn’t just happen in church. My religious upbringing happened at home. And all the messages I got at church about distrusting my own thinking and relying on the experts for the right answers were amplified there.  In fact in many ways, home was cult-like too. There was very little room for me to develop my own thinking in either place. By the time I turned twenty-one I was pretty sure of one thing: that there were right ideas and wrong ideas, and if left to my own devices I was more likely to come up with the wrong ones. It wasn’t a winning strategy for life.

I’m not writing this to garner your pity. I’m writing this because I’m in a strange time of life, the clocks in the house are all different, my daughter’s lost her watch, and I’m starting again. Writing helps me get my head straight. These are things I’ve thought at various times and in different ways for a while now. But it wasn’t until I began to believe in myself as a thinking person that I realised it actually all makes sense. It makes sense to me, anyway.

So here it is: despite having seen religion at its worst, I remain a fan. And in these strange times, when in the same week Turkey’s president claims the military coup was “a gift from God”, and televangelist Pat Robinson has a vision of Donald Trump sitting at the right hand of God, I actually believe we need religion more than ever. Because we can’t talk about religion without religion. And we can’t even begin to understand that fraught intersection between religion and human experience without at least some understanding of religion itself – it’s language, ideas, symbols and practices – as strange as they may seem.

After all, that’s what religion is about – human experience. In other words, people. People with longings and desires and needs. Underneath the dogma and the power-play and the flawed organisational structures are a bunch of humans who have this crazy and yet quite sane idea that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And I can’t argue with that.

this

matisse

I can’t tell you this without telling you a story. So here’s the story:  for almost as long as I can remember, I was given the message that being gay was not okay. The message came through loud and clear.

There was a man at church who used to be gay and was now happily married, thanks to an ex-gay support group. This was important information for me to know. My school friends’ suspect behaviour was eagerly identified. One wore aftershave as perfume; this was not approved. I sat at a dinner table for more than an hour listening to a group of church women gossip about one of the women’s gay sons. The tone of the conversation was superficially of concern but the stories his mother regaled us with were merely fodder for our curiosity.  We’ll pray for him, the women said, as I sat frozen. Any time the word homosexual was mentioned in church, or in books I read, I stiffened. Someone once, without asking my permission, decided that I needed the gay prayed away.

Somehow I made up my mind that if I hadn’t been brought up Christian, I would have been gay. I said it occasionally, in quiet tones, in private conversations with friends. I even said it once as a joke, and laughed. I don’t think anyone heard me.

And who would have heard me anyway? I was all about boys. Truthfully, anyone who knew me back in those dark old days could tell you that. I was desperate for love. And in a church community which idolised marriage, and having grown up without a Dad close at hand, I was yearning for love in the masculine form. I was also desperate to get on with my life, convinced that marriage was the ticket to success and approval.

But I never managed to procure a long-term boyfriend. My heart was always with my girlfriends. Boys were foreign, they spoke a completely different language, and as much as I appeared keen to learn it, in reality I was a lacklustre student.

I met Pat at the ripe old age of twenty-six. Plenty of my friends had got married already, I was one of the “spinsters,” or so I thought. He was sitting at a table in a café next to a friend of mine; I noticed him straight away. He made me laugh, was interested in things I was interested in. He rang me that same night and asked me out. We fell in love and were married eight months later.

I had no idea how much I needed to fight. I had no idea how much I needed to be put into a position where I had to fight for my life. It’s a truism to say that marriage takes work. But there are some marriages which, owing to the baggage the partners bring into the relationship and the unconscious lacks which spur their initial attraction, are hard work from the get-go. There is no shame for me in saying we had one of those. Most come to an end, or become one groundhog day of misery after another. The lucky few go to battle and come out the other side. The victory is sweet. The wounds are spoils of war.

The battle was my saving grace. Everything I failed to learn in childhood I learnt then. For the first time in my life I had to open my mouth and speak the truth. I learnt, over many grey and weary years, to put my needs into words, and then to go after them. I dragged myself out of the murky depths of compliance and passivity kicking and screaming. For the very first time in my life, I got angry.

Anger is a vital emotion. We can’t act without it. That I grew up with a profound inability to feel anger was a great abuse. It left me bereft of the fuel my introverted and compliant self needed to be able to speak up for myself.  I was incapable of agency or autonomy, completely unable to arrange the elements of my life in such a way as to benefit myself. I had what every abuse victim has in common; a complete and total lack of self-love.

I will spend the rest of my life living out the lessons I learnt in that battle. What I’ve said here barely scrapes the surface. But the most important lesson I learnt of all was to own my own mind. The battle forced me to discover, incrementally, what it meant to think for myself.

After that the world began to look different. Broader, wider, more sparkling. I systematically went through every belief I’d collected over the years, starting from the very beginning. What did I think? It was a thrilling process. And it’s probably obvious to you that my old ideas about being gay were some of the first to get the toss. All of sudden, being gay was actually ok. The ground shifted.

I’m bisexual, and I’ve known it for a while. I wish, like I’ve never wished for anything in my life, that I got to come out at a younger age. To explore what it means to follow my own natural attractions, uninhibited by dogma or social coercion. That’s not to say I have any regrets about the path my life has taken. There were lessons I had to learn, and this was the way I learnt them. And I have a family. A dear husband who loves me, and three daughters who are growing up in a very different world to the one I grew up in.

But I know what it’s like to love a woman, and I carry the memory of that love with me still. It is a sweet memory, and rich its own way. It leads me towards paths I have not yet taken. Paths that move me deeper into self-awareness, deeper into myself. I was sad for a while, wondering if I had missed out on something precious and irreplaceable. And then I realised, like I was Odysseus landing on home shores after a lifetime of journeying, that the woman I needed to love most was myself.

the day after the ball

canon13MAY 084

I had a dream the other night which made me wonder, on waking, how I would live my life if I knew my time here was limited. I got up and looked out the back door and saw that the water on the harbour was shimmering silver blue in the early morning light. I tried to take a photo of it but the camera couldn’t do it justice. It caught the dewy leaves on the kauri tree at the bottom of the garden, and the warm depth of the golden early light, but it couldn’t catch the water. Depending on which setting I tried, the water was either just a pale hint of something grey in the background of the photo, or else it faded into nothing at all. I realised right then, standing outside in my pyjamas, that I had a choice. I could either live my life in the foreground, in the shallows, in the safe places, like the view the camera could see. Or I could stretch out and live my whole life, the one that reached out far beyond the space that was right in front of me.

There’s a humility that comes with desperation for the truth. It’s  a brokenness that’s not really broken at all. It comes to us when we take a very raw, very honest appraisal of our life and the circumstances surrounding it, and no matter how complicated it seems or how vulnerable that makes us, it’s actually entirely sane.  It’s a view like looking down at our life from a very high place and seeing the breadth and the depth of it, and realising that there is so much more to life than our temporary hurts or doubts or needs. Realising that our lives are about so much more than our comfort, or our perceived safety, or our being understood. Our real lives are about this burning sense we have somewhere within us of what it means to be us, and the responsibility we all have as uniquely created beings not to squander this incredible thing that it is to be ourselves.

I’ll tell you this. I know without a doubt that we are all created. I also know that we all belong to each other, all of us. I believe that our creator can be known as God, but that not all of our ideas about God are helpful or true.  I believe that God (adjusted understanding) is available to all of us, regardless of where we are or what we believe. And I think that Jesus Christ was the best representation we have of that unknowable and yet knowable God. I don’t say that to marginalise any faith that does not approach Jesus in the same way I do, only to state what I believe to be true, and which I bear witness to in my own life.

I think Jung was the first to use the expression “Christ-consciousness” in regards to an intuitive understanding about the uniqueness of Christ that exists in the world and is not restricted by boundaries of faith or religion, nor found only in the company of those who would call themselves “Christians.” This Christ-consciousness is an intuitive response to Jesus that would be witnessed to, I believe, by millions of people. Whether we think of him as prophet, universal teacher, good person, or the incarnation of God, a huge number of us agree on one thing; he was not an ordinary person, and there is much we can learn from his life.

I was brought up to be a Christian. This meant a whole lot of things, including that I understood on an intellectual level that Jesus Christ was my example of how to be human. This in itself is a powerful thing. We have the legacy of many men and women the world over who gave us much because they followed the example of Jesus. Some of them were Christians, Mother Teresa being one of many, and others were not, like Gandhi. For many of these people, their Christ-consciousness deepened and became more than just intellectual. Their knowings about Jesus shifted to the area we might call the heart, or the spirit. They came to understand, mysterious as it is, that Jesus can be “known” in the present tense.

My understanding of Christ deepened from the intellectual to the spiritual gradually, as I grew up surrounded by the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. The Jesus who took pity on the old woman bent over by crookedness in her spine; the Jesus who called children to him and showered affection on them; the Jesus who healed the leper and set him free from life as a perpetual outcast, was the Jesus I came to know and love. And not love in a rosy sort of Disney kind of way, like I might have said  “I love chocolate,” but a love that came from somewhere so deep I could barely recognise its source. A love that welled up out of a genuine, almost inexpressible gratitude for what I knew I had been given. For in all of those stories I saw myself. I was crooked and I had been made straight. I was diseased, and I was made whole, I was rejected, and in Jesus I knew I was found.

I went to the sixth form ball with a guy that worked at the same supermarket as I did. It was the Thursday night shift, 5-9pm. I was a checkout operator and he was a packer, and if he was assigned to pack at my checkout he would tease me and make jokes all night. I’d spend the whole shift laughing, and my till was always out. We didn’t see each other outside of  work, but when it came to finding a partner for the ball I didn’t have many options, and truth be told, I liked him. My mother sewed me a blue wool crepe shift dress.  I wore it with my hair in a sort of beehive, looking like a re-incarnation of her in the sixties. I mostly had a good time, and my supermarket friend and I kind of made out in the back of the taxi on the way home. We had a running joke about living up north somewhere and having babies, but really we were the most unlikely and unsuitable couple. We could have been plain old friends, I suppose, if that had occurred to me. But I was far too insecure to figure that one out for a long time.

The day after the ball was a Sunday, and on that Sunday evening, in a black tub filled with warm water on the stage of the school hall my church met in, I was baptised. There’s a photo of me in my wide tortoise-shell glasses and my uneven, ringleted fringe, with a smile beaming from my face just as I was about to be dipped under. I remember it clearly. “It was the happiest day of my life,” I said to someone a few days later. “I feel like I’ve been smiling all week.” At sixteen I was insecure and confused about a whole lot of things, but I wasn’t insecure about Jesus. Jesus was the most real, most dependable thing I knew, and getting baptised was a natural thing for me to do. It was purely symbolic, and in a sense, completely immaterial to the daily goings on of my teenaged life, but it meant the world to me. I was making an inner truth known externally. And as theologian Paul Tillich has expressed, I was participating in a symbol which pointed to something beyond itself, which, in the moment I sank under those tepid waters, drove the infinite towards the finite, and the finite towards the infinite.

There was no brainwashing involved. No coercion of any sort. Not from the church, nor it’s leaders, nor from my mother. Not explicitly or implicitly. In that moment, wet and grinning from ear to ear, with an other-worldly shine in my eyes, I was my own woman. I was doing something entirely for myself. And that, you might understand, was a miracle.

I’ve changed a lot since that day more than twenty years ago, and my understandings about God have shifted and re-arranged themselves countless times over. But when it comes down to it, the essence of what I believed then is the essence of what I believe now. God is, and God is available to be known, and Jesus is one of our surest pathways towards that knowing.

The view out over the harbour early that morning last week was beautiful. The grass was wet with dew, as were the leaves on the hedge in front of the house. Beyond it, slightly hazy in the barely risen sun, was the water like a strip of pale silvery-blue glass.  I stood at the back door looking out at that exquisite water which I could see with my own eyes,  but which I couldn’t record or reproduce, or even explain in a way that would do it justice, and I thought about my life, my real life, the one I’ve been writing about finding. I’ve had a nagging sense for a long time that my real life was “out there” somewhere, waiting for me, glinting with possibility and yet so far away, so illusory and hard to define. I’ve tried to capture it through others, I’ve wanted other people to tell me what it was and how to get it. I’ve used other people like the lens of a camera, trying to see myself through their eyes.

But they can’t see what I see. They can’t see how far into the distance the horizon stretches, nor how hopeful or blue the water is. They can’t see the almost imperceptible line where the harbour meets the shore on the other side, and they can’t see the buildings in the city beyond, square windows of light through to the other side of the world.

I don’t want to stay in the foreground of my life.  I can see that water so shiny and blue it makes my heart ache, and I can’t imagine living my whole life without venturing out into it. I’m writing these words today because I realised, standing outside that morning, that I’ve been living half my life. I’ve been living the life that other people could see, the life that other people approved of. I’ve spent thirty-eight years defining myself by comparison. It’s time to put down the camera, and open up my eyes.