Journeys of a Religious Misfit, Part 1: Wayside Shrines

'Road through the Burren' photo (c) 2009, Eoin Gardiner - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

“When I’m asked about the situation—
Of where it is I’ve been and where I’m bound—
I’ve got no home....but I’ve got a destination.”
Thad Cockrell, “A Country of My Own


My inner voice is a royal pain in the ass. 

It’s an obstreperous child impatient with questions and eager for attention. It shouts to me from the future (the next prayer, the next hour, the next blog post, the next book), thereby commanding my present like a spoiled little dictator with a crooked crown. 

I spent a lot of time with my inner voice during my “week of silence,” and believe it or not, I’m glad. For I think I may finally know it well enough to hear a difference between its incessant chatter and the quiet voice of Something else, Something bigger, trying to break through.

Monks in Alabama

The week began at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama.  It was strange driving down Highway 278, past dozens of Baptist churches and farm supply stores to find an austere Benedictine monastery sitting on 180 acres of wooded land.

I stayed in a simple, comfortable room complete with a giant crucifix I could see from just about every spot.  It made me nervous to glance in the bathroom mirror and see Jesus watching me brush my teeth.  

I joined the monks for prayer four times a day—Martins & Lauds (6 a.m.), Sext (11:55 a.m.), Vespers (5:30 p.m.), and Compline (7 p.m.).  I accidentally laughed out loud when I thought about how I was “sexting with the monks.”  We ate breakfast in silence (which I think is a good enough idea to be turned into law), chatted at lunch, and then ate dinner in silence as well. In between prayers and meals, I wandered the grounds, read by the lake, meditated in my room, worked a little on the book, and prayed and lit candles in the beautiful sanctuary.  It was an introvert’s Disneyland, and a precious time of silence in which I rested and reflected. 

Yet no matter how much time I spent in contemplation and prayer, my inner voice kept interrupting,  throwing a hissy fit every time things got a little too Catholic for this Protestant’s sensitive constitution: 

“Holy water wards off evil? Sounds a little superstitious if you ask me.” 

“We’re chanting in monotone voices through a Psalm about praising God with a timbrel and dance, and I appear to be the only one who senses the irony.”  

“AHHHH!!! They’re praying to Mary! This is weird! Get me out of here!”

“Don’t they know there is absolutely no New Testament precedent for using Mary or the saints as mediators between man and God.  1 Timothy 2:5, people! 1 Timothy 2:5!”

“Wait. Do they think I’m going to purgatory?” 

During mass one afternoon I watched as a young family with three little girls went to the priest to receive the Eucharist. I was sitting it out in deference to the church’s position that only confirmed Catholics receive communion, diligently praying for the unity of the Church as I was instructed, when all of a sudden I started to cry. 

“That beautiful family has a home for their faith,” my inner voice said. “You don’t have a home for yours. You don’t fit in anywhere. You never will” 

My inner voice was right. Sure I tell the news media I’m an evangelical, but the truth is, I don’t know what I am. I’m a religious misfit. I don’t have a home

There’s a lot I love about the Catholic tradition—the connection to history, the liturgy and ritual, the time for contemplation, the sense that the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us is very much alive and active and a part of our lives. But I’m not Catholic. I don't quite fit.

At lunch I confessed to one of the monks, Brother Brenden,  “I know it doesn’t work this way, but I wish I could take the pieces I love from each tradition—Catholic, Orthodox, Mennonite, Methodist, Evangelical, Anglican—and cobble them together into a home church.” He smiled sympathetically, but in a way that said, “Yeah,it doesn’t work that way.”  

The passage I had chosen for my lectio divina that night came from Psalm 39, where David says to God, “I dwell with you as a foreigner, a stranger, as all my ancestors were.” 

Wayside Shrines

After two nights, it was time to leave St. Bernard’s.  

At the last minute, on my way out, I decided to check out the monastery’s famous Ave Maria Grotto. Built by Brother Joseph Zoetl over a period of nearly seventy years, the grotto consists of a landscaped hillside of 125 stone and cement miniatures, ranging from a sprawling little Holy Land, to a charming Temple of the Fairies, to a Tower of Babel, to an Alamo.

Brother Joseph, who completed most of his work during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, was a master cobbler. He used glass, seashells, costume jewelry, broken plates, ceramic tiles, marbles, fishing net floats, jars, ink bottles, you name it, to embellish his creations. The result is a chichi yet charming display of sacred folk art that reminded me a lot of my own pieced-together faith.

This and that. A little here, a little there.  

Transient

At strategic intervals along the wooded path through the grotto were posts identified as “wayside shrines.” I’d never heard of wayside shrines before, so I turned to my brochure. “Typical of European and Latin American countries,” it said, “wayside shrines are located along roads and pathways, where travelers stop and offer prayers, turning heart and mind to God.” 

Where travelers stop.

 All at once I realized that, for me, St. Bernard's was a wayside shrine on my long and uncertain journey of faith. There had been many shrines before it, and there would be many shrines after it. They didn’t have to be my permanent home, but they could be safe places of rest for a time, confirmation that I was on the right path. 

No one else was at the grotto that day, so I kneeled awkwardly at one of the last wayside shrines on the path to pray.

A ceramic Jesus that Brother Joseph probably picked up from a gas station somewhere offered a goofy smile in return, as if to say, “Relax a little Rachel. Don’t be in such a hurry. You’ll get there eventually. Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” 

And for the first time in my week of silence, my inner voice grew totally quiet and a Psalm rushed over me: 

Surely I have composed and quieted my soul,
like a child rests against its mother. 
My soul is like a child within me. 

I wouldn’t find such peace in the silence until I happened upon my next wayside shrine—a Quaker meetinghouse in Knoxville. (Look for Part 2 on Wednesday!

***

Do you ever feel like a religious misfit, unable to settle into one faith tradition? Where are you in your journey, and what sort of “wayside shrines” have given you rest along the way?

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"I wanted others to share in my storm…"

We’re back into our normal schedule, and this Tuesday’s excerpt from Evolving in Monkey Town comes from Chapter 9, entitled “Survivor’s Guilt”:

Some Christians are more offended by the idea of everyone going to heaven than by the idea of everyone going to hell. I learned this the hard way, as reports about my faith crisis spread around town and rumors that I’d become a universalist found their way back to me in a wave of concerned emails and phone calls. Once news of your backsliding makes it to the prayer chain, it’s best just to resign yourself to your fate. I knew my chances for winning another Best Christian Attitude Award were all but extinct when a former professor asked me when I’d started studying Buddhism. 

Privately, I felt frightened and lost. I cried out to God night after night, begging him to “help me in my unbelief.” I pressed my face into my pillow, trying to will myself out of doubt and back to faith, only to wake up the next morning with puffy red eyes and a spiritual numbness that left me absent and disconnected from the world. I hated going to church because things like communion cups or kids’ choirs or fundraising announcements triggered paranoia about brainwashing and pyramid schemes. I couldn’t seem to read the Bible without bumping into something I didn’t like or didn’t understand. Praying grew harder and harder, and I felt myself starting to give up. 

Publicly, I grew obstinate and incorrigible, ready to debate family and friends whose easy confidence baffled and frustrated me and gave me an excuse to be angry at someone besides God. It bothered me that other people weren’t bothered. I couldn’t understand why no one else was stressed out about the existence of hell or angered by all the suffering in the world. I feigned surprise when my friends got annoyed that I raised such topics at bridal showers and poker games. Wherever I sensed a calm sea, I sought to rock the boat; I wanted others to share in my storm. 

There’s a chance this may have alienated me from some people…[read more]

Have you ever experienced a time like this in your faith journey? How did it affect your relationship with other Christians?

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Why Not?

Today I’m delighted to introduce you to Michelle DeRusha, a woman whose writing talent truly inspires me. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Michelle moved to Nebraska ten years ago, where she discovered the Great Plains, Husker football, grasshoppers the size of Cornish hens, thunderstorms that herald the Second Coming…and God. She writes about finding and keeping faith in the everyday on her blog,Graceful.  (Keep an eye on this lady!  She’s gonna write a bestseller one day!) 

We spend a lot of time talking about doubt on the blog. Today’s post is about belief. 

***

For close to two decades, I stood in the pew every Sunday morning and coughed at the beginning of the “Nicene Creed” to avoid declaring, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.” I couldn’t say those words – “I believe” – aloud, because, in fact, I did not believe. Yet there I was, Sunday after Sunday, reciting empty prayers to a non-existent God. 

I did all the right things. I went to confession and did penance, genuflected at the altar, dipped my fingers into holy water and made the sign of the cross and gave up chocolate at Lent. On the outside I played the part of a pretty good Catholic. But on the inside, my heart was stone-cold.

I pretended to believe because I was afraid to admit, even to myself, that I didn’t believe.

After Brad and I married and moved to Nebraska, we began to attend a Lutheran church. I was still going through the motions of religion, but yet something struck me as odd at that church. Sunday after Sunday I heard the same words repeated: love and grace, love and grace. Why, I wondered, was everyone so hung up on love and grace? 

While my husband went off to work at his new job, I stayed home with our colicky infant. Before Noah was born, Brad and I had believed those parenting books, the ones that glibly stated that our newborn would sleep like a hibernating bear for the first 24 hours or so after labor, exhausted from worming his way through the birth canal. Our baby didn’t do that. Instead he screeched like a rabid hyena for 48 straight hours in the hospital…and for the four months that followed. 

I remember standing at the sliding glass door, holding my screaming baby and gazing out at the bleak back yard as I grappled to figure out my new role as a Nebraska hausfrau. My former self, the ways in which I'd always defined myself, had been obliterated. My family lived 1,500 miles away, the Nebraskans I met talked chummily about God like he was the P.T.O. president, and my career had been replaced by a Merry Maid to-do list. 

I was lost.

I’d like to say that I fell on my knees in a dramatic conversion, but it didn’t happen like that. What I got instead was, as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, described it, “a heart strangely warmed.”

“A heart strangely warmed” sounds about as dramatic as heating up Thanksgiving leftovers on Friday afternoon. I was looking for something much bigger…like for the house to burn down.  But a strangely warmed heart was exactly what I got, and that turning point came in the form of one simple question: why not? 

While I’d asked plenty of other questions over my lifetime, I had never simply asked, “Why not?” Why can't God exist? Why not?  

I’d honestly never considered an alternative to disbelief. I’d never been willing to suspend my disbelief to see how that might feel. I had never given myself a true opportunity, a real option, to believe. 

“It’s the hole in the soul, that place where we are radically broken, where we are powerless and therefore open,” writes Richard Rohr in Radical GraceIronically, it wasn’t until I fully admitted disbelief to myself that I was able to move forward toward belief. Going through the motions of pretend faith obstructed any real progress. But when I was stripped of my armor – all the comforts and securities of home and family and job I’d always known – and left powerless, broken and alone with a hole in my soul, only then was I finally open to accept and receive. 

I'll be honest: choosing faith does not come easily for me, even now. After twenty years of unbelief, doubt was easy and routine. Doubt was my default. So to choose faith and reject doubt is still a conscious choice I make every day. Some days I am more successful at it than others. In the end, though, it all comes back to a single question than turned twenty years of disbelief on its head. Five years ago I asked, “Why not?”

And I’ve been asking, “Why not?” every day since.

***

Have you ever asked yourself “Why not?” Is there a single question, idea, quote, verse, or mantra to which you continually return when faith gets hard?

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Embracing The Not-So-Holy Holy Week

Transient

(Note: This post was originally published March 29, 2010. I'm just as stressed out this year as I was last year!)

The symbolism is beautiful.

The tradition of folding a palm frond into the shape of a cross powerfully illustrates the kingdom message of Jesus, as a symbol of royalty becomes a symbol of sacrifice.  This simple action reminds us that the victory of Jesus did not take the shape of forceful triumph, but of humility and that our citizenship in the Kingdom of God demands we do the same. 

...Which is why I got really pissed off yesterday when the palm fronds I bought weren’t the ideal size for folding.

Dan took one look at the wilting potted palm I brought home from BiLo and said, “I think they needed to be at least 21 inches long.”

“Well, if you want to go out in the pouring rain to buy a $40 palm tree, be my guest,” I shot back.

I was determined to present a little cross to everyone at church that night in honor of Palm Sunday and the commencement of Holy Week, so the two of us spent the afternoon painstakingly folding the six-inch leaves into tiny green crosses. The meticulous nature of the work frustrated me, and as I struggled to make one particularly misshapen cross hold together, I couldn’t help but see a parallel between the unraveling little cross in my hands and the unraveling faith in my heart.

The symbolism was depressing.

I had lofty intentions when I decided to observe the church calendar this year, and things were going really well until Lent.

Advent included the appropriate amount of anticipation, reflection, and celebration. Epiphany brought with it a sense of solidarity with the human race for whom Christ came. Unfortunately, Ash Wednesday fell on a day when I woke up unsure that God even exists, in a week when I felt betrayed by a group of Christians, and in a month full of writing deadlines and social commitments. Although I diligently kept my fast throughout the season, I felt as though I did a better job honoring the letter of the law than the spirit of the law. I’d hoped to get into a steady rhythm of daily prayer and reflection, but instead I found myself feeling distant from God, distracted by work, and cynical about the Church.

I guess in the back of my mind I’d hoped that all the liturgy and symbolism and tradition would magically restore my hope in Christianity and miraculously cure me of my doubts about God.  Isn’t that why young evangelicals have rushed out and purchased The Book of Common Prayer? Isn’t that why troubled, poetic folks like Anne Lamott and Sara Miles are Anglican? 

But the crumpled fronds and awkward crosses spread across my dining room table spoke not of holiness, but of imperfection. Messy, screwed-up, real-life imperfection.

It took a few hours and a few completed crosses for me to realize that this is how it’s supposed to be.

The symbolism was perfectly imperfect.

Holy Week wasn’t perfect for the disciples. They betrayed, ran away, lied, despaired, and doubted.

Holy Week wasn’t perfect for Jesus. He wept. He wondered if there was another way.  He experienced the same agony and isolation that inspired the poet David to ask, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”

Holy Week isn’t perfect for the Church. It comes amid scandal, division, persecution, and complacency.

Holy Week isn’t perfect for God, as he looks down upon the messes we have made, the stupid wars that we wage, and the imperfect representation of His son that we clumsily project to the world.

For most of us, holy week isn’t so holy. In fact, it's more like the unholy mess spread across my kitchen table on a cold and rainy Palm Sunday afternoon.

But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. Maybe Holy Week isn’t about perfection maintained, but about imperfection restored—an execution device transformed into a symbol of pardon, three denials transformed into three declarations of love, a tomb transformed into the birthplace of hope.

The symbolism is beautiful.

***

Do you struggle with disappointment when Holy Week turns into an unholy mess? What have you learned from the imperfect moments during Lent?

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