“ and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights… and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Lately, I have been in pursuit of intentional culture. Seeking to become mindful of how the choices that I make are being woven into the fabric of my child’s experiences. Pondering the deep imponderable things of life. Considering the Days of Awe.
Every autumn, for the Jewish faith, there is a season of pondering. The days that fall between Rosh Hashanah (the Hebrew new year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) are called the Days of Awe. It is a time for Jews to think deeply about their own individual religion, choosing any ways that they might wish to deepen their practice of Judaism in the coming year. This year, I again celebrated my own version of these holidays. I remembered my journey through cancer and the new life I have created. I fasted from using the internet. I prayed in unusual ways. I pondered religion. I wrestled and struggled with my plans for faith in the coming year. I sought after awe.
I have from my earliest memories been intensely interested in religion. Growing up, I spent way more time than my peers thinking about faith. At the time, I thought it was just something particularly weird about me, something that I both cherished and despised, but above all that I could not change. Now, however, I see no mystery in my spiritual development. My early obsession was a fairly typical response to the series of traumatic events that occurred in the first six years of my life. I was a broken little girl needing help and healing, so when the solid and human around me could not or would not come to my aid, I turned quite naturally to the divine and invisible.
I rocketed through the early stages of spiritual development, hurried along by a need to reconcile myself to all the gaps of emotional development that I was unable to complete due to the stressful pitfalls that seemed always to be directly in my family’s path. During those early formative years, an ongoing series of loss prevented me from developing trust, autonomy, and self-assertion, so I compensated by focusing my energies on becoming intuitive, rapidly narrative, and synthesizing the values around me into a workable conventional faith distinctly of my own at a very early age.
By very early adulthood, I thought I’d really figured out what I wanted from religion and found the kind of church that expressed my beliefs. I’d spent a lot of effort, more effort than almost anyone else I had met, into carefully choosing my own path of faith, completely independent of that of my parents. I was really satisfied with the faith I had created, the path that I was on.
Then cancer came into my adult life, and in its wake another series of loss. I coped, the only way I had ever successfully coped in the past, by pouring energy into further developing my faith. It wasn’t a conscious choice, it was a desperate means in a dark time to seek that divine and invisible which had been my only aid in dark days past. I rocketed through a tremendous stretch of spiritual development in an excruciatingly tiny bit of time. It created in me the sort of changed world view that most people slowly develop over decades of generativity that bring the wisdom and enlightenment of age, but I felt desperate to rush towards, since I didn’t know how long I had to live.
In the dark sleepless nights of chemotherapy and the surreal hours spent on a table lit only by the red glow of a laser during radiation treatments, I wrestled with a lifetime of spiritual questions, and I created a new faith for myself in the process. About a year later, describing that time, I wrote about seeking….
“a beautiful answer to all of the big questions that I wanted to be done wrestling with and desired to rest with instead. Creation, birth, life, happiness, struggle, death and all that lies thereafter were all addressed in the simple beautiful words that seemed to fit in that dark room and with the rose-painted me who had no room to wrestle anymore in this place but finally had to lie silent and find a way to accept myself in stillness.
I would never have chosen cancer. I would never have decided to spend those long dark nights or lay on that table. I would not have chosen to spend that amount of time and energy rethinking those questions when I had been perfectly happy with my previous answers. But, now that I am through, I must admit that I am pleased with my new answers. I am at peace with my new beliefs. They are fuzzier, less distinct than before. The sharp edges of my previous certainty are blurred, but each stroke that blurred them seems beautiful to me now.
I now find that I can stack my doubts much higher than my certainties, and by a weird stroke of irony, I am more confident because of it. In the midst of the kind of doubts that I previously stayed far away from, I found hidden something I never could have expected, a three dimensional faith that was massive, luminous, awe-inspiring and beautiful from every angle.”
I now have an eclectic set of spiritual beliefs that are far too big and quirky to fit into any box or carry any label and would easily get me condemned by most major world religions and certainly all of the Protestant denominations that I live surrounded by. I dabble in Buddhist meditation, practice Vinyasa yoga, study Hebrew and celebrate the Jewish holidays, have tea in sympathy with my atheist friends, find profound inspiration in science fiction, and teach United Methodist Sunday school. All these things are equally me, and to me they all fit cohesively together and make perfect sense. I, however, am no longer seven years old.
The question I am wrestling with during this autumn season of pondering is, “How is my faith journey affecting my son?”
The glory and the gravity of being a parent are those moments when you see your child moving very discernibly from one stage of development to the next. Sometimes it happens, as his teacher likes to say, “in the flash of a moment.” One second a non-reader, the next a switch is flipped and a child can read anything. I am a ridiculously studious person, who frequently pulls out old textbooks to pore over Erickson and Levinson, Piaget and Kohlberg, looking for insights into my son as he grows and changes. So my latest indulgence has been James Fowlers’ faith development theories. I can see that my seven year old son, through the course of this summer, has definitely moved from an intuitive faith, where a child relishes and is comfortable dwelling within a world of mystery, to a mythic-literal faith stage, where children crave a narrative story of faith to create a sense of identity.
Identity….there’s the rub! I have spent many years slowly and at times painfully coming to a level of comfort with the fact that I do not, and never will have, a group or faith to claim as my identity. I remember at close to my son’s age how much this bothered me. My helpings of faith education all occurred outside of any regular church involvement served lovingly by a couple of lapsed-Baptists with a main course of “figure it out yourself” along with a generous side order of whack-a-doodle beliefs that weren’t to be questioned. I remember the age that kids in my Bible belt town started asking each other, “I’m Methodist. He’s Catholic. What are you?” I never had a solid answer, and it disturbed me. As a backlash to a childhood devoid of a community to identify with, when I got old enough to drive a car I went to great lengths to find such a church home. When I did, I went all in. I invested great parts of myself into my church, and frankly it was a disaster. I got burned over and over, and some of the worst hurts and disappointments in my life were delivered by “church family.” So, I understand that my son is soon going to be seeking to understand in a concrete way what faith community he belongs to, and that actually terrifies me.
I have for the past few years kept my church affiliations loose, distant, and entirely on my own terms. Letting myself and my son identify with a group of people as a church family means letting people into our lives under much more intimate and therefore risky terms. I have been teetering on the precipice of this sort of change for the last two years now. Looking over the edge, considering all the possible consequences of the drop. It is no impulsive jump for me, yet the Days of Awe compel me to choose.
Awe… those powerful moments of mystery that fill me with wonder at the complete improbability of the universe and grateful surprise to find myself within it. The smell after rain, a sudden perfect breeze, the exact moment of dawn when the sun blazes over the horizon, the view from the mountain top at the end of a long hike, all nature seems to offer moments of communion with the creative goodness of the world. Yet the most profound moments of awe in my life, the ones that have most influenced my faith and are the essence of my personal religion, are moments shared with other people. The delight in my baby’s face the first time he ever touched paper sent lightening shocks of awe through my heart that I have never forgotten. Moments when vulnerable people have trusted me with their biggest secrets have changed how I think of myself, and those surprises when a friend appeared with a smile or a hug at just the moment I needed one have changed the way I feel about humanity. On that terrible day when, against my wishes, I was dropped off at the hospital alone to wait for my double mastectomy, my beliefs about true nature of goodness and love were profoundly affected by the stranger who saw me sitting by myself and stopped. She held my hands, wiped the tears from my face, and prayed for me. I don’t know that I ever heard her name, but in her face and her voice and her presence I experienced a mysterious communion with the divine and invisible in a tangible personal way. Awe, in a word and a touch and a space.
The Days of Awe have drawn my heart towards a choice. My son needs human interactions to help him identify with awe in a tangible, personal way. My son needs more of these interactions than just the familiar, predictable mom who has been with him every day of his life can give. My son needs other people outside of our small little family who can repeatedly show him love and goodness so he can realize that I am not alone and strange in my wishes to share awe, mystery and wonder with him. So today I will take the plunge.
I have completed my obligation to the Methodist Sunday school, and today my son and I will officially join my husband’s church. I know… that doesn’t sound like much of a plunge, and I’m glad to say that the last two years of slowly and gradually getting to know the church members as a whole and individuals makes the risk seem only theoretical. I deeply believe that this unique group of people are well acquainted, actually quite comfortable, with awe, and are quite tolerant of all of my quirks, spiritual and otherwise. If I ever am to go all in again, this is the place to do it.
For the past five years I have tried to build my son’s faith by singing solo. Today, I will dare to change. I will weave my own melody into the harmony of others. May our voices, and the echo of our voices, go out into the void, that it may be not void.