When I was in Junior High School, I had one of my first conscious experiences with what I now call the Divine, and predictably, it happened at a retreat. (Those places. They know what to do.) It was a Christian thing, one of those pray-all-day gatherings at a large conference campground featuring a cabin for every family and clean, hot showers.
Luxury, really. Luxury made to feel rustic.
We were there to hear God, so I shouldn’t’ve been surprised when I did. And yet, I most definitely was.
Prior to my moment of clarity, I’d been finding the experience rather . . . underwhelming. Lots of speeches and long, drawn-out meals with strangers. I distinctly remember participating in a friendly debate the evening of the meeting in question about the rapture. So far, it had been the highlight of the trip.
After dinner we gathered in the main conference room yet again, and about two hours into the service, it happened. I looked over at my mother and in the brief moment that followed I went directly from annoyed boredom to deep emotion–no transition.
It was her face. There was a look. It was sadness–real pain. Church has a way of helping our vulnerabilities rise to the surface–I guess that’s why we like it–and as I watched she started sobbing, then knelt down next to her chair. Immediately, my defenses collapsed; how could they not?
I really, really loved my mother.
I knelt down, too, and reached out for her. We held each other tightly for a long time. I said all the things I should’ve said so much more often: how much I loved her, how sorry I was for the times I’d hurt her. We cried.
Then the night ended, and it was over. And that’s when the interpretations began.
In the Christian circles we moved in at the time, it was popular to create tiers–levels of closeness to God. It was a game we played; after all, we were going to church multiple times a week. All that praying had to be getting us somewhere. For us, it wasn’t enough to say we felt a sudden realization of love; love is great, but anyone can feel that–even nonbelievers. No; what I experienced had to be, must be, religious in nature—something only Christians can experience. My mom even had a term for it, which she told me at breakfast the next morning. It was “the baptism of love.”
“Last night, you received the baptism of love,” she pronounced, but it didn’t make me feel special. There was a look in her eye that said, “You’re different now. I respect you more because you experienced this.”
I really didn’t like that look.
She went on. “This is the true salvation. It’s beyond the simple John 3:16 prayer. You were saved before. Now, you’ve been chosen.”
I nodded, understanding, but I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted her to forget it ever happened. I wanted to remember the experience my way: an innocent, loving moment without strings.
I just wanted to love my mother.
But I didn’t. I mean, I did–I did love my mother, and I trusted her opinion. I believed her when she told me I was meant to be “used by God,” and so, from that day on, I started my journey to discover what the hell that meant.
It was a very long journey.
I won’t go into the messy consequences of this self-aggrandizing belief. I’ll merely say that through the rest of my school-aged years, I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around. I had few friends and none that weren’t equally religious. And for good reason: I was a judgmental jerk.
And that’s the way it goes when we recall the experiences that shaped us, isn’t it? Nothing is as straightforward as we’d like. That night at the retreat I felt the most compassion I’d ever felt in my life. And the next day, it turned into pride.
The results of this spiritual experience weren’t all bad, of course. Most of them were pretty positive.
That summer on, through the end of high school, I tried as hard as I could to be a good person. I went to church twice a week. I devoted myself and my future (Christian writer? Missionary?) to the saving of souls. I learned about honesty, failings and forgiveness. Then there was my real talent, one perfectly suited to a spiritual type: when it came to self-improvement, I was relentless.
At the time, if pressed, I would’ve admitted that my faith sometimes made me a poor confidante. But I would’ve also said it made me a better person. Looking back, not much has changed; my brand of belief is different–I’m no longer a Christian–but I still think that spirituality is good.
“Spirituality is good.” It’s the longest-held and most fundamental tenet of my personal faith. But does it stand up to inquiry?
Before I delve into that central question, though, a bit of Byron Katie background seems appropriate.
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