This is not my usual kind of writing, but reflects the thinking I've been doing in my personal formation class this semester. From my final integrative paper
Part A: Multidimensional Sources of Self
The smell of Catholic incense makes me cry.
It is an odd admission, but there is much about Catholic services that moves me with its beauty. I was, afterall, a student of theological aesthetics, and no one does smells and bells like Catholics.
Being raised Catholic shaped the person I am today, both as a theologian and a human living in the world. I often describe myself as a recovering Catholic to people who ask. It was more than a religious tradition to me. It imbued every part of my life, from my earliest prayers to how I still consider the world in terms of justice and peace.
Catholicism helped me develop ideas around a truly embodied theology, not because it had a particularly good one, but because everything it taught me about my body I knew was wrong. I am female and queer. Every single thing the Church taught me about how my body exists in God’s image (or not) was wrong. The Church hated my body and the way I expressed desire and love without ever caring to have a conversation with me about it. Moreover, there is not a doubt in my mind that having a Catholic conception of sex and pleasure led to me not reporting sexual assault when it happened. My views on sex and how I experience it are . . . complicated. Catholics often joke about the guilt complex, but it is the way we cope with constant feelings of inadequacy and sin before a God who, ostensibly, loves us. When I talk about having religious trauma, this is what I mean.
And yet, Catholicism did not just traumatize me. I owe my thoughts on socialism and a just economic system to the liberation theologians I read throughout my undergraduate years. Catholic Social Teaching taught me that faith without working to create justice and peace was hollow.
Catholicism created my love of ritual. Even as a professed atheist I believe that there are moments in our lives and in the world that deserve to be delineated as sacred. We mark those moments by the prayers we say, the stories we tell, the food we eat. We experience the world differently in those sacred moments, whether it is a long walk in the woods or Sunday mass. We create rituals for all moments for grace in our lives.
In the years immediately following my second failed graduate degree, I moved from the comforting confines of the Benedictine Abbey where I had lost my faith in God to Duluth, MInnesota. Ostensibly I was moving there for a job–a good one, where I would learn to be a grant writer. In reality I was moving because I couldn’t bear to be anywhere I had previously associated with my faith. In the list of poor decisions I’ve made, moving somewhere with no support system in the midst of a massive mental health episode was not the best idea I’ve ever had. It was, however, one of the most formative ones.
If you have never personally experienced obsessive compulsive disorder you will never fully understand it. It is often portrayed as someone who is particular about where things are placed or funny about washing their hands, but there is nothing funny or endearing about it. It was difficult for me to function normally and I could barely leave my home. After being untreated for long enough, it morphed into a significant eating disorder which took years to bring under control. Just writing about it this time of my life floods me with anxiety.
If there was ever a time for divine assistance, that was it.
But God and I had already broken up, so therapy was my next best answer. While not a traditional route to spiritual enlightenment, exposure and cognitive behavioral therapy saved me life in a way that a divine being would not have been able to. I have continued to struggle with mental health issues until quite recently (blessed be the discoverer of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).
While I would never wish the kind of mental distress I went through on anyone, and I certainly have no wish to repeat it, it is part of my spiritual life. Living in the spiritual vacuum created by leaving my graduate program caused me to flail around to find something to hang my system of belief on. I began to meditate, a practice I keep up to this day. I’ve always taken solace in books, but that year I read 75. I carved out sacred spaces for myself in art, next to Lake Superior, and in silence.Theology was not longer a part of my life, but spirituality was. It was the kind of spirituality that not only helped keep me grounded, but rooted as it was in mental illness, helped me develop radical empathy and love for other people.
I did not know it at the time, but this was the start of my call to walk with people in dark places. I learned what profound social isolation and mental illness can do to a person and how necessary it is to have spiritual practices while experiencing it. I realized how embodied spiritual practices need to be in order to serve those of us whose bodies are rebelling against us.
Catholicism left its fingerprints in my life. Some of those fingerprints remind me of why I am no longer Catholic. Others remind me that my work in the world is not finished, and that there is always room for the inbreaking of the sacred. Mental illness and life in a spiritual vacuum created places for that sacredness to break into life in terribly ordinary ways. I would not be the person I am today–I would not be called to chaplaincy or interested in spirituality without either of these influences on my life.
Part B: Religious Horizons of the Self
In his poem “The Peace of Wild Things” Wendall Berry writes: “For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free.” I have loved this poem for most of my adult life, and this final line is something that I carry in my heart. It is also the closest thing I have to a description of the sacred. To put it another way, the sacred is anything that helps me transcend myself and feel connected to (as we say as Unitarian Universalists), the interconnected web of being.
I find access to the sacred primarily through nature. Silence and stillness, especially in the woods, helps me to rest the grace of the world. But so too does singing as part of our congregation, cooking a good meal for someone I love, and spending time with my animal companions. I believe that the moments of access to the sacred happens any time we manage to sublimate our egos (not in the Freudian sense, but in the sense of framing everything from our own perspective) and connect meaningfully with something more than ourselves.
I am sorry to constantly be the socialist in the room screaming about our economic system (I find myself saying this sentence a lot), but our economic system is designed to keep us from finding anything sacred. More than that, it has designed itself as an idol, and we must all keep sacrificing ourselves on the unholy altar of capitalism and free markets to just exist in the world, without ever fully engaging with it or with one another. To this end, I struggle with the concepts of authenticity and vocation of ways to talk about human becoming. They have been subverted and bastardized by capitalism to the point where I no longer find them useful terms. Instead, I would like to propose a different construction of human becoming. One of Dorothy Day’s most famous quotes is about social isolation and community. “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes with community.” I know that we are not all called to live in Catholic Worker Communities, but her point still stands. The cure for our economic system–even the cure for our isolation and disorientation from the sacred is in community.
But we must be broader in our understanding of community. Community is not just our church or our neighborhood. It must involve an understanding of the Earth and our interconnectedness as part of that community. We do not only care for one another as part of our community. We must also care for the plants, animals, and insects that make up our ecosystems.
Part of the reason I propose community as a better broad concept to discuss our interaction with the sacred is because it is not as individualistic as concepts like authenticity or vocation. These constructions, as I already noted, have been co-opted to the point where they propose highly individual solutions to communal problems. They also allow for us to have a very “Jesus Is my Copilot” construction of the sacred. The relationship becomes primarily about my relationship with Christ, my path to enlightenment, my experience of the sacred. This concentration on the self leads us to the kind of religious practices where we may listen attentively to the lessons of our religious communities and then go for coffee after service and gossip about other congregants. If this is where we end up, what good is our personal attunement to the sacred?
In another poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front” Berry again orients us to a practical understanding of and relationship to the sacred. “Love the Lord. Love the world. [. . .] Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.[. . .] Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Here, Berry not only ties together the ideas of resting in the world and community that I have proposed, but he also mentions a spiritual practice that I consider critical: radical joy. Berry talks about this as being “joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
\ Radical joy is an aspect of the sacred, but it is also a spiritual practice that brings us to the sacred. My working definition of radical joy is joy in the face of adversity and challenge. It is a joy that is the opposite of despair. I am not, however, suggesting that we should face radical injustice with glee. Rather, it is finding joy in the midst of terrible circumstances. It is something like celebrating the birth of a child in the midst of grief, or finding beauty in a loon’s mating dance knowing that soon you’ll no longer see it because of climate change. Radical joy is akin to hope. But where hope allows for the possibility of a different outcome, joy allows for peace and acceptance in the moment. Radical joy also orients us back to community, and through community to the sacred.
A personal anecdote about radical joy may be helpful in defining it. During the riots after George Floyd was murdered, Metro Transit was suspended and my partner and I were stuck at home with very few groceries. We do not own a car and there is not a grocery store within a walkable distance of our apartment. It was a small thing, but when we were barely sleeping and worried about white supremacists in our neighborhood (to say nothing of living with the constant drone of helicopters, curfews, and the National Guard patrolling our street) it was a problem that seemed insurmountable. We were thinking about using Instacart or Doordash and just sucking up the outrageous fees, when my partner posted something on Twitter. Within an hour two different Democratic Socialists dropped food off at our house. And it wasn’t just food, but food thoughtfully put together to take our specific diet into consideration. It was done with such joyfulness at being able to assist, and kindled joy in us during an extremely uncertain time. In turn, I joyfully contributed to mutual aid networks, as we had money but no mobility.
Did those bags of groceries do anything to address systemic racism in the Minneapolis Police Department? No, or course not. But it helped us out during a time when everything was overwhelming and uncertain. It helped us realize that we were not alone and that while we could not do much about the riots, we could ensure that our apartment building was safe. We stayed awake watching for intentional fires lit on our street and kept tabs on our elderly neighbors. All of these things were sacred.
The sacred and access to it is often framed as a highly personal experience. I do not contest this. We all interact with the sacred in different ways. However, if we do not consider community as the primary way of orienting ourselves to the sacred, if we do not constantly come back to it as a guidestar for our lives, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. What we need to access the sacred is in front of us: our beloved, inclusive communities and the world outside of our work. All we need to do is open our hearts and arms to it.
Part C: Seminary as Formation
My first semester in seminary was a rocky one. I was fired from my dream job three days before classes were supposed to start. I was certain I already knew everything my class in hermeneutics could teach me. My formation class was full of Christians and I was an atheist. How was I going to manage to say anything worthwhile in a place where I didn’t have the first thing in common with any of my peers? As the semester progressed I began to struggle for different reasons. I never resolved many of the emotions from my abortive attempt at a Th.M.. That graduate program was what finally pushed years of mental illness to a crisis point. I resolved the crisis, sure, but never went back and handled those memories again. How could I avoid them when I was reading the same theologians and discussing the same principles?
Thankfully, the semester eventually evened out and now at the conclusion I find myself with a kind of clarity about some of my nascent humanist/atheist/Unitarian Universalist/generally confused human being systematic theology. It is the kind of clarity that feels almost like a religious experience and which I have only experienced a few times in my life. To put it in explicitly Christian terms, I feel the power of grace moving in my life once again. I am profoundly grateful.
Formation, for me, will look a great deal like building my own systematic theology. What can I say, I am a Rahnerian theologian still. I have spent so long defining the sacred by what it isn’t and I finally feel ready to talk about what it is. My love and empathy for others is calling me to inter-religious chaplaincy. I hope to work in hospice, but know that I may not be the right fit for it. What I do know is that I want to be better able to articulate what the sacred is, what its place in our lives should be, and how our spiritual practices bring us closer to it.
Formation must also include learning to love and respect more deeply Christian theologians. I’ve never been a Christopher Hitchens type, so I did not know the depth of the anger and resentment I carried toward Christians until coming to seminary. Meeting the people I have in this formation class has lifted the scales from my eyes. Christianity isn’t all molestation cover-ups and holier-than-thou megachurches. I think that I knew that in my heart, but my own anger was keeping me from that truth. Walking with the Christians in this formation class through this semester has been profoundly humbling and deeply inspiring.
The third and fourth aspects of my formation are interrelated. The first is learning what feeds my own spirit and developing spiritual practices that rejuvenate me. I have a few tried and true spiritual practices: being in nature, attending UU services, and meditating have all brought me to this point. Yet I know that in the face of chaplaincy I will need more ways to keep me rooted. I will also need more portable practices. I can take a ten-day camping trip in August every year and find deep peace. But in a world which, to paraphrase Audrey Lorde, will always attempt to grind us into dust, I need practices that are a shortcut to the sacred.
Finally, I want to learn how to be a calm and comforting presence to those who are experiencing deep pain. I suspect that I know how to do a little of this already and that not all (or even most of it) can be learned through seminary courses. I know that my CPE rotations will be helpful. More than the classes or the rotations, however, I have learned so much from my classmates during this first seminary course. I’ve learned some rather hard lessons in humility I am much better equipped to have conversations about matters of first concern with people across faiths now than I was a few months ago. I am learning a little more every day about how to approach matters of the sacred with humility and an open heart.
I am struggling to understand seminary as formation. Admittedly, right now it seems like a series of hoops I have to jump through to get where I want to be. I’m also frustrated with the unreal amount of overlap. Between undergrad and my first graduate degree I’ve had seven Hebrew Scriptures classes. Seven. Do I really need to take another two? Juggling two classes and a demanding full-time job has been challenging, and I find that I do not even have the kind of community that comes with attending classes in person and being able to have conversations outside of the classroom. Honestly, much of my own thinking about God, the sacred, and grace came as a result of talking with my classmates about what I was reading, practicing, and thinking. That is the formation that I miss.
I am trying to understand seminary as formation in the same way that I am trying to make doing the dishes a spiritual practice. There are tasks in life that need to be fun but are not necessarily enjoyable. Doing the dishes is one. Writing weekly summaries of what I read to prove I did the reading are another. Yet both are a necessary part of the life that I live, so rather than find myself constantly frustrated or angry, I try to do them with a joyful heart or cultivate a sense of gratitude for some aspect of them. I am grateful that I have nourishing food to eat and a beloved with whom to share that food. I am pursuing what I actually believe may be my vocation and hope to do it for many years. I trust that the dishes have to be done, and so too, the weekly summaries.
There are readings that, when I am able to attend with my heart and my whole brain, certainly serve as formation. As I said in my last reflective essay, Audre Lorde manages to cut through all the garbage, especially in times when I am stressed or angry. So do theologians who view anger as not something to be suppressed or worked through, but as an impetus to do better theology. In another class we have been reading Dorothee Soelle’s introduction to theology, and I have her book Suffering on deck to read during break. Liberation theologians or womanist poets who offer a channel to bring anger to a productive flowering have profoundly influenced me.
The act of writing in seminary has been such a gift. Particularly the kind of writing this class has encouraged from me. I am a former grad student and a professional grant writer by trade. I can push the paper button and produce an argument paper without really having to think too hard about it. I am lucky that way and the opportunity to flex those theological muscles is still appealing. (Admittedly, I take less joy in eviscerating what I see as faulty theology as I used to.) But what feeds me, what helps form me as a future chaplain is this: trying to articulate things that are, by their very nature, unable to be articulated. Sifting through my religious experiences and actually sitting down to decide what’s worth keeping and what can be lost is immeasurably valuable, and the time to do it is precious beyond all else. The ability to write about these things and have an audience to thoughtfully engage (even if it’s only one person) is pushing me intellectually and spiritually in ways I did not know I was missing.
Once again, I find myself learning lessons about things I thought I already knew in the process of writing this paper. In writing my description of an interreligious practice I found myself doing the very thing the lecture I attended was about. In the process of writing this section of my final I find myself realizing that spiritual formation in seminary isn’t necessarily about the actual classes.