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Yogi, Contemplative, Writer. Producer of radio program Radical Spirituality and Sacred Activism. Spiritual Director of Hab Washington.
A Journey From Unlovable to Beloved: An ex-Jehovah's Witness Reclaims Her Spiritual Heritage
Posted: 09/23/2014 1:07 pm EDT Updated: 09/23/2014 1:59 pm EDT
Yes, it's true. No, I'm not going through an early mid-life crisis. Yes, I've really thought about it. No, my values have not changed. Yes, I'm sure. This is how my end of the conversation goes when I tell my friends that I'm in the process of becoming Catholic.
Their surprise and subsequent questioning must be forgiven. In the time they've known me I've gone from a person who wasn't sure she believed in God, but was damn sure she didn't believe in a patriarchal organized religion of any kind, to an explorer of faiths, a yogi and self-described "spiritual but not religious" admirer of the world's belief systems, to a believer contemplative. But Catholic? Nobody could have seen that coming, least of all me. Until, of course, I did.
I was born to a mother who had left the Catholic Church to become a Jehovah's Witness. By the time I came along, 15 years after my mother's conversion, her fervor for her newfound faith had only grown stronger. Being raised as a JW is many things, but isolating describes it best. Most people know about the social isolation - no birthdays, no holidays, no "worldly" friends - but there is a deeper isolation made worse by the tight-knit nature of the congregation, which on the surface is meant to be about support and brotherhood but which actually serves the purpose of keeping tabs on each other.
Anytime I begin to reminisce about my childhood I am flooded with feelings of shame, guilt, and fear. These three were my constant companions in that controlling and judgmental environment. My innermost thoughts that I dared not speak all boiled down to the same question: why don't I feel what I'm supposed to be feeling? The gap between what I should have been feeling and what I actually felt grew as I trudged through adolescence and young adulthood, hoping and fervently praying to a God I wasn't even sure I believed in to help me believe. Please, make me as devout as my mother. Please let me in on the secret. Help me to feel what they are all feeling.
When, around the age of 20, I began expressing doubts and asking questions, I was swiftly disfellowshipped, which meant no more contact with any of the people who had been my whole life. I felt angry, abandoned, ashamed for letting my mother down, and wholly unlovable.
Feeling unlovable is a terrible feeling for anyone to experience. In our society, though, it is a particularly dangerous feeling for young women who are already conditioned to accept that their worthiness will be judged, at least in part, by their physical appearance and their willingness to conform to socially acceptable behaviors. When you add these societal pressures to the messages I had received about women as a Jehovah's Witness - that we were weak, meant to be in subjection to the men in our lives - it's a miracle my early 20s weren't more disastrous. As it was they were pretty rough in terms of my relationships, but they were also a time of profound change and self-exploration, something I'd never been able to engage in without fear of discovering something unacceptable.
Somehow, despite the effects of social isolation, I managed to make some really genuine friends in the years that followed my disfellowshipping. For the first time in my life I began to experience glimpses of love. Genuine, actual, unconditional love. I began to see a therapist and to slowly, painfully, unpack my childhood. The way I dealt with the "JW thing" as I called it, was to dismiss organized religion entirely and to proclaim that I wasn't sure if I believed in God.
Except, I did. Not the white-bearded man on high of my upbringing, but some thing. The fervent prayers of my childhood -to be made to believe - did not cease when I was no longer in the fold. They were less desperate and more inquisitive, but they were there, coming from some deep part of me I was only beginning to learn to hear. There was an old catholic church around the corner from my apartment in Queens and every couple Saturday evenings, I found myself walking in during evening mass. Within the context of my upbringing, this was a profound act of rebellion. I remember thinking that if my mother ever spoke to me again, I could never tell her. And yet it wasn't rebellion that drew me there. I didn't understand mass but it was beautiful to me. The music, the call and response. I was especially touched by the practice of sharing peace.
When I was 26, I was raped. It very nearly destroyed me but it also brought me to Yoga. I'd lost everything: my job, my apartment, and any illusion of security I'd managed to create. My therapist suggested going to a yoga class as a means of reconnecting with my body and it was there that I began the process of healing. Slowly, breath by breath, I began to find my way into my body. The work of being fully embodied continues to this day, but it began there and it opened me to the whispers of a calling I had been struggling to hear.
I became very dedicated to my yoga practice, delving deeply into yogic philosophy, and when I began teaching I focused my efforts on underserved and marginalized groups I knew could benefit from the healing that Yoga had offered me. I started teaching women who had been victims of sexual violence, people living with physical and emotional disabilities, and seniors who were grappling with their aging and changing bodies, among others. Yogic philosophy and practice, as well as teaching, satisfied me but not completely. The yoga community felt at times vapid and lacking seriousness. I felt connected to the Divine, and my life had purpose, but there was still a longing within. Around this time I began reading the Christian mystics, and often found myself nodding furiously as I read, tears in my eyes, feeling understood and moved and, I'll admit, jealous of their experiences.
I met the man who is now my husband within the same year of the assault. We were married a little over a year after we met and about 8 months after our wedding I co-founded a non-profit yoga studio. The same month the studio opened, we discovered we were expecting our first child. Just five months after the studio opened we learned that my husband's job would be taking us to Asia for 3-5 years. One month later, he was overseas and then 8 weeks before our baby was expected to arrive, off I went to join him.
As I began the work of mothering and co-parenting, I felt both deep satisfaction and great frustration. My love for my son and our little family was beautiful and magical and yet I felt very torn between my desire for fulfilling work, a rich spiritual life and practice, and a meaningful family life. As the days and weeks turned into months I began to see parenting as a deeply spiritual experience, full of opportunities for growth and transformation. My marriage was equally fertile ground for learning and relearning and giving and receiving unconditional love. Slowly but surely my life became less compartmentalized as I erased the lines I had drawn between my personal and spiritual lives. But I still needed a framework. How could I live a contemplative life while still participating fully and being deeply engaged with all of Life's joys and challenges?
The birth of my son had also awakened in me a deep desire to feel connected to my grandparents. When my mother became a JW she had severed all ties with her past, including her family for the most part, and so much of my family's history was lost to me. In fact, I didn't know much about my grandmother beyond the fact that she had been a devout Catholic, something my mother told me as a means to explain why we had to keep our distance. Being in Asia, where ancestors and tradition are highly valued, this lack of connection to my family's history became glaring.
While I sat with this yearning to feel a connection to the history of my family, as well as to those of my husband's family who had been Catholic for countless generations, I became aware of the new monastic movement. I discovered that there was a way to live life as a contemplative without eschewing the very human experiences that connect us to all others - marriage, sex, love, children, work. The new monastic movement, rather than asking us to forgo these experiences for a simple life dedicated to personal transformation, often removed from society, asks us to fully embrace Life and to use these experiences to translate personal transformation into societal transformation as we seek connection with God through connection with all others.
Inherent within this movement is the acknowledgment that the established systems - political, religious, educational, etc. - are not serving humanity. It was right around this time that I started to consider becoming Catholic. The timing was strange, even to me. After finding a framework that suited me, I was considering to join a very well established religious system that was utterly failing to fulfill the most basic spiritual needs of the masses. And yet, it was from the catholic tradition that so many of the mystics I so loved and admired had sprung. And tradition is what I wanted and needed. It was this desire that had drawn me into that church in my neighborhood so many years previous. The traditions that my family and my husband's family had participated in over generations, the rituals, were what I longed for. I wanted to kneel and pray and sing and experience the liturgy in the same way my ancestors had. I wanted to gaze upon the same icons and images they had supplicated for years. Could I join the church when I didn't believe everything it stood for and taught? When I, in fact, had some very real moral and ideological differences with the church?
One day I was listening to one of my favorite radio programs, On Being. Krista Tippet was interviewing Nadia Holz-Weber, a leading voice in the emerging church. In the interview she talked about God's grace filling in the cracks of the faults of the church. She said something incredibly profound as she discussed faith and belief. She said, "Faith is not given in sufficient quantities to individuals... it's given in sufficient quantities to groups of people." She mentioned that in our individualist American society so much of spirituality has become about the person, but really it's about community. She said nobody believes everything, but "in a room of people, for each line of the creed, somebody believes it, so we're covered." This blew my ex-JW mind! Despite years away from my upbringing and years of spiritual seeking and dabbling, there was a part of me that had never let go of the very black and white worldview that was so deeply ingrained in me as a child. This idea that something had to be 100% true or it was completely false. There was no room in the faith of my childhood for gray or context or interpretation and yet these subtleties are the very stuff of life.
I cannot claim that these few words erased any misgivings I have about the past or future of the church. They are still there but they do not prohibit me from experiencing the beauty of mass and feeling the presence of my ancestors as I do so. In reclaiming my spiritual heritage I am not rejecting the inter-spiritual framework I've chosen, but rather integrating the faith of my ancestors into my heart and practice. Inherent also in this choice is an acceptance of my responsibility to speak truth to power and to work for change from within.
Recently I witnessed about 20 children from our parish taking their first communion. My 7-year old inner child wept as Father Seamus delivered the homily, stating and re-stating in every possible configuration, that these children were loved - by their faith community, their parents, and God - and that there was nothing, nothing, they could ever do to separate themselves from this love.
The complete opposite of what I had heard about God and Love and Faith as a child. As I sat there with tears in my eyes I had a beautiful moment of clarity; a moment where I was witness to the healing taking place within my heart and psyche.
If I had to put into words what I experience at mass, I would describe it very much like Centering Prayer. I feel God's presence, as though I am resting in God, surrounded by Grace and Love. I feel connected to my ancestors, to the congregation, and by extension to all others. I feel grounded and whole; loving, loved, and lovable.
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