October 30, 2012

The shortest way is not always the clearest path.

This little light of mine.

“How is a pilgrim like a blacksmith? He bends iron. Love bends him.”

~ Anne Carson

I was on the phone with a good friend a couple of weeks ago. We were in the midst of one of our weekly round-ups—covering everything from the upcoming election to the lack of good demon possession films. It was a short leap from Linda Blair’s revolving head to my own spiritual war.

“I don’t trust anyone anymore. It seems like I’m losing old friends, losing my belief in the goodness of humanity, losing my mind.”

Though I haven’t been reciting Latin verse or pushing priests out windows, my friend told me that what I might be struggling with is a spiritual crisis. I had hoped she’d tell me I just needed a massage and a nap. I was hoping for guidance and a bit of good cheer.

“It sounds like you are questioning your beliefs so you can find out what’s beneath them. It sounds mandatory.”

I agreed aloud with her, but only so we could shift the conversation back to bad special effects and hammy actors and fake vomit. Later, I sat on my sofa and stared at my altar—Ganesh, with his ivory eyes looking back at me.

C’mon, Ganesh. Hasn’t my faith already been tested? I’ve lost possessions, jobs, boyfriends, relatives, my ability to metabolize carbohydrates, my hopes of running a marathon or even walking briskly around my neighborhood. In all that time, I never wavered. Why now?

It’s a testament to my solid mental state that the statue didn’t respond. There were no thunderclaps or rays of light or voices from the beyond. I did notice that the altar was covered in a thick layer of dust and dog hair, evidence of an extended period of lacking that yogic mojo. How long had this been going on?

I had all the makings of a spiritual person from the start.

Both my parents are ministers. Yes, both. They met in seminary, and built their relationship on burgers and textual analysis of the Gospels. They were both people who believed that the church was a force for good in the world, in spite of its hypocrisy and retrograde ideas. As part of the first wave of ordained women in the Presbyterian Church, my mother certainly encountered her share of both. Nevertheless, my parents were passionate about their faith and wanted to work within the system. They hoped to change it.

They did. They moved to an isolated town in West Virginia where people were suspicious of a “lady preacher.” They showed them that a woman—a liberal, intellectual, drag-queen loving woman at that—could interpret and preach the word of God effectively. They went to Memphis, Tennessee and created a church that’s still thriving today, almost 30 years later. They were creative and funny and unorthodox and their congregations embraced them fully.

When people hear that my both my parents were ministers, they expect me to be bitter toward religion. Rebellious. A true preacher’s kid with a nasty reputation. But there was very little to rebel against. I was never told that there was one true God. There are, my mother believes, many ways to worship, many valuable religious traditions.

So, I got lucky. I was exposed to the very best of organized religion. It’s filled with some of the most compassionate, forward-thinking individuals on the planet. Christianity is not just the Christian Right. Islam isn’t just terrorists. Judaism is about more than diamond dealing. There are, within all of these traditions, open-minded people working to bring peace and justice to communities that need it the most. I’ve met and befriended many of them.

Within my own spiritual practice, I’ve seen amazing acts of charity and selflessness.

Here in Richmond, Dana Walters has created Project Yoga Richmond (PYR), a non-profit organization that provides yoga in prisons, schools and retirement homes. PYR’s donation based classes, allow those who can’t afford to pay studio prices, or pay anything at all, to attend classes and get some relief in these very difficult times. It’s people like this that prevent yoga from being just a hobby for rich housewives in Chanel yoga-pants (yes, they exist and they’re diamond studded). Dana wants both the rich and the poor, the athletic and the infirm, the believers and the non, to have unrestrained access to comfort. She’s an inspiration to say the least.
Still, my pilgrim heart is a bit weary. It’s during these dark nights of the soul that you’re asked to walk along the road of uncertainty. To examine your doubts and wrestle your fears to the floor. To deny them would be dishonest and naive. They will wait for you.

Denial is a luxury I have never been afforded. Days after that phone conversation, the Baptist church around the corner from my house was having their Sunday morning service. I sat in my backyard, a mess of bedhead and grumpy declarations—Why is the sun so blasted bright?!—and listened to the choir. The beauty of those voices couldn’t be denied. The power behind them—the faith and love and hope—took me out of my own problems and frustrations and gave me two hours of peace.

Last Sunday, I decided to pull out my church clothes (tattered and eccentric as they might be) and shove my feet into a scruffy pair of heels. I walked over to the church—hesitating slightly outside the front door. I was, I noticed, one of only two white people in the crowd—and the only one of those two, it turned out, who was not there campaigning for office. I felt awkward, as white and utterly on display as Wonder Bread.

But I was standing there in my dress up clothes and members of the congregation began to welcome me. Perhaps they saw my hesitation—it was clear that they felt I needed a warm smile. Once I sat down, an elderly woman beside me offered her Bible to me, so that I could follow the reading. Then the music started and I started crying. Not weeping, not embarrassing myself completely, but the ugly cry was indeed on. I was offered tissues from all sides.

The sermon that day was about fresh starts—where and how to start them. The minister used a GPS as his metaphor, saying, “The shortest way is not always the fastest.” If you look at your GPS, he said, you have the option of both routes.

The shortest way may be filled with potholes and traffic jams. That the shortest way is, so often, not the clearest path.

He said that sometimes you have to go around; you have to take the longer, harder route, for there is a divine journey awaiting those who are patient and adaptable.

There were no thunderclaps or rays of light, but there was the comfort of knowing that I hadn’t veered off the road. That this dark period of my life, this detour, is leading me to all the right places. Slowly. Namaste.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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