Sunday, April 25, 2010

To Join or Not to Join

I think I've told you about St. Mark's, a little white clapboard church about a mile down the road from me. I've been attending there for four or five years, I don't really remember. I started going right after I saw "The Passion of Christ." All that blood and guts of Jesus compelled me back to the Christian way. Go figure. This year I tried to watch the movie again and got only so far as the flogging in the court of Pilate. After two martinis and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, I fell asleep. I would certainly have gone out and gotten ploughed at the crucifixion if I were one of the first disciples.

In any event, I have been recently grappling with joining the church….officially. Well, I've been grappling with this for four or five years but it was never really an issue until our old minister retired, the one white hair and one leg who looked like my father. The new minister, an earnest unretired priest with a shy Gary Cooper smile, arrived and I made the mistake of telling him that I'd been around, lo these many years, and had not yet been recognized by the Bishop. Well, his eyes lit up and he gave me a book on "the peculiar way of life of Episcopaleans." I was happy to receive it and become a candidate for membership. After all, didn't I really want to belong….to something?

Evidently not. Every night for the next week, I was tormented with nightmares about Wierwille and the cult. On Tuesday, I woke up at 2:30am, sobbing. I don't remember the exact content of the dream but the familiar pain of betrayal was there. A palpable memory of abandonment. The next night, another dream and the next until I was afraid to go to sleep.

I called my old minister and spoke with him about this situation. "I think I'm scared of joining anything," I said. He thought I had diagnosed the situation correctly. And he encouraged me to talk to the new minister, Father "Woody" and give him my book, which I did. After he finished my book, Father Woody came and paid us a visit and he almost blushed as he apologized for his enthusiasm. "I feel like a slick, oily used car salesman. I think it's best that you back off joining for now," he said.

Needless to say, I felt relieved mostly. There weren't any real benefits to joining, beyond what I already enjoyed. It wasn't like I'd get a guaranteed all-expenses-paid ticket to heaven or holiness. And the thought of the bishop laying his hands on my head sent me into more paroxysms of fear and trembling. Why fix something if it's not broken? Still, I couldn't help feel like I'd failed at something. Commitment.

The word "commitment" to a former cult-member is like "Incoming" to a Vietnam vet. It makes one want to dive under the pews and take cover. In a cult, it's a do-or-die mission. All-or-nothing. In church, Father Woody, tells me, it's very low-key and the point is not to PUSH but to ALLOW things to take their natural course, like the way flowers grow. We don't pull them out of the ground. We let them evolve according to their own time.

I remind myself that I managed to make a commitment to my husband fifteen years ago. He didn't push, he didn't threaten. He just created a safe environment in which I could decide for myself. And I've never for a minute regretted my decision. Perhaps, that's the key here - safety. When, if ever, I feel safe enough to join something, like a church, I will. I have to remember that it's much more complicated for me than the average person. The wounds are evidently still deep, deeper than I wish they were. But I can still attend and run for cover if it gets too much. Allow, don't push. That seems to me what Jesus would have advised.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

Last weekend, I went to a retreat on Centering Prayer sponsored by a local church. On the face of it, it seemed harmless enough. I mean what possible problems could arise from just praying silently with a room full of strangers? Right? Wrong!

The other participants were, mostly like myself, sincere God-fearing women. There were a handful of men, including the leader, a cheerful monk from Toronto. He had us sit quietly and let our minds "just be" in the presence of God. Whenever our minds strayed, which was often, one need merely say one's "love word" to bring it back. The point was not to push thoughts away or to empty one's mind. The point was to welcome all thoughts and feelings and simply refocus each time one arose. Sounded very much like Eastern mindfulness or Vipassna meditation, which I have been doing for years. He wasn't asking us to give up our free will or hands ourselves wholeheartedly over to the God of His understanding. Harmless enough.

Until the priest-in-charge of the church opened his mouth. I might have known that trouble lurked beneath the surface of this jolly minister. He looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Abby Hoffman with his hippie sandals and the shock of white curls on his head.

The group was talking about obstacles that arose during prayer and the priest raised his hand and said, quite unabashedly, that he couldn't help but having erotic thoughts enter his mind the whole time and wasn't it time we stopped looking for ecstatic "God" experiences and just allowed our minds to be as human as they really were.

Human! Here we were, a room full of post-menopausal women, and I doubt any of us were thinking of anything besides what we were making for dinner that night. But I knew where he was coming from. I'd heard it all before. The shock value of a man of the cloth admitting to carnal thoughts permitted us lowly laymen (women) to do the same. The only problem was most of us WERE having epiphanies and the like.

Wierwille, my former cult leader, used to do the same thing then he'd sleep with as many women as he could find. I'm not saying that's what this minister did but it was awfully suspicious behavior. Of course, it took me a whole day to register why I felt so vulnerable and upset. It took my husband to point out that perhaps that man had touched on one of my triggers and that made me feel very anxious.

So, once again, an innocent stroll into the murky swamp of religion turns up alligators and snakes. But it turned up other things too. The beautiful flowers of compassion and birds of paradise. I did happen to have a transcendent experience, though, we were reminded, that is not the goal of centering prayer. Nevertheless, as I was sitting there, I had an overwhelming sense of Presence. Something or someone holding my heart in the palm of its hand, like cupping a fragile robin's egg. I was reminded that for all my spiritual aspirations, I am still wounded, and can be triggered at any moment in any place. I still have to watch out for those wolves in sheep's clothing. Happy Easter.