The final project of the class is to undergo the Quaker process of a Clearness Committee. A Clearness Committee is a useful tool for personal and corporate discernment. And it's actually one of the first things I learned about the Quakers. In our Clearness Committees we are being asked to consider our vocational calling and what emphasis we want to pursue during the final two years of seminary. We write a paper for the member's of our committee (mine is made up of 3 fellow seminarians and Kari Boyd who will be visiting me next week). This is what I wrote for them:
In How Then Shall We Live, Wayne Muller asks four questions: Who Am I?, What Do I Love?, How Shall I live, Knowing I will Die?, and What Is My Gift to the Family of the Earth?. I find these to be the most important questions a person can ask themselves. And as we live into our lives, our answers will invariably evolve, mature and grow, but I believe we can find deep personal truths that stay with us as we repeatedly reflect on them. As I have worked to discern the dreams of my personal and vocational life I have discovered some of my own responses to these questions and hence, some of my own truths. Some of my deepest truths contain answers to Muller’s first three questions, truth about my inner self and my relationship with love and death. And as I better understand my inner life, I am able to work towards answering the fourth question: what will the gift of my unique existence be?
One of the truths that I am finally claiming is my identity as a spiritual person. After years of riding roller coasters with religion, I am able to name the fact that I do not believe in a personal God. I am not a Christian. But I contain within me, a deep understanding that I am a spiritual being. The very fact that I and everything else that I see exists is an overwhelming mystery, a holy mystery. The very fact of existence—the existence of the universe, the planet earth, the dirt I garden in, the tree in my front yard, my sister, my cats, myself—points towards an unexplainable life force that permeates through and connects everything. As a unique living being, I am connected to every other unique living being, even when the connection is as simple as mutual existence. It is this understanding of relationship and connection that pulls me towards spirituality and a belief in a holy space between—the space between me and every individual and animal I come in contact with, as well as the space between me and grass and water and trees and clouds. It is in this space that I find the sacred, the space of regular life. My understanding is reflected in the words of Wayne Muller:
Spiritual identity is not something far off, not something we need to go to Tibet to find. It is here, in the way we walk on the earth, the way we see our life, the way we care for ourselves and others. Our true nature is not something extraordinary; in fact, it is quite ordinary, an inevitable portion of our daily life. (Muller 64)
These words sing of truth and holiness to me. They speak of the sacred. And they allow me to take a deep breath. They allow me to get off the roller coaster I’ve been riding, to stop attempting to wear the spirituality of others and claim my own religious path. My own very ordinary path of life.
As I examine my ordinary path of life in light of Muller’s forth question: What Is My Gift to the Family of the Earth?, I am struck by a few dreams that have remained with me for several years. Over the course of my life, I have dreamt of numerous vocational ideas, but only a handful have stuck and have traveled with me wherever life has gone. As I examine them all together, I am struck by the ways they both do and don’t seem to fit together. If I could put them all together and create my dream vocation, my dream life, it would be to own a spirituality center, a place where people can work to answer Muller’s questions for themselves. This center would include components of physical life, intellectual life, and emotional life—body, mind and soul. I would offer group and individual spiritual direction, art classes, Pilates classes, and I would work with couples as they prepare for and enter into marriage. I would journey with people through the ordinary steps of life. I would share the sacred space between with them as they discover their spirituality, heal from their wounds and find and fulfill their dreams.
Part of my personality is dreaming. I love to dream about the future. I love to dream about my spirituality center and the work that I could do within it. But, I also have a strong hold on reality and understand that there are many steps between me and this center. Beyond needing more money and business skills, I would need ordination in order to legally perform weddings and I would need to become certified in order to teach Pilates. There are several practical details that need deep consideration. But beyond the practical considerations, there are also considerations about my own personal calls and gifts. These considerations require a discipline of slowing down and listening, of struggling to answer Muller’s four questions from a place of authentic reflection. Who am I and what do I love? How do I live with my own mortality and what will I do with my one chance at life?
As I have spent time discerning the answers to these questions, I have been working through my own history. I have been reflecting on where I’ve been, what I’ve survived, who I’ve met, and what I’ve done. Through this process—sometimes joyful and sometimes painful—I have discovered several truths about myself. One of the most important personal achievements of this process has been granting myself permission to approach spirituality in my own authentic way. I have also come to the conclusion that pursuing my Masters of Divinity degree is the right choice. After a difficult first year, I know that I am moving in the direction I need to go. In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer says “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling’ (Palmer 25). I may not be able to fully explain why I moved to Indiana to become a seminarian, or why I want to journey with strangers through the ups and downs of their lives, but I know that I am being compelled in these directions. I know that I am listening to my life and moving towards a vocation that can be my “gift to the family of the earth.”
In my life I have dealt with family dysfunction that included alcohol and substance abuse as well as highly skilled manipulation. But I have also felt the love, safety and support of family. Like most people, I can’t paint one simplistic picture of my family dynamics. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I’ve dealt with overwhelming feelings of being out of control and angry. I have had to struggle through my need to gain control and to release my need for constant control. I have had to work towards forgiveness and patience in order to let go of deep-seated anger. I have had to teach myself how to allow spontaneity, joy and openness to be regular aspects of my life. I have been blessed with faithful people willing to stand next to me through the dark days of healing. I have learned the importance of mutual relationships, where two human beings open their hearts to each other and truly know one another. I also appreciate the value of one sided relationships, in which one person provides space for another person to grow and heal without the need for anything in return.
I have been blessed by two professional adventures that have allowed me to test the inner urges compelling me towards the work of journeying with strangers. I worked with women in a downtown Spokane, WA day-center who suffered from homelessness, mental illness and basic isolation from society. I filled several roles in my two years at the center. I sat with women and listened to their stories, I hung their artwork on the walls for city wide art walks, I taught them computer skills, I carved pumpkins with them on Halloween. I celebrated birthdays and cried at memorial services with them; I shared daily life with them. I trained our volunteers and created a community volunteer position so that the women who came to the center could also volunteer in the center. I also worked on the development side of this organization, and hence, worked with men from rotary clubs and women from the junior league. I learned about people from every walk of life. Just before leaving this job, I wrote a sermon called Living Service, in which I explicated my belief that human beings are not service projects.
In inner city Chicago I taught creative writing and art appreciation to people ranging in age from seventeen to sixty in an adult learning and GED center. I created assignments designed to expose my students to things they might never have seen. I brought in postcards of master artworks from the Art Institute of Chicago and had my students do master studies of them and write fictional stories of the scene being portrayed in their work. After working intimately with their chosen work for almost a month, we took a field trip to the Institute (for some of them, it was their first trip into downtown Chicago, despite having lived less than 5 miles away their entire lives) where they were able to see the original work in person. As someone who has studied art for years, it was a tremendous gift to be able to see beloved works afresh through the eyes of my students. I gained a whole new appreciation for the importance of art in our world and access to art museums for all people.
As I have reflected on these and so many other experiences, I have discovered a few things about who I am and how I operate in the world. I like to be challenged, I like to be creative. I enjoy being at least partially in charge. I realize that when I’m not in charge or not inspired, I can mentally detach from a project. I like variety. I can’t do the same thing everyday. I need human interaction, I feel suffocated by too much alone time. I am strong and independent, protective and loyal. I am a self-starter and a hard worker. I know when someone is trying to manipulate me, and I know how to manipulate. But I have worked hard to cure myself of manipulating others. I am organized and smart. I am capable of offering mercy and encouragement to people. I don’t run away from pain. I can offer an open presence to people who are suffering. I am a problem solver, but am working on not always trying to solve every problem people share with me. I enjoy intentional relationships such as small groups of people coming together for quiet and prayerful sharing. But I also enjoy loud and crazy dinner parties where four conversations are happening at once and I’m involved in all of them. I am capable of offering great love to others, of offering my full self to them. But I am also capable of putting up a wall of silence that locks people out. I’ve worked hard and continue to work hard to knock this wall down. I realize it’s a wall of protection, one I built up during some of the out of control days of growing up. But I have also learned that sometimes it’s OK to be out of control, to let go and have fun, to run and dance and laugh and travel. And I have recently felt a pull towards more quiet in my life, something that I have feared before. I am slowly moving toward a regular meditative practice. My appreciation for the natural world, both for my art practice and my basic enjoyment of living, has grown. And I have recently felt compelled to write. I find writing to be a meditative act and I have two major writing projects planned. I am basically a happy person. I’ve suffered from fear and anger, but never really depression. I am content with my life, satisfied with my past journey and hopeful for what’s coming next.
As I look forward to the future and my dream of a spirituality center, I am trying to avoid my usual pitfall of obsessive planning. I am trying to take it one step at a time and to test and develop my gifts. I want to give more of myself to art making and writing. I want to develop a strong meditative practice. I want to continue the new experience of hard and regular exercise, of engaging in my physicality. I want to learn to slow down and take every day and every step one at a time, while also maintaining my ability to dream and plan.
Questions for Discernment:
• I am sensing a leading to listen and journey with individuals, couples and groups in a way that would include aspects of body, mind and soul. Can you affirm this leading? What gifts do you see in me with regards to this leading? What challenges?
• What issues do I need to work on or other preparation do I need in order to be better prepared to move towards this leading?
• In my MDiv program, I am torn between the Spirituality and Writing emphases. What connections do you see between these two areas of focus and my gifts, experience and leading?