Recently, I applied to a local hospital’s Spiritual Care Department to be part of a program that trains people to be non-denominational patient chaplains. I had to turn in a long application, explaining my religious background and history of care of others. In the interview, I was quizzed about what I had written, as well as about my current spiritual beliefs; a particular belief system wasn’t necessary, but some spirituality is helpful for the program since chaplains deal with people’s faiths.
Although I do have a faith, the closest I could come to describing it was as the Force, from Star Wars, and try selling that to the person who’s judging your fitness to minister to others! I could just as easily have called it Chi, I suppose, or Prana, but I essentially believe in a spiritual energy that emanates from, and gives strength to, every living thing, and which can be affected and strengthened by good intention and awareness – I call it the Divine. I didn’t end up getting into the program, but it did get me thinking about faith.
The faith in which I was raised was, of course, distinctly within the world of Christianity, not the world of Star Wars (all in all, I would have preferred being a Jedi). Christian Science is about prayer, perfection, and probably living right, although I don’t remember that part: I only remember what affected me the most. In Christian Science, if one exhibits signs of illness, injury, or other dysfunction – something God would not have – it is because they have allowed themselves to be influenced by some negative thought.
As a child, I was always shamed for my needs and my body’s failings and I had difficulty understanding the religion’s difficult ideological concepts. I was taught that to be sick was to be not right with God, yet God was such an amorphous idea to me that I went with a concrete figure I could understand – my own father. In fact, I think that for many kids, God resembles a parent: a being that loves you, but also has absolute power, and distinct moods and idiosyncrasies; a being that is forgiving and understanding, while also being judgmental, punishing, and possessing high expectations.
I think that I thought of God, when I thought of God, as a paternal, distant, judgmental, occasionally scary, and relatively uncaring figure – just like my dad. Therefore, God equals Dad, and if you weren’t right with God, you weren’t right with Dad, and then, well, God help you. It is probably no surprise to anyone that I left the religion as soon as I left home. Finally I was free of God, although not free of my father or the long-term effects of his religious beliefs on my body and life.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was also free, in a not-so-good way, of something greater than myself in which to believe. When I was twenty-five, I admitted to a hole within my being – a yearning for something other than just myself. Thomas Merton called it, “The unspeakable beauty of a heart within the heart of one’s life.” I acknowledged that I wanted some sort of spiritual relationship with an inner Heart and yet I couldn’t stand to go back to God-as-Father: instead, I sought to reclaim God from my father.
I began to search for a faith I could call my own. I explored Judaism, Catholicism, Episcopalianism, Buddhism, and a few others, but didn’t feel comfortable with any of them. What I didn’t realize was that the problem wasn’t what I was looking at – it was how I was looking. I had been doing what I always do; finding it out myself, doing the work myself, being competent and capable – by myself. I hadn’t really talked to any sort of minister, rabbi, or faith community. And while faith is a thing personal to oneself, what I was actually looking for was a community with which to share and explore that faith.
Christian Science really isn’t about community at all; there is no attached charity, no missions to other countries, no real youth group doing good works, and not even any dinner-or-assistance committees for the sick and the dying. It is the most selfish and non-altruistic religion; solitary and all about oneself. One wasn’t even allowed to pray for people without their permission. This is probably one of the reasons it appealed to my parents – they were solitary, introverted, and concerned only for the immediate family.
I needed to be in relationship with people in order to find out how to be in relationship with the Divine. I found an emotional mentor, Jill, who taught me that the best way to attach to a source greater than myself was through relationship with others; and a spiritual mentor, Christina, who brought me into the realm of shamanism, the natural world, and a women’s spirit circle. Being in relationship with all of those women for years – working on intention, prayer, rituals, and putting good out into the world – healed my spiritual wounds and removed my father’s power over my spiritual beliefs. With the help of others I gave my faith a new face: a face of caring, love, intention, awareness, respect, and relationship – not of judgment, shame, or selfishness.
I felt angry at my father for years for what I felt he had taken from me, and I am sure I’m not the only one who lost something important to organized religion. A faith taken away or spoiled can seem like just one more violation, especially since a living, sustaining spirituality – whatever it may be – can be incredibly powerful in life. So powerful that those of us who have been scarred by religion and/or family trauma, might benefit from some sort of reclamation of spirituality.
Do I feel that everyone needs some kind of faith? Absolutely not! What you believe in, or don’t believe in, is entirely up to you, but if you do feel an inner void, why not explore a relationship with whatever the divine is for you? Since religious trauma is often twisted up in a nasty knot with family dysfunction and trauma, why not take your spirit back, and attempt to untangle and understand a parental/God knot that might be blocking energy, possibility, and a healthy life? You deserve a heart within the heart of your life, whether that force is God, Jehovah, the Divine, or the actual Force.