I remember when I first went to visit a spiritual director as part of small group ministry that I was involved in two years ago, and I told her, "I have done so much growing already...it's sometimes frustrating when I get glimpses of how much more I have to do." Chaplaincy training is another place where you face that realization just about every day.
Another conversation that ended up being very true was when the student chaplain at Meadville Lombard told my triad group (my triad met weekly for course work, and met with the chaplain monthly) that seminary was in a lot of ways a way of breaking us down into small pieces so we could put them all back together again - theologically, emotionally, sometimes even physically, due to the intense need for self care.
When I was a child, I was Catholic, and I had transcendent experiences of God. I had faith in a supernatural Father, and I prayed to Him, and felt His presence in my life. At some point though, existential questions of suffering in my life, and perhaps even a biology of atheism, took away that personal relationship with a Christian God (and it was always a relationship with God, not with Jesus, or even Mary, which is perhaps why it was so natural to become a Unitarian Universalist).
I continued to have transcendental experiences in my life - moments of becoming, of growing, of mystical connection with other people, with nature, with something more - and those experiences are what keep me an agnostic, that make me a person who is aware of the unknown, and of possibility, while still subscribing to Occam's Razor. In a recent post about prayer, I explored some of my thoughts about prayer as a person of non-traditional faith, and I refound this quote that spoke to me. As a religious humanist, I am a cosmic theist, in that I believe in the transcendent immanence of God, which some might call panentheism. However, I have not felt that personal transcendent experience of God (and I realize that is a loaded word) very often as an adult.
I remember being about 10, during the Cold War, and thinking about how infinitely stupid adults were, as a I lay awake, fearful of bombs falling on my house or my school. And I remember an image of physically tucking that thought away into the back of my 10 year old mind, and telling myself that I would never forget to realize that adults were stupid. That we complicate things unnecessarily for ourselves, which results in all sorts of negative consequences in our lives, our social networks, our world. More on this later.
This morning, when I was meditating, I felt God (again, that loaded word, especially for me, as an agnostic) as a presence. I believe in connections, in something greater than the sum our our living, aware parts. And that not only showed up for me this morning but has been with me, as a presence, in the room, all day. It's kind of frightening actually - I mean, I actually thought, perhaps I am having a mental breakdown of some sort ;).But, I am a levelheaded kind of gal, and I am pretty sure I know how this actual feeling of presence has come back into my life.
For some time now, I have been wrestling with prayer, my love of Catholic tradition from my childhood, and with how to make my daily spiritual practice more meaningful, which I have, through ritualistic meditation each day. But it hasn't been until the last 4 weeks of chaplaincy that I have prayed, really prayed with people. And the part where being as a child (as Jesus himself would remind us) comes in, is that it doesn't have to be complicated. I don't have to get caught up in the words God, or Jesus, or Christ, or heaven, or sin. My role as a chaplain is to be present with people, to help them be, to serve with humility. It doesn't really matter what I believe in that moment - it matters that I can connect with that person, and that we create something through our relationship in that moment. If I can let go of my baggage about semantics (and as a writer and editor for many years, many that know me well will know that's a difficult task), and just be in the moment of wonder and (God) and creation, then that has the potential to become transcendent.
This prayer that I have been engaged in and wrestled with, and felt awkward in and powerful in - that has changed my spiritual practice. Again:
"When I pray, the humanist in me is patient but nonplussed, asking who I think I am talking to, and I reply that I don't know, but I do it anyway, my breath casting words into the seemingly unanswering air. Perhaps it is only my need to make the universe personal and intimate. I know myself to be a personal and intimate being, and it seems not totally impossible that the powers which cast me with these qualities, which enables me to be both rational and poetic, may be the same as I, writ large." -- Frances E. West
Humanism is a based on reason and compassion - but that religious piece of humanism does not have to exclude God (or at least I take the liberty as a UU to say so).
And the question is so what? Why do I do this ministry? Now that I can catch my breath in week four, when I can think again about congregational work, community work, and chaplaincy, it becomes very clear that my moral authority as a minister is in not only becoming more authentically myself, but in journeying with others in their own journey of becoming. It's about right relation as a position of moral authority, and about radical hospitality. As a ministry, radical hospitality is breaking down that sin of disconnection that is the root of so much human pain and suffering. Ministry is about finding a theology that makes sense of that sin - not in the sense of predestination, or bargaining with some higher power, or even understanding it - but making sense of it and figuring out how to live our lives that we have the best we can.
One day, I dropped my son off at his Waldorf program and one of the church staff (where we meet) was being (in my mind) quite rude to a new mom who had parked in the wrong place. I was pretty ticked off about his behavior, and my son's teacher, Lynne, who is just a gentle saint of a woman, put her hand on my arm and gently said, "He's doing the best he can." In the moment, that answer didn't feel like enough, but now it does. Ministry is about helping people do the best they can, without judgment and with humility. And that includes me. Sometimes the best I can do doesn't feel like very much, but that's OK sometimes.