Friday, September 9, 2011

question twelve: spirituality

I'm going to take these questions individually as they are all sides of the same cube, but all have different perspectives.

FireflyForever: So, where are you at spiritually? I have always admired your willingness to engage with issues of faith faith/spirituality/religion and baby death. I have deliberately avoided raising it on my blog as I'm too confused and scared by it all. Interested to hear your perspective. 

Thank you.

I try to talk about spirituality in the way that I learned to talk about it while pursuing my degree, so I am just going to talk a little about that before I answer this question.

I studied Religion at university. In the Religion Department, one often clarifies the area of expertise in this way: In theology, people study what God thinks about people. In religion, we study what people think about God. It is an area of study fairly devoid of preaching or God talk, even though, ostensibly, all we talk about is God. By that, I mean, most people engage in talking about history, psychology, sociology, archaeology, philosophical and theological theories surrounding religions, but disengage in talking about why you, the listener, need to be of that certain religion. Most often, you hope to have no idea to which faith people adhere by reading their work, or listening to them talk.

I learned much in the way of religious practices by just going to services, listening, praying with other people. I have not been to a religious service that I don't think is beautiful. There is a continuum of compassion and love that runs through most religions that strikes deep within me. I guess that makes me a kind o f pluralist--someone who sees all religions as different paths to the same place.

ANYWAY, my point is a kind of disclaimer on this post to keep this in mind in the comment section of this post, because I hope others share where they are at spiritually too. People have a strong tendency when discussing religion to compare the ideal with the real and vice versa. For example, one might say, "In my religion's sacred text, we believe that killing is wrong, but this other religion's peoples are always murdering each other." Of course, in both religions, murder is more than likely a sin. The former is the ideal, the latter is the real. When you compare their ideal, i.e., their model of living and their sacred texts with the real, i.e., people are flawed and sin, you have an unfair discussion. So, please don't do that here. Be kind, dammit. If you are abusive, I will erase your comment.

At any rate, I can give you a fair overview of most of the major religions, an in-depth theological and sociological overview of a few smaller religions, and do an Idiot's Guide quickie for most of the rest of them. Of course, there are some 200 Protestant sects in the United States, of which most I am fairly ignorant. I am a bore to be around most of the time, especially when listening to NPR or something. Unless, that is, you are interested in the obscure practices of the snake handlers of Appalachia, or the differences between Sunni and Shiite, then I am a fucking hoot.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I think when it comes to religion, I intellectualize it a little too much. I understand why they do this piece of the ritual this certain way, but I never really understood faith. It cannot be explicated, diagrammed, or argued, you must simply feel the Divine, and I just never really understood how to do that before. I respect religion and faith deeply. I have wrestled with religion, which I always thought meant that I wrestled with my spirituality. I see religion and spirituality now as two very distinct things. I always had my spirituality. It has morphed and changed based on where I am in life, but it was always there. I think questioning one's beliefs is the very essence of faith. Faith implied by its very definition, that it is not knowledge, but rather a kind of confidence in the unknown. Some of the greatest pieces of philosophical and religious writings I have read have been men of the cloth wrestling with their faith.

I think that this particular point in my life, I am most at peace at where I am spiritually. Maybe because I am finally confident that I know nothing. I am confident in the unknown, that is, I am confident that there is something out there. I don't know what it is. But I do believe in God. I began praying again in the beginning of the year, refinding that belief in a Creator. I also began meditating every day, rather than whenever I felt insane. But I think the best way to describe it is that for the first time in my life, I am allowing myself to believe without having to understand everything. And to really pray, not asking for things, but to ask God to point me in the direction of the Greater Good, to help others first, before I help myself, to understand before being understood, help me find serenity and peace in how I deal with other people and myself.

I am asking for help. I have problems asking for help, so I started asking God first. I am just learning how to trust again. And to believe again, and I'm still not positive I am doing it well. Here is the thing about where I am with my spirituality. I just don't have to figure all of it out right now. I don't have to find the one right religion or way of being. For me, trying to find that one right religion stymied me from practicing anything spiritual, from praying, meditating, any of it. It was like a black or white issue for me. I either have to believe in everything and convert to a religion, or I can believe in nothing. I used this line often, "I respect religion too much to not believe in everything." And yet, doing nothing is not honoring myself or God. It was a way for me to justify my selfish behavior.

Now, I pray without a religious agenda. I meditate for peace rather than to see if I can sit longer than anyone else. I honor the seasonal changes with my family, because the mystery and awe and power of nature humbles me, and that seems important to honor. There is a spirituality there for me. The other part of my spirituality is just trying to alleviate suffering, to help someone else, to put other before me without being a doormat, to find the action that causes the greatest good for the world and doing it. I'm not sure I am making sense, but that is my convoluted way of saying--I'm at a good place, spiritually, because I stopped trying to be perfect at spirituality. I just started being.

J: I think I'd like to springboard off the previous comment. Did the loss of Lucy alter your spiritual beliefs at all? I think, in my instance, people almost expect me to now have some greater spiritual understanding and to have all the answers to everything when I'm still questioning and seeking and not really much different than I was before C. entered our lives. My reflections on spiritual aspects on C.s blog are an indication of that--all over the place really, possibilities with no concrete answers. 

I would say that early in my grief, I really was not sure what I believed. And like you, I am still all over the place with no concrete answers. In the beginning, though, I was angry that my daughter died, but I didn't blame God. Even though I wasn't sure what I believed about God, I never thought God controlled who lives and who dies. My feeling now is that God was crying with me rather than punishing me. I was angry at people who used God to make themselves feel better about my daughter's death. Many of those people came from my religious background--Catholicism. I couldn't bear hearing platitudes. On the other hand, I have been studying Buddhism for a long time, and I was disturbed by the idea of karma and what I might have done to deserve the death of my daughter. Until I started asking Buddhists (my therapist and my friend Kitt) and came to understand that concept a little more in depth.

When Lucy died, I had this incredible spiritual experience of feeling connected to all people who suffer. It was overwhelming and powerful, and, well, Divine. I was possibly totally insane, but I felt like I could see people's suffering. Like they embodied their suffering, so they stopped being egos, but a conglomeration of their pain. It didn't last long, but it was a hard, yet spiritually powerful, way of seeing the world and others. When that went, I felt like my spirituality died for a long time. My therapist at the time said, "So you lost your daughter and your enlightenment?"

And that is how it felt, like the light of my daughter and the light of spirituality had both been extinguished. (I wrote about it on Glow a few months ago.)

Now, as I wrote above, I am not trying to figure out what I believe so much. I am praying every day, meditating every day. I believe in God, but I am not trying to figure out which God, or reconcile the contradictions in the Bible or in God's existence with the existence of suffering. I am just believing in a loving God, one that guides us to helping others. Because I have begun to let go of the expectations of my intellect, I feel more connected spiritually, more grounded. That is what I missed after she died, a feeling of groundedness.

I hope that made a modicum of sense.

Amy: Hi Angie, I think a discussion I would love to have with you and hear your thoughts on is the idea of "Belief". I have been struggling with this word, notion and idea for some time and it becomes more difficult as the days go on. I feel resentful toward Belief. I bristle against it's sound. I feel inadequate in it's presents. Foolish for having believed in the past yet unable to forgive myself for doing so. It is an emotionally charged word. The word has become black and white in it's meaning, leaving no room for elasticity or fluidity in definition. Somehow I've cornered this word into being the purest of pure of tight lines to walk. I struggle to soften it's edges and redefine what Belief means to me. And this is not just about Belief in some God or Goddess, this is Belief as a whole. I'm stuck on this so your perspective will be interesting for me to hear. Thanks so much! 

What an amazing question, so beautifully honest in the way you articulated it too. So, thank you, Amy.

I am not very good discussing belief, honestly. I think truth is largely subjective. Maybe because of what I wrote above. I tend to intellectualize everything. There are very few empirical truths in my experience. Yes, science and nature, there are some empirical truths that we point to, but even things like atoms I take on faith. I cannot see them. I cannot feel them. I cannot even really visualize them, and yet, I trust science enough to believe they exist.

Belief is such an emotional, intuitive thing. And I think, by reading your question, you might mean believing in hope. Or believing in anything not concrete. For me too, it has been a long journey for me to get to a place where I can say I believe in anything, really. I think it is an issue of control for me. Or the illusion of control. Giving up the illusion of control that I have clung to for so long. Now that I am in recovery, there is a focus on not having control over anything. You are powerless over alcohol. You are powerless over everything. And in some ways, that powerlessness leaves only belief.

Sometimes when I was pregnant with Thor, I would think, "I must have believed I was capable of having a living child, because I would never have tried to get pregnant just to birth another dead child, would I?" And so, that is where I start with belief. A nugget of hope somewhere that this, all of this, is not for naught. I get logical about belief, which is to convince myself that I "believe" many things, and "believe" in many things. I believe in them so fiercely that they have become a kind of empirical truth. I believe that eating organic food is better for my children, for example, even though I can't see the effects. I believe that people are inherently good, even though men murder other men. I believe that when the ground is wet, it had rained overnight, even though I didn't hear the rain, or see it. And so, there are a lot of things I believe in.

I guess by believing in those things, it opens me up to have hope. And hope is the beginning of faith. But I don't believe that the greater good always prevails. We suffer as human. How and what we suffer is random and chaotic, and that seems utterly cruel. That fact makes it hard to believe in anything, for me personally, except I do. I must. Let's put it this way--believe it will work out or believe that it won't work out won't change the outcome, in my opinion. I don't subscribe the positive thinking-changes-the-world philosophy that is floating around these days. But I find that my life is less oppressive if I believe that I can only worry about my own actions. That magical thinking won't change the end, but real action does. So, I believe. I kind of try to live the Serenity Prayer in my life these days--God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I trust that the actions I am taking are for the greater good. And in that trust, I guess there is ultimately optimism, trust and in the end, belief.

As you can see by this confusing answer, I wrestle. When I first got into recovery, someone shared what is called the Eleventh Step Prayer with me, and I have never heard or read anything that encapsulated my beliefs so entirely. I later found out that this is actually the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, or rather it is dedicated to him.

I think for me this is what belief is. Belief is the trust that the journey is the important part. That my actions are all that I should be concerned about. That all I can do is act and work for others. That trust is the only nugget of truth I need. Trust that by tapping into the Greater Good, the good I know as my conscience or my moral compass, I am believing in something outside of me. I am not in control--call that Mother Nature, God, the universe, or Chaos, both upper and lower case C in chaos, or maybe simply, believing in other people.

I'm not sure I made much sense, but the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is below. I'd really love to hear your answers to these questions. I am going to put a Mr. Linky up so you can write about them on your own blog if the comments seem to confining. But I also think it would be awesome to have a conversation in the comment section too. Thank you for these incredible questions.

Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace 
- that where there is hatred, I may bring love 
- that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness 
- that where there is discord, I may bring harmony 
- that where there is error, I may bring truth 
- that where there is doubt, I may bring faith 
- that where there is despair, I may bring hope 
- that where there are shadows, I may bring light.
- that where there is sadness, I may bring joy

- Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted 
- to understand, than to be understood
- to love, than to be loved. 

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. 
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. 
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life. 


  1. Oh my gosh, Angie. I so needed to read this today. I'm struggling to articulate what I believe and I've found myself saying, "I believe in God, but..." and I'm not sure what comes after that. But I hate that He didn't save my baby? But I don't think that He could have saved her? But I want to understand everything better? I also try to intellectualize religion and as a result, I've pulled away from church and prayer since I lost Eliza. I struggle with the idea of asking for things because it's clear to me that prayer doesn't work that way, but it's the only way I was taught to use it: thank God for your blessings, ask and you shall receive. I read your post and I see a glimmer of where I might be going, and I hope I can find a kind of peace with religion/spirituality/belief as I move forward. Also I want to give you a big hug and invite you over for tea and make you talk about this more with me.

  2. WOWEE - I love you. I love your compassion and your intelligence and the beauty of your words. There is so much here I wanted to pick out and comment on, so I think I will make it into a blog post and take my first tentative steps towards finally engaging with this on my blog but here, I will say that this blew me away:

    "I think that this particular point in my life, I am most at peace at where I am spiritually. Maybe because I am finally confident that I know nothing. I am confident in the unknown, that is, I am confident that there is something out there. I don't know what it is. But I do believe in God. I began praying again in the beginning of the year, refinding that belief in a Creator. I also began meditating every day, rather than whenever I felt insane. But I think the best way to describe it is that for the first time in my life, I am allowing myself to believe without having to understand everything."

  3. THanks Angie ... your response got me thinking about hope and belief and how they are tied together. And how we do believe in small things each day. I wrote a rather long post about softening my definition of belief. Thanks as always to your honesty and stimulating posts. You are wonderful. I am thankful for your writing and relationship.

  4. I'm crying right now because your words have made more sense to me than any pastor or book has since Lyra died. I'm in a similar place as Brooke - I struggle with spirituality, with God. I think I'm at the "believe and know everything or else leave it all behind" point. I can't pray, I don't know how to resolve God's role, etc. I struggle with the idea of how my faith fits into a community of others, which has in the past been important, when now my faith is so very different than anyone else's. I need to be okay with bucking the faith trend, or sticking out.

    Your words have been an encouragement, in that I feel more freedom in settling on figuring out my own unique faith. Though I may not find others around me here that may encourage that faith, I still have L and you and select others who thoughtfully challenge me throughout my life.

    I don't know if I'm making much sense. But I do thank you so much, both you and the people who have asked such good questions. It would be lovely to sit around and have these discussions in person...L and I would love it. I don't know that I can write much about this on my blog, as there are too many IRL people who would use this as an opportunity to fix me in a way they believe I should be fixed.

  5. Oh Angie

    What a brave and honest post. My mind is whirring. I want to write about it. I don't know what to say about it. In some ways I am in a similar place in that I believe. I have no answers and I still believe. But I am tangled up in the praying and wanting and knowing it isn't about asking for stuff, but too afraid to not ask. So I am believing and doing nothing.

    I love what you said about it being about the journey. Maybe I should go and tease this out in a post..... x Louise


What do you think?