He is not here, He is risen!

Or, thinking ahead to Easter.

I’m a little premature. Easter isn’t until April, and I’ll be knee deep in the mud of my Place quarter. I haven’t celebrated Easter in any meaningful way in a long time. I dislike pastels and cartoon bunnies and cheap chocolate, so the mainstream/commercial parts of this holiday don’t interest me at all. I don’t want to start that with my kids, either. There’s enough sugar and cartoon-y fun in our lives as it is.

But I do love the resurrection story. Even though we are not a Christian household and even though Jesus is not my god, I love the power of the resurrection story. In a world in which horrible things happen every day, and some days reading the news (heck, just reading the headlines) can overwhelm me, knowing that love wins, hope springs eternal, and one person fully aligned with the divine can move mountains is a powerful antidote to the weary, cynical and depressing elements in life. Honoring the Christian Easter story is something I’d like to incorporate into my family life.

Icon of the Resurrection

Last week, Star Foster over at Patheos Pagan Portal posted a great article on Mary Magdalene, Easter and eggs. She reminded of the Eastern Orthodox tradition of dying eggs red, the connection to Mary Magdalene (not just Reformed Harlot- an inaccurate conflation of texts, but Apostle to the Apostles!), and perhaps the connection with older practices.

St Mary Magdalene

When I was living in Wales there was a gorsedd park in town, a park with a ring of stones. It wasn’t ancient; it was put there by a modern Druid group I believe, in keeping with Welsh tradition, when the park was made. But I thought it was really cool anyway. Our first Easter there, my son was 22 months old, and we walked down on a bright sunny morning and ‘hid’ eggs in the park for him. It was a fun, joyous occasion. But we didn’t repeat it, instead going elsewhere in the following years.

This year we have an invitation to go with another family to their Easter dinner and egg hunt. I think I’ll make a batch of red eggs to add in to the mix. I can tell the story of Mary Magdalene, bold woman who bore the news of Christ’s resurrection, and we can celebrate that every year the sun returns and new life bursts forth, that every day the sun rises, that hope always springs up, and that it’s our job to carry that joy into the world. After all, we save ourselves and each other.

Virgin Mary in Song

Let’s have some music for your weekend!

My kids are feeling poorly. I’m blogged out from all the coverage of the Pantheacon transgender/Z Budapest conflict/discussion. So let’s have some beauty! To song!

The most famous of all songs about the Virgin Mary is the Ave Maria, the Latin version of the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, God is with you; blessed are you among women and blessed it the fruit of your womb, Jesus; Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” This is a beautiful, simple prayer, that is essentially Marian theology distilled in to three sentences.

Let’s start with the most well known, and for good reason: Franz Schubert’s. I’m not sure who the singer or accompanist is but they do a very good job.

I recently read the following in an article, which is well worth reading in its entirety. (Thanks, Adam.)

‘Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” which surprised some music critics when it debuted in 1825: Schubert seldom showed religious feeling in his compositions, yet “Ave Maria” is a breathtaking work of adoration of the Virgin Mary. What was with the sudden piety? Schubert dryly answered: “I think this is due to the fact that I never forced devotion in myself and never compose hymns or prayers of that kind unless it overcomes me unawares; but then it is usually the right and true devotion.” This musical prayer became among the most familiar and enduring religious pieces in history.’

Franz Biebl’s version is perhaps my all time favorite choral work involving the Ave Maria. This version is done by the phenomenal all male ensemble, Chanticleer. (Check out the mustache on one of the singers!)

Another musical Marian form is the Stabat Mater, from a 12th century poem. During this time period a new form of devotion developed in Europe, centered on the Mater Dolorosa – the Sorrowful Mother. Stabat Mater, Latin for ‘the Mother stood’, or with the first line of the poem (Stabat Mater dolorosa), ‘the sorrowful Mother stood’. What did she stand next to? The cross and Jesus, her son, crucified upon it. (For the absolute best book I’ve read about this form of devotion and its development, read Rachel Fulton’s From Judgement to Passion.)

In graduate school I wrote an entire paper on this particular poem and its use in music. I listened to something approaching twenty settings of it. The following are a few that stood out to me.

Here is Pergolesi’s version:


Dvorák’s, perhaps the most well-known setting, certainly the most well-known to me.

For more modern interpretations, Arvo Pärt:

Penderecki’s also impressed me, but I can’t find a good clip of it.

Let us not forget the glorious Eastern Orthodox tradition and their many songs to the Theotokos! The Estonian Phiharmonic Chamber Choir is world-renown and made a CD focusing on Russian Orthodox hymns. It is superb and I highly recommend it.

Anyone know of some non-classical songs about Mary? Clearly my classical music background is getting the best of me! I know of one gospel song, The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy, and Breath of Heaven by Amy Grant:

Have a great weekend!


Lent comes early this year

…For me, at least.

Today is Fat Tuesday. Not being culturally Catholic, I’ve never had a grasp on when Mardi Gras occurs, but I think it’s today – a huge blow out before Ash Wednesday tomorrow when Lent begins for Catholics and other Christians. Eastern Orthodoxy doesn’t have this tradition. The two weeks leading up to Lent (which begins next week for them) are Meat Fare (eat the meat) and Cheese Fare (eat all the dairy but no meat), where they wind down before their vegan Lenten fast.

I used to observe the Orthodox fast for Lent. I viewed it as a spring cleaning and a form of positive self- and spiritual discipline. It’s been a few years since I’ve observed it, since I’ve not had a spring free of pregnancy or breastfeeding for four years now. This year, I’m still nursing, but I am going to observe the fast – only in an entirely non-traditional way. Late last spring I read a bunch of material (among it Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes) that sold me on the primal/paleo style of eating. After eating that way more, but often less, for six months I felt great and had lost some of the baby weight I’d gained, but since arriving in the US we’ve reverted to a more standard American diet, and I’ve noticed some distinct results. I won’t go into detail, but I think I’ve got a gluten allergy. My form of Lent this year is to do a strict primal eating challenge. That takes me to end of this quarter; seeing as how I’m missing Easter, it all lines up nicely.

But let’s talk about Lent. I’ve talked before about fasting before (here and here). I think fasting is, over all, a beneficial practice, for our bodies and our spiritual practice, particularly for those of us, like myself, who are lucky enough to always have enough food to eat. Whether we go vegan, give up sugar, or fast from all food, the goal is to hone our senses, bodies, and focus – to gain strength from discipline, offer a sacrifice to the gods, and thus connect more deeply with the Divine. For some, fasting can bring about a trance-like or other euphoric experience.

But mostly? I hate the way Lent is discussed in the Western Christian tradition/s. In college, when I was most recently active in Protestant Christian life, people would talk about Lent and how they were giving up chocolate or something so banal and pointless as to actually make a mockery of the fast. I know, super judgmental, but there it is. That isn’t to say giving up chocolate couldn’t be a great start – after all, we need to set ourselves up for success, not failure and perhaps success with chocolate one year might lead to heftier goals the next. But generally, my experience was listening to people give up nothing costly and then forget about the practice in two weeks’ time.

On the flip side, the major theological idea underpinning Lent is suffering. The idea is that we fast so that we might share in the suffering of Christ. I have oodles of issues with this concept and I’m going to write about this…. later.

Here’s a breakdown of posts of I’m formulating and series I’m thinking of writing in the next five weeks:

I will finish my Testimony. I want to write about the Virgin Mary: a book review, discussion of some theology around her, and another music post for her. I have two additional books reviews I’m hoping to do: books by Rob Bell (and an interview/dialog with the person who recommended them to me) and one by Bertrand Russell. I also want to do a series on theological concepts in the Christian tradition: suffering, Incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. I may even attend a church service.

Are you observing Lent? If so, how? What does it mean to you? If you’re not Christian, is there some other way you ‘spring clean’?


Fifteen Years in the Wrong Shoes – part four

This part of my testimony is all about graduate school, and it brings us up to the present. When we left off I had just moved to Berkeley, started work on my master’s degree, and broken up with my girlfriend. You can read parts one, two, and three by clicking the links.

I think I always knew I was going to end up in Berkeley at the Graduate Theological Union. It had been on my radar for years. I liked the small school consortium and the ecumenical and interfaith make up of the place. It had a small Orthodox seminary with a chapel, and also had some of the most liberal Christian seminaries in the country. Liberal, but also academically respected. Rosemary Radford Ruether, pioneering feminist theologian, also taught there. I was very excited to dive deep into feminist theology.

And dive I did. I explored so many things. I bought my first tarot deck, something I’d been wanting to do for years but had been dissuaded by my ex-girlfriend. I read all kinds of new theologies. I started studying Latin. I loved most of my classes and, honestly? I could stay taking classes like those for the rest of my life. Nerd Niki was in heaven.

Emotionally and spiritually things were more complicated.

I still considered myself a Christian, although I recognized how ill-fitting the label was. I spent a year considering converting, officially, to Orthodoxy. I spent Tuesday evenings at the Orthodox Institute, attending services and fellowship (dinner and conversation). I was able to participate in readings and chanting (my first and only visit to the area Greek Orthodox church reminded me how rare it is to be able to participate like that). I felt welcomed despite my lack of ‘official’ status.

One of the things that I love about Orthodoxy is the lack of questions around ‘being saved.’ While most of the students attending services were ‘cradle Orthodox’, those born into the faith, many were also converts, and baptism is the act that yokes you to the Church. I’ve never been baptized, but I pondered it in my heart.

I felt more attached than ever to the Christian tradition. Attending services on Tuesday evenings at the Orthodox Institute, taking advanced theological classes, spending my days with other seminarians who were there to become priests and pastors, community organizers and activists, scholars and professors. Of course the more I found a potential fit, the more confused I was in general. One of the few times I went to chapel I had a vision of Athena standing at the altar, filling the entire vaulted space.

I was incredibly – and privately – judgmental about many of the people who arrived at school to be pastors. It seemed to me that those who sought to lead, inspire and heal others were the most in need of guidance, wisdom and healing themselves. Of course, only now do I recognize that perhaps those of there to study and perhaps someday contribute to the greater discourse might have been searching for wisdom and knowledge in an equally hungry and dysfunctional way. I know I was.

Still, I had a hard time feeling like I was on the same page with most of the Christians at seminary. I think I was so used to feeling like the odd one out and used to clinging to what I found liberating in the tradition that I never considered just walking away. Even after finding T Thorn Coyle’s book Evolutionary Witchcraft.

I was working part-time at a neighborhood bookstore. One day while tidying the shelves, I noticed a new book with an intriguing title. I pulled it off the shelf and read the flaps, the back, the table of contents, looked through the notes and index, and skimmed the introduction (isn’t that how you check out a new book? no?). I bought the book and took it home with me. I read the whole thing, then went back and worked through the exercises. Here was an approach to witchcraft that I could relate to. There was no polarity or gender essentialism. I liked that while ritual was part of the work, the way magic was described was not as some mystical gift that you discovered on your 13th birthday, but as a tool that one could hone and use. My queer, feminist, practical heart was pleased, as was my mystery loving, devout soul. After I discovered that Thorn lived in San Francisco, I emailed her and asked if she spoke or taught in the area. Yes, but not right now, was the reply; she’d put me on her mailing list.

And so I continued on with my work. I wrote my master’s thesis, mainly a literature review of white,* contemporary, feminist writing on the Virgin Mary. That process was a struggle, a dark night of the soul. I remember little of the three months I spent writing: 16 hour days in front of my laptop, double and triple checking my notes and sources, freaking out, fearing I had nothing to say, and what did any of this matter anyway? In the end, my thesis isn’t that great, but I passed and got my degree and moved on, with one eye to possibly going back to school to work on a PhD.

I found a job with a Bay Area adult Jewish education non-profit. I loved it. To someone raised secular and in what feels like at times, a rather tradition-less, white-bread non-culture, the rich tapestry of the Jewish world was inviting. I grew up with several Jewish friends and have long loved much about Jewish culture. At one point I asked myself ‘why not Judaism?’ There are so many things to love about Judaism. I particularly like its long tradition of questioning – questioning scripture, tradition and God Himself. But that last piece is part of my inability to embrace Judaism: I’m not a fan of Yahweh (or YHWH or G-d). I also realized that the narrative of Judaism is not my story. I remain a committed and loving friend of the Jewish tradition (and according to my former boss – and totally tongue-in-cheek here – an honorary Jew).

Realizing that piece about one’s narrative tradition was an eye opener for me. It’s helped me also see that while much of my own personal journey has followed along the Christian path, often times right along with it, the Christian narrative isn’t mine either. But I still didn’t see that clearly then.

About two years after reading Thorn’s book, I finally got an email saying that she would be teaching a two-year class on Feri witchcraft, using her book as a basis for the structure. I, and my then-fiance (now husband), signed up. I think there were 32 people initially, whittling down to about 23 or so by the end. This was my first ‘real’ forray into formal paganism of any kind – I still identified as a Christian! My love of the Virgin Mary was the only thing keeping me there, but still I clung to the claim. While many participants came to Feri and/or Paganism from a Christian background, now long rejected, no one ever dismissed my claims or experience. No one ever outwardly judged me. I felt very welcome.

What I struggled with was ritual. The theory, the personal work, the strong emphasis on personal practice – all that was welcome. But group ritual? I was profoundly uncomfortable. Chanting? Singing? Trance work? In ‘public’? I was freaked out. I look back and I realize that there were a few personalities and ‘performance styles’ that clashed intensely with mine. These days those things would be less of a problem, but starting out, with my issues of personal spiritual expression and performance anxiety…. it was a hot mess for me. I didn’t get much out of the rituals and mostly thought that they were psychological exercises.

After the two years were up, I felt changed. More open. More confident. Part of a larger, if amorphous, community. I felt I had connected with something – even if I was just touching the fringe on a great train of a cloak, like the woman being healed by touching the hem of Jesus’s tunic…. Early on in the training I remember thinking ‘This is great, but Feri isn’t for me.’ At the end of it, I wanted more. Feri was for me. But I wasn’t sure quite how. I was pregnant with my first child during the second half of the Feri training. He arrived just 8 weeks before the final gathering. Juggling new motherhood, work and a new degree program took up a lot of my energy.

During this time I was also getting more and more involved in yoga. I’d had my first yoga class when I was living in Seattle. It was mainly Iyengar style. I liked it a lot, and I incorporated a lot of what I’d learned into my own daily stretching and workouts. When I moved to Oakland after grad school the neighborhood studio had a woman teaching Anusara** style yoga and I loved it. In fact, much of the metaphysics sounded a lot like Feri to me.

Yoga and Feri were more and more the realities of my spiritual practice and informed how I viewed the world. Still, I did not take them on as identities. I clung to the last remaining shreds of a Christian identity. When our son was 7 months old my husband and I went on our first ever vacation together. We were in Australia visiting my family (my mother is Australian). My parents and sister had my son for the weekend. Husband and I were driving off to Daylesford in Victoria, talking about life and what to do next. We couldn’t stay in the Bay Area and raise kids – too expensive, not enough trees. I had recently started a PhD program through a university in Wales. My adviser was one of the few feminist theologians specializing in Mary and she was the only one I wanted to study with. What to do? Where to go?

In the midst of the discussion about what things we needed in a community, my husband turned to me and said, ‘Let’s move to Wales.’ It was like a bolt of inspiration from gods. We both recognized the sheer insanity of it, but also the odd ‘rightness’ of it. While in Daylesford we both got tarot readings – separately and by different people. Both readers commented on our up coming move abroad. Neither of us had said anything to anyone about this decision. Nine months later, almost to the day, we arrived in Wales. We’d sold or given away almost everything we owned. We’d scraped together the $10,000 for moving costs, plane tickets, and visas. And there we were. In rural Wales. We’d followed the voice of God and …… it led us into the verdant wilderness. Which will be the subject of part five.

Holy cow, five parts. Thanks for reading!

*White, because I am not fluent in Spanish, and so much of Latin America’s writing on Mary is inaccessible to me, and because there is little written about her in the African-American Christian tradition or in other cultures. Most of the writing on Mary comes from white European or white American writers (or if they’re not white, they are not writing in a racially intersectional way, which defaults to white, at this point). To include other cultures and a wider discussion on race within the theological discussion of Mary would have made my masters thesis unruly and way too long.

**Anusara is in the middle of a huge ‘scandal’ and upheaval. You can google it for yourself. I still think the system has much to offer and I continue to practice in this style, while also being deeply disappointed by what has unfolded.

Praying like a Pilgrim

I was hoping to have all of The Pilgrim’s Tale, a Russian spiritual classic, read for review today. Even with kids and limited reading time I can plow through a book if need be. This time? I’m savoring it. In fact, I’m inspired by it.

One of the things I love about the Eastern Orthodox tradition in all its ‘flavors’ (the Church is divided along ethnic and national lines) is that mysticism is front and center: in its liturgy, traditions, stories and practice. Mysticism is more than theology or incense or icons or even an embrace of mystery. Part of mysticism is the belief that every individual has access to and the ability for deep union with the Divine. The Pilgrim’s Tale is focused on the Hesychastic tradition of inner prayer, also called prayer of the heart or the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It can be shortened to: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

This type of prayer is essentially a form of Christian meditation; it’s a mantra for deep inner meditation. When I started reading the book I decided that I would start praying it as well. Except, the prayer as is doesn’t sit well with me. Jesus and I don’t have much to say to each other, and I while I believe in sin and that I am flawed, I don’t believe in sin and being a sinner the way this tradition does. So I altered the prayer to the following: Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy/Holy Mother, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy. It’s another form of Orthodox prayer (using God, instead of Mother), so I felt the spirit was there. I also didn’t just want to pray for mercy on myself. For a week now I’ve been praying this aloud or under my breath while walking, folding laundry, doing dishes, lying in bed at night, etc.

What has been surprising to me is how deeply this prayer affects me. I’ll just be standing at the sink doing the dishes, thinking about my day or what chore I’ll tackle next or which park I’ll take the 3-year-old to, and I find myself feeling things, things I didn’t know I was feeling, needing to coat those feelings in mercy.

See, I’m not so good with feelings. There’s a lot of Stuff I know I haven’t dealt with. This mantra prayer is like a distraction for my brain. While brain and body are busy forming the words, heart bubbles up Stuff and it needs mercy. I have feelings about being so frustrated with my son’s inability to stop pushing his sister over – have mercy on me for being so angry, have mercy on my son, may his feelings find a better outlet, have mercy on my daughter’s body, and thank you that she didn’t whack her head this time. I have feelings, mostly judgment, for various thing I’m doing or not doing – or even feeling! Have mercy on me, that I’ll be more compassionate to myself, that I’ve so far to go before enlightenment, that I’ll stop judging even that. Have mercy on the sadness that trickles out from the edges of my thoughts, have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.

Just as the Pilgrim describes, the repeated request for mercy also comes out as a thanksgiving. Have mercy (thank you that we are so well fed and have mercy on those who aren’t and have mercy on the hands that made it possible have this food at all), have mercy (thank you that my friends arrived safely), have mercy (thank you for this opportunity, thank you for the support to push forward even when I feel scared). Oh have mercy. Oh thank you for this life.

There’s a lot in this book that’s repetitive and rather boring. It is firmly situated in the Orthodox trope in form and content; I’m used to it, but I could see it boring the crap out of most people. There are some gems in here, though, things that I think many people can relate to.

On the very first page we see the Pilgrim coming across the instruction in the Gospel to ‘pray without ceasing.’ He is stumped; how in the world is that possible? This entire book is his search to find out how and what happens when he does.

“I thought and thought but could find no answer. So I asked a cleric: ‘What does it mean to pray unceasingly and how does one do it?’ He replied: ‘Just pray it as it says.’ I asked again: ‘Yes, but how do you pray unceasingly?’ ‘You’re still asking?’ said the cleric and left.”

I love this. This is the opening. On one hand I see the frustration of a beginner, seeking and asking and basically being brushed off by someone who seems to know but won’t tell. I think many of us have had similar experiences. We want to know something, to go deeper and the person we’ve asked gives us some crappy line: ‘Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now you never will’ or ‘One either is ready and therefore gets it, or one is not.’ On the other hand, to pray unceasingly, we must start praying. That’s something this blog project has taught me: dive in, just begin, sort out the how later, it will make sense eventually.

The Pilgrim asks another man about this prayer:

“Unceasing interior prayer is the uninterrupted striving of the human spirit toward attentiveness in the divine center. … You will not understand. But if you pray as you know how, this very prayer will itself reveal to you how it can be unceasing. Everything takes its own time….”

I believe this is true of so much of the mystic life. Knowledge come from words, but wisdom comes from experience. Both are important, but all the words in the world will not give us the wisdom we seek.

This book has a few little one-off moments of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, and claims that the Hindu yogis got this meditative prayer from the Eastern Fathers (it is likely the other way around). This is par for the course in a Russian Orthodox book of this era. Despite these flaws, I will be keeping this book on my shelf. And I will be continuing to pray this prayer for the remainder of this quarter.


Fifteen Years in the Wrong Shoes – part three

When I left off last time I was married, miserable and crying during prayers. (You can read part one and part two here.) Let us continue my testimony and find out what shape my Christianity took next.

Without getting into the gory and very personal details I’ll sum up what happened next: I jumped ship. I fell in love with a woman and got a divorce. In that order.

At this point I felt like I had tried the traditional Christian rules/path for long enough. I was listening, I was enduring, I was praying, but the responses (and at times lack of response) I was getting from On High did not line up with what traditional Christianity was telling me I should be hearing. It was time to start listening honestly to the ‘still, small voice within.’

Having said that, I was still committed to my spiritual path, which was still Christianity. I recognized then, as I do now, that there are so many beautiful parts of this tradition. I wasn’t ready to give that up. When I was exploring Catholicism I had remembered the third ‘branch’ of Christianity, a rather big, old and gnarled trunk that those of us in the West generally forget about: Eastern Orthodoxy.

Juneau has its own Russian Orthodox church, St. Nicholas, established in 1894. It’s a very iconic part of the town, even though most people have never set foot inside! I decided to check it out…. and I fell in love. I loved the liturgy, the incense, the icons. I loved that all of the congregation was allowed to join in the chanting and singing – and that in Orthodoxy a service cannot take place without two people: a priest and one other, as the liturgy is truly a back and forth conversation, not simply the priest doing all the work. (I would later discover that most Orthodox churches only let the formal choir do the chanting, which I think is a pity and makes services especially dull and passive.) I loved that Orthodoxy has always been in the vernacular, and this church said the ‘Our Father’ prayer in many languages, which represented the people in the congregation. At that time, there were Romanian-, Tlingit- (the indigenous people of my part of SE Alaska), Yupik-, and Russian-speaking congregants, in addition to English-only-speakers.

I ended up living with my girlfriend in an apartment directly across the street from the church. I would run across for services in my slippers. What is interesting is that my personal life was never mentioned. I kept it to myself – neither raising it, nor hiding it. I knew that the Orthodox Church, as an institution, wasn’t gay-friendly.

At the time the community had three priests, one of whom became a good friend to me. We would meet for coffee dates and talk music, books, theology, life. He gave me a small polished rock and a vial of holy oil, both of which I have kept with me all these years. The priest knew about my personal life and, while he didn’t seem to personally object, he towed the line of the Church (I have found this to be the case with many Orthodox believers). He also gave me a piece of advice regarding observing Lent that has positively impacted my life in many ways.

Many religions, particularly the mystic strains, use fasting as a discipline for deeper spiritual connection. My only exposure to fasting at this point had been in a vaguely Catholic way. I never really liked listening to Protestant Christians talk about Lent. Giving up chocolate for Lent seemed to miss the point entirely. But the Orthodox? Those guys know about fasting. They fast for just about anything, covering nearly half the year (not all at once though)! They don’t give up all food or water; they give up five things: meat, dairy, olive oil, alcohol and sex. Giving up olive oil isn’t a big deal for us today, but in the Mediterranean region, back in the day, olive oil was an indispensible part of cooking and living. Giving that up was a huge hardship. For my first Lent I tried to do it all. But here’s what my priest friend said: set yourself up for success, not failure.

Fasting isn’t supposed to be a contest in which we prove how holy or hardcore we are. Fasting is a tool for going deeper into the spiritual life. I personally think that fasting can be very useful, particularly for those of us for whom food is plentiful. If trying to ‘go all the way’ meant that I was slipping all the time and/or beating myself up for that, I would be missing the point. Maybe just give up meat. Or meat and alcohol. Set myself up for success, so that I might reap the benefits of the practice. I have used this advice in many areas of my life. Not that I should always go easy and never challenge myself, but I should instead assess what the goal of the activity is and then work to achieve that as best I can.

I decided that olive oil didn’t matter to me, so I didn’t give that up. It’s not a ‘thing’ for me, culinarily or culturally. I don’t remember that I gave up sex. I think that if you’ve got a partner that isn’t observing then asking him or her to abstain is forcing a fast on some one else. But I vent vegan and gave up alcohol. And since that time, even after waking away from Christianity, I have enjoyed observing Lent. I thought the Lenten fast was a good physical spring cleaning.

I spent about two years attending St. Nick’s. It was during this time that two more very important spiritual developments occurred in my life: I got to the know the Virgin Mary (aka the Theotokos, in Orthodox terms) and I started reading actual feminist theology, both Christian and not-specifically Christian. Books that made an impact on me were Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk, Merlin Stone’s When God was a Woman, Jean Markale’s The Great Goddess (Markale is of questionable scholarly repute, but at the time this book was huge for me), and Tikvah Frymer-Kensky’s In the Wake of the Goddesses (this last one is by a Jewish Near Eastern scholar, and while the work throws ancient Paganism under the bus, it is still a very valuable contribution to the field of feminist theologies). Yes, those were the sorts of books I was reading for fun. In the back of my head I planned to attend graduate school in religious studies and these books fueled that desire.

The Orthodox Church was a good fit for me. Mysticism is a valuable and pervasive part of the Church as a whole, culturally, theologically, liturgically. Mysticism and personal practice are not afterthoughts, but are at the core of the Church and its practices. Many homes have an icon corner. Priests bless homes and boats. During the month of January priests bless the waters, because the earth is part of God’s creation too. The current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is considered the ‘green Patriarch’ for his extensive work on environmental issues. The entirety of life and the world is part of the spiritual life.

Part of this mysticism is the Church’s adoration of the Theotokos, a word which means ‘god-bearer’ in Greek. She who bore God. It’s a paradox, something which Orthodoxy revels in. I am a fan of mysticism and of paradox.

Unfortunately, for all the joys of Orthodoxy and its beautiful and rather liberating theology, the Church is mired in social conservatism. There are many reasons for this, which I won’t go into, but I was not a good fit for the Church: queer, feminist, and outspoken. I was getting more critical of Christianity, the more I lived, the more I read. But the beauty of the Theotokos kept me in Christianity.

After a year or so, my girlfriend and I moved to Seattle. I pursued music studies and worked at bookstores, while she pursued her education as well. I attended church infrequently. I kept reading. I started looking around on the internet and my feminist spiritual searching started turning up Wicca resources. I took this in. There was so much that was helpful and felt right at home!

I discovered that much of Wicca and goddess worship was not in fact some weird anti-Christian devil worship, but most of the time just called divinity by a female name (very subversive). There was a reverence for nature and connection with divinity through it – I could completely relate to that. There were other attitudinal shifts with which I also resonated. I felt empowered by the way that Wiccans created their own altars and led their own rituals. Many of those pieces made perfect sense from my understanding of ‘traditional’ liturgical theory and practice. I hungered for more, but the internet ten years ago did not so easily offer up information and community at that time. Plus, Angelfire and Geocities websites, particularly with the sparkly purple and black aesthetic so often used by witches and Pagans, were visually awkward and off-putting.

I practiced setting up an altar in the bedroom. I practiced meditating with a candle. I walked and walked and walked around the neighborhood listening to what I was hearing and sensing: birds, clouds, the concrete under my feet, blossoms, wind. A house on one of the corners had enormous rosemary plants growing. I took some sprigs from the parts that overflowed onto the sidewalk (I did knock on the door to ask permission, but no one answered). I look back now and I’m positive it was a Pagan household! I just couldn’t recognize it so easily at the time.

My partner wasn’t thrilled with this development. She’d been only loosely supportive of my spiritual leanings. I applied to grad school entirely without support from her. Our relationship was suffering and pulling apart at the seams. My going off to Berkeley for graduate school was too much, highlighting many of the problems we had, and I broke up her. Rather badly, too, I have to admit.

A quote I’ve long loved is the quote below by Pat Robertson:

The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.

PAT ROBERTSON, fundraising letter, 1992

(taken from this website)

I find it amusing that discovering feminism did indeed lead to me leaving my husband, becoming a lesbian, and practicing witchcraft! I may not want to destroy capitalism, but I sure do want to overhaul it. But I’ll not kill my children, thanks.

My book to review for this section is the Russian spiritual classic, The Pilgrim’s Tale. Next up in my testimony is what happened when I went to graduate school. Stay tuned.

Fifteen Years in the Wrong Shoes – part two

Thanks to my experienced readers I was reminded that the word for this type of biography is called a testimony. Thank you, readers!

Let’s continue my testimony. (You can read part one here.) In this installment I get personal and talk about things I’d rather not.

We last left off as I approached college. I considered myself a Christian, but was wary of Christian culture and of people who grew up in youth group. So you can imagine my enthusiasm when the summer before leaving for college (leaving Alaska to go to Washington) I got my roommate assignment in the mail. Her name was Jennie, she was from Washington. Her phone number was listed and I called. Turned out she was very active in her youth group. ‘She’s nice,’ I thought, ‘but we’ll never be good friends.’ When I arrived at our dorm in September I noticed her tape collection held the delights of Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant. I was not impressed.

I like telling that story because my randomly placed roommate ended up becoming my best friend and within weeks we were inseparable. I can probably blame Jennie for my deepening my activity in mainstream Christianity. She had had a great, trauma-free experience growing up Christian and she wanted to continue to seek that out in college. I followed her lead as we checked out various campus Christian groups, eventually joining Campus Crusade for Christ rather regularly. Yes, you read that correctly. I attended CCC, which I used to jokingly call KKK. I was not the most mature wit, I will admit. CCC was, surprisingly, the middle path for Christians at my uni – neither the most conservative, nor the stereotypical mostly social youth group on campus.

I can also blame Jennie for showing me how open, ‘normal’ and healthy a practicing Christian could be. Her entire family was a revelation to me. Her parents honestly enjoyed their kids and were interested in them as individuals. Her parents came from fascinating religious backgrounds: one raised in the Cameroon by missionary parents, the other raised by a pastor who taught in Lebanon and in the deep, segregated South. And yet, this family was not afraid of difference, of non-Christians, of questions, of the wider world. Instead, they were genuinely interested in people and ideas. This family was a safe haven for me and an example of what a fully lived, healthy Christian life – and just straight up healthy family – could look like.

My spiritual experience in college was much like my experience in high school, only more so. Personally I was seeking a deeper connection. I woke most mornings and read a passage from the bible and prayed/pondered over it. I think I did this regularly for over five years straight. I’m grateful for this as the daily practice of quiet, meditative reflection is nearly universal and has been perhaps the single most beneficial practice to growing my ‘faith’ and spiritual strength.

I also continued to seek knowledge from books. I shuffled around my majors. I went from vocal performance to history, emphasizing religious history, with a minor in religious studies. I wrote papers looking at the influence of the Sermon on the Mount on Gandhi, on the influence of the Catholic Church on the Solidarity movement in Poland; I gave a 45 minute presentation on the works of CS Lewis and a workshop on how Mormon’s weren’t Christians. I also read pseudo-intellectual books, such as More Than a Carpenter and stuff on Pascal’s wager, stuff that now would make the academic in me cringe, but at the time I thought was well-reasoned writing! I had absorbed the idea that if not the Christian god, then nothing.

Socially, I struggled with insularity and us-vs-them ideology. I struggled with Christian culture. I remember one time early on in my first semester of school hanging out with some people from one of the youth groups. One of the guys asked me what church I went to. ‘I don’t go to church,’ I said. ‘Are you a Christian?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘But you don’t go to church?’ He was terribly confused. ‘No.’ ‘Have you read the bible?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, beginning to get defensive. ‘I’ve read the entire New Testament a couple of times, and most of the Old Testament. How about you?’ That shut him up. It also reflects a lot of what I experienced as a type of ‘outsider,’ a status I both could not escape due to my upbringing and one that I cultivated by choice by not joining in. I still wasn’t comfortable with the Father God prayer language or the waving of hands during praise songs.

I shouldn’t play down that I went through waves of evangelical fervor of my own. My faith was important to me and I wanted other people to know God too. In the mid to late ’90s Alaska was debating whether or not to amend its constitution to say that marriage was between a man and a woman (it eventually did so). I remember having a debate with a friend’s gay brother that marriage was just that: between a man and woman. Oh, the irony (which you’ll read about in part 3).

The summer between my second and third years of college I had a what I can only describe as a ‘dark night of the soul,’ also known as a depressive episode. It didn’t help that I spent the summer in a crappy almost-relationship with a dude that later date-raped me and then refused to talk to me for the rest of the summer. I spent that summer feeling spiritually numb (that started before the aforementioned event), reading through Psalms for solace. Before then I had hated the smarmy poetry of Psalms, but I gained a new appreciation for them. David too had struggled. In fact, some of the Psalms involve him wondering just where God was. He got angry! Depressed! And he lusted. Just like me. I also loved the nature themes and the rejoicing themes. I particularly loved Psalm 98.

When I returned to school for my third year I was restless. I lived in a house with other Christian women and we all attended the same church. The church had started as a 50 person church, split off from one of about 200 people, which I had attended once or twice pre-split. Two years later the church had hundreds of people and was meeting in an old department store space. I sang with the short-lived choir. I joined bible study/small group. It was all very nice, but I was restless, wanting more. I thought about transferring schools again (the year previously I had applied for and been accepted for transfer to the Berklee College of Music, but backed out at the 11th hour; this time the all-girl Smith College sounded fantastic). Instead I got hooked into YWAM, an international youth ministry. Their entry-level program was a 5-6 month program of classes, small group and ministry training, usually culminating in a ‘mission’ to a second location (usually a third world country) to ‘save the lost.’ I think I equated ministry with mysticism. I was wary of the evangelizing and ended up choosing to go to Ireland, where instead of going to a different country, that branch stayed put and assisted the local church.

To complicate things, shortly after signing up for the program, I fell in love – with a non-Christian of course. Before leaving for Ireland for 6 months we got engaged. It was spur of the moment. I crazy about the guy, and he asked. I said yes. No one else thought it was a good idea. In retrospect it was stupid. But I didn’t know any better.

My time in Ireland was truly amazing. Again, I was the odd one out. I didn’t quite mesh with the program. But I gained a lot from all the time to read and pray and think. I met incredible and diverse people from all over the world. One Czech woman, with whom I’ve long since fallen out of touch, was a devout Roman Catholic with a devotion to the Virgin Mary. I didn’t know too much about Mary then. My friend went on a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, a mountain that she hiked up barefoot. She brought me back a rock, which I still have and it sits on my altar today. Overall, while I was deeply uncomfortable with the evangelical aspects of the organization, I loved the social aspects and the ways that YWAM supported young people’s personal faith and growth and gave them skills for some sort of future in the religious world. I really wanted to stay on as staff in the west of Ireland. I think my desire to stay was mostly the pull of the land, which spoke so deeply and intensely to me. But I went home to get married.

During my time in Ireland my issues with anxiety came up in full force. Again, I prayed and prayed and cried. I thought something was just wrong with me or that maybe I wasn’t listening right to God. More than one person suggested that I not marry an unbeliever.

After my wedding I fell into a profound depression. I was married, back at school and struggling with anxiety worse than ever. I forgot all the lyrics to my audition piece for the excellent concert choir – the choir which I had sung with for two years! This devastated me and I retreated more deeply, spiraling into a depression that I didn’t come out of for more than two years.

In fact there’s not a lot I remember from those two years.

I do remember feeling frustrated with church after my return. I stopped going to Christ the King. I was distrustful and uninterested in the conflation of culture and religion. Being a ‘good’ Christian often looked like being a certain kind of man or woman, but I knew that wasn’t actual Christianity. Bible studies were often separated into men and women, the women’s studies often talked about being a good wife. I think this was the period where I discovered feminism.

After my positive experience in Ireland, living with both Catholics and Protestants, I started attending a Catholic church. I love me some liturgy, so it was a good fit. I remember flippantly dismissing a family friend’s suggestion that I check out the Episcopalian Church, saying that it’s origins were dubious. Oh, what an ignorant smart-ass I was. Now I think it would be a pretty good fit for me, were I to remain in the Christian fold. But Catholicism was Grand and had History and Theologians and was There First. I read the entire catechism, cover to cover. Because that’s what I do. I wasn’t very impressed with the Church’s opinion of women, and yet parts of the catechism were so beautiful.

My husband and I moved back to my hometown after we finally graduated from college. I joined the local RCIA (Rites for Christian Initiation for Adults, a study group for adults considering converting to Catholicism) and realized around the same time that there was an older strain of Christianity – the Orthodox Church! And there was one in my town! Alaska has a long tradition of Orthodoxy.

All of this time I was still reading scripture and praying every morning. (At least I think I was, the last few years are hazy, remember.) My depression was severe, even though I wasn’t aware that’s what it was. I was seeking. I was miserable. I remember sitting at the computer, going through the Sacred Space daily devotional and just sobbing. I sat and prayed over and over and over again to God for help. I didn’t know what to do. This was the only time I have ever ‘heard a voice.’ I heard an immediate disembodied response. It said ‘You need to choose. You need to make a choice.’ And I realized that God couldn’t help me if I was refusing to act. I either needed to get help and fix my marriage, or get help and leave. I had to choose to stay or choose to leave. The wasting away I was doing wasn’t actually choosing. But either choice was terrifying.

What happened next takes us into part three.

In my next post I’ll write about my re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s The Cost of Discipleship. I wrote my college senior thesis on him and I haven’t read his works since then. I remember being impressed by him and have kept this particular book in my collection since college, even though I’ve never opened it since. We’ll see what I think it of now.