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.