My relationship with God has always been somewhat complicated. I wasn’t raised in a particular religion or faith. While my father had been raised Catholic and my mother Presbyterian, I wasn’t baptized or confirmed or communed. I’m fairly certain that in most Christian circles, it means I’m a heathen.
When I was growing up, my mother used to delight in telling the Jehovah’s Witnesses that came to our door that she couldn’t accept their religion because she was already a practicing pagan. Because she was a fairly grounded woman, the Wiccan books on her bookshelf were the only clue for me that she wasn’t actually kidding; that and the fact that she suggested that during Christ’s so-called resurrection, perhaps Jesus wasn’t actually dead but rather astral projecting. Blasphemy? Probably. But our lengthy conversations about all facets of religion – even those on the fringes of acceptable society – intrigued and provoked me to dig a little bit deeper into my own belief system. My mother challenged me to consider that “God” was not a singular Sky God, but rather “Gods & Goddesses” that watched over the people, and the animals, and the rocks, and the trees. While I struggled to understand what that meant exactly at the time, there was a ring of truth to it for me (and apparently to everyone who practices Hinduism, but I am from Western Pennsylvania. We didn’t get a lot of practicing Hindus there.)
In eighth grade, my search for meaning took an interesting turn. I found belief in a place I wasn’t expecting it: acting class. I took private lessons with my best friend, Brooke. Our acting teacher had us perform a scene from Agnes of God, which—if you can imagine two earnest fourteen-year-olds throwing themselves into the roles of a nun and her therapist—is perhaps hard to take seriously, but we sure did. We would swap roles – each of us hungry to put forth our most angst-ridden performance as Agnes. And yet, it was in one of my monologues as Martha the Therapist that I found a new piece of my faith puzzle. In it, she says, “God isn’t out there. God is you. Or rather you are God.” The real context and meaning of that phrase was likely lost on me at the time. And yet, it addressed something very important for me: the idea that within me I carried my own grace, my own divinity, my own power. The idea that some other entity was responsible for creating my happiness or for punishing me for my sins always felt wrong, even then. And through this simple scene, I felt I had some confirmation that I was part of something bigger than myself because I was not separate from God.
But what of suffering? Where did all this suffering come from in my life and in my world? My mother lost her job. We had to move out of our home practically overnight. I had a complicated relationship with my father. And then there were the bigger things that began entering my increasingly larger field of awareness: war, cruelty to animals, communism, Aquanet and the depletion of the ozone layer. What was all that about? Why would God let these things happen in the world? Well, that lesson came in a much bigger way a few years later.
When I was fifteen, my mother was diagnosed with terminal, stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer. The rarest kind. The thought of losing the one person most precious to me would haunt me at night and leave me wracked with sobs. Her diagnosis once again brought faith and God front and center for me. How could God be a part of me and yet give my mother cancer? I simply couldn’t understand that the God that so many claimed to be a miracle worker—helping them find lost keys or saving them from foreclosure on a house—couldn’t find a way to visit some small compassion upon a scared and lonely girl who wasn’t sure she could live without her mother.
Less than two years later, a mere matter of weeks before my high school graduation, my mother died. There was little I knew at the time—nothing I was sure of—except that I needed to find some comfort and assurance that God wasn’t punishing me and if He were, why me? I did my homework. I was good in school. I treated my mom respectfully. I put my dishes in the dishwasher. I was kind to others. I was a virgin. So why, God? Why me? A Hagar the Horrible cartoon I had clipped from the newspaper for my mother hinted at an answer. In it, Hagar is clinging to a rock as his boat floats in ruins around him. He shouts to the heavens, “Why me!?” In the next frame, God answers back, “Why Not!?” My answer back to God would have been simple; because I didn’t deserve it. And yet that didn’t seem to matter. Truthfully, this was not the work of a God I cared to believe in and yet reluctantly, there was something about “Why not me?” that made sense. What of “faith” now?
That summer after I graduated, my sister gave me an abridged book-on-tape by Rabbi Harold Kushner addressing the topic, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” It was as if he could read my mind and sense my doubt. He said that while God is all-knowing and all-seeing, He is, in fact, not all-powerful. Rabbi Kushner pointed to the Book of Job and how Satan questioned Job’s commitment to God, by saying that if Job were suffering, he wouldn’t love God so much. God didn’t agree and Satan went on to kill Job’s children, blight his crops, and give him hideous boils. And yet Job never wavered in his faith. While I could not necessarily claim the same—can one never waver in something she was never sure she had?—I felt a huge sense of peace after listening to that audio tape. It made sense. God is not all-powerful and therefore I wasn’t being punished. It just was what it was.
Twenty years later, I am still a spiritual seeker (or more accurately a scamp.) My sense of spirit and connection with the God or Goddess within me continues to deepen and change as I get older and my life continues to shoot off on new trajectories and I experience new things. I study and read about the different faiths of the world, including Wicca and Theosophy. I chant and think about meditating. (That counts, right?) I have gone to church and have completed a two-year interfaith chaplaincy program. I pray. I light candles and cast spells. I voraciously consume books on brain science and the power of the mind-body connection. And I still wonder about the role of God and of spirit and miracles in my life.
On this journey, there is little I know for sure, but as I cobble together my faith puzzle I have learned this: when we tap into our own intuitive wisdom—clear away the cobwebs of our painful beliefs and the shadows of our past lives—we connect into a deeper knowing that far surpasses our human form. When we quiet our chattering monkey minds, settle into our bodies, and truly connect with the quietly powerful spirit of self and others, we will discover that the God isn’t out there. He’s in here. And in the trees. And the bushes. And in the animals. He is love. He is peace. He is pure compassion. He is within and all around us. That is true spirit. That is God and that is what connects us all.