This week, in our CPE group, we presented our spiritual autobiographies. I am no stranger to these. I had to write one each of the 4 years in Education for Ministry (EfM) that I took prior to my discernment and postulancy. I had to write one for my discernment committee. I had to write one for the paperwork for postulancy. Yet, when I had to present mine for CPE group, I found myself strangely emotional about it. When asked why, at the time, my answer was, “I’m not sure…I don’t know.” On the drive home, it hit me. All the other times, it was written out and presented as a document, for people to read on their own time, in their own space. This time my voice was the document, and it was coming from my space.
As I reflect further on this, it’s becoming more and more apparent that when I tell my spiritual autobiography, there is this huge blank page in it, which spans about 20 years, from roughly age 25 to 45. Explaining this blank spot isn’t easy. It’s not like I have amnesia–I can tell you exactly what I was or what I was doing, and have plenty photographs from that period of time. Yet I seem to have lost the ability to access much at all in the way of feelings I had during those years. I have the remembrance of feelings, but the feelings themselves are pretty elusive. It’s only been in the last couple of years I even briefly feel much of any of those feelings.
When this blank spot was brought up a few years ago in my discernment committee, my quick answer was “I was so tied up in medical school and residency, and becoming an attending doc, it all just feels like a big blur, you know? It was the time I was disaffected from the church, so it just doesn’t feel very spiritual, I guess.”
I was reminded recently that I DO have a spiritual story in there, but perhaps have not found the language to express it.
In some ways, that period of my life is pretty un-interesting. I went to school. I studied hard. I worked hard in my residency. I worked hard in acquiring the skills to be a good attending physician. I dealt with the grief of losing both my grandparents. I played a lot of golf on Saturdays and Sundays. I dealt with some joys, uncertainties and failures in life and career. I began to understand how my gender presentation and sexual orientation don’t exactly fit in a nice tidy box. (My preferred line is, “I’m a card carrying member of God’s Rainbow Tribe,” and let it go at that.) I had some fairly intense, but mostly short-lived relationships, some incredibly bad, most of them under the radar for various reasons, a couple of them incredibly wonderful for a short spell, and in none of them was I 100% faithful. I episodically drank a little too much, flirted with overuse of legal prescriptions on rare occasions (because being post-call was, at times, seemingly impossible,) and gambled a little too much. I rode my bicycle on the local rails-to-trails line, for miles on end, sometimes as much as 50 miles. One feeling I can name is that nothing felt permanent, and I desired nothing that even smelled permanent. Everything felt “on the move,” and I suppose I offset the feeling of being trapped in the system by flirting with the edges of things.
When I look back, I think the only times I ever thought much about God in that 20 year span was when I had a little too much to drink, and I do remember thinking about it hurt a lot. Oddly, it wasn’t as much about sin or failure or disappointment as much as one might think. It was more like, “If I get close to God, he’s gonna make me be around those church people and all those church people ever do is reject me and say I don’t fit.”
Yet, in all those years I never lost a fascination for the Eucharist, even traveling great distances on Christmas Eve or Easter some years simply to stand in a line where no one knew me in some church I’d never seen until that moment, to receive communion. I didn’t do it every year, but I probably did that a dozen times in 20 years.
When I turned 45, it was like something woke up inside me. I somehow came to the realization that my life was nothing like I had planned, but it was pretty okay, and that really, I was pretty okay too. It was okay to be my happy, hermit-y introverted self who plays an extrovert when necessary but retreats to the safety of her house in the middle of nowhere and leads a rather quiet lifestyle. It was okay to not be in a relationship. It was okay to simply be me. It was okay to stop proving myself to myself and it was okay to stop trying to look larger than life. I guess I simply got tired of feeling bad about what I was not and would probably never be, and I got tired pretending I fit any of the molds. That said, even happy hermits need community, and I found it in the church I presently attend. It is at that point my story finds words again.
The short version of all this, however, is that I’m starting to wonder if there’s something I need to access from this big blank spot in my spiritual autobiography, and what does it contain that will help me be a more effective chaplain and pastor?