At the age of 19, I left the Mennonite Brethren Church, and began my quest for my soul, my place in the world.
Along the way, I encountered the Wilton, Connecticut Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. There, in the profound silence of that simple room with its tall windows and its arc of plain benches before a stone fireplace, I heard the words of John Woolman: “Dig deep, … carefully cast forth the loose matter and get down to the rock, the sure foundation, and there hearken to the divine voice which gives a clear and certain sound.” That made sense to me.
To me, almost all of the theology of my childhood was that loose matter which I then cast forth. I did not do it all that carefully, as Woolman instructed, but I cast it forth.
I deeply desired to have a life with integrity, and a spiritual life with meaning for ME.
I decided that I would not read the Bible any more, except for the words spoken by Jesus. I was given an icon of Jesus which I kept on the dashboard of my car for a few months, during which time I made a dedicated effort to realize that elusive personal relationship with Jesus that I had been urged to have as a child. But all my prayers and pleadings to Jesus led to nothing but a vague feeling that I was being superstitious. I quit praying in any formal sense, and stopped thinking about Jesus.
For more than a decade after I left home, my relationships were short-term and tumultuous, because although I was optimistic, lively, helpful, and charming, I was not a responsible person. I was self-centered, and emotionally volatile. I had a son, who I gave up for adoption. I took a lot of drugs. I learned about the philosophy of Be Here Now, from Ram Dass, Timothy Leary and their followers. I lived with a wonderful Mennonite man for a year, left him to travel with another man for a year, and then lived with a third man for three years, before marrying a fourth man, someone from Guatemala with whom I had very little in common. In fact, we did not even speak the same language. When our son was seven, my husband and I separated, with violence and anger.
My life was a mess. I was ashamed of my failures. More than anything, I wanted to know how to love and be loved. I began attending the unprogrammed Wilton, CT Monthly Meeting, where I encountered Quakers who seemed to have good skills for behaving in loving ways with one another. No one pushed me to have one kind of belief or another. I didn’t have to believe in Jesus Christ as conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary, living a holy and sinless life, crucified for the sin of humankind, risen from the dead, hovering around until that moment when—surprise! I’m back here on earth to judge the living and the dead and my judgment on you is…BAD JOANNA! These Quakers were kind to me, and didn’t give me any of that jargon, and did not expect any of it back from me. That was such a relief. In that loving space, I could relax and start to be who I was. I started to believe that I could find that rock that the Quaker John Woolman spoke about, somewhere.
I explored other spiritual resources. I read Maria Montessori, who said we must “become incarnate with the help of (our) own will.” Rainer Maria Rilke urged me to “Will transformation. Oh be inspired for the flame in which a Thing disappears and bursts into something else.” I began a practice of yoga which I continue today. Once in awhile I attended the United Church in Norwalk, Connecticut, where my second son was confirmed. I studied A Course in Miracles. I went to an anger management workshop. I joined a group which used the techniques of Alcoholics Anonymous to deal with sexual intimacy issues. I learned from a former student of Margaret Mead’s, Dana Raphael, that we have a need for each other. Such a simple truth. A former Jesuit priest, Dr. Dean Dauw, kept insisting to me that human intimacy can be a great evolutionary process, until I listened. I was encouraged by my doctor, Paul Epstein, to take responsibility for my life, and my relationships. Despite all this great help that I was getting, I was still lonely, not connected with others, often depressed and anxious.
On November 9, 1988, I read the words of Jesus in Matthew 7: 7-8: “Ask and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
That day, I read these words and I believed them.
I said, to whoever was listening, “I’m asking. I am in need. I want to change my life.”
What happened next was that in the deepest part of my self, I knew I was forgiven. I had real hope that I could transform my way of being in the world. I wrote in my journal, “I can let go of the past. I can be healed of all the pain and the hurt and will be stronger and more beautiful as a result. Life is wonderful. It’s marvelous. I am trembling at it all.” I wrote down my prayer, “Dear God, I offer up to you all my pain, hurt, fear, anger, frustration and confusion. Please give me peace, surround me with your love and send some grace into my life.” I wrote, “I forgive myself for all the pain I’ve caused, for even the things I didn’t mean to do.”
The following year, at a seminar at Kripalu Yoga Center, a teacher called Vasudev was talking about how we could show our light to other people. “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,” he said, smiling. A grey-haired woman in the audience picked up the line and began singing; in a few seconds the whole auditorium of about 90 persons was alive with song:
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam
To shine for him each day,
In every way try to please him
At home, at work, at play.
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam!
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I’ll be a sunbeam for him.
A little self-consciously, but by and large joyously and with real meaning, I joined in the singing. I remembered singing it in Sunday School so many years ago, but now it made sense to me. I saw that one of my purposes of being on this earth was to be a vehicle for light and love. I was already starting to see that I was naturally shining more clearly in the world as I was working to clear away the clutter of shame, guilt, and fear, and the baggage of old theology that didn’t serve me.
When the song was over, the audience rippled with laughter. I thought, Grownups don’t sing such simple pledges of love to Jesus. What does this mean for me, exactly? But I laughed, too.
After that, Vasudev talked about how the waters of eternal life nourish us in being vehicles of light in the world. He explained this in Joseph Campbell’s words, who says we are given “invisible means of support” when we are “following our bliss”. At the end of the day, Guru Desai added, “Act in love, but don’t get attached to the results.” That seemed like good advice. I felt charged with positive energy and motivated to be a light in the world. I believed that I would get the help I needed. I felt happy.
My loneliness and despair had led to insight and illumination. In Marion Woodman’s words, my ego had begun to establish a creative relationship with the inner world, and release its own destiny.
Of course, right away I started having problems being a vehicle for light and love. My neighbor came over drunk and ruined my son’s birthday party and I got angry. I was still getting involved with inappropriate men. I got into arguments with my boss. And so on and so on. I felt hope and despair when I remembered some words by Tielhard de Chardin which I had read many years earlier: “In every organized whole, the parts perfect themselves and fulfill themselves.” “. . . we can only find our person by uniting together.” “Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.”
When I read what Isaac Penington said in 1667, “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.”, I knew I wanted to BE light and love in the world, to express love through my body, in the physical world, and connect in a real way with other people. But I also knew my skills in that area were shaky, and my growth was much too slow.
In 1996, I found an organization which taught the principles and skills of intentional loving, which also was very focused on helping people live in their bodies. That organization, Shalom Mountain Retreat and Study Center, in the Catskills, was a place where all psychological and spiritual paths were honored. They taught me spiritual disciplines that finally helped me open my heart. Experienced, compassionate facilitators and an intentionally loving community of fellow seekers respectfully helped me unblock the stuck places and claim my joy, my passion, my sexuality, and be the incarnation of Christ in every day life.
Shalom Mountain was founded in the 1960s by a man named Jerry Jud, who is now over 90 years old. He and his wife developed Shalom Retreats as a process for exploring the transformative power of loving community within the local Church. At that time he was deeply steeped in the life of the Church. Over 17 years, he had pastored two very large churches, but he saw that people could be in a church for fifty years and not know anybody. And they could not be known either, because the process in a church does not make intimacy possible. The church is scared of sex and the body, and the body is our vehicle through which we travel through this planet. At the same time, he saw the power of agape, or unconditional love. He really believed it when Jesus said that the greatest commandment is that is you shall love your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself,’ … as yourself. But how do you do that, exactly?
Jerry took the sayings of Jesus on the topic of love and summarized them in a few principles:
The Principles of Loving
- More than anything else, we want to love and be loved.
- Love is a gift.
- Love is a response to need.
- Love is not time bound
- Love is good will in action
From studying the words and life of Jesus, Jerry also compiled the Skills of Loving, and started giving retreats to teach these skills to clergy and their wives. The Church found that the power of these retreats was more than it could handle, and Jerry took his retreats out of the Church, and opened them up to everyone.
The Skills of Loving
- Seeing: I do not look over or through you. I see you in your uniqueness.
- Hearing: I listen to what you are saying.
- Honoring of feelings and ideas: I recognize and affirm your right to feel and think as you do.
- Having good will: I will you good and not evil. I care about you.
- Responding to need: If you let me know what your needs are, within the limits of my value system, I will not run away. I will be there for you.
I have been going on Shalom Retreats, and have been involved with Shalom Mountain, since 1996. I have used Jerry’s Skills and Principles of Loving as a guide for becoming an intentionally loving person. I use the word “becoming” deliberately, for it is a process of continual learning—sometimes pretty difficult learning. I continue to take up my bed and walk. In practicing these skills of loving, I am being Christ in the world. This is what the second coming means to me. Having seen the light of love, it’s my joy to share it. I feel good when I do. When I don’t, I know I am forgiven.
I have returned to Quaker Meeting, and now am attending Evanston Friends Meeting in Illinois. In my involvement with the Meeting I have had the opportunity to worship and practice my skills of loving. Synthesizing what I have learned and giving it back to the world in words is something I especially enjoy. So it’s been a real pleasure to write these last two blog posts, which will be a talk which I intend to give at Quaker Meeting in the upcoming week.