I’ve learned that these ten days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe, or Yamim Noraim. They are “a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the mistakes of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur.” Further, it is at this time that G-d writes names in the Book of Life (if your deeds have been good). While I’m Episcopalian, my wife is Jewish and I enjoy attending services with her. She introduced me to the beautiful Kol Nidre and we especially love the cello at our local synagogue. I hope this isn’t cultural appropriation because I feel connected in my body and my heart when I hear the chanting and the music in the synagogue. I, too, have mistakes from the previous year to repent and I also hope to have my name written in the Book of Life.
The fall feels particularly apt for repenting and starting anew. Partly because I’m the daughter of a school teacher and especially this year because I’m beginning several new courses of study this month. The fall has always been a new start for me—I LOVE school supplies! It’s a chance for a clean slate…or new composition book. As a K-12 student and in college I began each year with the best intentions. I will stay organized! I will do ALL my homework! On time! I will make honor roll every semester! Then, as the weeks rolled on, I inevitably shifted my focus and priorities to whatever social or extra-curricular shiny object caught my attention (yes, I’m a 7 on the Enneagram). In tenth grade I was class president and showed up to school one day to hear my friends talk about how late they’d stayed up working on their Social Studies term papers. What?! I’d forgotten. So, I spent first and second periods writing my paper in those classes, ignoring the teachers. I skipped third period and went to the library to pick some sources to cite in support of whatever I’d written and at lunch I convinced the school secretary to type my paper for me—which she did! I turned it in with everyone else at the beginning of fourth period. In the end, I made an A minus. Positive reinforcement for negative behavior. I would do better next time, I told myself.
Similarly, I went to church camp every summer at Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons Island, a short drive from our little town. At camp, caught up in the songs and new friends and all the things that buzzed my extrovert self, I felt connected to God and other people. I felt like I could be “good.” I came home with that feeling, like John Wesley’s “heart strangely warmed.” I thought the coming school year would be different. And yet, it wasn’t long before I was in trouble. Trying to be “cool” I inevitably got caught doing things I should not do, things I’d been told not to do.
Part of my erring was that I lived inauthentically. Who I was on the inside wasn’t okay. Yes, I am a lesbian, but I didn’t know that then. Beyond that, I knew I didn’t fit into the conservative, “Christ-haunted” south of Flannery O’Connor where I grew up. Compounding my internal conflicts, I was the daughter of a minister and nothing about me fit the small-town church people’s idea of a minister’s daughter. I spent so much effort trying to be what they said was good, instead of listening to the still, small voice inside me. Rather than focusing on the Book of Life where God alone judged my actions, I tried to be what small-town, South Georgia people said I should be, which is why my efforts failed. I was not being true to the me that God made.
So, this week, in the vein of serious introspection and repenting my errors, I think not only of the past calendar year but of a larger past, a past where I repent for what I did to others and what I did to myself, what I allowed to be done to my little self.
As an adult, in the turbidity and sheer difficulty of doing right by others, myself, and God, I find myself longing for something approximating my mother’s arms or my wife’s love. Approximating because human love can be unconditional and it can’t, because we are only human. What I want, what I think we all want, is absolute unconditional love. A sense of loving arms so wide and long, acceptance so deep that no part of ourselves is left out and we can at last relax in the loving comfort of compassion beyond our understanding, beyond anything we can imagine, much less deserve. Feeling that level of love and acting from it surely gives us a better shot at making it into the Book of Life. Coming from a place of love, with our whole, authentic selves, we might even find joy.
Meanwhile, this week I was immersed (or, more aptly, embedded as a reporter) in a retreat for Episcopal priests, deacons, and lay leaders. In an effort to participate as well as observe and interview people, I went to morning prayer the first day. The second day, I opted to pray alone by walking the labyrinth.
I went down the hill, across a footbridge, into a clearing where a pretty fancy labyrinth was laid out in a perfect clearing surrounded by trees, sunshine slashing through the trunks with early morning rays of light. It’s been a hot, dry summer in Texas and the verdant vegetation felt quenching on this surprisingly cool morning. The pine trees around me and pine straw underfoot reminded me of the landscape of my childhood and youth in South Georgia. I could hear the rocks crunch under my feet, along with leaves that dotted the path. I walked and tried to quiet my thoughts, bringing my mind back from its rambunctious wandering at many a turn. Thank goodness the labyrinth guides me.
I walked the labyrinth asking the questions of “am I on the right track?” “What IS my calling?” “Is it possible for me to think I deserve all the good currently in my life?”
And then, as I stepped into the center, there in the middle was a larger rock of a different color with “Joy!” written on it. I’d found Joy! I don’t know if there is always a rock with a message in that labyrinth (it was my first time there), if it changes regularly like the El Arroyo sign in Austin, or if this was serendipity. All I know is that it was there for me to find that morning and it was wonderful.
After finding “Joy!” I stood in the center to say a prayer. Having just completed a section on Embodiment in a Wisdom School course I’m taking, I decided to do Cynthia Bourgeault’s Body Prayer. I looked around to see if anyone would see me (yes, I am still self-conscious about outward and visible signs of my Christianity, even at an Episcopal retreat center!). So there, in the clearing amid the sound of birds welcoming the day, with a cool breeze passing through my limbs and the tree limbs around me, I bowed and exalted and turned and crossed my arms. I prayed with my heart, my mind, my body, and “Joy!”
I walked out of the labyrinth without the monkey-mind I’d come in with. In fact, I reached the end sooner than expected even though my pace was meditative. Since I was 16 years old, I have looked for a dramatic spiritual experience but this was not that. Something happened though, a subtle shift that I believe was a rapid movement—like when you speed ahead with one turn in Hasbro’s Chutes and Ladders game—a movement only possible through the daily plodding of my sometimes haphazard but regular spiritual practice. It was an amazing experience that I’m still unpacking. I wish I had some brilliant insight to share but maybe the point is that an embodied spiritual experience doesn’t need to be, perhaps can’t—and shouldn’t be—explicated. Thanks be to God.