My experience with any kind of religion or spiritual practice while growing up was very limited. I vaguely recall going to some Sunday schools but do remember not enjoying it very much. One family story that occurred when I was just a little tyke was how my father quit the Baptist church when the preacher decreed that no longer could his parishioners read the Sunday papers. That it was a sin to do so! That was it as far as my father was concerned so he put his foot down and declared that we would never again attend a Baptist service.
So we became Methodists—or at least we attended a Methodist church. I say we, but it was really my older sister, two older brothers, and myself that went. Usually my parents would drop us off for Sunday school then head home for what I now imagine was some romantic alone time without the children. They always returned and picked us up after Sunday school let out even if they were a few minutes late. I never did quite get what they were teaching us but sometimes it was a lot of fun. It was reassuring that there was this invisible being called God that we could call on whenever we needed help with something.
Then things changed.
I was about seven years old when I overheard my mother telling my grandmother that Diane Fitzgerald, the little five year old girl next door I played with on occasion, had leukemia. She had been bruising very badly, so when her parents took her to the doctors, after some tests it was determined that the diagnosis was accurate. When her parents brought her back from the tests, the word spread rapidly in the neighborhood and in the family. Picking up bits and pieces of conversation and sensing the fear, sadness, and turmoil around the all this, I got the idea that she might die from this condition.
Though I didn’t always pray, that night I clenched my fists into a ball and prayed. And prayed. I prayed so hard that tears began to fall. “Diane is my friend God. Please fix her. Make her better. Make her live.” Then one day I saw them take her on one of the increasingly frequent trips to the hospital.
She didn’t come back.
An aura of deep grief fell upon Diane’s parents house. Everyone who knew the Fitzgeralds spoke in quiet whispers about this tragic loss so close to home—if they spoke at all. Whereas Diane’s mother and father had been quite sociable with the neighbors prior to their loss they were seen less and less, preferring to stay cloistered inside their house, generally avoiding making contact with their friends on the street.
I was befuddled and angry that God could permit this kind of suffering. I screamed in my head, “How could you do this?” More tears came that night. Over and over in my mind or even spoken through my sobbing I kept repeating, “There is no God.”
Children at the age I was when this happened still tend to think in very concrete and literal terms. So “God,” was a ten foot grandfatherly figure in the sky with a long flowing silver beard, looking down on us, ready to grant blessings or punishment at a moment’s notice. So the betrayal I felt was directed at this mythic figure somewhere in the sky, but now I know the deep hurt and anger I was feeling that someone or something had taken my friend away.
From that day on I firmly believed there was no such being.
Reverence and Awe
Flash forward to age 19 years, taking a philosophy class from a world-class instructor. The topics we covered were fascinating and I was always looking forward to his class. One day he had us do a simple meditation, one where with eyes closed he asked us to see the numbers from 1 to 9 moving across the screen of our eyelids slowly and repetitively. After a few minutes of this he popped the question: “What is it that is seeing those numbers?”
It was as if there was some electric circuitry in my mind that started shorting out. I could almost smell the aroma of burning wire. After a couple more minutes he had us open our eyes. I’m sure my pupils must have been fully dilated, like tiny dark moons. I walked, or rather stumbled, as elegantly as I could from the classroom, filled with what I would now call reverence and awe and feeling paradoxically both in and out of my body.
I walked out to the balcony of the second story classroom. My eyes were drawn to the mountains covered with the first season’s snowfall, which were illuminated as if a beacon of light was shining down from the heavens. I was entranced by the wondrous beauty of this sight. Still no thoughts of God, but when I melted back into the day to day reality, I knew I had witnessed something that was more expansive and inclusive than the usual “I”—a very different experience from ordinary reality. I was pure awareness, feeling no separation from anything.
As the next few days progressed the experience eventually found a corner of my mind and stayed there as a powerful yet increasingly distant memory. Following college like many of us going through the tumultuous sixties, I experimented with psychedelics and was fascinated and occasionally terrified by how my consciousness was altered from the effects of the drugs, yet I had no understanding of what was really happening. For many of us these experiences opened a window into another reality, one that existed just beyond the veil of our usual senses. The experimentation was definitely not a sacred act, yet it gave us a glimpse of what mystics had been teaching and talking about for millennia.
Susan, my wife at the time and the mother of my two now adult daughters, was pregnant with our first child we ultimately named Nicole. I attended birthing classes with her and watched her belly grow over the months. We were getting closer and closer to the due date, which was to be some time in the first part of January.
Up to now I would say that I was spiritually underdeveloped. Lost in the distance was the memory of the experiences I’d had in college and in the psychedelic era. Other than the occasional contemplations that typically ended with no specific conclusions or convictions Yet I stilled hungered for something, some answers to this puzzle called “Life.” Just didn’t know where to look.
Yet much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I was about to discover an answer, or at least a launching pad, very soon.
It was New Year’s Eve 1979. We had some friends over for dinner and after they left, settled in for the evening. Susan sat down on the couch to read and I retired to the television room and started to watch the movie Saturday Night Fever. A few minutes into the movie I heard Susan cry out, “My water broke!” It took a few seconds to register what exactly was happening, but when it did I jumped up and left John Travolta dancing away. Nervous but clearly on a mission, I scooped up Susan and the necessary supplies and got in the car. Boy was I focused!
A very quick trip to the birthing room at the hospital, which resembled a hotel room of sorts, where she continued riding to her body’s destination of birthing a child. I coached her the best I could. Emotions were high. The nurse was very calming in this real life drama and about six hours later the head of the baby emerged. Then she fully birthed into the world. I was invited to cut the umbilical cord. I was glad to do even though my hands were shaking.
We welcomed this tiny being into the world. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, even as scrunched up as she was! I was completely awestruck at this miraculous event, one that so many of us have experienced over the millennia, yet here I was at this moment participating in this extraordinary event up close and very, very personal. After things calmed a bit and the baby, who we named Nicole Andrea, nestled into her mother’s arms, I sat nearby still reeling from the unfamiliar mix of emotions.
In my mind I kept hearing the phrase, “There is a God!” repeating like a sacred mantra. No, not the God of my seven year old self, up in the clouds looking down upon us, but one that at the time I couldn’t rationally describe or explain.
Over the years I’ve come to know God as the Being-ness in All Things, the Source that emanates through and as everything in the Universe, as that which expresses as me and you and everyone and everything else on this remarkable planet. This is the God that communicates with us through the animals, plants, rocks, clouds, and every other being in the natural world. This is the God that guides us through invisible beings such as angels, ancestors, and fairies. This is the God that sometimes whispers to us and sometimes shouts at us in attempts to get our attention. This is the God that is neither masculine or feminine, but emanates in this world of duality as either one or the other. This is the God of our Ancestors and our descendants!
Thank you Nicole Andrea. You are a gift from God.