Religious beliefs are so deeply personal and emotional that it’s taken me a very long time to be comfortable opening up about my own. Not wanting to offend or challenge anyone’s faith, I’ve preferred to focus on psychological issues. Yet, of all the topics I write about in this blog, my posts about religion seem to elicit the most interest and affirming comments.
I noticed this again at my first book-signing for “Healing the Sacred Divide” last weekend. Every time I looked up from reading a little story about a major awakening I experienced at the age of eleven, I saw people nodding and smiling in recognition. The story is about my parents advising me to tone down my show-offy behavior at a motel swimming pool lest I make the other children feel badly. There was a little girl out there who was having trouble keeping up with the rest of us, my father said. I should notice, her, think about her feelings, try to include her and make her feel better about herself.
This was a crucial moment in my development. Overcome with self-consciousness, I realized for the first time that people were not only watching, but critiquing me, possibly even feeling badly about themselves because of me. So I walked up to the little girl in the faded brown bathing suit and tentatively lied, “I like your bathing suit.” While she happily bounced away to jump off the diving board, I sat quietly in the nearest chair pondering my new knowledge. I was capable of hurting people without intending to, just by having fun and being me! Suddenly the world was filled with eyes, and I knew that all of them, including God’s were watching me.
After that I no longer associated God with the warm, happy feelings I experienced when I mastered new skills or explored the wonders of nature. God became a collection of ideas about the kind of behavior expected by an aloof, separate, powerful, all-seeing, overtly beneficent but secretly critical, gender-biased, judgmental King. If I worked very hard to please him by obeying his rules and making nice and attending church regularly I might receive his approval, protection, and salvation. If I didn’t, I’d be notified and punished. He called the shots and that’s how it was. That was fine with me. After all, he was the King of Heaven!
This is a childish, Santa Clausy image of God. Typical in the early stages of ego-development, it’s based on a child’s normal fears, vulnerability, and desire to please. My religious thinking changed considerably in the coming years, but beneath it the same childish emotional reality—the same unconscious needy attachment to the norms of my family—lived deep within me like an insecure orphan who’s afraid to leave the safety of her dark little attic room.
Instead of enabling me to let “this little light of mine” shine, as the song I learned at Vacation Bible School said I should, this God-image encouraged me to wear a rigid, carefully constructed mask that nearly smothered it. What saved it was learning that, as Ravi Ravindra wrote, “the struggle to know who I am…is the spiritual quest.” And that “To keep the flame of spiritual yearning alive is to be radically open to the present and to refuse to settle for comforting religious dogma, philosophic certainties, and social sanctions.”
The interest in my writing and talks about religious matters convinces me I haven’t been alone in my struggle to grow past this dysfunctional God-image. It’s been slow going, but self-knowledge is healing my long and painful separation from the Mystery. What’s your story?