by Elspeth Gibb
Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.
These words resonate with me at this stage of my life. I am drawn to silence and am finding the stronger pull of what I really love.
My personal faith journey has taken many twists and turns. It has been full of joy and sorrow in equal measures each woven through the other. Today I live with gratitude for what is and what is past, and continue to learn from the mistakes made along the way. The early formative teachings of Christianity I received as a child have stayed with me all my life and form the foundation of my inner life - but still there is the search to belong within a faith community in which I can grow, be authentic and share the journey. Here are words of Jesus as written in Luke’s gospel:
"Where your treasure is there will your heart be also"
Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, further expands on this concept in his book The Way of Man. He tells the story of a rabbi who dreams that there is treasure buried under a named bridge in Prague. He makes the arduous journey and there meets a man who tells him that he also has had a dream in which there was treasure buried under the stove in the home of the rabbi! He returns home, digs up the floor of his house and finds the treasure. Buber concludes that
"The place where this treasure can be found is the place on which one stands. The environment which I feel to be the natural one, the situation which has been assigned to me, the things that happen to me day after day, the things that claim me day after day - these contain my essential task"
So how did I come to where I am today? What follows is a gathering of memories and reflections. The opportunity to explore again and put into words a description of the inner ground on which I stand - and re-examine the strands which make up the picture of my life and my faith journey. I remember the cold classroom at the end of the school day, the rows of wooden desks with inkwells and 30 children singing. Above all I remember the sound of my voice, strong and full of joy, singing the familiar words. I was 5 years old. The world was indeed beautiful - I lived in a village in Argyll in Scotland. It was a close knit community and the landscape was both gentle and wild. Soft landscape with hills trees and wildflowers. I had already learned to love the wildness of the sea and the wind and learned, through the gentle kindness of my father, to use a telescope and watch the stars at night. I had learned to worship, to wonder at the mystery of it all and to love.
I was born into a good and loving family - a very great privilege for which I am profoundly grateful. When I was a child I learned that God was good, Jesus loved me and that praying in a dark night would keep me from evil. I learned to be kind. I learned to consider other people’s needs before my own. I learned, most importantly, that I was part of this wonderful world but not its centre.
It was simple - the foundation was laid. The Bible was the compass that would guide me through my life and God always would protect me. As I grew up, I learned the rules of the fundamentalist Christian tradition as expressed through the small Baptist Church in the village I grew up in. Only Baptists knew the real truth and I guessed I was a Baptist so I was just fine. I was baptised by immersion when I was 16 years old and joined the church.
It is no surprise that life became more difficult as I grew up. As everyone does, when I approached my teenage years my world was full of questions and there was a dissonance emerging in my inner world. Things were not making sense. I did not understand nor did I wish to comply with the family rules and beliefs. I had learned that we only made friends with those who were ‘Christians’. In the church I grew up in no one was a real Christian unless they were ‘born again’ and their beliefs matched exactly with the agreed norm. Literal interpretation of the Bible resulted in many restrictions and rules. The strict adherence to maintaining the Sabbath meant that no singing, washing ones hair, gardening, cooking or reading was allowed. We were expected to go to church twice on Sundays and also to attend Sunday School. There was a reluctance to allow any joining of ‘secular’ organisations and it became clear that the literal interpretation of the Biblical exhortation to be “in the world but not of the world” meant that I was unable to participate in ordinary community life. This had a profound effect and I learned from an early age that I was an outsider, always observing from the edge of things. I learned that prayer was like a long shopping list and if one was good this reluctant God could be persuaded to listen and make life easier.
But I was increasingly bewildered that this God, who did not focus His attention on averting world disaster and the brutalisation of innocent people, could be persuaded to intervene in the minutiae of my life.
I found it unbearable that my questioning upset my family but my mind simply could not make sense of the instilled beliefs in the context of my own experience. I was given a booklet called ‘Truth and Error’ - in one column it listed ‘The Truth’ and every other point of view, religion and even different denominations of the Christian church was listed under the column headed ‘Error’. It gave clear answers to every question, and specific things to say to those who disagreed.
I knew I was on the road to disaster - I became obsessed with the existentialist literature I was given to study and increasingly troubled by a deep awareness growing inside me that my truth could never fit in with the beliefs of the church as I knew it.
Some 6 years later, a friend said to me by way of some consolation when life was very difficult, that a ‘New Chapter’ would begin.
This was no comfort at all then. I had moved into my adult life, I had married and had two gorgeous children whom I adored - but, although I was committed to my husband and family, the marital relationship I had embarked on was for me devastating and destructive. I remember walking along the deserted beach in Kintyre alone, after the children were asleep night after night, reflecting on the notion of a ‘New Chapter’ and the terror of it all. The story of a traumatic marriage breakdown, uncertain relationships, financial insecurity and the consequences of removing my two dearly loved children from their family home seemed a most unpalatable script for any next chapter.
As a child I grew into the beliefs of my family that God protects His own and that no harm would come to me if I was good. The more sinister corollary of this supposition penetrated all too starkly - I must therefore be bad! God had in some way abandoned me. The foundation had disappeared. The fundamentalist tradition I was born into had no answers as to why kindness sometimes turns to cruelty, why what seemed to be love sometimes turns to hate and why the expression of difference and diversity can lead to unreasonable control and violence.
I found solace in writing and in literature, in the wildness of the sea and the beauty of the world. I was passionately committed to my children and worked hard to provide for them. I fell in love, embarked on a successful career and explored the world I was experiencing. I read about Buddhism and discovered the writing of Rabindranath Tagore, finding wisdom and comfort, but a deep sense of alienation from the Christian church remained. I had lost my way - and I do reflect on these years as wilderness years. I experimented with the things which had been forbidden and discovered the sting in the tail of most pleasures. There were extreme experiences of sadness as I could not find a way to integrate my adult relationships with family relationships, and total devastation when both my children began to experience difficulties in their own lives in their adolescent years.
I was well off track, trying to find my way back. And somewhere in the trying my inner spiritual life began to turn again. Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing, and rightdoing, there is a field.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing, and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.
Pain and loss made me look deeper. Learning early that in each religion there is the spectrum of belief with the fundamentalist perspective at one end and the mystical perspective at the other. I learned acceptance of the spirituality of other traditions and embraced diversity.
I explored in much more depth the diversity within the Christian tradition and started to read avidly the writings of the early Christian mystics and discovered, with great wonder and joy, the benefits of meditation. Discovering that meditation had been a central part of early Christian tradition was a great comfort and there was a real sense of homecoming.
It is hard to describe the peaceful sense of relief in finding the wisdom contained in the early words I was taught as a child from the Bible. Words which had instilled confusion and dissonance I began to understand in a different way. The fundamental teachings of the life of Jesus had never left me but I had lost any capacity to engage with the formal expression of religion in the context of church. finding a way to silence through meditation has helped me to be at peace within myself and to gather back the goodness of the Christian tradition.