This is difficult at least in part because I'm so fickle. I waffle. I've gone back and forth on so many things that to take a stand in any direction can be dismissed as me crying "wolf." I'm either refreshingly transparent or I've shot all my credibility to hell. You pick. If I've come to know a certain freedom by no longer trying to be a particular kind of religious person, it's becoming clear that fashioning myself into a particular kind of skeptic isn't doing the trick either.
It's probably obvious to everyone but me that I am probably never going to escape evangelicalism, and I'm certainly never going to escape Christianity. I used to joke that I was a Christian because God won't let me be a Buddhist. These days I'm likely to to joke that I'm a Christian because God won't let me be an atheist. God's not going to let me be Episcopalian, either, and it might be worth keeping God around just so I can be pissed about that.
Really, though, I need resources to help me get over myself. I need a way to bridge or contexualize or make sense of the tension between my interior life, which is deeply skeptical and characterized by seeking to stare unflinchingly into the Abyss, and my outer life, which bears the indelible marks of being forged in Christian community. It would seem that I have the mind of an atheist but the heart of an evangelical. Would this make more sense -- at least to me, if not to others -- if I admitted that I also have the soul of a mystic?
In some ways this is where my troubles started. Not quite twenty years ago, bored with what I knew as faith, I stumbled across Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. It served as the shot in the arm I was looking for, in spite of the fact that I was probably getting into for a lot of the wrong reasons. I wanted to be righteous. I wanted to be right. I wanted some way of feeling "in the know." The spiritual disciplines were my little gnostic secret. But I was also motivated out of an earnest searching. I felt like I was missing something, and Foster's famous tome spoke to that something.
From there I discovered Thomas Merton, and someone who noticed my interest in monasticism turned me on to Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk. This may have been the beginning of the end. It began a long-standing fascination with monks (which I still have), but it also inspired a prayerful longing: I wanted a faith more like Norris's, a faith that seemed so much larger than mine at the time. I wanted the depth of Merton. I wanted to write like both of them combined. I loved the first-person perspectives on a dark and murky faith, framed by the rhythms of liturgy and populated with saints.
I started dabbling in centering prayer, in lectio divina. I listened to Cynthia Bourgeault teaching about chanting the Psalms. I read monastic literature and every kind of spiritual memoir I could get my hands on. I cultivated silence and solitude. I was probably an unbearable asshole about it, but we're all works in progress, right? My point, I think, is that we're always a kind of mixed bag of earnestness and self-aggrandizement. The line between the things we legitimately do to be better people and those we do simply in order to convince ourselves -- or others -- that we are those better people is hopelessly fuzzy, and sometimes doesn't exist at all.
Regardless, however, the practices we cultivate us and the habits we form have an effect on us, whether this happens out of the right kind of intentionality or any intentionality at all. These things had an effect on me, partially (I like to think) in developing greater patience and a sensitivity to spiritual rhythms, but they also plunged me headlong into my own existential doubts. They pointed to a deep undercurrent that helped to clear away some of the bric-a-brac and deconstruct some of the binaries on which my thinking was based. And this was helpful, until this undercurrent folded back on itself and left me suspended over the Void. I don't know how else to explain that.
I didn't handle that well. I haven't handled it well. Probably I'm not handling it well. Mostly I just set up camp in the Abyss, so I can bitch about how lonely it is. I've tried, a couple of times, to out myself as an atheist, but it's never really taken, at partially because my life keeps taking me places where that doesn't play. A real, honest-to-God atheist (sorry) doesn't have the option to say they feel called to anything, let alone playing music in church. That just doesn't work. It comes down to me not wanting to identify as an atheist because I'm such an embarrassment to atheists. It's that inner/outer thing; I can reach a place of unbelief in my head but the rest of my life, having not gotten the memo, trundles along in the habits of faith.
I also stepped away from the contemplative life, because while I'm into things like silence and liturgical rhythms and surrendering to life's lessons (which often means submitting to others) and so forth, I completely suck at the core practices like meditation and prayer.
I'm awful. The concept of spiritual practice can be legitimately expanded to cover things like writing and music, but still, there's the suckage. I got tired of trying to pray more, and tired of feeling guilty for failing at it, and tired of trying to be something that did not, and does not, feel right. I'm not a meditator. I might be meditative from time to time, but anyone can tell you that's not the same. It's like the difference between being a sprinter and occasionally seeing the need to run fast.
At the same time, I am forced to recognize a great cloud of witnesses, from within the Christian tradition and outside of it, who have stared into the Abyss and come through the experience without going mad (Nietzsche seems to have not handled it well, if you get my drift). Even Mother Theresa confessed deep, lingering doubts and a profound sense of God's absence and yet continued her work. For me, it's like I've made this deal with God where I don't actually have to believe in God as long as I keep doing the work God has for me to do. That may not make sense to you, but I'll bet a buck-fifty I'm not the only one.
So -- yeah. I'm not sure where that leaves me. I'm not really a mystic, and I have no intention of being one. I'm not seeking enlightenment or union with the Godhead or the beatific vision. And yet if I invoke Fowler's stages of faith, or Spiral Dynamics (based on the work of Clare Graves and later appropriated by Ken Wilber) I can locate myself somewhere farther along the continuum and yet called to remain with my evangelical brothers and sisters to help them along their paths.
This sounds haughty, perhaps -- arrogant and self-congratulatory -- and I have consistently rejected such a narration for exactly that reason, but it's also deeply humbling inasmuch as I don't get to say what anyone else's path actually is. It means listening, and being accountable to others. It means mutual submission. It means surrendering to a process that I don't fully understand. It means cultivating a kind of trust that necessitates self-emptying.
It means a constellation of things, and if you look just right, maybe squint a little bit, you can make out a shape in that constellation: faith.