My Spiritual Sojourn

This post is essentially an outline of the encounters I’ve had in my journey; I’m posting it here for my reference, and also for your edification. There is much that can be fleshed out. If you’d like to read in-depth about any particular segment, leave a note in the comments specifying which one. I’m not certain I will be ready to oblige you, but it might give me a starting point. I’ve been told numerous times by those I’ve shared my story with that my experiences would make an interesting book. (I really enjoyed and was inspired by Karen Armstrong’s book, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.)

1963-1976: Roman Catholic, an earnest believer (as much as a child can understand); baptized, first commmunion, confirmation. Considered becoming a nun.

1977-1981: Attended a Roman Catholic weekend seminar for teens and discovered charismatic Catholicism, which included the concept of being “born again.” Began attending a weekly prayer group for teens called Reality. These were hosted by an adult couple and teens took turns facilitating discussion, prayer, and music. Was also depressed; starting at 16 I saw a psychologist at school (which kept me tethered to this world). Was an obnoxious proselytizer of my conservative religion.

1982-1983: Began having doubts about Catholicism and God. Struggled for independence and autonomy in a household where attending church was mandatory as long as I was under my parents’ roof. Explored sexuality, first with a man, later with a woman. Drew a “line in the sand” with my father while still living at home by refusing to attend church. Moved out of the house December 1983. Entered into a monogamous relationship with a woman that I fully intended to live in commitment with the rest of my life. Began therapy at the Onondaga Pastoral Counseling Center (depression).

1984-1988: Entered my angry anti-Christian phase. I threw myself into reading novels and non-fiction works about Judaism. Voraciously read books on anthropology and psychology. Came out to my family, friends, and co-workers as a lesbian. Attended a Passover Seder held by a friend and attended Shabbat service at Temple Adath Yeshurun with her. Visited Plymouth Congregational church (which had a female minister and was accepting of gays) but could not reconcile with Christianity. Continued to struggle with depression and received counseling. My first therapist (a female) had graduated and moved on. I chose to work with a male therapist next in order to deal with my distrust of men; I made it clear how I felt and that I was gay and would not brook any attempts to “cure” me of this. He was one of the best therapists I’ve ever worked with. (Note: let me make clear that I do not believe lesbians are such because they distrust men. For me, this was an aspect of my identity, but I think there is largely an inherent biological component to sexual orientation, and it’s not a dichotomy (gay or straight) but a spectrum.)

mid-1988-1990: After five years, unresolvable problems led to the mutual and amicable dissolution of my relationship with my significant other. I was invited to move home to my parents’ house for a short while so I could pay off a large debt and apply to colleges in order to finish my B.A. Until 1988 I had enormous difficulty settling on a major, but I experienced an epiphany in a particular class that led me to commit to studying psychology. Ended therapy with the male psychotherapist at OPCC in 1989 having come a very long way. When pressed to define my sexuality, I chose bisexual. I remained agnostic and non-practicing in any religion. Took a leave from my university job to attend college full-time in Oswego. Found myself deeply lonely for many reasons. Experienced a falling-out with my parents in spring 1990 that led me to put education on hold for financial reasons. Returned to work full-time at the university. Had an unstable housing situation for awhile. Was particularly mired in depression in 1990. In May 1989, began what would become a decade long penpal relationship with a Navajo man in prison for life in Arizona; the discourse between us became a type of journal exchange. (He shared his religious experiences as a Navajo, and I read about Native American religions.) A typical letter from me was 15-20 typed single-spaced pages, and we wrote between 100-200 letters each per year. This dialogue was challenging, educational, and healing.

1990-1991: Attended a local Methodist church and talked with the pastor. Attended a friend’s Christian & Missionary Alliance church, which was very conservative, and struggled with the doctrine. Could not accept this. Reconciled with my parents. Struggled still with loneliness. Bought my first car ever, which allowed me to return to college (commuting 100 miles round trip) while working — both full-time. This increased freedom and mobility opened my life.

1992-1994: Finished my B.A. in December 1992. In January, started attending a local Unitarian Universalist church and became involved in some of the groups there. Talked with the pastor extensively about my spiritual questions; if asked, I would have said I was agnostic. I also visited several Unity church services at a friend’s invitation. Went to a Powwow held near Binghamton, N.Y. Viewed a gallery of works by Native American artists, hosted by Golden Paints in Columbus, New York. In July 1994 I moved from Syracuse, NY, to Austin, Texas. In September 1994 I was raped. Shortly after, some neighbors befriended me; they were born-again, charismatic, fundamentalist Christians. Having called the rape crisis center but not receiving help (longer story), I turned to the safety of a conservative, rigid, rule-driven religion. I revealed my return to “born again” Christianity to my family. In particular this caused a rift between my brother and me (we both lived in Austin).

1995-1997: Depression resurfaced, and loneliness lurked. Continued on the conservative Christian path with increasing difficulty. I never truly felt at home with the speaking in tongues, the arm-waving during service, the naivete of the believers. I would not attest that my past relationship with a woman had been sinful. I did not see homosexuality as the sin and abomination they purported. I did not accept creationism. I did not believe the scriptures were literally true. I was uncomfortable with the “holier than thou” attitude the churches I attended had toward maintstream Christian denominations. I was not convinced Christianity was the one, true way. Grew uncomfortable with the mandate to “witness for the lord” so that others might “be saved” — this created more barriers than bridges with “nonbelievers.” I participated in small prayer groups but found them to be superficial; for the most part, the “friendship” did not extend beyond the group. Resisted the doctrine of original sin; found that defining humans by their flaws did not help release people from their egos. It simply turned them ego-centric and narcissistic in a negative way. Found the “born again” worldview glib and began to think of it as heaven insurance. Questioned what real belief is. Quit my full-time job. Entered graduate school for counseling and experienced further dissonance; saw the movie, Chasing Amy and experienced a pivotal realization about my identity. I left the church I was involved in and forsook Christianity altogether. Whatever social community I had went with it; a lonely season followed. I felt as though I had returned to myself in a fundamental way. My depression continued; I began getting therapy with another excellent therapist and began dealing with the long-neglected impact of the sexual assault.

1998-1999: My depression worsened. Continued therapy and worked with deep issues. I put all my energy into school and excelled but barely had anything left outside of that. Lack of income led me to getting a full-time job again, so I worked and attended classes full-time. My cat died in April 1998; grief compounded the depression. Had an ill-advised affair with a scholar working in the same department at university; it ended badly. I could not let go; seeing him daily was torture. Felt incredibly alone and vulnerable. While attending a Catholic university, began a dialogue with the priest there about Catholicism that was very healing (though ultimately did not lead to reconciliation). (Interestingly, the Catholic university was most receptive to discourse about religious and philosophical matters and to the search for truth and meaning. Their religion professor defined himself as a Buddhist Catholic.) Attended mass there because I found the chapel a refuge of peace. Began reading about Buddhism and occasionally joined a small group to practice Vipassana meditation. Also began reading about quantum physics (to the degree I could understand).

In late 1998 I was assessed and prescribed medication for depression. The improvement was notable, immediate, and felt miraculous. Graduated in May 1999; one of the happiest episodes of my life. My depression abated. Ended the writing relationship with my penpal for reasons I’m not ready to disclose here yet. Since I was not certain I would ever find one man or woman who could “handle” me (it had been suggested I was more than enough for a single person, that I was “too intense”), I explored polyamory briefly with a man who was involved in similar relationships. I examined the ways in which love can be expressed and received via reading and discussion. Met Husband in October 1999. Fell in love and felt immediately at home with him. Concluded that polyamory was viable for others, not for me. (If interested, a good book to start with is The Ethical Slut.) Came to understand that I will never return to Catholicism.

2000-present: At the invitation of a friend, attended Satsang at Barsana Dahm Hindu temple. Moved in with Husband. Completed my counseling internship and passed the licensing exam. Continued to read about and explore Buddhism and also Taoism. Began to read widely about Paganism as well. Irregularly practiced sitting meditation. Discovered making art as a spiritual practice and meditation; found knitting to be similar. Continued to take medication for depression; twice attempted to titrate off them with doctor’s supervision and found in each case the depression returned. Made peace with this and accepted that for me to be healthy, medication is necessary. Moved across country (then married in 2005). Over the years, as my life has become more stable (less struggle for basic financial survival, improved mental health, self-acceptance, a healthy loving relationship with Husband), pervasive loneliness evaporated.

I participated in several workshops by Alaya called Yoga for the Emotional Body; focus was on developing skill in working with feelings to channel and contain their energies; in this way, emotions become a source of enrichment in one’s life. The experiences were life-changing. In 2004, briefly attended a church in Austin that I found combined the best of esoteric Christianity, psychology, and mysticism. This unique church is called The Church of Conscious Harmony. It was a contemplative community; I found the reverence for spirit inspiring. There is nothing like it in the Bay Area. I fundamentally do not embrace the general concept of Christianity (though I do believe there are valuable wisdom teachings in the scriptures, as in other religious writings); nor do I believe in a god. I remain undefined and uncategorized as to a particular belief system or practice. When pressed to identify what religion I am most drawn to and feel compatible with, I name Buddhism and psychology.

As I review this post, it’s clear to me a I’ve read nothing about Islam, and for the purpose of being informed that strikes me as a topic to explore. I also plan to explore more topics like Carl Sagan’s latest book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.

Explore posts in the same categories: Arts, Education, Humanities, Journal, Nature, Regional, Science, Social Science

11 Comments on “My Spiritual Sojourn”

  1. Winston Says:

    What a long and winding road you have travelled… It seems that much of your spiritual life has been like a tennis match, back and forth from agnosticism to trying the next big thing. I suppose that says you had never settled into a comfort zone and were still looking for something that worked for you.

    I’m sure you have asked yourself the question: Is this it? Or does the search continue?

    I admire and appreciate your openness in sharing this chronology with your readers.

  2. Tien Says:

    You certainly came a long way. I’m sure those who read will feel that way too

  3. Laurel Says:

    Holy crap, lady.

    You oughta write a book. A memoir. Just this condensed version of your life is riveting stuff.

    Holy moly. That’s some journey you’ve been on. Or should I say, that’s some journey you’re on.

    Make me feel like my life’s half-lived, timid by comparison.

    I didn’t respond to your posts below, but please know that even though I don’t pray, I am sending you every ray and cell of positive thought and energy that I can muster to your corner of the universe.

    Write a book, friend.

    I’m serious.

  4. donna Says:

    What a long, strange, trip it’s been? ;^)

    You’ve been a busy girl!

    Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God” is good comparative of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Nothing beats reading the Koran, of course, to understand Islam – beautiful writing as well. I’ve enjoyed most religious texts as mythology; the Tao Te Ching ultimately has had the most impact for me. Simple, yet effective in its own way.

    The rigidity of “accepted religious practice” in America is deeply disturbing to me – I think our national health is at great risk because of it. There are simply too many ways to experience being human to try and constrain so many people into a one-size-fits-all spiritual practice. I think your writings would be useful to many, many people struggling with this, and I don’t see anything “strange” or “unusual” in your journey myself – it mirrors that of many, many people I know.

  5. Paul Sunstone Says:

    An extraordinary journey!

    I’m curious if you ever thought that at times you were using religion as a form of self-medication for your depression? For instance, back in high school when you became a proselytizing Catholic?

  6. gerry rosser Says:

    Hmmm, my mom drug me to various Baptist churches when I was a kid, and that sums up my religious journey.

  7. Kathryn Says:

    That’s an interesting question, Paul. I am certain that the retreat into fundamentalism right after the rape was a form of self-medication and an effort to create a sense of safety again. My earlier experience as a teen was an effort to find a social niche while growing up in a very strict, authoritarian household. The proselytizing just went with the territory, i.e., born again Christians are mandated to “witness” and try to get people to convert. I was less obnoxious in my second foray after the assault (at least I aimed to have more discretion) but probably still annoyed others. I don’t know that the religion was an attempt to self-medicate exactly, because as you can see from my story, the yearning for spiritual expression continues even though the depression is in remission. I think that in some cases wounded people, people with little sense of confidence, people who rely on external validation, people who are vulnerable, people who are unclear on what they think, are those most likely to be captivated by the simple proscriptive and prescriptive nature of fundamental religions.

  8. Paul Sunstone Says:

    “I think that in some cases wounded people, people with little sense of confidence, people who rely on external validation, people who are vulnerable, people who are unclear on what they think, are those most likely to be captivated by the simple proscriptive and prescriptive nature of fundamental religions.”

    That’s a very interesting series of observations on the psychology of fundamentalism. It makes intuitive sense, too.

    I agree with you, Kathryn, that your yearning for spiritual expression even after the depression is in remission indicates you are not using religion for self-medication. The reason I was wondering about that, however, is because after looking back on my own life, I am fairly sure there were times that I used religion and philosophy as self-medication. So, I’m aware that sort of thing can and has been done.

    At any rate, yours is a very interesting spiritual journey, and put me down as another person who thinks you should write a book about it.

  9. acm Says:

    thanks for sharing — it’s always interesting to share the explorations of others, whether they have curved in similar or very different ways from our own. we all send out feelers of various sorts, whether toward other people, God, or the larger world…

  10. leah Says:

    this was a fascinating read Kathryn. even though I knew much of this story, it helped to see it in outline form. i think you could write an excellent book on your spirtitual journey! are you planning on it?

  11. Kathryn Says:

    Hey Leah, I’m toying with the idea. I’m percolating and hope a unifying theme might emerge to shape it all.