Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography: All the Way to Heaven
by Susan Wittig Albert
That Old Time Religion, It’s Good Enough for Me
Growing up in in a rural Illinois community, I was powerfully shaped by my mother’s religion. Mother belonged (and still does, in her 90th year) to a church that we would now call fundamentalist. Back then, and at home, we just called it a “Bible-preaching” church. For most of the years of my childhood, I not only went to Sunday School and morning worship, but to the Sunday evening service and to the Wednesday evening prayer meeting. For a few years, my father was a part-time janitor at the church, so we also spent several hours on Saturday morning, cleaning the building and getting it ready for Sunday service.
I still remember, even more vividly than I remember the houses we lived in at that time, the earliest of the churches we attended. It was a small, plain brick building with one main room, dark wood pews, very smooth, on either side of a central aisle. In the front was a raised platform with doors on either side. The platform held a simple lectern with a Bible on it, where the preacher stood. (No woman ever stepped foot on that platform, not even my mother, when she was running the vaccuum). At the back of the platform, a curtain concealed a recessed tank of water called a baptistry (the ritual of acceptance was an immersion ritual). The windows in the opposite walls of the room were made of diamond-shaped patterns of colored glass. They were different from windows in other churches because there were no images of Christ or the apostles—this church did not believe in worshipping “graven images,” or any other images, for that matter. One of the doors beside the platform led to a small kitchen, where every week a group of soberly-dressed women with no makeup or jewelry would prepare the communion that was handed around by the men on Sunday morning, grapejuice in tiny individual cups that I longed to take home and play teaparty with, and a salty flat bread broken into small bits. (You could only take communion, I knew, after you had been immersed in the water, and if you had been good all week—one or the other of which sadly left me out most Sundays.) There was no organ or piano, because the church did not believe in musical accompaniment. The only instrument of worship was the human voice, and often my father led the singing, using a little round mouthharp with the notes printed on it to set the key.
Now, looking at the words I have just put down on paper, I am amazed. I had no idea I remembered all of that! Looking at the physical details that rose to the surface of my memory as I wrote, I am surprised to see how they embodied the tenants of that church’s faith. I should have realized that, of course, for as an adult, I know that a physical place of worship symbolically presents that religious community’s spiritual beliefs. But I hadn’t thought of how that might apply to me, until I began to write. And looking back, I can see (with some surprise) how deeply impressed I must have been with the experience of religion, and how it shaped my sense of who I was, where and to whom I belonged, how I should or shouldn’t behave, what I should wear on my body and my face, what kind of language I should use. For better and for worse, my deepest and earliest (and probably most enduring) understanding of myself was as a participant in a formal religion, with all its rules, regulations, symbols, doctrines, practices. And I can’t understand my personal past—or my present, for that matter—if I don’t understand the religious and spritual experiences that shaped me. This is true for you, as well. It is true for all of us.
Do you have childhood memories like this? Whether you come from a Christian tradition—or one that is Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, Native American—can you look back in your imagination, open a door, and walk into the earliest place of worship? If you can, write down these memories of the physical place now, in as much detail as you can. And as the details emerge from your memory, see if you can connect them with beliefs. Here are a few brief examples from Story Circle workshops:
I remember the beautiful stained glass windows with pictures of the saints. I believed the windows must be something like heaven, and I knew the angels sounded just like our choir.
When we filed in, the women and children knelt on one side, the men on the other. Only the men ever spoke inside that room. I believed that women who spoke out loud would be damned.
Wednesday night testimony meeting was held in the church basement. We sat on wooden folding chairs, and people would stand up and say how bad they had been and how God took care of them, while everybody said Amen and Thank You Lord. Sometimes (the best times) it got kind of loud. On the wall there was a picture of Jesus holding a lamb. I believed I was like that lamb, and I could be bad and He would still take care of me.
Getting in touch with our religious beginnings is important to us because so much of our later history is written in these early days. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:
- As a child, what did my parents teach me to believe about God? What did they teach me about the Devil?
- How were their beliefs formed? By their parents? By their church? By their community?
- What scriptures did my family regard as holy? How seriously were these teachings taken? What happened to me if I violated any of the teachings or rules? How was I punished for my transgressions?
- What religious rituals did my family observe? How were those rituals related to their beliefs?
- What kind of role did women play in my family’s religious tradition? Public role? Private role? How were women treated? What beliefs were held about women?
- Were there any people who were implicitly or explicitly disbarred participation in the religious tradition of my family? Who was excluded?
To begin your chapter on your spiritual history, it might be helpful for you to write about your family’s religious background and the way it has affected you. Before you start writing, though, it might be useful to read on, and see what other areas of your religious and spiritual history you will be exploring.
Religious...Spiritual...There’s a difference?
Yes! To see the difference in your own life, imagine this.
In the last few paragraphs, we’ve been thinking about religious experiences—spirit defined by (and confined to) the special terms and structures of a formal organization complete with holy writings, credentialed teachers, rules for membership, and approved ceremonies.
But Spirit does not live by human rule. Reflect again on your childhood. Were there times when you felt the presence of the Sacred outside your place of worship, when there were no priests, pastors, or rabbis around? What was that experience like? Here are a few examples:
I got lost in the woods when I was eleven, and I found this giant tree, very old. I’ll never forget how I felt sitting next to that tree. I knew I was safe, and that she (not just the tree but all of nature) was there to take care of me and love me. —Erin P.
I was six or seven. I remember standing by the seashore, watching the waves move in and out and looking at the sunset. Everybody was way up on the beach having a picnic. Suddenly I had a sense of the infinity of the universe—those weren’t my words then, but my feeling. And I felt that I was a flowing part of it, not separate in any way. It had given birth to me and I was one with it, and so was everybody else, even the heathen.—Heather H.
Do you see? Spirit is everywhere. It isn’t mediated by any particular scripture or teacher, and we aren’t required to be in a particular holy place to receive it. As children, we are often in closest touch with it in a natural setting, where we are strongly conscious of our relationship to All That Is. As children, our perception of the Sacred is often Feminine. We see God as birthing, nurturing, loving. While the God of our fathers might punish us for violating religious rules, the Sacred is somehow bigger than that, more inclusive, open to all.
Leaving My Father’s House
While the God of our fathers and mothers is of crucial importance in the development of our concept of spirit, that God may not be the God of the rest of our lives. Most of us go through several different stages of what some people think of as our “faith journey.” The first stage of that journey is our acceptance of our parents’ religious beliefs as our own, as an integral and unquestioned part of our personal identity. Growing up, however, involves the questioning of many of our beliefs about the way the world works. Growing up may involve leaving the faith of our fathers, as well as leaving our fathers’ houses.
Because this is such an important part of our journey, we need to document it. If leaving your family’s religious tradition is an important part of your spiritual history, write about it: when, why, how it felt. This is what a few women have written:
I didn’t leave in a big huff. When I went away to college, somehow none of that stuff seemed relevant anymore. It was just a little piece of life, pretending to be everything. My folks were terribly hurt, and it created a huge rift between us. But all those rules about what to eat and what words to say—it just didn’t seem necessary any longer.—Jane M.
Leaving the Church was like cutting off my arms. It hurt. But I wanted to marry Charlie and he was divorced and the priest said I would be living in sin. I couldn’t reconcile the way I loved Charlie and the way I was supposed to believe, so I stopped believing.—Laura K.
The whole thing just seemed so hypocritical to me. My father would go to church twice on Sunday and abuse my mother and us the rest of the week, especially when he got drunk on Saturday. The preacher got in trouble for fooling around with the church secretary. Was this what God was all about? I didn’t think so.—Ruth J.
Leaving the faith of our family can often inflict traumatic wounds. At the least, it might mean that we no longer share important rituals:
I didn’t go home for Yom Kippur. That’s what hurt the most, thinking of my mom, and the candles, and the table, where they all were. But I felt that I couldn’t share that without being pulled back in to share the rest of it.—Rachel R.
At the worst, it might mean that we no longer have a family:
When I married Lev and decided to convert to Judaism, my dad disowned me. If it had been up to my mom, I could have still been a part of the family, but he was adamant. “If she can’t come to church like a Christian and raise the kids right, she’s no daughter of mine.” That’s exactly what he said. I’ll never forget it. And I couldn’t go home until after he died.—Jeannie A.
Leaving the faith of our families may occur when we trade it for another religious tradition, as in Jeannie’s case. If that has been true for you, perhaps you were “adopted” by another family, another religion. Jeannie goes on to say this:
Even if it meant losing my family, I felt I did the right thing. Lev’s family was a lot closer, a lot more loving, and they took me in. And I felt more at home in the synagogue, somehow, than in my parents’ church. For the kids, it was definitely right.—Jeannie A.
But when we give up one religion, we don’t always choose another: For a long time after I left my mother’s fundamentalist church, I was agnostic, choosing to reserve belief in any sacred being. Others become atheists:
I had no spiritual life after that for a long while. If I couldn’t believe in their God, why bother? I filled up my life with my career, my family, my house. I didn’t need anything else.—Polly B
What has been your experience? Here are some questions that might help you to describe it:
- How is my present religious affiliation different from my parents? How is my present spiritual life different from theirs?
- How did the change come about? Was it a long process or short? Easy or difficult? Painless or painful?
Writing about the separation may not be easy. As Patricia Lynn Reilly points out in her book, A God Who Looks Like Me: Discovering A Woman-Affirming Spirituality, opening the closed doors of our religious past can be painful. But if the doors remain closed, we can’t learn from the experience. It is a necessary pain. We cannot claim our courage and power without acknowledging the strategies we took to begin to make changes.
A Faith of My Own
Accepting a faith of our own—discovering a spirituality that affirms our deepest self—usually involves some sort of spiritual renewal: awakening to our own concept of a Higher Power, imagining the God of our understanding, and creating a spiritual practice that helps us to deepen our faith. Here is how one workshop participant describes her faith:
I imagine a Mother-God, guiding and supporting me, not the Big Boss, but gentle and loving. I attend a church in order to participate in their community outreach programs, but when we pray or sing I translate God-he to God-she, and I am working to get the church to change its liturgy. I practice daily meditation, and I spend part of every day in my garden, where I feel closest to Her. I imagine that She leaves traces of Herself in every person, and I look for them.—Martha W.
For many woman, reclaiming a personal, individual faith is not an easy task, because it involves not only learning a new way to see the Sacred, but forgiving past hurts and accepting old wounds. As one woman wrote:
To have my own spirituality, I had to realize that all those things my father did in God’s name had nothing to do with God. Once I got past that, I was on my way to being healed.—Wendy M.
Sometimes it involves accepting something in our present that seems utterly unacceptable. Author Nancy Mairs, living with multiple sclerosis, writes in Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal, about an experience in church:
I knelt...and began the interior jumble that forms my post-communion meditation....I just wanted to get rid of the damned disease. “God, God, God,” I prayed, “please, heal me!” And then, for the first and only time in my life, I got a response. I’d never heard voices, and I didn’t hear one now. Three monosyllables simply materialized in my consciousness: “But I am.”
Yes. Many of us, in the midst of our despair and dis-ease, are being healed. The trick, as Nancy Mairs shows us, is to learn that our despair and disease are our teachers in this spiritual life, and that what hurts is often (always?) our healer. And as St. Theresa has said, it is not the goal that matters, it is the journey itself: “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
So—where are you in your journey? Here are a few questions that may help you to describe your spiritual life:
- Who are your saints, holy people, teachers?
- What are your scriptures?
- What holy days do you celebrate?
- Who belongs to your spiritual community?
- What are your names for the Sacred?
- What are the images you use to imagine the Sacred?
To conclude your chapter on your spiritual journey, you might want to write a prayer.
Some Soul Stories For You To Read
A woman’s soul story isn’t always labeled “religious history” or even “spiritual journey.” In fact, the story of the soul’s evolution is often told in the form of another journey, in the guise of different kinds of knowing. These stories are often beautifully oblique, delicately told. But they are stories of enlightenment, of moving out of an inner dark to a new kind of knowing, of freeing the self from bonds of conventions, rules, and order imposed by somebody else to a new, personal Rule. Here are some books of spiritual journeys that will show you some of the many different paths the soul can take toward the light.
- Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal, by Nancy Mairs. An unusual spiritual autobiography told in Mairs’ direct and unflinchingly honest voice. This is a book about the messy business of being a woman in a real world in which illness, infidelity, anger, and despair are steps on the way to growing the soul.
- Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America, by Lenore Friedman. This book brings us interviews with seventeen women who have taken the Buddhist path. As a group, their stories tell us a great deal about women’s contributions to the changing soul of American Buddhism. Individually, each story describes a way—often a painful way—to truth.
- Swimming the Channel: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Healing, by Sally Friedman. Swimming the English Channel isn’t just a physical act or an heroic dream, it is a spiritual journey. For the author, who lost her husband on the eve of her planned swim, it was also a way of learning who she was, all alone.
- Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up In America, by Natalie Goldberg. If you haven’t read this yet, drop what you’re doing and begin. It is a book about choice and change and being one’s own woman under a relentless pressure to be somebody else. It might also be subtitled “Writing as a Prayer of the Soul.”
- Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest, by Carol Christ. A collection of essays by women from different religious traditions that help us understand more fully our own search for the divine.
- Knowing Woman: A Feminine Psychology, by Irene Claremont de Castillejo. I met this Jung-centered book in a class on women’s spirituality. It helped me form a new and clearer sense of the relationship between Self and the divine.
- The Interior Castle, by Teresa of Avila. A Catholic woman’s journey through the houses of the soul, often painful, always searching. A classic spiritual journey.
- Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person, by M. C. Richards. This is not strictly a memoir, although there is much of the personal in these essays. What I learned from Richards’ book is that the spiritual is rooted in the daily sacraments of making and doing.
- A Country Year: Living the Questions, by Sue Hubbell. If you want to see how a woman pursues her spiritual journey alone (mostly) in the woods (the Ozark Mountains), this is a fine book. It will not answer all your questions, but it might help you figure out what to ask.
- Plain and Simple, by Sue Bender. This quiet little book gives us a fascinating glimpse into the practical spirituality of the Amish, but it also shows the effect of Bender’s inquiry on her own spiritual life. Seeking directions from Amish passersby on her way to town one day, Bender asks,“Am I on the right road?” It is a question we all need to ask.
- Talking to High Monks in the Snow, Lydia Minatoya. Montoya, a Japanese-American, travels to Asia after she is fired from her teaching job. The journey becomes a spiritual oddysey, as she encounters grace, spirits, and herself. “Taking detours, I pause here and there to sample the hospitality of strangers. Wondering, is this where I belong? But I always return to my road, wanting to find home, before the darkness falls.”
- Spiritual Narratives, ed. by Sue Houchins. This is a collection of four powerful 19th-century African-American women: Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, Julia Foote, and Virginia Broughton. Each narrative shows how spirit can embody itself in the passionate commitment to speak out against injustice, and how that commitment, in itself, can be a spiritual quest.
The Spiritual Journey
All the way to heaven is heaven. —Saint Theresa
Give me that old time religion,
Give me that old time religion,
Give me that old time religion,
It’s good enough for me.
It was good for Mother and Daddy,
It was good for Mother and Daddy,
It was good for Mother and Daddy,
And it’s good enough for me.
When I left home and faced the realities of the world, I put my thoughts of God in cold storage for awhile, because I couldn’t reconcile what I believed, deep inside, with what was going on around me. But that early period, when God was as real as the wind that blew from the sea through the pine trees in the garden, left me with inner peace, which, as I grew older, swelled—until, perforce, I had to open my mind to God again—Jane Goodall
The journey to God is merely the reawakening of the knowledge of where you are always, and what you are forever.—A Course in Miracles
The spiritual path represents the process of becoming whereby the soul remembers itself and the Self discovers its true identity as Spirit. Every spiritual tradition offers a map for the seeker. Each metaphorically depicts a journey of the soul from darkness to enlightenment, or from ignorance to knowledge. —Frances Vaughn
Writing your spiritual history gives you the opportunity to declare spiritual independence. You may choose to stay within a religious structure and use it to support and acknowledge your own path, or you may acknowledge the path beyond that structure and the freedom it has brought you. You bear witness to your spiritual experiences in whatever context they occur. You grant yourself the time to sort and take with you everything that was, is, or can be made good. And to make peace with, forgive, and leave behind everything that was harmful or limiting of spiritual growth.—Christina Baldwin
We can receive only what we already have! We can become only what we already are! We can learn only what we already know! It is a matter of realizing potentialities. It is not a matter of “adding to” but of “developing,” of “evolving.” We contain within ourselves a world of capacities, of possibilities, which the outer world summons forth, speaks to, releases.—M.C. Richards
Gradually I am recognizing the meaning of my existence through my own myth.—Marion Woodman
The challenge, then, is to be the creative myth-maker that we are, to consciously choose our myth, lest it be chosen for us by the collective mind.—Mary Elizabeth Marlow
We get all the God we believe in.— Julianna McCarthy
My son called to me that God was inside his red fire engine. He wanted to show me. I did move as fast as I could, spilling like water through the kitchen door into a summer day, but God had left by the time I got there. My son smiled, told me I’d missed him by seconds.
At the end of childhood, we are called to move out of immaturity into responsibility. If we do not make this passage, if we attach ourselves to our childhood home as a mollusk does to a sea rock, we do not mature....How do we find the courage to let go of what feels sure and safe and comfortable so that a new possibility can unfold? And how do we do this not just once, at the end of childhood, but many times throughout a lifetime, whenever old certainties need to be released, or perhaps abandoned entirely...?
—Sherry Ruth Anderson & Patricia Hopkins, The Feminine Face of God
Mystery doesn’t mean only some grand, ecstatic thing,” one woman told us as she was leaving the spiritual community in which she had lived for many years. “It means stumbling around in the darkness, terrified that nothing will be there if you don’t call on God in the old way. Once I knew what my life was consecrated to and what my direction was. Now I don’t know, and I don’t even know where to look.”— Sherry Ruth Anderson & Patricia Hopkins, The Feminine Face of God
Spiritual growth is not made in reaction against, for all striving against imposed restrictions is imaginary. Spiritual growth is accomplished by inclination toward. We grow like the sunflower, following the light.—Joy Houghton
Throughout childhood and adolescence, like many women, I had been told that there was a God-shaped space within my soul and that I would not be satisfied until it was filled with the male God of my childhood. Yet as hard as I tried, the male God would not fit. I felt that this was my problem, that there was something flawed about me. So I twisted myself out of shape and he still didn’t fit. It wasn’t until I encountered the feminine face of God that I realized that there was nothing wrong with me. As I descended into the wealth of my own life, I discovered that she had been there all the time. Her presence restored me to a loving relationship with myself.—Patricia Lynn Reilly, A God Who Looks Like Me: Discovering A Woman-Affirming Spirituality
Illumination grows within us, sometimes like a swift mutation, sometimes like the yellowing aura of spring. But most readily it comes if we give up all that we have in order to be open-souled when it comes. That it may take its shape in us.—M.C. Richards
I found God in myself, and I loved her fiercely—Ntozake Shange
Our [spiritual] practice, whatever it is, is our teacher. Life is our practice. If we listen deeply to what’s going on—if we’re involved down to the very bottom with our life situation—this is our true teacher, the most venerable teacher. Life-roshi!—Maurine Stuart, Roshi
The familiar life horizon has been outgrown: the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand.—Joseph Campbell
The life that awaits us has no blueprint. —M.C. Richards
Susan Wittig Albert's latest China Bayles mystery is entitled Mistletoe Man. Under the pseudonym of Robin Paige, she and her husband Bill Albert also write a series of Victorian mysteries. Look for Death at Whitechapel, available now.
Copyright 2000 Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved.