Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Written June 11, 2013

I have been visiting Episcopal Convents on a regular basis for about 14 years, hoping to discern whether I was really being called to religious life or if it was just another one of my crazy countercultural ideas.  For many years I went twice a year to St. Mary's Retreat House, which sits right behind the Mission in Santa Barbara, to see the Sisters of the Holy Nativity.  I also visited the Community of the Transfiguration in Cincinnati and the Society of St. Margaret in Boston.  In the meantime I also met monks from the Order of the Holy Cross, Society of St. Francis and the Society of St. John the Evangelist in my various church activities and travels, and in every encounter with every Monk and Nun I asked the same question: "What is it like?" 

I'm a planner, a worrier (I always thought the Scandal song "Warrior" should be reworked for me as "I am - the Worrier.") and a pessimist.  Every choice in my life has been made with tremendous trepidation, and I felt like I just couldn't really make the leap into being a Nun until I got a concrete sense of what my life would really be like.  I'm a details person.  I needed to know what kind of mattress I would have, what I would wear, what kind of towels I would use and all the infinitesimal sensory details of everyday life.

Really all these details were just a substitute for the real fear of "Would I fail miserably?" but still I pressed on, asking and asking, and I never got an answer.  Monastics answer questions in a very general, philosophical way and of course that doesn't compute in a robotic, binary brain like mine.  "What is it like?" I would ask, over and over, and I would get answers like this:

"It's different in every community, and it's different for every person."

"No, I mean," I would ask "What is it REALLY like?"

They would then launch into a long philosophical answer that would make the Dalai Lama sound taciturn:  

"Well the Religious Life feels like whatever you want it to feel like.  It is your choice, and your own subjective view of what God wants you to feel.  There are lessons and hardships and uncertainty, and always you are growing closer to God.  If you are meant to be in the Community, God will show you…"

Yeah, ok that's all very valuable but none of it really ever answered my question.

Now that I am actually in the Religious Life and not observing it from the position of a visitor - an audience to the outward indications - I know now, fully, why I kept asking that same question. It's because Monasteries and Convents have always been shrouded in mystery and seen by the public through a tangle of misconceptions that come from hearsay, overly sentimental books and very cheesy movies.   

When I was in discernment, all I knew of my life to come was what I had learned from reading The Nun's Story over and over, and from reading books by non-Monks and Nuns about their own visits to Communities.  I had the same misconceptions that everybody has about a very cold, stark and harsh Medieval life.  Until I was received as a Postulant in October I really thought I might have to shave my head and be allowed to shower only once a week - just like the Sisters in the Nun's Story.  I thought I would spend most of my days scrubbing floors, on my knees, and cleaning toilets.  My Nun's cell, I imagined, would be a cold cement cubicle with a thin mattress, only a little cotton blanket for cover and only a tattered curtain to separate me from loudly snoring Sisters.  I figured there would be very little heat in the winter, and no air conditioning in the summer.  I suspected that I'd be ordered around like a child and told to flog myself with small whips as penance for my sins.  When I realized that everybody else probably has these same preconceived notions about the Religious Life, I finally understood why nobody in their right mind would want to become a Monk or a Nun these days.  

But - in spite of all my Medieval fears, I did it anyway -  only because I'd gotten to the point in my life where couldn't NOT do it.  I thought the Convent would be so awful, and I would end up with consumption or tuberculosis from the hardship of my life, but I decided it would be worth it.  I would suffer these adversities gladly because my beloved Savior suffered much worse for my sake.

Boy, was I wrong.  The books and movies about Religious Life are way, way, way off the mark.  

After the Second Vatican Council in the mid-sixties, the life of most Monks and Nuns changed forever.  It went from being Medieval to being humanistic.  The Anglican Church followed the lead of Roman Catholics in transitioning Monasteries and Convents from places of discipline and harshness and humiliation to being places where women and men of prayer could grow and flourish.  Now - nobody's perfect so it's taken many decades for the shift to really kick in.  Some Communities are still stuck in the Middle Ages and some are so modern and healthy that they resemble hippie communes but without the drugs and free love.  

I can't speak for every other Community, but I can speak for this one, and now I would like to answer my own question "What is it like?" from my own limited, subjective point of view in order to dispel some of the myths surrounding this life. 

First of all - very importantly - our Superiors are no longer called "Mother" and we are no longer expected to be blindly obedient children to them.  They are called "Sister Superior,"  they encourage and expect feedback, and they regularly ask each Sister how she's doing.  We don't observe the rules of Silence, or sit through six prayer services a day or eat fish on Fridays out of some meek, frightened obedience to our Superior but rather out of our mutual agreement that these things are extremely important to us.  We aren't reprimanded for our faults like toddlers, but more like employees at any modern company would be.  The basic structure of Community - at least in this Community - is much more similar to many companies where I've worked than it is to anything I've read in a book or seen in a movie.  

So what is the Religious Life like - to me, in my brief experience of it? It is surprisingly nice, cozy and secure. There is nothing about it that feels harsh and Medieval.  We live our lives with many ancient customs, but we don't live an ancient life.  I shower every day, just like I did in my secular life, and I did not have to cut off all my hair.  Each community has different rules about what the Sisters wear and look like, and in this particular one they don't really give a hoot what my hair looks like.  We all mutually agree that we don't want to be too concerned with outward appearances and vanity, so I can't dye my hair bright red or wear a face full of piercings, but that's fine with me.  Those rules make sense to me.  

I don't sleep in a concrete cubicle.  I have a very small, simple private room that is less spartan than it is Zen.  My twin bed is extremely comfortable, I can have as many blankets as I want, and I've never been freezing or swelteringly hot in the Convent.  There are five of us here on the third floor and we share two bathrooms, and everyone is very respectful and polite about the shower schedule so there are no conflicts there.  I also have a nice little office with a door (something I never had in my secular work life) and I have a computer, printer and unrestricted access that any responsible grownup would have to the web, email, Facebook, etc.  All of the Sisters have cell phones.  They're not iphones - just simple flip phones - and we're expected to be responsible about them, but we can use them as we see fit.

All my clothing, shoes and food are provided for me by the Community, and they are more than adequate.  The food here is so delicious and abundant that all of us Sisters are constantly fretting about our weight.  When I get into the shower there are three or four different, excellent brands of each soap, shampoo, etc. that the Sister in charge of that category has put there for all of us.  If I want a pair of shoes, or anything else, I'll ask the Superior if my particular choice is ok and works within the current budget, and she tells me yes or no.  Just like in a (healthy) marriage, we're expected to spend money prudently and wisely, always keeping the big picture in mind.  I get a small allowance every month, in cash, and I never spend it all because I can't think of very many things I need.  

I think many people feel called to religious life but they don't believe Convents and Monasteries have anything to offer modern men and woman.  After I entered I was pleasantly surprised to find that this life does offer quite a few things that I, and most modern human beings, do need on a very deep level.  I think in this busy, noisy insane world most of us crave peace and quiet.  Most of us, even non-spiritual types, also desperately need to feel that our life has meaning.  Life in a religious community offers both of those things in plenitude.  There are many frustrations and imperfections and challenges, but we have space around our heads to really focus and think, in the silence, and we have more strength to deal with the stresses of our life together because we feel like what we are doing is tremendously worthwhile.  I'm just as busy and sometimes overwhelmed as I ever was in my secular work life, but it doesn't feel the same.  I feel like everything I am doing, even the smallest of things, is helping to fight the good fight.

Modern people - especially single women - also need to feel like our future is secure.  No future is totally secure of course, but community life comes pretty close.  We Sisters have health insurance, homes, food and clothing until the day we die.  As long as our Community stays afloat, we are taken care of by it.  We are also a team, and we go through the tragedies and triumphs of life together - leaning on each other all the way.  Even if this Community went bankrupt and we lost everything, there are other Communities in the Episcopal Church that we could join.  Sisters take each other to doctor appointments, fuss over each other when we're sick, and even today at lunch one of my Sisters saw me looking pensive and pulled me aside afterwards to ask "Are you ok?"  We keep an eye on each other, and we genuinely care about each others' health and happiness.

Now, I also don't want to paint an inaccurate picture, also seen in movies and books, of saintly Sisters gliding down hallways and speaking to each other only in tones of sweetness and wisdom.  Out of all the awful things I expected, the only one that actually held true was that living with a bunch of women is not easy. The way Sisters relate to each other is less like the Sound of Music and more like a very old married couple in which each partner thinks the other one is totally nuts and that all their actions are insane and preposterous.  Sisters in community sometimes speak to each other in that annoyed short-hand style that old couples have, and oftentimes it's downright hilarious.  They scold each other and argue over crazy things that make no sense, and they go behind each other opening and closing windows, turning off lights and griping about each other just like old married people do.  Learning to live with all their idiosyncrasies, and hoping that they'll learn to live with mine, is certainly a challenge but it's something we really do work on every day.  We also acknowledge frequently that in spite of the fact that we drive each other crazy, we really love each other and any of us would gladly take a bullet for another.  I knew that living with people would be hard since I've always been a loner and loved living by myself, but I'm pleasantly surprised to find out that it's the ONLY part that is hard for me. This friction of living together is also one of the many reasons that we're all totally ok with the rules of Silence.  Silence in a community of women is a very, very good and necessary thing.  Any married man reading this is probably nodding his head vigorously about right now.

In the weeks leading up to my Novice Clothing I went from anxiety to sheer terror.  The night before the ceremony I had colder feet than any bride could ever imagine.  I thought the minute I was brought into the Community I'd be whisked off to a cement room to have my head shaved, and handed a  whip with which to flog myself every night for my sins.  The minute I was brought into the Chapel in my new Habit, though, I was flooded with a tremendous sense of peace and happiness.  I felt like the weight of the world - of fighting to survive as I hurtled toward a dark, uncertain, solitary future - was gone.  I knew that God would take care of me and in the words of Julian of Norwich ""…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."   I'm still very new, but this feeling still has not left me.  

Every day I'm still running into, and dispelling, another misconception about being a Nun.  I was talking to my Novice Director just a couple of weeks ago about rules concerning our appearance and I said "I need to know some more specifics.  I know some things - like I can't dye my hair or shave my legs…" and my Novice Director interrupted me and said "What do you mean?  I shave my legs all the time."  HAHA!  Who knew?  

So - what is it like?  It's not perfect, but it's wonderful.  If I had known how wonderful it is, and that the Episcopal Church had religious communities, I would have done it when I was 18.  The religious life has so much deep joy and stability and meaning that people really need, and I pray that more people will find us.

Because I don't want to Flunk Substitutional Atonement

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
  the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
--God - Hosea 6:6

“We’ll kill the fatted calf tonight, so stick around.”
--Elton John and Bernie Taupin - Bennie and the Jets

As Im heading into the mysterious depths of the end of Holy Week this year, Im trying to wrap my mind around the concept of Jesus dying for our sins.  
Its baffling to me.  Ever since the first time I ever heard a Baptist preacher proclaim it from a pulpit when I was a child, Ive periodically pondered it and then decided it was just over my head.  Ive skipped it in my spiritual development just like I skip math questions on I.Q. tests.  Its too complicated.  It bounces off my brain like a Nerf ball.  I dont know the ins and outs of this covenant that God made by sacrificing his only son, but I know its the truth just like I dont know how electricity works but I know it makes lightbulbs glow
This year, though, I am a nun.  Ive got to get some kind of grasp of this theological trigonometry question or Ill be struck dumb when some earnest spiritual seeker asks me about it in the future.  Ive never been to seminary, Im bored to tears by long intellectual diatribes on the subject and I dont have any real concept of the correct theology on it so Ive decided simply to figure out what I, personally, think the whole thing means. 

God sacrificed his son for us.  Ok, lets start there.  Sacrifice was something humans had been doing for tens and thousands of years before Abraham (or the succession of men represented by the symbolic allegorical character of Abraham, if thats your thing) left his home in Sumeria (from whence some believe he came) at the urging of God.  Sumerians sacrificed livestock and humans to appease their many gods, and so did just about every other group that had evolved to the point of trying to figure out how to influence nature, disease, pestilence and whatever else was plaguing them.  
Early man created gods and then decided that the way to keep the gods happy was to kill the firstborn and most valuable creature they owned, and then give it to the gods.  This seemed reasonable because everybody had to slaughter animals at home for food anyway, and if you slaughtered your best animal and cooked it for some powerful or scary guys who suddenly showed up at your house it made them happy, and it might have prevented them from killing you.  
The gods didnt swoop down and eat the sacrificed animals, so the sacrificial meat of animals was eaten by the guests at the worship.  
Somewhere in the Iron Age, Abraham heard God speaking to  him.  I believe God had spoken to many, many men before and they all went “Wait, did I hear something…?  Nahhhh.”
Abraham listened and God said “Ok, this isnt what its all about.  Go move out into the boondocks with your family and your herds Ill set you on the right path.”   
God then did something completely unexpected, which God often does he told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, for him.  This is horrific to modern minds but while it was difficult for Abraham to do, it wasnt exactly horrific to his ancient mind. He, and every other person who worshipped any kind of higher being, had never known anything else.  People killed animals and humans for gods.  That was the way the universe worked.  
Then God did something even more unexpected:  He stopped Abraham, told him he didnt really have to kill Isaac, and that he was only testing him to see if he really regarded this voice he heard as an actual god, and that he would offer not only a sacrifice, but the utmost sacrifice to this new God.  This is when the first Covenant was made with the first people whose understanding had evolved far enough to look not only at their outside world through their worship and sacrifice, but within themselves.  It was also the first time that God said You know all that sacrificing that you people are doing?  You dont have to do it.  Everything on earth is mine.  You dont have to cook my own stuff and give it to me because its mine already.  Got it?  Im not some little guy living in a volcano who has to be fed.  I dont get hungry.  Im God.  I’m bigger than that.  I gave you that livestock for you to feed your families.  Stop wasting it!!”

And of course, people didnt get it.  They couldnt.  They were not advanced enough to grasp the concept of sacrificing their spirits and their wills to God instead of their animals and their fellow humans.  Over and over in the Bible, God says Im not like all those false gods. Stop doing false god stuff.  I dont need sacrifices.   I dont need a temple.  Im not like those imaginary guys Zeus and Poseidon who need temples to live in, ok?  Im everywhere. I dont live in a little house. and people insisted on building a temple.  For hundreds of years, they worshipped this one true and living God, who was bigger than anything they could possibly imagine, in the way that they had worshipped all the false gods.   God tolerated it because he knew they were primitive, and he loved them enough to meet them where they were at that point in history.
In the 12th Century Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes:
"But the custom which was in those days general among men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted in sacrificing animals... It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God...that God did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service. For to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present [the 12th Century] if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to God nor fast, nor seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action." 

God is currently tolerating our worship of him through candles, silky vestments and/or praise bands because he loves us and therefore he humors us.

The ancient Jews added a new reason for ritual sacrifice that was unheard of by pagans.   They offered up their finest, firstborn livestock as a payment for - sin.  Thomas Cahill points out in his book The Gifts of the Jews that ancient pagan religions didnt really have a concept of sin.  Their focus was completely outward.  They offered up their most valuable things to the gods to ward off things that might harm them from the outside.  Jews offered their sacrifices to repair negative things that had happened to their souls.  God said, over and over, You dont have to do that.  Just come to me with a contrite heart, ask for my forgiveness and then go and sincerely try to do better.

Did people listen?  Of course not.  God just slapped his forehead and said Oy vey!  More barbecued lamb.  How stupid can these people BE?”  He decided that since we weren’t getting it, he’d have to come down here himself.

Jesus Christ appeared on the scene in the midst of all this burnt offering stuff that God didnt want, at the Temple that God didnt want, and he kept saying things that people didnt understand.  He would bestow the deep wisdom of the whole of creation upon his Apostles and they would respond by asking exasperatingly stupid questions.  Still, even though humans werent quite ready to grasp the concept of a God who was beyond the reach of our tiny, primitive minds, Jesus did something that was far, far beyond anything anybody expected: He offered himself as a human sacrifice. 

Maybe this, God thought, will finally show them that all I really need is their love.  They keep giving me gifts.  I will give them a gift.  This is my only Son and Im sacrificing him for you.  Have your false gods ever given you anything?  I give you myself to be broken and to suffer and die just like these millions of living creatures have suffered and died, and just as many millions have died proclaiming my name.  Here is a gift for you because I love you so much.

A God who gives US a sacrifice?   This is still astonishing, all these centuries later.

God offered his only son to us as a gift.  The very least we can do is give him our love.  We can come to him and ask his forgiveness any time we dont love ourselves or others, and he will forgive us.  That’s what I personally think the New Covenant means.  We don’t have to do a whole barbecue.  God’s not one of those imaginary guys who needs barbecue.  He’s bigger than that.

It would be foolish to think that when Christ died on the cross, his followers immediately said “Ohhhh - that’s what God meant all those 900 times he said ‘Stop giving me sacrifices.  Just talk to me.”  Humans of all religions still kept doing it, but gradually most of them stopped and began focusing on a more personal conversation with God.   Some faiths still do ritual sacrifices, and God patiently puts up with it because he knows we’re a little slow.

Everything we have is a gift from God - our world, our selves, and God himself.  One of the gifts that God gives us is free will.  We can choose whether to love and follow him or not.  When we give this gift back to him and love him with our whole heart, we allow  him to guide us with his own will.  

How do we let him guide us?  We listen.  We can hear God very clearly in our gut instincts, in that “little voice in our head,” in the red flags that we often ignore.  We can hear him when we study the Bible and a phrase mystically jumps off the page and resonates deep within us.  We can hear him when we study prayer and work on deepening our relationship with him.  We can hear him when others say things to us that strike a chord in our souls.  We can hear him in art, music, church, therapy…anywhere we choose to listen and wait for his instructions.

We’re still doing a lot of stupid things in our clumsy attempts to worship a God that is beyond our comprehension, but God understands.  He knows we’re trying.

Jesus, Take the Wheel!!!

Jesus, Take the Wheel!!!

Man:  God, how long is a million years to you?

God:  Only a minute

Man:  How much money is a million dollars to you?

God:  Only a penny

Man:  Can I have a million dollars?

God:  Sure, wait a minute.

My mother, who was born at the Holy Name of Jesus Hospital in Gadsden, Alabama and who has a southern accent so thick and incomprehensible that even southerners can’t figure out what she’s saying, has a tendency to blurt out the phrase “LORRRRD HEPPP!” in moments of tremendous astonishment. My sisters and I think this is so hilarious that we often call her up with shocking information just to hear her say it.  I’ll eagerly ring her up  and say “Mom, my friend Stephanie is getting married on Saturday to a seven-foot tall transvestite named Amanda Hugandkiss and get this - Amanda is a minister at the Pentecostal church.” to which my mother will reply, at top volume, so you have to hold the phone a yard away from your ear to avoid being deafened:  “LORRRRRRD HEPPPPPP!!!!!”

I think it might mean “Lord, help me” - like maybe - this information is so profoundly weird that I simply cannot absorb it.  Help me, Lord, to take it in without fainting dead away.  Mom has said it all her life, and she looks at us like we’re nuts when we try to discern its meaning.  She just says “Well it means Lord hep.  What’s the problem?”

The strange thing about “Lord hep,” even though my mother totally plays it for laughs, is that in a roundabout way, it’s a prayer.  Yes, a prayer.  It’s an appeal to God for some kind of assistance, and I am 100% sure that God laughs his you-know-what off every time he hears her say it. How could he not? 

Ever since I was a little kid - even from age 4 or 5 - people have asked me to pray for them.  When I went to the Pleasant Valley South Baptist Church with my sainted grandmother Zelda, people gave me prayer requests.  “You have your Grandmother’s gift.” they would say, as they dug around in their purses or pockets for a stick of Juicy Fruit gum with which to bribe me for my prayers.  My Grandmother had a hotline to God, they said.  She went to church every five minutes, volunteered at the hospital and did nursing home visits out the wazoo.  She was the holiest of holy rollers and was widely regarded as the most immaculate, crystalline Southern Baptist lady anybody ever did see.  I, on the other hand, was not.  I was a sinner from day one.  I broke a boy’s nose on the bus to daycare because he was bothering me, and I punched a bully in the stomach on the playground because he had punched me in the stomach the day before.  I hid in the school bathroom from 10 to 11AM, for three weeks, to avoid going to math class because I hated math (I still do) and I told lies all the time.  I almost got suspended because I was flipping off the camera with BOTH HANDS in the marching band picture in the yearbook. In elementary school I was two grades ahead in all my classes (except math of course) and I was arrogant enough to often sit in class thinking “why are some people soooo stuuuuupid???”  Yes, Lord.  I admit it.  I had those evil thoughts.  

Still, people gave me prayer requests.  Even when I was a teenager and stopped going to church at age 17 because I was running with a rough crowd and sinning all over the place, the prayer requests never stopped, and I never stopped praying.  I prayed every day, many times a day, for my own needs and for other people, even when I was so sinful that I would say “Yes” whenever my sister Autumn offered to put the baldness and the fatness curses on all the boys who were mean to me.  (Side note:  Autumn’s curses seem to have worked very well.  God forgive me.)

I was in my mid-20’s when I realized why people asked me to pray for them.  It wasn’t because I had some special gift - it was simply because they did not know how to pray, or they felt that God didn’t want to hear their prayers.  I started telling them “You know, I will pray for you but I don’t have to.  You can also ask God for this.”  Most of them would say “Nah, God doesn’t like me.  He won’t help me.”  or the most popular of all non-religious excuses: “I’m too much of a sinner.  I’m going to hell, but at least my friends will all be there.”

Anybody can pray, really.   No matter how awful you might think you are, God still loves you and he wants to help you.  Do you really think that because you stole something or you are struggling with a drug problem, God won’t want to heal your mom’s cancer?  Come on.  God’s not a jerk. 

People also think that if they do tentatively ask God to help them, they’ll do it wrong and mess everything up.  They think “Well what if I pray for God to heal Mom’s cancer, and then I go out and get drunk that night and she dies?  Then her death will be my fault.”  It’s not that complicated.  God answers prayers, as it’s been said by theologians far and wide, in only three ways:  He answers yes, no, or “wait, I’ve got something better for you.”  When we pray for healing and someone dies, that is a yes.  He healed that person by releasing them from their pain and sickness, and he took them into heaven - the next phase of life.  If you pray for healing and someone dies, that prayer has been answered but not in the way that you expected.  

That’s the weird thing about God.  He exists in a realm where time, space, people, energy, matter, all that stuff is irrelevant.  The way we perceive our needs and the outcomes of situations in our lives is just a primitive, microscopic squeak in God’s ear.

But - He hears it.  I’ve also had people say to me “I have another prayer request, but I don’t even know if I should give it to you.  I feel like I’ve already bothered God too much.”  Again I ask you - what kind of a jerk do you think God is?  You could ask him 900 things a day and he’d handle all those requests. God’s love is infinite.  It’s not like a food-sampling stand at Costco.  You don’t have to be embarrassed about asking for as many samples as you want and you don’t have to worry about get barked at by some indignant woman in an apron and rubber gloves.

Pray away, people.  You don’t have to have any kind of special formula, either.  Everybody gets hung up on that.  It’s not like a genie from a bottle, or the forest imp from that fairy tale “The Ridiculous Wishes,” where you have to word the request just perfectly to avoid ending up with a sausage for a nose.  Just ask.  Ask simply, and keep asking.  Ask every day if you want, for as many days as you want.  As you’re asking, God will be patting you on the back and saying “Ok, don’t be shy.  Spit it out.”  

Some ethical types have asked me, wide-eyed, if their prayer is too selfish.  I think we all know exactly which prayers are obviously really selfish.  “Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz?” is a good example.  If you’re afraid a prayer is borderline selfish but you’re not entirely sure, go ahead and ask anyway and tell God that.  “Hey God, I know this might seem awful, but could you possibly give me a parking space close to the door at Shoprite?  If this is too selfish I understand, but I’m just thrown’ it out there.  I don’t want to schlep in the rain.”  Sometimes, too, God says no and later you thank him for it.  I’d like to trot out my favorite quote here for the umpteenth time, from Billy Graham’s wife Ruth: "I'm glad God doesn't answer ALL my prayers.  If He did, I would have married the wrong man - several times." 

And yes, you can talk to God in a messy, crazy, informal way.  He is God, so he understands.  You don’t need any kind of special formula or King James thee’s and thou’s and PhD language.  It’s good to start out thanking God for the nice things he’s done for you, then asking forgiveness for any bad things you’ve done, and then putting in your request, but you don’t have to.  Sometimes you can just blurt out “God, please let this piece-o-junk car start when I turn this key.” and lo and behold, the car will start.  I can vouch for this.  My car stalled in 114-degree heat, along with 20 or 30 other fellow travelers’ cars, when Warren Jones and I were driving across the desert outside Palm Springs on my way to join the Convent.  We looked at each other in complete despair and I closed my eyes and said silently to myself “God, I know I’m a sinner and a total idiot most of the time, but could you please let this car start?” and it did.  We drove past all those other stalled cars, from California to Florida, then I drove up to New Jersey, and that car has never stalled on me since.

You don’t ever have to achieve the lofty prayer techniques of contemplation and meditation that - if prayer were a video game - would be like, level 95 character prayer skills.  You don’t have to levitate and get pierced in the heart with a spiritual sword or flip through the frilly, pretty pre-fabricated prayers of the fancy Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  Just talk.  God listens.  

You’re not too sinful to pray, or even to go to church.  If churches didn’t accept sinners, nobody would be able to go to church.  We’re all sinners.  Sin, in my understanding, isn’t “anything that is SUPER fun!!!!!”  Sin is the tendency to do something that is psychologically unhealthy to you, or to others.  If you’re sinning, you’re doing something that harms you or somebody else, and since God loves us, he doesn’t want to see us get hurt.  I sin when I get overly anxious and worry myself into three weeks of acid reflux, or when I roll my eyes and say “Okay, I guess we’ll do it the STUPID WAY” when I’m forced to work in a group and I get out-voted, or when I put myself down.  When you’re lost in unhealthy behaviors and you’re worn out and sick of your situation, God is right there and he wants to help you.  He knows that when you ask for forgiveness for your sins - even if you are sincere and you want to change - there’s a big chance that you’ll go right back to doing that same thing and you’ll be asking his forgiveness again.  He doesn’t get disgusted and leave you in the gutter.  You can call him up.  He hasn’t blocked you on his iPhone or - horror of horrors - unfriended you.  

Everybody can keep sending me prayer requests.  I’m fine with that.  I love praying and I’m very grateful that it also happens to be my job.  Just put in your own prayers, too, along with mine.  When we pray for the same thing together, amazing things happen.  Our prayers put positive energy towards a situation, and God is that positive energy.  

In lesser moments of astonishment my mother utters, in a low and serious voice, “Thayyy lawwwwww.”  I think this means “The Lord” but I can’t be sure.  She doesn’t know either.  All she knows is that it is the only appropriate response when she’s confronted with semi-unbelievable but not Lord Hep-level information. God thinks that one is pretty funny, too.

Let's Go Thump Some Bibles Together!!!

Written August 2014

I’m always interested in the viewpoints of the people in my life whom I love and respect, but who have completely turned away from religion in all its forms.  I like to engage in discussions with them about why they reject faith and spirituality so harshly, and why they think Christianity in particular is harmful.  I am curious as to why people stop going to church, and why they raise their children to be on guard against being lured into any kind of belief beyond science and reason.

The more I talk with the non-believers in my life, the more I find myself agreeing with them.  My faith is deep, and I embrace Christianity with all my heart, but I have to say - I completely understand why any reasonable human being would look at religion and think that it does more harm than good.   From the moment the idea of religion was actualized in our ancestors’  tiny, primitive brains it has been used to justify wars, torture, murder and every atrocity we can possibly imagine.  Oh yes, my atheist friends, I most certainly agree with you on that one.

As a believer, though, I see it this way:  The Bible, the source of a great deal of all this religious trouble, has been a twenty-thousand year game of telephone.  God gave a very clear message to a small group of Iron Age people, and ever since that message was conveyed it has been twisted, garbled and manipulated by humans into something that causes God to constantly proclaim “HOW CAN THEY POSSIBLY BE SO STUPID!?!?!”

I really don’t blame God for smiting and vaporizing us occasionally.  If I were him, I’d do the same thing.  We are incredibly stupid.

To all the atheists and agnostics of the world, though, I would like to suggest just one little thing: Read the Bible and study it a little bit.  No, I’m not trying to recruit you.  I respect your beliefs.  I’m just saying - read the thing that is the center of much of the world’s controversy and that is the foundation of much of the world’s modern thought so that you can understand it from within.  

Before you read it, I’d like to issue this disclaimer:  The Bible was not written as a historically accurate document that was thoroughly fact-checked and deemed truthful by scholarly authorities.  It was written by hundreds of ancient people and cobbled together from oral tradition, from myth and legend and, in the case of the oldest stories - from other ancient religions that preceded monotheism.  It wasn’t written the way things are written today. Throughout the Old and New Testaments there are sometimes three or four different versions of the same story and since those different versions contain different details and timelines, the reader is left asking “which one of these is the REAL version?”  There are extremely confusing passages that were never meant to be taken literally (sorry, fundamentalists) but were instead meant to be allegorical, and there are sometimes truly weird things like this:

If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.” - Deuteronomy 25:11-12


Or what about this:

“When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water.” — John 21:7

Yo, Peter, why were you fishing naked?  What’s up with that?

And take a look at this verse, where everything seems normal until:

“At that, the Lord opened the donkey's mouth and it said to Balaam, "What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?"  Numbers 22:28

Seriously?  A talking donkey?  What was Balaam smoking?

And don’t even get me started on books like Daniel and Revelation.  Those books are chock full of some truly psychedelic weirdness.

The point I’m trying to make with all these weird Bible verses is - if you look at the Bible as the indisputable, literal word of God, then God comes off as a total nutcase.   If you’re trying to read the Bible and you come across something that seems odd, then try looking up a few different explanations of it and pick the one that feels right to you.  If you can’t find an explanation, then just dismiss it as having been lost in the course of too many different translations.    

There are some passages that can be understood through historical context, such as that cringe-worthy story about Lot’s daughters sleeping with him in order to have offspring and preserve their bloodline.  That one is seen by some scholars as an allegorical tale to explain how the tribes of the Moabites and the Ammonites came into being so that they could later brag that their bloodline was completely pure.  Other Biblical scholars say it can be seen as an example of a practice that was fairly common in ancient times.  I’m going to choose to go with the allegorical explanation.  That one feels less icky to me.

I spent many years trying to figure out why homosexuality seemed to be condemned by so many Bible verses, and then I came across an explanation that said the original word in all the anti-gay passages in the Bible was probably actually “pedophilia,” and later medieval translators switched it to “homosexuality” to coincide with the beliefs of the times.  I don’t know what the actual original word was.  I wasn’t there when God gave these ideas to the long-lost writers of the Bible, but that explanation feels extremely correct to me and so that’s what I choose to believe.

One ancient form of storytelling was to present several versions of a story with differing details so that the listener or reader could blend them together and form a conclusion.  Putting the stories in the Bible into context and then really considering which interpretation you feel right about is exactly what you’re supposed to do when you’re reading scripture.  It’s not a straightforward narrative or an airtight scholarly treatise, and that is the very thing that is so incredibly wonderful about it.  The Bible isn’t just a book. It’s bigger than that.  It is a messy, baffling, human-error-laden dodecahedron of a 5-dimensional puzzle and when you look past the details and the words and the lines, a message comes through.  If you read a story in the Bible and don’t get hung up on whether this REALLY happened or WHY somebody would do that, and you focus instead on the lesson it contains, then you’re doing it right.  Even non-believers can hear the message.  It is there between the cracks.  Why is it that we can completely suspend our disbelief to receive deep wisdom from Aesop’s Fables, but we can’t do that when reading the Bible?  It’s certainly not the same kind of document, but since some of it was written around the same era as Aesop’s Fables, we can safely assume that it attempts to deliver wisdom through the same off-kilter and sideways methods as Aesop’s Fables since these methods of storytelling were probably widely employed at that particular time.

There were thousands of other messy scrolls and oral traditions that could have been included in the official version of the Bible, but they weren’t.  The people who put together what we know as the Bible chose a particular collection of writings because overall, they felt that those writings best contained the message from God that put the whole saga into motion.

I’m not a theologian or a Biblical scholar but from my extremely uneducated point of view I can say that the message of God seems to be this: “Take care of yourselves, take care of your fellow humans, and take care of your earth, and here’s a Bible to show you how to do that - Oh, and please ignore all that stupid stuff that got lost in translation.”

My friends who do not believe in God are just as hungry as I am for wisdom.  We all want to know how to make our lives happier, healthier and more fulfilled.  Even if you just see the universe as positive energy versus negative energy, you always want to learn how to generate more positive energy.  Believe it or not, you can learn that from the Bible.  If you want to know where humans came from sociologically, and how we arrived at where we are today, you can learn that from the Bible.  You can find solid advice on how to avoid psychologically unhealthy situations (which in olden times were labeled SIN!!!) and how to simplify your existence to exist happily on a deeper, less superficial level.

You don’t have to get recruited and hold hands and sing Kumbayah with a bunch of Bible thumpers.  Just read it and see what you can get from it.  Take what you like and leave the rest.  There is something there for everyone.  I would suggest getting a modern English copy of the Bible like The Message so that you don’t get all tangled up in ye olde King James language, and that you Google anything that puzzles you.  Don’t read it from beginning to end.  I’d say start with Luke because it’s pretty straightforward, and then maybe read Isaiah because it’s quite beautiful.  Proverbs is a good one, too, and Job gives a theological explanation of why good things happen to bad people.  Leviticus and Deuteronomy are baffling enough to make even lifelong Bible-lovers like me run for the hills, so hold off on those until you’ve learned a little more about ancient cultures.  

Most humans know right from wrong.  When we read something, or hear something, our soul resonates on a certain frequency to tell us whether it coincides with what is written on our hearts.  If we can learn to feel that frequency - that “still, small voice” and act on it with integrity, no matter what the consequences, then we can discern the correct choices to make in our lives.  The Bible, with all its flaws, has somehow brought a message down to us through tens of thousands of years, and if we learn to drown out the noise and the distractions and really feel the message it can heal us, and we can heal the world.


Prayer in Schools

There have been many instances in my life when I've been participating in a nice group conversation, happily chatting away and validating the feelings and beliefs of my fellow chatters, when someone looks at me and says "Well of course - YOU believe that there should be prayer in our schools, right?  I mean, of course there should be."

And I bring the fun to a screeching halt when I say "Actually I don't believe that at all.  I think there should always be a separation between church and state." 

It seems like I would be the least likely person to believe such a thing.  First of all, in case any of you hadn't noticed, I'm a nun.  Before I was a nun I was a secular person who was, in spite of being a wretched sinner, a fairly churchy person.  I, of all people, should be joining in with my fellow Christians and demanding that all the "God" references should be left in our political liturgies and that little children should hear prayer and the word of God in school throughout their entire educations. 

When I was in 4th grade in Rome, Georgia our teacher, Miss Berry, would take out a Bible at some point every day and read a few passages from it out loud to us.  It wasn't a big deal because back then, Miss Berry was reading the Bible to a room full of little southern Baptists and Methodists who believed exactly the same way she did.  At that time in history my small hometown was, for the most part, theologically homogenous.  The farthest we could even imagine from our own beliefs was the occasional Pentecostal or Holiness Church kid who might show up wearing a long modest skirt to gym class one year.  I never met a Jewish person until I was 19 years old, and I never met any Hindus or Muslims until I moved to New York City when I was 20.

I think that the movement to keep God in our government has good intentions at its core, but that in practice it is actually that massive and looming threat that we modern humans love to display in order to frighten the masses - the slippery slope. Proponents of school prayer are wildly gesticulating at a very different slippery slope than I am.  They believe that if we take the word "God" out of the pledge of allegiance and off our currency, and if we officially ban any mention of God and religion in schools, we'll become a nation of nonbelievers dancing around pagan bonfires and worshipping satan.  We'll lose, they say, the very foundation that our great country was founded upon - that we are one nation, under GOD.

Yes, we were founded by Christian men and women who believed in God.  I can't dispute that.  I can, however, dispute the assumption that America was founded to be a Christian, religious nation.  It was actually founded to be quite the opposite.  The first Pilgrim settlers were fleeing religious persecution because they lived in a nation, England, where church and state were completely enmeshed.  Their beliefs didn't coincide with the beliefs of their very Christian, very religious homeland and so their rights were restricted by the government and they fled.  Their desire for religious freedom continued throughout the existence of the original 13 Colonies, and was carried on throughout the American Revolution and persists to this day.

The Godly Government slippery slope that I envision can be better explained if I wonder, for a minute, what life would be like for me as a Christian if our nation's founders had been Muslim.  What if, when I went to elementary school, my teacher took out a Koran and read it to us every day?   What if I went to court for a traffic ticket as an adult, and there were calls to prayer at the courthouse and requirements for me to kneel and face Mecca when all I wanted to do was to get a stupid rolling-stop-at-a-red-light ticket off my driving record? What if my government restricted my rights as a Christian female by not allowing me to drive or have a job, or a checking account?  What if I was threatened with jail or fines for going to church and practicing my faith?  

When I see government and religion merge, this is the kind of future I see.  If our government decides that ok, folks, we're Christian so everybody needs to be totally fine with the ten commandment tablets in that Montgomery courthouse and just shut up about it, I would see that as a first step towards religious oppression.  Am I exaggerating?  I don't think so.  Even the most civilized nations that ended up practicing religious persecution started with small steps toward forcing everyone to believe the same way, and ended up jailing and killing people. 

If I ramp down my visualization of a Muslim nation and change our hypothetical official US religion to Christian - but Mormon Christian - how would that affect me as an Episcopalian?  How would that affect anyone who isn't Mormon?  What would our government look like if it became religious, but the religion didn't coincide with my particular beliefs - or yours?

I am a Christian, but I don't believe in a Christian government because I believe in religious freedom.  I believe that taking the word "God" out of government doesn't mean our government is Atheist, but rather that our government respects the religious beliefs of all people enough not to impose one belief system on them.  When you take away the word "God", you allow space for words like Yahweh, Allah and Dharma.  When you take away Southern Baptist prayers in fourth grade, you allow space for Jewish, 7th Day Adventist and Episcopal prayers.

God is good but religion can often become a clever disguise for power, money and politics.  It can be used to oppress innocent people and cause countless deaths.  Separating church and state was a miraculously radical and sound idea at the time it was proposed, and it still is.

The Peace that Passes All Understanding

Depart from evil, and do good; 
seek peace, and pursue it.  
--Psalms 34:14

On Sept. 11, 2001, my parents were about to leave my apartment in Los Angeles to fly home after a two-week visit with me.  My sister India called just as my stepfather Mike's hand was on the doorknob, ready to roll the luggage out to the rental car.  She said frantically "Turn on CNN.  A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.  DO NOT allow Mom and Mike to go to the airport."  Despite our reassurances to India that it was just an aircraft accident and everything was ok, we soon realized that it was a terrorist attack and that every airport on the country had been shut down.  My parents were stuck in LA for the next 2 days, and they ended up flying to Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport on the first commercial airline flight that was allowed in the air after 9/11.

Five months later, in February during the elegant solemnity of Lent, I visited the Community of St. John Baptist for the first time.  When my flight landed at Newark airport I had to resist the urge to kiss the ground and hug the heavily-armed guards at Newark when I got off the plane.  I've always been terrified of flying, and the events of Sept. 11 had confirmed my fears and made them infinitely worse. My flight had been booked before the attacks, and my visit to CSJB was part of a plan I had to visit at least 4 convents as part of my careful discernment process along the path of becoming a nun.  

As I passed the guards patrolling Newark airport, carrying machine guns, I was once again reminded that the false sense of security most Americans had felt before 2001 was gone.  We were timid and fearful, and we were all much more polite to, yet suspicious of, our fellow travelers.  

In the baggage claim area, I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the two CSJB sisters who'd been sent to pick me up - Sister Shane Margaret and Sister Julia.  The fearful part of me had wanted so much to cancel my flight and not fly into Newark airport because the world was too uncertain and full of danger, but the part of me that felt a powerful pull to join a convent was too strong to allow that to happen.  I had to go, no matter how scared I was.

My first experience at CSJB was inevitably colored by the events of Sept. 11.  As I met each sister, the conversation quickly turned to the horrific tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and I felt privileged to hear the spiritual and psychological perspectives of these brilliant, God-centered women.  Some of them had gone into Manhattan to help firefighters and policemen and had worked tirelessly to counsel, feed and heal anyone they encountered.  The rest of them had been giving spiritual direction and practical assistance to people in Mendham who'd been affected, or who'd lost their loved ones, while praying for the hundreds of requests that were flooding in.  Every time they talked about their work, I thought "This is what I should be doing."  Every time we prayed together I thought "This is what I should be doing." and every time they talked about where they were working in Manhattan I thought "That is where I should be."

During all the years when I was trying to be a "normal" person - only attending church sporadically and politely concealing my Christianity to avoid offending people and driving away eligible males - I used to drive past churches on Sunday and think "That's where I should be."  I would watch TV shows about missionaries and listen to TV preachers talk about their ministries and think "That is what I should be doing."  I tried to rationalize things by saying to myself "Well, all I can do is try to earn a living and take care of myself, while trying to be a good person." but in my heart, I knew it wasn't enough for me.  As a Christian and a feminist, I could never convince myself that movie advertising - even though it paid my rent - was ever going to feel right, or bring me happiness.  I just trudged from day to day feeling unfulfilled, with a huge hole in my heart.  I suffered from depressive episodes which incapacitated me for days at a time, and I only started to feel better when I'd had enough therapy to be confident and un-cool enough to began attending church regularly and start participating enthusiastically in various ministries.  The first time I volunteered at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen on LA's Skid Row, and the first time I visited the Sisters of the Holy Nativity at their retreat house in Santa Barbara, I was consumed with such deep happiness that I cried at the thought of having to go back to my "normal" life.

When the world fell apart on Sept. 11 I was reminded that the earth is not the Garden of Eden.  It is a battleground between good and evil and in that case, evil overwhelmed the good.  My heart was pulling me towards doing something to fight evil - to join the Good Guys and fight on that team - but my fear held me back.  I had debt and bills and family obligations.  I needed to work in an industry that went against my personal ethics in order to stay alive, I thought.  I had tried many times to look for jobs in the non-profit sector and I had tried for years to find a job in the church, but nothing offered a living wage and I had no safety net.  If I couldn't afford my rent and my bills, there was nobody to bail me out.  At that time my family wasn't doing well financially and I couldn't ask for their help. I kept envisioning myself in line at the Catholic Worker Soup Kitchen on Skid Row.  

Still, the call persisted.  I answered it in small ways - bringing communion to people in nursing homes and hospitals, and to those who were housebound.  I did a lot of things at church and in my personal life in hopes that I would feel that I was doing my part but, like everyone else, I had a lot of other things to think about.  The demands of my job took up most of my time and energy, and I barely even had a moment to spend with friends and family.  When I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, the pain and constant exhaustion consumed me.  Just getting through each day was hard enough.  

When 9/11 happened I felt an overwhelming desire to jump the safety of my LA ship and fight evil. I thought a lot about what evil really was, and at first I thought that evil was something that was "over there."  It was in a person like Osama Bin Laden, or it was waiting to pounce on the people I loved in the form of addiction and alcoholism.  Evil would leap out from nowhere and consume a person, forcing them to commit a grisly murder.  It dwelled in terrorist camps and in fanatical people who shot innocent women and doctors at abortion clinics.  People are all essentially good, I believed, but evil was wandering the earth trying to infiltrate the souls of the innocent.  

After pondering the concept for many years, my view of evil has changed.  It's not "out there," waiting to possess us.  It's not "over there" in the Middle East.  It's within all of us.  The battle between good and evil isn't a remote one.  It's in our own hearts.  Evil, in my view, isn't just murderous or hateful.  It's also fearful.  The fear in my own heart that kept me from pursuing the call to religious life was something that was keeping me from doing important work to help the world.  Fear, for me, was evil because it kept me from following my heart's desire and it made me empty and depressed.  It paralyzed me and kept me silent.  

I don't condemn myself for letting fear win all those years because the fight against evil isn't easy.  It's a tremendous struggle for all of us.  Our brains are consumed with negative thoughts and our mouths speak negative things which then add fuel to the fires of negativity as they grow larger and larger with each evil thought and deed.  It's hard to add fuel to the positive fires, when we are surrounded by negative energy everywhere we go.  When negative, evil energy surrounds us we can't help but absorb it and pass it on.

I also think of evil as being anything unhealthy that we do to sabotage ourselves.  All the things that therapists fight against, to heal our minds and our souls, are evil things that might potentially destroy us.  When I speak to people about their unhappiness and their attempts to fight their addictions I always say "I want you to get help and get sober and believe me - if I thought for one second that what you're doing was actually going to bring you happiness, I would never want you to stop it but it does not bring you happiness.  It brings a momentary thrill, then deep, profound pain."  When we hurt ourselves, we are letting evil destroy us.

Fighting against evil in my own life has meant years of therapy, fighting the depression and anxiety that could have destroyed me.  It also means joining a convent and fighting on the side of the Good Guys in an organized way, without having to live in fear that I can't support myself.  I also try very hard to fight evil in all those little ways that are, as I'm sure you know, the hardest.  I fail at it a lot.  It's extremely hard for me not to gossip and say mean things about people (I am SOUTHERN after all…) and to not feel anger and hatred towards those who have done horrible things against me and others.  It's hard for me not to let jealousy and greed, and my hunger for superficial things like fame and fortune, cause me to be insensitive to people I claim to love. It is hard for me to distinguish between what is cruel, and what is a healthy boundary.   Most of all I have asked God's forgiveness for all those years of being a coward and hiding my faith in order to be cool and fit in, when I should have been living as an example to others.  Cowardice is about as evil as it gets.  

Sister Mary Lynne and Sister Jane have conquered the cowardice which holds most of us back when we see tragedies unfolding before our eyes on the nightly news.  They risk their lives every day they work at the Good Shepherd Home in Cameroon, helping the orphans in that dangerous and unstable country.  Nobody else would do it because it was too risky, but these two gentle, kind women knew they couldn't let fear win.  Fear was causing everyone to ignore the innocent children of Cameroon and let them die on the streets, and fear needed to be conquered in order to start the orphanage, defy the corrupt government officials and start the work of healing.  They knew they couldn't do it alone, so they begged God to help them fight evil, and He did.

The evil that led the terrorists to attack the US in 2001 exists in all our hearts.  It was fueled by the same kind of fanaticism, fear and anger that every one of us could succumb to if we allowed it.  Their environment, their fellow men, and the poverty and corruption in that part of the world stoked the flames of negative energy into a fireball of hatred and evil, and you better believe that it could do the same to any of us.  

I've heard so many people say "Well I can't do anything about it." or "I don't have the resources to help." when they see or hear about people in the world, God's beloved children, who are suffering.  I would give them the same advice I give myself.  "Just try.  Do something, no matter how small - even just trying to get through one day without a negative thought or action."  We need to all throw fuel on the fires of positive energy.  If we did, we could win.