Betty, our Unitarian-Universalist pastor called me up the other Wednesday to ask if I'd be willing to speak for a few minutes that Sunday about my own "spiritual journey." I was a little flattered that she felt she could ask me on such short notice. I said I would and this is what I shared:
"I grew up in the Unitarian church. My parents had both turned away from what they'd seen as the small-minded, rural churches that they'd grown up with. But when they had children they got involved in the church in Lancaster, PA. So I came up through the religious education program there and came out a fairly comfortable agnostic.
I had no real interest in what I saw as the big religious questions about the existence of God or whether there was an afterlife. I felt no great need for a divine underpinning for my moral compass or the meaning of life. I had internalized the central Christian tenet of my parents -- that you shouldn't put your own interests above the interests of others. If you could live that, then you were doing good.
So I went on with going to school, working, traveling, falling in love with girls and all that.
When I was about 25 I was living for a while in Eugene, Oregon. I was hanging around with pagans. It was a very active and politicized scene. And I knew some guys -- or rather I didn't know them very well, but our girlfriends were all getting together to do pagan witchcraft. A lot of it excluded us males, and we got envious. So we decided to do a men's sweat.
Someone knew someone who had a sweatlodge out in the woods and one evening we gathered there for the sweat. You sit there and you sweat -- and then you jump in cold water and hoot and yowl and holler at the moon and then you sweat some more. And the sweat pushes out of you; it pushes the dirt out of your pores; it pushes the toxins out of your body; it pushes the clutter out of your mind. And someone had brought drums, so we sat there drumming and chanting and singing Simon and Garfunkel songs. And someone else had brought some bowls of clay - gray, brown, white, black - and we painted each others faces until they were bestial masks. And we sat around and gave each other names, guessing what each person's totemic name would be if they had one. And it was fun.
That evening I looked around at these 8 or 9 guys and I realized that I loved them. I just loved them. And I knew for a certainty that they loved me, too. This was shocking. For mid-twentyish heterosexual males to just come to love one another like that -- well, I didn't even know that was possible.
I recognized that Christian tenet that I'd understood at an intellectual level: don't put your own interests above others. Well this love was exactly that and it was something un-utterably beyond that.
And I realized that the spiritual practices and technologies that we were playing with: sweating, drumming, singing, masking, naming -- which humans have been doing for a hundred thousand years at least -- had an incredible power to open us up -- emotionally, psychologically, socially to connections and potentials that we didn't even know existed and which we couldn't achieve on our own. I was amazed and I'm still amazed.
Now what I'm describing of course is an epiphany. It's not something I live every day or would want to live every day. But what I took from that experience and from others like it is the importance of what we have here -- where there is music and singing and sharing and candles are lit. I carry the knowledge that spiritual practice does have this power to take us beyond what we can see and be on our own."
Photos by A.B.