01 July 2010

5July WEEK: Setting the Stage

7July - My Journey

I do not consider myself any sort of expert. In a town (Washington, DC) in which one's importance is frequently measured by the letters following a surname, I have no letters - not even a title, now that I am unemployed. My journey has not led me to academic achievements or membership in the power crowd. I am virtually unknown except in the small world that is the HIV/AIDS community in Washington, DC. And even that will gradually change now that I have resigned.

What I can say is this: I have been on an intense spiritual journey for the past 22 years; I have lived with chronic pain for the past 5-1/2 years; I had a wonderfully rich life while living and working at Miriam's House. Out of these experiences I would like to share life lessons learned; some thoughts and reflections with others who are:
(1) interested in the subject; and/or
(2) suffering from chronic pain themselves and willing to explore its spiritual aspects with me.

My spiritual journey has led me away from caring much about doctrine, Christology and theology, so this blog will not discuss subjects such as Jesus' divinity, or original sin, or predestination, or whether it's works or faith that is more important, and the like. These discussions, as Buddha said, do not tend to lead to edification.

What this means is that I have let go of the need to be certain. I care less and less about naming and describing a God of my imaginings and needs. Whatever beliefs I used to have about Jesus now seem far less important than Jesus' own message to "follow me"; I am impatient with religious arguments except for the broadest explorations with no accompanying categorical statements. That is why the word in this blog's title is "spirituality" and not "faith" or "religion". I do not expect to be in this place forever - the one salient fact of my spiritual journey is that it leads me to change. Rejecting certainty about doctrine and beliefs also means rejecting certainty about the permanence of any current state of my spirit and the way I view my spiritual life.

At the same time, my connection to the Divine (most would say God, but it seems I do not think of God in the way many Christians do, so I choose a different word) is beautifully deep and nurturing to me. Prayer and meditation constitute a very important part of my daily life, or they do, at least, when a migraine does not have me down. Yet even when I have a migraine, the practice of deep relaxation is a meditative and even prayerful one that not only nurtures my spirit but changes my perceptions of the pain.

In this blog, I will quote from the Bible; draw upon my understanding of Buddhist philosophy; refer to the New Age-y books I've read in the Women's Spirituality Group in which I participate; quote from my favorite poet - the 14th-century Sufi poet, Hafiz; and speak of worship experiences with my Jewish friends and of wonderful conversations with my Sufi friend. I will undoubtedly continue to explore as the spiritual journey leads me, and offer thoughts and reflections on these explorations, also.

I so welcome your accompanying me on this journey.

** Next post: Living with Pain **

Reminds Me of the Time

"Miss Carol, why did God do this to me?"

Startled, I looked up from unlocking my office door - it was early in the morning and I didn't think anyone else was up, let alone realize Deborah was standing next to me. I did not have time to respond as she went on, partly because the look in her eyes silenced me. It was just so full of hurt.

Deborah, like most of the Miriam's House residents, came to us addicted to crack cocaine, ill with AIDS and its complications, and seriously depressed. Yet you wouldn't know her pain just looking at her: her beautiful face, always carefully made-up and framed by silky curls, did not show the ravages of her illness and the many years she'd spent in her addiction.

That pain showed in her spirit.

"What did I do to deserve this? I know God is punishing me, and I know I've done bad before, but why is it so awful?"

This was the first of many such conversations with women who understood God to be a stern figure doling out punishments in the form of physical ills, tragedy, and bad luck. It being the first, I was unprepared. "Come sit down with me."

"No, I have to go to my meeting. If I'm late they won't sign my sheet." She headed toward the stairs while I sort of frantically cast about in my mind for a way to end the brief exchange on a better note.

"Deborah, I just don't believe that God is a God of punishment." It was inadequate and I knew it when she just looked around at me with a wan smile.

"See you later."

The very fact that this agonized question had burst out of her even while she was engaged in the small activities of beginning her day indicated how devastating to her was this idea of God. I sat in my office almost dumbfounded at both the urgent hurt emanating from Deborah and the stark realization that if I chose not to take refuge in platitudes, I had some challenging work of my own to do.

This marked the beginning of years of examining my own beliefs and thoughts about God. My own spirit's reaction to Deborah told me that I did not in any way agree that God sits up in heaven pointing an angry finger at sinful mortals and devising macabre punishments to teach them a lesson. Given that, what did I believe about God? Once the questions started, they challenged me at deeper and deeper levels.

If God does not mete out punishment, does God toss around blessings? Who am I to receive blessings from God, blessings that include being born to a middle-class family and therefore having the benefit of a solid family life, good education, proper nutrition, and good health care, none of which I "deserve"? How am I better than Deborah that I should have been born a white, middle-class woman and she a black, poverty-stricken woman?

Am I willing to give up comforting, self-justifying images of God? Will I allow the journey into the grey areas of uncertainty about God and faith with the leadings of the Spirit and my experiences at Miriam's House?

What helped me was this understanding: that I could love Deborah as much as I did proved its origin in an immense Love that dwarfed yet fed any love in the human heart. However I named this Love, whatever uncertainties came from all the questioning, it was to be my cornerstone.

As for Deborah, whose questions drew from me a new spiritual integrity, she relapsed not long after that morning exchange. For so many of our residents over the years, there truly is one relapse too many, when it seems the body just cannot handle any more abuse. As a direct result of that relapse, Deborah died within five days, intubated and on a respirator in the intensive care unit at Washington Hospital Center.

Tim and I were on a weekend get-away when Annie - the resident intern - called me with the news. After checking to make sure she was OK and then reviewing procedures with her, I hung up the phone and sat numbly, staring out the hotel room window.

It had not been for me to help Deborah experience the incredible, all-forgiving Love of the God she thought she knew. Perhaps, even at that moment, Love Itself was teaching her.

I'd love to hear from you: click the Comment link below or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com


  1. Carol - This is a lovely post, and I'm so glad to get a glimpse into your spiritual life as it has evolved in the years since we worshiped together! Your description of prayer and meditation being vital, while theology and doctrine are not, reminds me of what I've learned (very little really) about 12-step programs. Mary Karr, in her memoir "Lit," writes about her recovery from alcoholism, and how she began to see, feel, and understand the benefits of prayer long before she knew what/who she was praying to. She eventually embraced Catholicism, but that came later than the act of prayer. Seems that the act of following, the desire to connect with something or someone beyond the concreteness of our daily concerns, is what brings healing, not necessarily having a clear understanding of who that presence is and exactly how it works.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts, Ellen. I love the connection to 12-Step programs; over the years, the 12-Steps have influenced me probably even more than I realize. Also, without needing or seeking that clear understanding or knowing of who the Presence (not even sure I like that word, but ...) is, I am freed to simply explore and be spiritual aside from the more cognitive and intellectual activities.

  3. Carol, your writing has such a strong, clear voice. It is truly a joy to read! I love the idea of your experience of love being your "corner stone", your foundation from which to go forth and explore. I too, have pondered the idea that if I don't believe God metes out punishment, then do I believe God hands out blessings? Life is indeed mysterious to me- no matter what comes about, I hope and yearn to live in love- love for myself and love for others. In peace,

  4. Jul - what a beautiful way to capture the essense of this post - to say that life is mysterious and, "... [N]o matter what comes about, I hope and yearn to live in love ..."
    Thank you for that.