Play and Mystery in Finding Hope Again
Here's the third in a series of posts that show how we begin to reclaim our religious imagination through a journey of loss, mourning, anger, and a renewed sense of play--from the story of Kate Young Caley.
In her teen years, during the early 1970s, Caley became involved in the Jesus Generation, going off to a group that met in a barn, sang Christian folk songs, praised God, and listened to prophecies. At first, she was glad to be back at church, enjoying the warmth of mutual fellowship, but then she began to observe power struggles among the elders of the group.
She observes in hindsight that the struggles were typical in such grassroots movements, and yet at the time they felt so devastating. Again, for her the object of her faith began to disintegrate, the damage and the trauma resurfaced. Caley describes one service where she felt this disintegration personally. A speaker began prophesying, “I see a raven, a dark, dark raven. Circling among us. Circling dark. Circling low. There is a raven among us, here in this very room! It is looking for a place to land. Oh my people, don’t let it land.” She began to think that what the speaker was saying pertained just to her. She felt terrified that of the three hundred people in attendance, she was the one the raven would land on:
I knew that at any moment that huge, black bird was going to land on my shoulder and everyone would be able to see. I was the only one in the place it would pick. I knew it.
Having been kicked out before, I was ready to be kicked out again. . . .
I wondered: Why do I keep trying? Why do I keep thinking I can find a way to fit in? There always seemed to be something about me that didn’t get things right.[i]
Here we see the internalization of the negative environment, or in Freud’s words, the shadow of the object descending upon the ego. Having felt the experience of rejection from a church that introduced her to fear images of the holy, Caley finds that her ability to seek God among others is damaged. To make a myopic conclusion that she should be singled out among all the participants—and one must wonder how many others felt the same way about such an eerie speech—bears evidence of self-blame and self-loathing. Making such a conclusion, however, comes as no surprise when considering the spiritual trauma she suffered at the tender age of five. Furthermore, Caley’s ability to take satisfaction in such a group, to be able to play in the group, and creatively possess its symbols was tenuous at best, and likely remained an inhibition to her participation. As she mentions above, she had the feeling that she could not get things right: “I was too religious for some. Too worldly for others.” Such an observation reveals her inability to take pleasure in such a group. More to the point, it demonstrates that anyone who has suffered such a breach of trust is left with an inability to feel at home in any group. A feeling prevails that one is an imposter, a pretender, as in Winnicott’s false self, forever in fear that the true self will be exploited or obliterated. It is a two-sided fear that the true self belongs neither in the religious group because of deep doubt and unbelief, nor in a secular group because of a strong commitment to a way of life defined by religious authority.
Fortunately, the simple expression of Caley’s frustration with not belonging also contains a scrap of anger, and the potential for the discovery of self-agency, which comes to the fore in the paragraphs that follow, where Caley describes the incident that led her to leave this group. At a meeting some months later, a woman who was an elder expressed a prophecy that Caley and her boyfriend were not meant to be together. What God had told this woman was that Caley was too outgoing for this young man, and that it was instead the woman’s own niece that would best suit him. Caley writes:
It was almost laughable.
Enough, already. Enough. As much as I wanted God, I was sick to death of His people. Of their incessant manipulations. . . .
I looked across the table at the elder’s wife with her expression so earnest, stood from the table, and left the room.
Here Caley discovers a measure of contempt for spiritual community, though unfortunately it is a rebellion that will only be met by further rebuke and aloofness rather than acceptance and love. In fact, it is an environment that is most likely the worst possible place for her to restore her faith within community.
Over time, Caley concludes and gains confidence in the fact that that she will not find sacred symbols within the confines of a church group, which seems an important step. In fact, she begins to see examples of God existing in people and places she had never thought—or been taught—to associate with God. There were the many people with whom her parents were friendly after the vote of excommunication:
These friends of ours did not call themselves the people of God but they were always doing the things God said to do; sharing what they had with those in need; not picking up the first quick stone of judgment; offering help but never needing for anyone else to know about it. They loved us, their neighbors, as themselves. Better even.
After attending college, discovering the world of literature, traveling abroad, and eventually becoming married, Caley describes that she and her husband went looking for a church environment where they would both feel as though they were beginning something new:
[W]e needed a place where we could define and redefine who we were and who God was to us—not a place where our beliefs were already presumed and defined and cast.[iv]
What Caley presents, in connection with what has been discussed here about Winnicott’s transitional phenomena, is a piece written with a strong note of awe and wonder about both finding and being found, or in this case, being lured or compelled. In the busy streets of an urban Boston neighborhood Caley and her husband noticed a man dressed in a black, full-length cassock.
The paradox of this man, walking slowly with his hands behind his back and the ease with which he made his way down the deteriorating avenue, caused us to slow the car to see where he might go. The way he seemed to float in that full-length cassock above the swarm of the city was something I needed to understand.
He crossed the avenue, not waiting for the pedestrian light. We turned down the street where he was heading, feeling an unspoken urge to follow him.[v]
Caley describes that the man disappeared into an Episcopal church, a kind of church they had never attended. They noticed its Gothic Revival architecture, the old rose bushes growing out of the base of a castle-like tower, and heard the sound of the Vesper bells. When they attended the service the following Sunday, they took in the many sites of interest inside the church. There was dark lighting, stained glass, wrought iron stands of lighted candles, and heavy, tall, straight pews. A bell rang, an organ sounded, and a parade of choir boys walked in. Three men followed in procession carrying a cross. Caley and her husband navigated their way through that first Eucharistic service by mimicking what the other parishioners did. They noticed that the others in attendance came from a cross-section of life in the church’s neighborhood. It seemed that no one was excluded from the service. Their experience of that day showed them that all they need do was “enter in” and take part in the liturgy. No one was asking them what they believed or what tradition they came from. No one was preaching sermons laced with fear and anxiety. All they were asked to do was to, “Be still. Watch and wait. Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
What Caley and her husband found that day was a place where they could rediscover God and recreate who they were as people of God. They experienced in the Anglican liturgy and symbolism a freedom that allowed for their unspoken, undernourished mysteries of life and faith. The very embracing of uncertainty brought with it a feeling of opportunity, both the chance to possess and be possessed by the experience, which for the former absolutist borders on the exotic and intoxicating. Nevertheless, first and foremost this new church experience was a place where they could feel safe, protected from the “hardest things”—words used in the title of Caley’s memoir. For Caley in particular, this church would become a place where she could return to her own primary images of the divine and let them play freely upon her imagination. Here she would begin the process of slowly rediscovering and reclaiming her initiative.
See the first entry here.
See the next post, coming soon.