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The Rebirth of Religious Imagination

Here's the fourth and final 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 memoir The House Where the Hardest Things Happened.

One of Caley’s experiences that was particularly revealing of her effort to recover and stake a permanent, unassailable claim for faith and religion involves her time spent as a children’s Sunday school teacher. When she attended Sunday school at the First Church of God, a great emphasis was placed on attendance, which would be rewarded with a gold star adhered to a chart. Looking back, Caley realized that the recognition given to regular students was likely matched by the shame felt by those who were not. Now, as a Sunday school teacher herself, Caley writes: “[I]t satisfies an old need in me to be especially generous to the ones who can’t seem to get there.” Sunday school is for Caley a new transitional ground, a field in which she may play with the very articles of faith that were so closely controlled and manipulated in her past. It is also a place of opportunity for reparation, of making amends for the spiritual darkness she used to carry by bringing light into the lives of the children she teaches. “I am here now to give the children who come my way some things that I didn’t get when I was their age.”

In the Sunday school class Caley led, there was one student, Laura, who was not one of the regular attendees of the church. For a time of some months, Laura and her siblings did regularly attend, but were mostly unfamiliar with the stories of the Bible and the key events of the Christian year, which receive a special emphasis in the Episcopal Church environment as compared to a fundamentalist church. Caley discovers one Sunday, as she is naming off the various events leading up to the Crucifixion, that Laura has no idea that Jesus was crucified. “They . . . killed . . . him?” The dumbfounded and shocked expression on the girl’s face seems to equally surprise Caley. “Stop the lesson Kate,” she thinks to herself. “Stop the cramming, the view of the whole thing as regular and rote, as something we all know already anyway.” For Caley, this becomes a moment to participate in the fresh discovery of the Passion story. In Caley’s experience as a child, the dark, painful descent of the Passion story had likely been underplayed, as it is in some Protestant churches, in favor of the strong emphasis on the bodily resurrection. Caley finds herself in the position of both mirroring, or empathizing with, Laura’s horror, and of reexperiencing that horror herself, and in some ways for the first time: “I looked across that Sunday school table at Laura, reached for her. ‘You’re going to love the way this story ends,’ I said to her and told her what I know."

The actual lesson of that Sunday covered the New Testament story of the woman who committed adultery, and who was about to be stoned. Again, Laura soaked in the story as the class made a play out of reenacting the scene. Caley could tell from Laura’s reaction that Laura loved the story, and how Jesus answers the questions of the accusers in such a way that the woman is not unfairly stoned. “That story about Jesus’ goodness became her own,” Caley writes. “What she received the day we acted out the story of the forgiven woman nobody gets to take away.” For Caley, Laura is learning these lessons from the Bible and about God in a supportive environment. She’s not shielding Laura from the depth or severity of the story but delivering the story and allowing her student to take possession of it in a way that is meaningful to her, not just the teacher or the church. This good-enough mother role that Caley assumes as a Sunday school teacher not only encourages true spiritual discovery on the part of her student, but it helps Caley reclaim pieces of the spiritual imagoes that were “taken away” from her in her own childhood.

Another healing moment in Caley’s journey back to faith also comes in the interaction with a child; in this case, it is her own ten-year-old daughter who asks to hear the story of why Caley never received a mustard seed necklace. This story from Caley’s past comes up the day her daughter receives a mustard seed during church services one Sunday. Caley proceeds to reveal the salient yet momentous details of how her family had been barred from the church of her childhood, of how at the time they stopped attending altogether, she had been just about to receive a mustard seed necklace for memorizing the names of the books of the New Testament. She had memorized all those names, but never received the necklace. Caley describes her daughter’s sadness at hearing the story, who in turn, interestingly, comments on how it would be too sad a story even to tell her younger sister, a six-year-old. Caley had already decided not to relate this story to the younger daughter, no doubt fearing—perhaps more than was warranted—what it might do to the girl. What is most compelling for Caley, however, is what happens days later. Her ten-year-old presents her with a mustard seed necklace she had secretly purchased while the family was visiting the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. She gives her mother the necklace on Christmas morning—a time of celebrating a most significant birth and beginning. Instead of hurrying to see her own stockings and gifts as usual, the daughter rushes to give her mother a special box. Inside the box is a mustard seed necklace sized for a child. For Caley, it is the perfect size, and a wonderful gift:

I imagined [God] wanting to say to me, Listen, Kate. The way a mustard seed is like the kingdom of heaven is this: it takes a long time to find a place to grow well. But you are doing it. And now you help these daughters. Look at it all. I’m there.

Am I just putting words in God’s mouth? That always worries me. Yet I want to pay attention to each layer of meaning as my own girl gives me the very thing I needed when I was a girl.

Her daughter’s gift is a significant healing moment for Caley, not just because of the significance for Caley’s own past, but also because of the opportunity she created for her daughter to act out of compassion and do so of her own volition. For Caley it is a healing moment especially because she sees the pain of her past—and her anger toward the thoughtlessness of the adults in that past—is now being mediated by a child, one who holds unaffected and unmarked faith and trust in her hand.

There are other examples of mourning and rediscovery of faith to be gleaned from this sensitive memoir, but I will conclude by discussing one final observation Caley makes about her experience with church. She writes, again in reference to her own children, of her concern about whether they will come to know the same numinous feeling of the divine that she discovered at so young an age:

But at times I have feared for my children’s relationship with God. How could they know Jesus if they didn’t sing, “Just as I Am” at the end of the service each week? I know our relationship with God doesn’t depend on how we set up our service. And yet. There are some moments—so vulnerable and precious and important—that seem only to happen in a church that has an altar call. There’s a part of me that won’t quite rest until God lets Billy Graham live long enough to do one more crusade in New England.

For Caley, those imagoes of her early church experience still remain, but the difference now is that she can acknowledge them, making her pining for them a conscious dialogue. Note that this expressed concern for her children’s faith comes near the end of her book, as perhaps one last homage to the authoritarianism in the religion of her past. She also observes: “Maybe I need to rely more on God and less on the ways I think we get to God. To stay clear of the trap that there is only one, exact way it happens.” Caley is bringing to conscious thought a brief observation on how she has new access to the most precious and powerful aspects of what is holy. In the past, the access was granted on the condition of her passivity and submission to a “right” way. This method was endeared to her, and she loved it and had made it a part of her. Now she is in the process of raising that love to a new ideal, wondering about its hold on her, and reviving her sense of possibility and hope for something new. Only a few pages later we find her describing a very different kind of resolution about the ultimate symbols of her worshiping experience. In her description of participating in a Eucharistic service, she writes:

I felt a physical sense of home. Of the holy familiar.

And I feel it each time I leave my seat to walk up the long aisle to the altar . . . I walk well-known steps to receive the earthly elements of bread and wine, which change in ways I do not need to understand, into the very presence of Christ.

I walk with others, like me and not like me, to answer another kind of altar call. The call to come. To taste and see. No one forces the gift. You answer by walking toward it. . . .

I bring myself and everything I have ever been to the altar.

In just these few remarks Caley demonstrates the mechanism of mourning and the rebirth of religious imagination and faith. She reveals the transition from using up her attachment to her old, now dead imagoes, consciously acknowledging her love for them in a way that is free from self-recrimination or bitterness, toward a sweetness and trust for discovering something new. Rather than having that new sense of the holy driven into her—or enjoined by her own neediness—Caley finds herself walking toward it and receiving it as a gift. She is occupying Winnicott’s transitional space, both finding and being found by the sacred. Although she consumes the elements, she is not simply consuming for herself, but sharing and participating with others in the presence of the ultimate.

The Episcopal service seems to offer Caley a more direct connection to what is sacred. Feeling closer to God in a liturgically mediated context is in itself an irony for a cradle fundamentalist such as Caley. One of the longstanding ideologies of Protestantism is that the individual has a direct connection to God, the chance to participate in a priesthood of all believers. Especially for absolutists, the Bible, as literally applied in every word, is the primary portal to God, and it is far less necessary, perhaps even heretical, to find God through ritual joined with, received by, and interpreted in concert with others. And yet, the liturgy is the solution for Caley. The Eucharist, or communal sacred meal, is the place where she can finally explore the meaning of God as if for the first time. It is a safe place, safer at least “for now,” and free from the emotionalism of her absolutist past.

To conclude, Caley’s journey of faith follows a course that exemplifies all the elements of trauma and loss, anger and aggression, the depressive position, mourning, the rediscovery of the numinous, and the interplay of the transitional space. Her struggle is one that has lasted throughout most of the decades of early and midlife and may well last much longer. She goes from discovering at an early age a potent sense of God, faith, and community, to losing it all, and then regaining it bit by bit in new and different ways much later in life.

Yet her story begs the question as to whether there is still more to come. Having gone from a place where “everything was all right” to a place that is “safe, for now,” we can only wonder whether Caley is merely at some midway point in her journey of mourning. In the future, she may still explore new concepts of God and new forms of liturgy. Perhaps she’ll even make her way to still another faith community or, perhaps just as likely, act as an agent of transformation for the Episcopal church in which she has raised a family and spent much of her adult life. To be sure, the closeness of an absolutist community, as distorted as it may sometimes be, provides an identity and worldview that is often missing in contemporary life. And Caley had experienced that closeness intensely. But to be content with a place that is merely safe does not necessarily challenge someone like Caley to the fullest possible resolution of her trauma and loss. Such a loss is, after all, a microcosm that represents spiritual loss throughout contemporary life. Certainly, the safety provided by the church environment Caley grew into was without qualification the key to her rediscovery of faith in community. It could also be argued that safety is all a faith community should provide. And yet play, as Winnicott would define it, contains an element of surprise, even of risk, confrontation, interaction, responsibility, and danger, which—through a facilitating environment—is overcome through a game where there is trust that all will survive and live with deepened understanding. We are thus left to wonder whether Caley has yet to enter still other places of spiritual risk and surprise, and what those places may reveal.

This is the final of four posts. Find the first post here.


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David R. Morris

I work to glean helpful information to bring you new ways to move forward spiritually. I'm an independent scholar, writer, and longtime religious publishing professional. My goal is to help us all rewire our American religious imagination. That's something to lean into.

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