Coming out of the spiritual closet

This is a dark time of year, a time when I think a lot (or more than usual) about meaning-making in a world that feels so broken, about shining light on what is real and true and good, about what my values are and who I am and why am I here. You know, just the normal stuff.

So it’s in this mindset that I was recently reflecting on a #critlib chat moment. I do not participate in the #critlib chats because I find them hard to follow and process and keep up with. My thoughts aren’t always easily digestible into 140 characters, and by the time I have figured out a way to express my thought concisely, the conversation has usually already moved on. Also, there are so many people all tweeting at once, and I have difficulty understanding who is saying what and to whom.  So while I will occasionally watch part of the chat, I don’t contribute.

Sometime earlier this year, maybe over the summer, when I was lurking on a #critlib Twitter chat, a participant made a snarky comment about people who go to church. I don’t remember the exact context or wording, but it came across to me as sarcastic and mocking. I felt stung and offended and hurt by this comment, but I didn’t respond.

Part of the reason why I didn’t respond was because I never participate to begin with, and I felt like jumping into the conversation to challenge this comment wasn’t really the best way to begin my participation. I also know that because of the reasons I describe above, it’s really easy to lose nuance and context in a Twitter conversation, so for all I knew, there was some legitimate context for the assertion about people who go to church that I didn’t know about. I also felt worried that chiming in to say, “hey, what do you mean by that?” might sound a bit too much like the people who protest #NotAllMen (i.e., pointing out that some people who claim to be representing Jesus do terrible, terrible things and I’m Not Like That) and that would derail the larger conversation.

So I did nothing except stew over it all night. And maybe I’m still stewing over it now. It’s on my mind because I was corresponding with someone recently about feeling like you have a minority viewpoint within a dominant culture. And maybe it’s also on my mind because yesterday was the first Sunday of the liturgical season of Advent, which might be my favorite season of the church year. Advent is all about expectant waiting, about lighting candles in a dark season and anticipating the promise of light at the end. To me, there is so much magic about Advent that has nothing to do with presents and Santa Claus and everything to do with my belief that the God of my understanding came to earth as a helpless baby in the unlikeliest of places. (Don’t get me wrong, though–I’m still super into Santa and presents under the tree.)

I was born and raised Roman Catholic and educated at Catholic schools for K-12, and I also spent two years at a Jesuit university before transferring to a state school, where I graduated. Today I identify as Episcopalian, but mostly I am just me, and I am someone who finds thin spaces in quiet contemplation, in the familiar symbolism of rich and ancient rituals, and in the life-affirming inclusive language of the liturgy. Sometimes, though, it’s not the Book of Common Prayer but a teaching and learning moment that will leave me breathless and disoriented. Sometimes, during a reference encounter or in the classroom, I will truly see a student, really see the student as a person, a human, a unique and beautiful child of the universe whose inherent dignity and worth are so precious. I’ve written here before how the spiritual dimensions of teaching have been immensely healing to me and the burnout I struggle with. The funny thing is that while my spiritual practices and beliefs are of some comfort to me, I also feel lonely in my beliefs. It’s not something I really talk about, for fear of being mocked in a manner not unlike that #critlib comment I observed over the summer.

I’m writing this in the hopes there are other people like me, spiritually-closeted or otherwise, who see spirituality as an essential component of their identities as teachers. Are you out there? Maybe we could talk.

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8 thoughts on “Coming out of the spiritual closet

  1. Hi Maria, and THANK YOU for this post. I’m fairly active in #critlib in recent months, going on 2 years as an academic librarian. I have been a Quaker all my life, went to a Quaker high school, and it shapes everything about how I am in the world and what I believe and try to practice about education. I’d be happy to be in conversation about this.

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    1. Thank you so much, Lisa, for reading, and for your kind response. I have some thoughts about how to start a larger conversation about this, and I will be sure to keep you in the loop as those things develop. (sorry to be cryptic!)

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  2. I remember being at a couples’ house who are both very left leaning, very intellectual, and very staunchly anti-religion and having to scrounge up the courage to say to them that being a person of any faith in our circles is like belonging to one of the only cultural groups you’re allowed to out and out trash and mock. And I totally get all the reasons why– the history of religion(s), people’s personal experiences in their own churches and families, the ties to conservatism, fundamentalism, judgment, on and on. But I often feel silenced when really there is a lot to give and take in talking about these things openly.

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  3. I am an ex-Lutheran atheist, but much (not all) of my religious background still resonates with me and shapes my values and choices. I also live in the rural South, where religion simultaneously reinforces a lot of hateful narratives and provides social cohesion and empowerment to disadvantaged people. (I am from New England and would contend that rural Southerners are the other group it’s okay to trash in “polite” (read: young progressive urban) society. (Oh, and let’s not forget fat people!)

    I think it is important for Christians to take responsibility for the way that religion reinforces (if not actually causes) a great deal of injustice in our society, but the kind of discourse you talk about above is unprofessional and narrow-minded. Making blanket statements about groups based on the bad actions of a few is, last time I checked, not a progressive value, and criticizing specific problems with religion in our society is different from casually trashing all religious people.

    I think this is an issue where open communication among people of different belief systems could actually be fairly productive. Religion is so diverse across the United States that many people have not heard from the full spectrum of believers and non-believers.

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  4. Thank you for this post. It is a popular assumption that all librarians are 1.) ultra liberal (I am, and I know I am somewhat guilty of this) and 2.) anti-organized religion (I am not, and my faith has strengthened and taken on a richer context as I have gotten older). As a group of professionals, I know we stand against censorship and free speech. But it never fails to surprise me how sometimes we still can forget to be mindful of the views of others, and the feelings of others. I appreciate your writing in about this issue.

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  5. Great post. When I worked as an academic librarian at a New England university quite some time ago, there was another librarian who I really hit it off with and together we would have long, intellectual conversations about Jesus. Not really faith-based, just about the historical theories about who he was and what his message was. We were both really into the theologian John Dominic Crossan at the time. I mentioned to another colleague how much fun it was to talk to Steve. “What do you talk about?,” she asked. “Usually we talk about Jesus,” I replied. She just about fell out of her chair. It wasn’t about proselytizing. In fact, when I left the proselytizing church of my youth, and no longer felt any pressure to go out there and “save souls,” that was when I was truly able to talk to other people about spirituality–what it was and what it meant to me, in a way that explored possibilities and demanded nothing of the other person. In a way that explored what it is to be human.

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    1. “explored what it is to be human”–yes! I love this explanation.

      I recently tried to read a book about St. Paul co-written by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, but I abandoned it halfway through for a variety of reasons. Even so, it still made me interested in Crossan and his other works.

      Thanks for reading!

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  6. I’m an atheist, but I was raised in the church and was even a lay minister and youth group leader before I lost my faith. But even now, when I’m certain of my atheism, I miss many aspects of organized religion, including the sense of fellowship, the community of people who share my values (And my values are still the same as a secular humanist. I didn’t lose my values when I lost God), and the opportunity to celebrate life and its mysteries. I miss the beautiful ritual and music, etc.

    It’s a shame that as an atheist in a religious part of the country I feel uncomfortable, while you feel uncomfortable around many liberals. Neither group should try to dismiss or denigrate the other. I’d like to think that we can all learn from each other!

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