Elizabeth A. Hawksworth is a published poet and historical fiction writer as well as a prominent blogger on topics of feminism, body positivity, fatphobia, writing, nannying, social justice, and spirituality. She is bold in writing about issues of ultimate concern when remaining silent and unnoticed would be, in the moment, easier. Here is part of her story.
A few hours north of Sarnia, Ontario, there is a quiet place nestled in a forest. Built with rustic logs, smelling like pine pitch, and surrounded by acres of misty trees, this small building stands, institutional and peaceful; utilitarian and somehow unique. In its natural surroundings, staring at a painting of the Baby Jesus, I found God.
Prayer, for me, has been a way to get through everyday life. I pray for health. I pray to be a better person. I pray for my family, my friends. I pray for things I want, things I don’t deserve, things I’m desperate about, things I can’t deal with. It’s not a fancy prayer. It’s often a mantra, repeated over and over, sometimes under my breath, sometimes out loud, sometimes mouthed in public places, and sometimes earnestly in the dark. And I pray every night, without fail, before I can close my eyes and sleep. I have to touch base. I have to let Him know. I need You. Please help me.
In that church retreat, hidden in the woods, I learned how to pray for more than just myself. I unlocked the talent I had all along – the talent of being able to use my words to change the world for the better. And I never felt closer to God, or more powerful with Him through me than I did then – creating creeds, weaving poetry, sharing with everyone my own personal faith, placing my feet on the path to social justice. If you had asked me then, I would have told you that I didn’t think I would ever be able to part from my relationship with God.
How things change.
I was badly wounded by the Church when I was a teenager. Shy, uncertain, and angry, I was struggling with my own sexuality and my sense of being. Holding hands with God, or so I thought, I faced the people who, also holding hands with God, told me that I didn’t belong. That I would burn in hell. That I was a sinner, a deliberate sinner, one who was so full of pride and bravado and hubris and lies, that I would never be welcome unless I changed who I was at the core. I had grown up solid in my belief that God makes us in His perfect image, and never makes mistakes. Now, I wasn’t sure if I was wrong, or if they were, but my hurt overwhelmed my faith.
I went back at 18, denying who I was. I joined a church of beauty and majesty, of tradition as old as time, and restrictions worse than any other church I’d ever been to. Was it punishment for the supposed sin of who I thought I was? To this day, I can’t answer that. All I know is that everywhere I turned, I found leaders, church members, even the Bible itself, it seemed, telling me that the person I am would never be good enough for God.
So I left. And I tried to forget.
I’m a rational person, most of the time. I also hold grudges, long after I should. And the hurt faded into twinges and then roared back to life in explosive, fiery anger. I wanted to hurt the Church the way it had hurt me. I wanted to hurt God. I wanted to burn in hell the way they said, just so that I could be myself without pretense, so I could live in sin without consequence and guilt.
And inside, I cried out for the God I knew in that quiet forest retreat. I begged Him to help me. I pushed Him away with both hands while simultaneously crying for Him in the night. And to His credit, He hasn’t let me go, though most days, I continue to angrily push and push and push, as hard as I can. He has forgiven me and continues to forgive me, despite all of my anger and moral failings, despite my hurt and my pride. He has quietly proven over and over that He thinks I am good enough for Him.
Knowing this, I suspect that one day, I will heal completely from my scars and from my open, bleeding wounds, the way that even the biggest wounds do heal. The scars will always hurt a little, but they won’t always be open and raw, ready to bleed again at another article about Christians saying “God hates fags”, or someone telling me that you can’t be Christian and gay.
But here’s the thing about healing. When you forgive someone, you don’t do it for them – not really. They benefit from it. They may think that you are doing them a favour. And maybe, part of healing is to acknowledge that you acted wrongly, too, even if at the time, you don’t think you did. Maybe part of it is to be like God, and not push away your fellow human, even if that fellow human has done cutting, horrible things to your psyche and to your sense of self.
The thing about healing is that forgiveness is mostly for you. It’s to reach out with your own humanity and be the bigger person. It doesn’t mean you forget, and it doesn’t mean that you have to draw that person back into your heart. What it does mean is that where the rushing, raging rivers have broken the bridge of faith, forgiveness helps to place new planks, to tie the knots back into the ropes. Where the bridge has rotted in places, forgiveness places brand new materials to make your bridge stronger than ever before. Where the bridge is shaky, forgiveness helps to steady it so that when you walk across it and try to meet God on the other side, it’s not so hard and scary to cross it.
Because when it comes to healing, it might take awhile. It might take a long time to rebuild your bridge. And I’m not saying that someone isn’t going to come along and say cutting things that will throw it into disrepair. I’ve rebuilt my bridge many times now . . . and I’ve begged God to help me find the strength to do it again.
Your bridge isn’t just to God. Your bridge is to your fellow humans, as well. The ones that put up walls to keep others out – your bridge goes to their door and invites them to come and meet you in the middle. The ones that tell you you’re not welcome – your bridge goes to them and tells them that they are welcome to come and belong with you. And the ones that meet you with hatred – your bridge shows them that the easier path is love.
Because maybe the place you’re all trying to reach is that little church retreat in the woods, with the whispering leaves and the distant rush of the many creeks. Maybe the path you all want to walk is the shady wide dirt path with the dappled sunlight through the trees, that wide and welcoming path that has benches to rest on and clear pools to drink from. Maybe the paths we choose are inevitably the harder ones because the stony paths teach you what smooth footing feels like, and we have to learn, in order to grow.
Maybe the pain and the blood are something we all experience, even when we’re the ones wielding the swords that hurt. And maybe when it comes to healing, you find it in the silence and the dark, the pleas and the desperation, the fact that when you couldn’t walk anymore, He carried you – and carries you still.
Maybe when it comes to healing, it becomes the easier path to take – broken bridge, and all.
I began a spiritual practice of silence this morning--ten minutes, first thing after getting the baby her morning milk, eyes closed, hands and body open to receive. One thing I received was the final phrase from a Taizé song: "Come and listen to me." I couldn't remember in that moment what song it came from--all I could remember were those words. Without context, the words took new shape. Was God bidding? Was I bidding? Was someone else bidding? I realized that all three were doing the bidding. My heart turned then toward the fruits of the Spirit, and then to spiritual and corporal works of mercy. As my silence ended, I wondered whether there were opportunities available to volunteer in local hospices and prisons--to listen, to be present, to abide in what is difficult and deeply transforming. I found out that there are abundant hospice volunteer opportunities in the Valley of the Sun. I found far less when I was looking for volunteer opportunities for prison ministry, at least from within an Episcopal or interfaith context. I asked for help on Facebook and got information from two of the leaders from my parish, one of whom pointed me to a notice on the Trinity Cathedral website that Bishop Kirk Smith is planning a summit for those involved in or interested in prison ministry within the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. Coincidence? Spirit stirring in open hearts for the common good?
My 3-year old is fond of calling me Sister Kate. She's also fond of running through the line-up of our family names. Just now she said, "Sister Kate, Sister Miriam, Sister Daddy, Sister Mommy!" I think she's onto an insight about what a title like "Sister" can signify, but I'll wait till she's older to ask about it. Do you remember when Sister Act came out in the early 1990's? I loved that movie. It was the movie that made me love Whoopi Goldberg. It was amazing to see a film about "my people" told from the perspective of such a quirky religious outsider. In what ways does donning a religious habit, living the religious life, and taking the title of "Sister" change me? In what ways does my wearing of the habit, living of the life, and using the title of "Sister" change what others think of religious life?
How does one listen anyway? Take a deep breath. Let silence envelop your entire awareness. Be still. How long is it before your thoughts quiet? How long is it before you stop tracking how long it's been? What is it like to sit, to wait, to let God play midwife to your pregnant silence? How does this midwife move around you? Does she move at all? Does she clasp your hand? Does she sit back in a seat next to you and murmur words of encouragement? Does she simply wait with you, occasionally placing a hand on your swollen belly for signs of what is to come? What needs to be tended at this moment? What needs to be waited on? What needs the midwife's gentle, firm, skillful assurance? What will you bear forth from your listening?
My dear friend, Denise, has given me a number of CD's in the past--she gave out CD's as party favors for her daughter's fifth birthday party, and she gave me a couple of CD's to listen to as travel music for our journey out of California and into Arizona. One of the songs on one of those CD's caught my attention a month or two ago: "It’s Amazing" by Jem. It's one of those songs that catches your ear--her cool, low, non-urgent voice makes the song very singable, and my humming has turned to singing as I've listened to the song more closely. I was surprised to realize that this was a song about following the deepest desires of one's heart. Do it, now, you know who you are You feel it in your heart and you're burning with ambition But first, wait, won't get it on a plate You're gonna have to work for it harder an’ harder And I know, ‘cause I've been there before Knocking on the doors with rejection [rejection] And you'll see, ‘cause if it's meant to be Nothing can compare to deserving your dreams This has become an anthem for me, both for my discernment process in particular and for my life in general. The trouble I've discovered with intentional listening is that I often listen through the voices I have heard before, and often the most powerful voices from my past have shut me down.
Patience, now, frustration’s in the air And people who don't care well it's gonna get you down And you'll, fall, yes you will hit a wall But get back on your feet an’ you'll be stronger and smarter And I know, ‘cause I've been there before Knocking down the doors won't take no for an answer And you'll see, ‘cause if it's meant to be Nothing can compare to deserving your dreams
It turns out that it was usually the unpowerful voices--the voices who had little if any influence over my opportunities--that urged and whispered and cheered me on, naming my gifts in truth and freedom. As I listen to the prophetic sung words of Jem, I find that the power in the voices of my life is shifting. Don't be embarrassed Don't be afraid Don't let your dreams slip away It's determination and using your gift And everybody has a gift Never give up Never believe the hype Trust your instincts and most importantly You've got nothing to lose So just go for it
The great challenge of my life, at age 32, is to speak with the conviction of my heart without holding back for fear of anything, whether it's fear of being misunderstood, fear of being perceived as arrogant, or fear of being regarded as simply wrong. In order to embrace my conviction, I've had to let go of my ego's desire to manage everyone's image of me and simply present myself and my call--my heart's deepest, most life-giving, energizing desire--as I understand them in their fullness. The conviction of my heart bears a truth that is greater than power.
It's amazing, it's amazing All that you can do It's amazing, makes my heart sing Now it's up to you As I continue to listen and speak in my discernment circle, I bring my whole self to the conversation with the intention of being fully seen--by others, by God, and by me. The hardest questions have invited new clarity; the easiest questions have affirmed how much work I've already done to hear God's call for my life. As I seek to balance the voices that invite deeper questioning and voices that deeply affirm, how do I hold all the voices in tension with the longing that God has planted deep within me, which only I can speak?
My fourth priestly discernment meeting, which happened yesterday morning in between Pentecost liturgies, gives me goosebumps as I reflect on it. I realize that the questions I received were the questions of Spirit herself, that God was speaking through the voices of my five committee members (right there in Heidi Chapel) and I was being beckoned to answer God's questions from the depths of my vulnerable heart. The whole of the Pentecost season (which, thanks to the influence of Latin in the Roman Church, we call "Ordinary Time") is a time of just this kind of discernment, of radical listening. My Pentecost theme for Thealogical Lady will be "Spirit Whispers," and here I will invite myself and my readers to cultivate the ability to hear what Spirit says. To listen, ob audire, is to be obedient. Obedience is one of the vows that I have made as a Benedictine Canon, and obedience--radical listening--is something to which all Christians are called by baptism. Listening is a path of wisdom for any mindful person, that she might hear something greater and wiser than her own solitary voice. In reflecting on the Spirit-ed questions that emerged during my discernment meeting yesterday, clarity about my identity rose up. I am not merely Kate, responding to a diocesan priestly call; I am Sr. Kate, a vowed member of the Community of St. Mary of the Annunciation, responding to a religious priestly call. I wonder what further clarity will emerge from my next discernment meeting. In what ways will Spirit speak through the curiosity and concerns of my committee members? What will I hear, if I have ears to listen?
I began reading Sr. Joan Chittister's Following the Path yesterday, and in it I found a helpful distinction between pursuing delight and pursuing happiness. Sr. Joan says we need both if we are to remain faithful to the path we are called to, but they each have to be held in balance with one another. To pursue delight is to do something that breaks the routine of one's day and offers a sweet burst of enjoyment. One's delight is something other than what one does all the day long. If one did this delightful thing all the day long, it would quickly become mundane, boring, and unfulfilling. To pursue happiness, on the other hand, is to embrace that which has been calling out to us since we were children. It's to dig deep into ourselves, to notice what draws us like a magnet, and to allow ourselves to be drawn into that whole-heartedly. Whatever that is may be hard or even seem impossible, but after we set aside what everyone--self included--thinks we ought (or ought not) to do, it's that thing that our heart most deeply and completely yearns for.
As I prepare to share my spiritual autobiography with my discernment committee for the priesthood, I find myself nodding at what Sr. Joan writes. My heart has been drawing me toward priesthood my whole life, even though my faith tradition always told me that priesthood for women was out of the question. It's now, in a tradition that can whole-heartedly embrace my call, that I can whole-heartedly embrace my call. And you know that feeling you get when a great mystery is suddenly revealed? The goosebumps? The thrill of wonder and recognition? That's how recognizing and naming my call to priesthood manifests.
What more will I discover about my call as I continue to attend to the yearnings of my heart?