You can’t know which event, thought, or insight will change the direction of your life. It is only in looking back that you can say, “There. That one. Nothing was the same after that.” Here are some of mine.
I grapple with a dilemma
I am in the first grade. As part of my education at St. Joseph’s School, I am being prepared for my First Confession and First Communion. One day, Sister Carmeline tells us, quite firmly, that if we take holy communion or go to confession less than once a month, we will go to hell. Period.
Her words shake me to the core. I have never seen my parents go to confession or take holy communion. According to Sister Carmeline, this means they are going to hell! How can I make sense of this? My mind races, and I quickly reason my way to a conclusion: “Mom and Dad don’t go to confession or communion. Mom and Dad are not going to hell. Therefore Sister Carmeline is wrong.”
(This was the first time I decided against the authority of the Church. From then on, my mind remained open to other possibilities.)
I ask myself a question
I’m about ten or eleven. It’s close to Easter and, during mass, we are reenacting the crucifixion of Jesus. It is the priest’s role to play Pontius Pilate. He, reading from the Bible, says: “What should I do with this man?” The congregation, playing the role of the Jews, responds: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
I clamp my mouth shut. I don’t want to say it. I don’t want Jesus crucified, and I won’t say it, even in pretend. But there’s another problem, and it’s this. I can’t blame the Jews for crucifying Jesus all those years ago. The reason I don’t want Jesus crucified is because I know who He is. But I only know who He is, because I’ve been told by my parents and teachers. But the people at the time of Jesus had to figure it out for themselves.
And I wonder: if I’d lived in the time of Christ could I have figured it out? How would I have known that Jesus was who He said He was? Just how would you know?
(The questions you ask determine the answers you get. This question would be answered many years later, and my life would pivot around it.)
I sit by the river
I am in my late teens—the middle child of seven. My family is large, our house is small. I share a bedroom with two younger sisters. Our one telephone is in the living room. Doors are rarely closed. Everything is done in groups. We’re all in each other’s business. This is all quite normal.
And then, one hot summer day, I walk into the woods with my neighbor’s dog, Sybil. We walk to the river. I sit down. Sybil slides into the water and paddles around. The dancing water reflects off the underside of green leaves in lazy zig-zags. Water bugs jounce, their feet dimpling the water. Damselflies spin through the air, muted metallic greens and blues. The air smells strongly of damp earth and water. Chickadees call and flit from branch to branch. A cicada shrills from high in the trees.
Something in me uncurls. My stomach unclenches. My shoulders relax. I inhale and exhale. Except for this dog, now enthusiastically sniffing along the shoreline, I am alone in the woods. I am alone.
There are no human voices in the background. No one is telling me what to do or what to think. I simply am. I didn’t know I could feel so peaceful. I have discovered a sanctuary.
(The woods will become my refuge, a place to return to day after day, and year after year. This is where I learn to sit. This is where I learn what a sacred space feels like. Sybil will become, not only my dog, but my friend and teacher, from whom I will learn some very basic truths.)
I become sick of it
I am in my late twenties, and I am just—sick of it. The things I thought would make me happy, don’t. The pursuits my friends take pleasure in leave me feeling empty. College, jobs, dating, bars, dance clubs, setting up house, acquiring things—none of these have led to happiness or contentment. I have followed the rules of western culture that promised a feeling of satisfaction. But I am, in fact, dissatisfied.
I want to know what the point is. I want to know why I exist. I want life to make sense.
I have a very strong sense that I have come full circle; if I continue this way, all I will be doing is repeating the circle. I know I have to break off from the path I am on and try something radically different.
The choice is clear: repeat the circle and expect more of the same, or seek guidance and find something better. I know I can’t do this on my own. I also know I have to be very, very careful about the guidance I choose.
(The decision to seek guidance was an admission that, whether following the examples set by others, or left to my own devices, I wasn’t getting anywhere. This was the beginning of my shift from external focus and pursuits toward internal focus and pursuits. The knowledge that I had to choose carefully kept my focus sharp. I was skeptical of what people had to say about the purpose of life—it was time to go straight to the source and decide for myself.)
The 95%–5% admission
I have been studying Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings for two years. They make a lot of sense to me. How can I argue with principles such as: the oneness of God, the oneness of mankind, the common foundation of all religions, the individual search for truth, elimination of prejudice of all kinds, the need for a universal auxiliary language, the equality of men and women, universal education, or the harmony of science and religion? As obvious as these may sound, Bahá’u’lláh articulated them over 150 years ago. To be clear, slavery was still legal in the United States at that time, and women couldn’t vote.
And these are just the things that address society. His teachings about the nature of the soul, the purpose of life, the purpose of God’s prophets, our relationship to God, and where we stand at this point in human evolution are complete, sensible, imbued with love, and have filled me with hope.
Still, I argue. I don’t like some of the laws Bahá’u’lláh laid down. I mean, what’s the harm in a drink of alcohol now and then, or pre-marital sex?
And then this thought enters my head: “If I agree with Bahá’u’lláh 95% of the time, maybe that other 5%, I am wrong.”
(By admitting that it could be me that is wrong, something within relaxed and opened. It was a form of liberation, a cessation of struggling against the flow of grace. It was the acceptance of my imperfection on the one hand, and Bahá’u’lláh’s perfection on the other. Like a seedling who struggles to push its tender shoot above the darkened soil, one must turn away from the self and reach toward the light, if one is ever to truly grow.)
I write an essay
As a new Bahá’í, I am moved to write an essay proving that there is a part of every human being that survives death. I am motivated by the desperate need to comfort my father, who is in the final stages of terminal cancer.
(This essay is the seed will eventually become—after twenty years of research and three restarts—a book, The Universe Within Us.)
I am in my early forties. I am on pilgrimage, at the Bahá’í World Centre, in Haifa, Israel. There is one place in particular that pulls me the strongest—the Shrine of the Báb. My heart is drawn to it, and every day I must go there. Today I am sitting… just… sitting. I find myself relaxing, my mind quiets, all cares fall away and, in the hush of that sacred spot, something deep inside opens. I experience the connectedness of all creation, and the thinness of the veils between the physical and spiritual worlds. I know that all is as it should be. I know that creation is perfect. I know that I am connected to God.
It’s a flood, a gush, a jolt. I am amazed, grateful, and alarmed. I am alarmed because I have not felt this connection in many years. I am alarmed because this precious connection, this form of knowing, this life-line and inner compass, which I am experiencing now with a palpable rush of energy, is not something I had simply neglected, it is something I had entirely forgotten.
How amazing that I could suffer such a tremendous loss and not even know it. How wonderful that this connection has been reestablished, and that I can offer gratitude, express my wonder, and my fears.
I wonder how I had forgotten. But I know the answer. My life has become an endless to-do list. I have become a perpetual motion machine, driven by the need to feel productive. In short, my interior life has been sacrificed to my exterior life. And the price has been this type of amnesia, and being cut off from the water of life.
But I remember it now. I am aghast and appalled to have forgotten it. I am utterly grateful to have it back. And I am afraid to my core that I will go home and forget. I don’t want to forget. I don’t ever want to be cut off again.
(This determination to never be cut off again leads me to learn about my introverted temperament, and take seriously my need for solitude and stillness. Once I am pacing myself as an introvert, I am finally able to finish writing The Universe Within Us. By learning how to budget my energy, my constant anxiety plummets, and my happiness increases. More importantly, by granting myself times of stillness and solitude, I am able to center myself and renew daily that connection with God.)