I’ve been trying to name the un-nameable in my writing lately. I’m on draft seven of the prologue to my memoir, and critiques from classmates and my teacher called for more specifics about my spiritual journey. In a revision, I wrote about being in the mountains and having a “sense of a spiritual presence.”
My teacher replied that she tripped on that phrase. She went on, “Makes me wonder why you don't say ‘God.’ I wonder if it would work better to either say ‘God’ or somehow add a little phrase of explanation for why you don't. A tall order, I realize.”
So, this week, I’ve been writing my way through to the words that explain my experience of the Divine. Sometimes I call it Spirit. Sometimes I use the word Presence. Often I don’t capitalize. I write about an essence or of wisdom or a sense of being held and loved. But I still hesitate to write “God” to name what is at the center of my life. That three-letter word carries meanings that no longer fit for me.
I long ago outgrew the images of God I learned as a child. God as a man with flowing white hair and beard. God as judge. God as the all-knowing master puppeteer of every person’s actions, decisions, and journey. God controlling the wind, the rain, the mountains and seas. God with all the answers.
My experience of God has very little to do with answers. One of the things I treasure about Quakerism is the understanding that God’s way continues to unfold, that new light can shine onto changed understandings. I suspect God is as bewildered and distressed as I am at much of what happens in the world. The God I believe in doesn’t have answers to why young people get cancer, why earthquakes and hurricanes and wildfires and planes crashing into buildings kill thousands of people, why marriages fall apart, or why crops fail and people starve.
I also don’t think God makes any of those things happen any more than God helps someone pick the winning lottery numbers, get elected or get cured. But my lack of belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing God doesn’t stop me from praying for peace, for healing, for wisdom, for courage. To whom or what am I praying? I do believe there is something outside of me, beyond me, and within me, within all of us, always, that knows us and loves us unconditionally. This something is so much more than a person, a man, a human-like entity. It’s more felt than seen, although I find ample evidence of that presence in the faces of children and old people, in the sunrise pinking the sky, in hands extended in aid and friendship.
Perhaps it’s time for me to let go of my fears that readers will bring their own meanings to my words as I write of my spiritual journey. Don’t we all do that when we hear stories of others’ experiences? Aren’t those stories openings into our own? Perhaps my writing task is to show my journey toward that essence, that presence, that spirit, that I know as God. Readers will find the names that fit for them.
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