Exactly one year ago, I wrote a post in which I mentioned the struggles I was having with Christianity, specifically my own pursuit of “correct doctrine.” For all my Christian life, I had believed that being a “good” Christian meant having the right opinions about the bible and believing the right things about God. After almost twenty years of living this way, making unimaginable sacrifices and horrible mistakes along the way, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t keep squeezing myself into the box that my church and my culture had assigned to me. I couldn’t keep looking to everyone and everything around me to determine what I should and should not do. I couldn’t keep trying to be “good” and I couldn’t keep striving to be “right.” So I decided to let go, as much as possible, of everything the church, my society, and the world around me had ever taught me about who I ought to be and what I ought to think and how I ought to act and I determined to travel – as much as possible, – my own path, doing everything I could to listen to that small, quiet voice deep inside that I’d ignored for so awfully long.
One of the early and, in retrospect, most important things that happened to me during this time started with a simple question: “What does my heart love?” As I struggled to answer this question I soon realized that the only way I could do so truthfully was to list the things I USED to love – all the things that had brought me a deep sense of peace and joy when I was younger, before I got married, before I had children, before I became a “Christian.”
Eventually, I came to realize that somewhere along the path of my life, I had started taking on identities. At the age of fifteen, I left my mom to move in with my dad and decided I was going to be a “good daughter.” I set out to be respectful and kind and helpful and try as much as possible never to rock the boat. I decided I was going to be a “good student” and made straight-A’s throughout my high school years. When I met Jesus during my freshman year of college, I decided I was going to be a “good Christian” and so I began an almost 20 year journey that consisted mostly of the search for “correct doctrine.” I got married and began a 15 year struggle to be a “good wife.” Had children and did everything I could to be a “good mother.” And all along, as I layered one identity after another on top of myself, I got smaller and smaller and smaller. Until one day I realized that when faced with the question “what does your heart love” I couldn’t answer. Because I didn’t know.
I wrote that list of all the things I used to love and spent a year doing as many of the things on it as possible. I allowed myself to spend entire days in my bedroom, just reading or journaling or listening to music. I started to paint and sketch and draw again. I bought a horse and learned to ride (with varying degrees of success.) I even climbed a tree (not nearly as much fun at 37 as it was three decades earlier.) As I started doing the things I loved, I found that I still loved (most of) them and also found new things to love along the way. But more importantly, I also found my own voice, my own strength, my own wisdom. I found myself. And it has set me free.
Spirituality is the art of transfiguration. We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any predetermined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program or plan for our lives. Rather, we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives. This attention brings a new awareness of our own human and divine presence… It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself, and you can spend years lost in the wildernesses of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making. If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to yourself. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey. There are no general principles for this art of being. Yet the signature of this unique journey is inscribed deeply in each soul. If you attend to yourself and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life. The senses are generous pathways that can bring you home.
– John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom