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How Do We Know When It's God?A Spiritual Memoir
By Dan Wakefield
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 1999 Dan Wakefield
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE QUEST
We and God have business with each other; and in opening ourselves to His influence our deepest destiny is fulfilled. The universe, as those parts of it which our personal being constitutes, takes a turn genuinely for the worse or for the better in proportion as each of us fulfills or evades God's demands. -William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
Yes! My fellow parishioners and I who have come on this retreat agree wholeheartedly with William James that our lives are better or worse to the extent that each of us "fulfills or evades" God's demands. But that still leaves us with the question that plagues us, the question we have come to explore and try to answer on a weekend of prayer and discussion at a Benedictine monastery outside of Boston.
How do we know when it's God?
That's the riddle that overrides our other concerns, the puzzle that each of us is trying to solve on our particular path of life as we come to the turning points, the big and small decisions that we know will shape our fate, that will lead us up or down, closer or farther away from that fulfillment of the heart and soul we all seek, that sense of being in tune, on track, in synch withourselves and the universe. If only God would speak to us, boom out instructions from a voice on high, we would gladly go into battle or up the mountain or into the rushing path of charging horses or foaming seas. If only we knew.
We are gathered here during Lent, season of penitence and contemplation, beginning with Ash Wednesday, when we remind ourselves we are dust, and to dust we shall return, yet on this retreat we are not so much considering the transitory nature of our time on earth but rather how to find the right path to take, how to fulfill our true destiny. Outside, the bare limbs of trees, still winter-stripped, reach for the sky like our own yearning. We are mostly middle-aged, middle-class, college-educated people, seeking a different knowledge than we find in books, the far more elusive wisdom of the heart. We sit on chairs or on the floor in the library of the guest house, wearing sweaters and jeans, corduroys or sweat pants, comfortably dressed to address the big questions, ready if need be to wrestle our angel, as Jacob did, and perhaps in the process to find our true name.
A woman in our group who's been going out with the same man for several years but doesn't know if she should marry him prays and meditates about it. Yes, she sees a therapist, but when she asks the therapist a question, the therapist asks her another question back. One day she thinks she sees a sign. She's sitting on the floor in her living room trying to pray about it, and the way the sunlight falls on the carpet seems to form a letter of the alphabet-the first letter of the man's name. Is this a "sign"? Is this the guidance she is praying for? Is it God's way of telling her to marry the man? Or is it just an accident, is it only the way she's sitting or looking or squinting that makes her think she sees this and wonder if it might be a "message"?
A man wonders if he ought to take a job that would pay more money but require him to move to another city and leave his friends and the neighborhood he loves. He makes a list of the pros and cons, totaling up each column, trying to figure if the greater number of reasons on one side means that's the right thing to do, the best course to take, or should each reason be weighted, given a number value according to its importance? And even so, does it all "add up" to an answer, the answer, the course that he should follow?
Like most of our contemporaries, our peers, we wrestle with deciding what's "the right thing to do" with the help of psychiatrists, tests, courses, the advice of friends and experts. Those of us who have a religious faith or try to follow a spiritual path also look to God or Spirit or Higher Power as we understand it for aid or affirmation in such decisions, feeling perhaps that this other dimension is a deeper one, more meaningful and true. We are looking for the kind of guidance and wisdom from God or Spirit that theology calls "discernment," which translated into lay people's language means "how do we know when it's God?" That's what we've titled this retreat and offered as its theme.
We're volunteer members of our church's adult religious education committee, and our job is to plan courses, classes, activities, and retreats that respond to the concerns of our fellow parishioners, the ones who come to church not only out of habit or social obligation or family tradition but as seekers; as men and women who, like so many in the world, want to know and learn how to live for more than the next paycheck or promotion, who want to find greater meaning and purpose in life by getting in tune with a spiritual dimension of experience and trying to live by such light.
My friends and I on this retreat in the spring of 1984 belong to King's Chapel, in Boston, a church described in the program for Sunday worship as "Unitarian in theology, Anglican in worship, and Congregational in governance," an amalgam resulting from the more than three centuries of history that make it a stop on the Freedom Trail, where it is identified as "the oldest continuing pulpit in America." We are one of a small percentage of Christian churches in the Unitarian-Universalist Association, most of whose members and churches are Humanist, making us an anomaly in our own denomination. Our liturgy features our own revised version of the Book of Common Prayer, and might be mistaken for a low Episcopal service, leading some denominational wags to refer to King's Chapel as "the St. Peter's of the Unitarians." Trying to explain all this to friends, I usually end up saying, "Just think of it as-a Boston church.'"
That's how I think of it myself when I first walk into King's Chapel on Christmas Eve of 1980, little knowing it's going to change my life. It's a freezing Boston night and I'm shivering in church, too, maybe out of nervousness as well as the cold. What power do the carols and candles have, what stirs when I sing the Latin words of "Adeste Fidelis" that seem so much more haunting and true than the English? Was it only by chance that I heard a neighborhood man in a bar say he wanted to go to mass on Christmas Eve, and was prompted to look for a church service?
I'm trying to recover from a year of continuous mid-life crisis that includes fleeing from Hollywood and network television in a state of financial and physical crisis, breaking up with the woman I've lived with for seven years whom I hoped and expected to be with the rest of my life, and attending the funerals of my father in May and my mother in November. The one saving grace in the midst of this tumult is finding Dr. Howard Heartily and nurse Jane Shrewd at the stress clinic of Massachusetts General Hospital and getting into an exercise and diet program that lowers my pulse from a runaway 120 (a condition called tachycardia) to a better than normal 60, and my weight from a blubbery 172 to a reasonable 155. Part of this program involves giving up drinking for a month-I've never gone longer than a week in my adult life and that experience left me scratching the walls-but in my healthy new condition I manage to make it. During this newfound state of clarity an impulse leads me to go to church on Christmas Eve for the first time (except for funerals and weddings) since I got out of college in 1955 with a B.A. in English and an informal degree in atheism.
I pick King's Chapel from an ad on the Boston Globe religion page because it's in walking distance and the promise of "candle-light service and carols" doesn't seem too threatening. Even after I start attending Sunday services, I don't pay much if any attention to what denomination it is, thinking of it as generic "church" as in one of those children's maps of Your Town identifying Church, School, Fire Station, Factory, and other institutions.
It later occurs to me I've stumbled into the most appropriate church imaginable for my own outlook. I'm a Christian from childhood, affirmed not only by baptism but a personal experience of Jesus, yet I'm not comfortable with the rules and regulations of particular dogmas, the requirements of belief. I'm somehow relieved and pleased when I learn that some of my fellow parishioners don't consider themselves Christians at all, but are Unitarians who believe only in "the interconnecting web of the universe." While I consider myself a Christian, I don't believe everyone else is wrong or damned or unenlightened. I want my spiritual life to be able to draw on the wisdom of other creeds and faiths, and to think of my friends who follow other beliefs as fellow pilgrims on a spiritual path rather than enemies or rivals whom I need to convert or compete with in some theological playoff.
Within a year I join the church and a year or so later I'm serving as co-chair of its adult religious education committee, finding my deepest fulfillment in planning and going on retreats such as this one at Glastonbury Abbey, in Hingham, a town on the South Shore forty-five minutes from Boston. The first time we go on retreat here, some of our more Humanist-oriented Unitarian members are concerned about the Roman Catholic ura of the setting, the crosses in every room, the monks in their robes going to chapel for prayers and Eucharist services, where we're welcome but not required to join them. The Benedictines' specialty is hospitality, and it usually happens that our skeptics are most charmed of all, sometimes making a special donation to Glastonbury in appreciation of its nonpressure, genuine service to us, and support of our program.
We don't find any answers to our theme of "how do we know when it's God?" but we learn that people throughout the ages have searched for such discernment. Religious leaders and even saints have spent most of their lives trying to learn not only how to do it themselves but also to teach other people how to try-and maybe the best we can do is try. I'm somehow cheered to know how difficult it is (I don't feel so dumb about the subject, knowing this) and that even the greatest authorities, actual certified saints, have trouble discerning the will of God.
St. Ignites of Loyola, perhaps the greatest authority on discernment in the Christian tradition, who wrote the "Rules of Discernment of Spirits," had such difficulties himself. Although he was able to discern from daydreams that God was leading him into a new way of life, and the Madonna came to him in a vision, he still couldn't decide whether or not to kill a Moor who didn't believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. In an argument about the subject, the Moor saw how upset Ignatius was getting and wisely hurried on ahead, while Ignatius became more disturbed and wondered if he'd failed in his duty to defend the honor of the Madonna.
Ignatius wanted to pursue the Moor and stab him with his dagger, but he couldn't quite make up his mind to do it. He couldn't "discern" what to do, in other words. Luckily for the Moor, Ignatius let the mule he was riding make the decision, and the mule didn't follow the road the Moor took. After I read this account in An Approach to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, by the Jesuit spiritual director William Barry, I feel a sense of relief. If it's that hard for St. Ignatius to discern whether it's God's will for him to stab a Moor in a theological argument, perhaps those of us looking for signs in patterns of sunlight and lists of pros and cons are not so stupid or hopeless after all. Perhaps we too can learn to discern.
The year after our "how do we know when it's God?" retreat, I take a course in religious autobiography our minister gives. The Reverend Carl Scovel is a remarkable man, all the more so for trying to appear unremarkable-he is quiet, low-key, unassuming, with a sly perception and a wry sense of humor. In his seemingly everyday, commonplace way he gives us the most memorable sermons-never generalities, always specific insight and story-and teaches stimulating classes on Bible study, Christian and Unitarian history, everything pertinent to our spiritual growth.
A bony, pale New Englander whose favorite sport is hiking up New Hampshire's White Mountains, Carl jogs around Beacon Hill and over the bridges that span the Charles River, in old New Balance running shoes, wearing plain shorts and slogan-less T-shirts, a man of little adornment and no pretension, clad for more formal occasions in frayed cuffs and collars and serviceable tweed sportcoat. Carl is my own age, our birthdays only a week apart, and he has lived a life almost opposite from mine-married once and for life, father of three children, minister of this church for almost all his career. For all our differences we communicate, and I resonate to his style-what in writing I would call "the plain style," the one I most admire. It's my special good fortune to have him as minister and friend, the guide of my return to church and faith.
His course in religious autobiography not only deepens my sense of belonging and being part of the church, it helps me see my own spiritual path from early childhood to the present. As part of the course I write an essay about my recent experience returning to faith. I've always written about what interests me most, and now I'm finding that the whole religious dimension from which I've closed myself for so long is the subject I find most fascinating. Later I hear this same feeling expressed by Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute, who says, "The great game, the game of games, the story of stories is the unfolding of the Divine."
The essay I write in my religious autobiography class, called "Returning to Church," is published in the New York Times Magazine in Christmas week of 1985 and draws a response of hundreds of letters, more mail than I've ever received about anything I've written. It leads to an offer from a publisher to write it more fully as a book, which becomes Returning: A Spiritual Journey.
* * *
It's now-amazingly-eighteen years ago since I first walked into King's Chapel and began a whole new story of my life. The beginning of that story is told in Returning, a title, by the way, that means to me not just "going back" but more importantly "turning again," suggesting a new path. (I'm inspired and relieved when my minister explains that the word "conversion" in Hebrew and Greek does not mean "reborn" but "turning," which is much closer to my own experience.)
I want to tell now of the spiritual journey as it looks over the long haul, not just the first flush of rediscovery, and speak as honestly as I can of the pitfalls as well as the peaks of such experience. William James writes, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, "Nothing is more common in the pages of religious biography than the way in which seasons of lively and of difficult faith are described as alternating."
I have known the whole range now, from romance to disillusionment and anger, from honeymoon to separation. Whatever value my own story has is not because it's not unique, but common-the kind of thing others may expect beginning such a journey, or find reassuringly familiar if they've traveled it for long on their own.
Through all these highs and lows of the spirit over nearly two decades, I never in the deepest pit lost faith in God. What I did lose faith in was my own discernment, my own ability to answer the question How do we know when it's God? That question seems to me to carry the shape of my experience better than any other concept, the best lens to look through in tracing the map of my own journey. I could never have predicted its course, or anticipated how often I would fail in discernment, nor imagine I could still find forgiveness after all my mistakes. In a sense then, this is a "how not to do it" book, and as such I think may prove more useful and perhaps more encouraging to other stumbling pilgrims than the tomes that so confidently tell us the five or seven or ten easy steps to fulfillment, satire, salvation, and material (as well as spiritual) success.
Excerpted from How Do We Know When It's God? by Dan Wakefield Copyright ©1999 by Dan Wakefield. Excerpted by permission.
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