When the Path Dries Up ll Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA

When the Path Dries Up
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

Why does it happen that sometimes one’s church/spiritual home/path doesn’t fit anymore? Self-blame is a first reaction when the path dries up: “What am I doing wrong? What do I need to do get things back to where they were?”

You work harder at whatever your spiritual practice is. You read more books, go to more conferences.

But in many cases, you’re just growing up and your chosen spiritual institution won’t let you.

I dwelt in the land of spiritual conundrums while living in Islamabad, Pakistan, about 20 years ago. In those days, English-speaking counselors were as rare as finding gold in my backyard, books ordered through the mail from the United States to Pakistan rarely arrived, and it would be years before Google answered questions.

Islamabad’s Our Lady of Fatima Church ministered to the Catholic population and had a library that carried English-language books. Although the French-speaking priest serving the oppressed Pakistani population had scarce time for what he saw as a privileged, white, middle-class American woman—and I understood this—he had limited time and limited resources—he didn’t forbid me the use of the Church library even though I was not a Catholic.

Hence I came upon, in Fatima’s dusty library of a select few English books, guarded by that stern, elderly French priest, God of Surprises, authored by Gerard W. Hughes (Note 1).

Catch the irony there?

And surprised I was, as Hughes nailed it for me.

Hughes draws his ideas from the writings of Friedrich Von Hügel, in his The Mystical Element in Religion.

Von Hügel develops his work from the three main stages of human development—infancy, adolescence, and adulthood—outlining the principal needs and activities which characterize each stage. He believes all religions must tend to and consider the needs and activities of each stage: an institutional element corresponding to infancy; a critical element corresponding to adolescence; and a mystical element corresponding to adulthood (Note 2).

Von Hügel says there is a constant threat that one element will be emphasized to the exclusion of the other two, or two will be stressed to the omission of the third, thus stifling the religious development of its adherents. Hughes writes from a Roman Catholic perspective, but extrapolates his findings to all Churches, whereas von Hügel says this is true for all religions.

While the needs and activities continue throughout each stage, they should cease to be predominant if we are to continue into the next stage of spiritual development.

Stage 1: Infancy, an Institutional Element

When I discovered Hughes, I had been immersed in Christian evangelicalism and was versed in its institutional tenants and moral imperatives. My journey into this faith began with my rejection of Roman Catholicism at the age of 13, continued into my late teens when I joined the Jesus Movement, and ended with non-denominational Protestantism in my early 20s.

Following von Hügel’s pattern, upon entering this religious vein—and coming from a Catholic background unfamiliar with Protestant dogma—this church versed me in the institutional element, my “baby” steps: “This is what we believe and why; this is how it is manifested in one’s life.” It’s like little children learning from their adult caretakers.

Stage 2: Adolescence, a Critical Element

But when I moved into an adolescent stage of my faith—just as in human development—I began my questing. Why, when Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “Give up all your wealth and follow me,” was that an unpreached sermon? Why do we so senselessly destroy God’s creation in our consumer-oriented society? Why do only men get to sit in the big chairs up on the altar? Why does this church only have men as elders and pastors? What is meant by the word “soul?”

And while I was a leader in my profession—I was elected president of the state chapter of a national construction association—I couldn’t be a leader in my church. Consequently, I had a disconnect between the male-centered, consumeristic teachings of the Church and my everyday experience. Women could lead governments but couldn’t lead in the church. Christ led a life where “he had no place to lay his head” but that wasn’t modeled by Church leaders.

Hughes says that,

“A Church isolated from our human experience can only survive as long as it can succeed in forbidding its adherents to ask questions and think for themselves. It must lay heavy emphasis on the importance of obedience to religious authority, obedience being understood as unquestioning acceptance of whatever is presented by the teaching authority, and by making it sinful for its members to criticize, or to read or listen to anyone who may propose any contrary teaching (emphasis added) …. If the critical element is not fostered, Christians will remain infantile in their religious belief and practice, which will have little or no relation to everyday life and behavior” (page 17).

Around the topic of women in leadership, the Church leaders barely tolerated my questioning. I was told that I had to “speak nicer if I wanted the [all-male] church leaders to listen to me”—which I never did achieve. The counseling pastor called me “ornery”—i.e., “ugly and unpleasant”—as he shooed me out of his office (Note 3). He expected a Stage 1 response from me: “…unquestioning acceptance of whatever is presented by the teaching authority,” making it “sinful” for me to criticize or question the teaching authority. Time ran out for any further discussions with this pastor; I was returning to Pakistan. Although not familiar with Hughes’ book at that time, I did have enough sense to withdraw my membership.

But reading Hughes later on handed me an “ah-ha!!” moment, the lightning bolt hit: My church had fostered an infantile spirituality. And in the process, it became irrelevant to my everyday life.

And as von Hügel says, all religions have this tendency. While living in Indonesia, the stricter Islamic clerics issued a fatwa (religious edict) forbidding all Indonesian Muslims from practicing yoga, saying it would lead them astray from their true faith (Note 4).

Stage 3: Adulthood, a Mystical Element

By the time I discovered Hughes, I had been a global citizen for years, living and working alongside people from all religions, cultures, and countries. I encountered life’s mysteries in myself and in my world, primarily through suffering. My suppressed inner life bubbled out all over. I related to earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. I had spent years dwelling in John of the Cross’ via negative, the way of darkness, and following and knowing the Divine in that darkness. Through quantum mechanics, I became aware of an interconnected world, one with potentialities and possibilities—at least at a subatomic level, and no one knows how that plays itself out on a macro level.

Life was full of enigmas and mysteries within myself, others, and in the cosmos. I studied models and metaphors of God, how God is referred to Biblically as a mother hen, a suffering servant, a woman looking for a lost coin. But I’d walk into Churches and hear the Divine spoken of with certainty and exclusively as “He, Father, King, and Lord,” and “this is what He wants you to do.” I’d cringe at this idolatry and make good my escape.

And what is “mystical?” I’ll discuss that further in next month’s blog, but suffice it to say it includes vision, gazing, and attention to our inner lives.

If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.

Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic, political activist and author

In adulthood, if we allow ourselves, scary stuff can arise from within, from “an examined life.” What arises doesn’t fit into a tidy, enclosed, and infantile institutional box. But this inner space is where we encounter our deepest selves, this is where we connect to and unite with Ultimate Reality/Divinity, however we define it. We welcome our inner life into our consciousness. People House believes that, “Developing our ability to be conscious is the key to an increasingly meaningful life.”

Based on von Hügel’s analysis, what has been your own experience of a spiritual institution? Has any one or two elements dominated to the omission of the other one? Does it help you understand how hostilities and divisions develop between various institutions?

Notes & Sources:

1.) Hughes, Gerard W. God of Surprises. Darton, Longman, and Todd Ltd. London. 1985.

2.) Note these are MAIN stages; these three stages are broken down by various human development experts into further categories.

3.) I found out many years later from an elder serving at that time that the male church leaders had assigned one of its pastors to scholarly research the role of women in the church. This pastor concluded, that from a Biblical point of view, evidence supported both sides: installing women as church leaders and not installing women as church leaders. The male leadership decided to maintain the status quo of no women in church leadership. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said: “The truth is that male religious leaders have had–and still have—an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter” (emphasis added). I was so deceived; I thought these leaders were truth seekers!

4.) http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1874651,00.html

About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her People House “tribe” and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.



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