The Loving Embrace of Children
I fell asleep on my back. My three-year-old niece and six-year-old nephew intertwined around me like I was their body pillow. Every shift they’d make, I awoke and would slowly return to sleep. The love I felt from their embraces though, triggering some feeling-of-contentment neurons in my brain, made the lack of sleep worth it. Spoken like someone who doesn’t have kids of her own and is able to sleep without interruption the next night. I had no idea how this feeling would be powerfully prescient of what I was to experience in the coming week.
Chipmunk Stories and Love at a Funeral
The next day I started a prayer retreat my spiritual director had recommended and my head did the bob and snap as soon as the leader read the prayer text. I looked around to see if anyone noticed. It was bad enough that I had introduced myself to everyone at the retreat as a non-Christ-believer and non-church-goer, but now I couldn’t even stay awake for the very prayer that this retreat was all about. I noted the irony of my feeling shame around falling asleep when my reason for doing the retreat was to try to learn to feel God’s love even when I was in my “bad” place.
My spiritual director was aware of my non-belief and knew that I recoiled at a lot of Jesus talk, but the retreat focused on the first of St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, which focus on feeling God’s love, so she recommended it to me. I had found shorter retreats enlightening and so here I was, trying another.
After the text, the leader directed us to “recreate a time when you felt loved.” Instantly I thought of my niece and nephew wrapped around me while we slept the night before and I felt my heart bloom like a flower stretching out its petals to catch the rain. After a short time sitting with that image, we were asked to come back to the present and note any change in our feelings. I fell asleep again. Fortunately, I didn’t snore.
After the first meeting with the group, the retreat took place in the form of structured prayer at home. As with the group prayer, over the following four days, I was to recreate times I felt loved and switch back and forth between the image and the present. Each day had a different theme. And each day I worried that I wouldn’t see anything more than the back of my eyelids.
The first day though, I saw my mom telling my brother and I her invented chipmunk adventure stories and me clamoring for “just one more.” I saw her sitting on the edge of my bed, brushing my hair, and playing with us on her bed. I saw my dad playing with us in the pool. My heart warmed, grew and seemed to glow.
The next day, I saw myself at another friend’s dining table laughing with her husband, their four kids, and her mother-in-law while we ate. I then saw myself leaving and my friend telling me as I stood at the door how much more fun they had when I came to dinner. I had the flitting thought that she was just saying it to make me feel good, but why would she do that? And I drove home with a smile, feeling full from toe to scalp.
When I next sat down to pray, I thought about how most of my images involved happy moments and laughter. I wondered if I had ever experienced feeling loved in the midst of sadness. I saw my friends Julie and Laurel appear at my brother Alex’s memorial service after he committed suicide when I was thirty. How I hadn’t told them about it, but they had by chance seen the obituary and showed up to let me know how much they cared about me. Just envisioning it, tears formed in the corners of my eyes.
Each time I returned to the present, I lost the feeling of being loved. At the end of the prayers we were to talk with God, as with a friend. I explained my sense of distraction and losing the love feeling. A “voice” explained that it was a muscle, like any other. The more I practiced tapping into the feeling, the more easily I would be able to access it even when I wasn’t in the visualization. Evidently, St. Ignatius was using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which, among other techniques, uses visualization to change thoughts and behaviors, long before clinical psychologists were.
The Prodigal Daughter Returns To Church In Spite of Her Unbelief
At the end of the week, the practice was not another prayer, but to attend church and take communion. Although it had been many years since I had done either, I decided to try it. I went to a small Episcopal church near my house that I had passed many times on my bike and been curious about. They offered a Spanish speaking service and served meals to homeless people, which made it feel more inviting to me. I arrived late to the early service at 8 am, as I do to avoid having to talk to anyone, and found about ten people in the congregation. I couldn’t escape notice.
The Reverend’s sermon, unexpectedly, had me spouting drops of water from my tear ducts like a sprinkler. After such a nice week of beautiful visions of people in my life loving me, what was I sad about? I wish I could tell you his exact words or some momentous phrase, but I can only manage a poor approximation from my memory.
He spoke about how so many of us have learned that we need to be quiet and not ask for what we want because to speak up will make us a burden – which he compared to the story of a blind man yelling to get Jesus’ attention and people in the crowd telling him to be quiet. But in the story, the blind man keeps shouting for Jesus and Jesus restores his sight. The Reverend said that the message here is that we can speak up, we can even yell, like the blind guy and ask for what we need. Our needs matter.
In my youth I was taught the story of the blind man as an example of the rewards of faith in believing in Jesus as God. Repeatedly, however, I found my faith lacking and experienced stories like this as shame inducing. I heard it in a new light, however, under the Reverend’s interpretation.
I felt like he was talking straight to me. About that belief I carry that my needs are less important than others’. How I worry that if I ask for help that I will be perceived as either weak or a burden. How if I express my needs, no one will love me. It was as if the Reverend had tapped into all the love that I had seen and experienced during my prayers of the week and told me that who I am is good enough. I don’t have to be perfect to be seen and heard and loved. I realized that each one of the visions I saw that week showed a time when I felt loved, when I hadn’t even asked for it; they were gifts.
I managed to dry up the tears following the sermon only to feel the sprinklers let loose again during communion. This experience was entirely unexplainable to me. I had wondered if I should even take communion given my Jesus issues, which are deep, but the Episcopal church, or at least this church, didn’t have any limitation on who could take communion. They didn’t even limit it to Christians. I think my tears came from a sense that, even in my unbelief, which I had been told time and again in my youth would lead me to hell, I could be loved and invited to share the bread and wine. It didn’t change my beliefs about Jesus, I just knew in that moment that God loved me.
My Growing Sense That I Am Loved and Loveable
Talking about Jesus triggers my shame place and I become annoyed when people tell me that Jesus loves me. I register it as something people think they are supposed to say rather than anything meaningful. And it isn’t to say that I don’t think those people experience it, it’s that I said those words for years because I thought I was supposed to and because I wanted to believe them, but I didn’t really feel them. And those words for me are a representation of my struggle with shame and for all that I am motivated to do out of a misplaced sense of guilt and fear rather than love.
My spiritual practices and experiences span a wide variety of faith traditions, philosophies and practices, and yet, for some reason, I keep coming back to the Christian church, despite my lack of belief in its core tenets, as my center. I don’t get it, but I’m trying to learn to think less and feel more.
When I think back to the start of the week, wrapped in the loving embrace of my niece and nephew, I had no idea what was to come. I can only hope that they are able to feel the kind of love that I am learning now to feel for myself. Some may feel that I am using God as a crutch. To which I say, if I am finally learning to believe that I am loved and worthy of that love, independent of my imperfection, then frankly, I think that is pretty great.
We are each on our own journey and what works for me will not necessarily work for anyone else. I share my experiences – the secular and the spiritual – because it helps me, and I hope others, to feel less alone in the struggle to overcome the shame that has dominated much of my life. My goals is to learn to be motivated from love, not from guilt. I hope that my sharing will touch you, but it may trigger you too, and I hope that we can explore that together and see where we end up.
Also published on Medium.