Sunday School Dropout

Row of candles

Photo: Hakan Erenier via Pexels

I was a Sunday school dropout. A year before confirmation, I told my parents I could not stand before our congregation and commit to Judaism. I was surprised when they didn’t challenge me. It wasn’t until late in my father’s life that he told me he was an atheist. For my mother, being part of the Jewish congregation while growing up in a small town in Virginia was central to her family life and upbringing. She kept the practices and traditions alive in our home.

In my mid teens, I was not ready to claim a religion. What I did know was that any relationship with the divine was as deeply personal as it was universal. This realization, this resistance to committing to a religion, was the start of a lifelong journey.

I’ve longed for a belonging that spilled over the bounds of a set belief or practice, that welcomed and supported personal pilgrimage and whatever discoveries that journey engendered.

For me, that has not been within any one organized approach to spirituality or religion.

I realize there is comfort in community, in knowing that there are parameters, teachings, and others to share, support, and nurture that aspect of oneself. I’ve found that ballast from spinning and weaving the threads of personal experience and wisdom teachings into my own tapestry, and from diving into mystery while leaving the questions intact. Without that community, there is a vulnerability that regularly reminds me of my own fragility and, beyond that, a mysterious foundation that holds me.

I find my teachers at coffee houses, in yoga class, in books, in the trees growing outside my window. I’ve found comfort and lessons in the words of John O’Donohue that remind me to be gentle on this pilgrimage. “When the spiritual search is too intense and hungry, the soul stays hidden,” he writes in Anam Cara. “The soul was never meant to be seen completely… Candlelight perception is the most respectful and appropriate form of light with which to approach the inner world. It does not force our tormented transparency upon the mystery.”

Some of the most profound moments I’ve experienced—love, loss, awe—have confirmed that the people, experiences, and things I cling to are fleeting; it’s what animates and connects us that is transcendent.

In unsuspecting moments, quiet moments, moments when I was most broken, I’ve glimpsed these connections. They often arise unbidden, unforced, and at what may seem the unlikeliest—but turn out to be the likeliest—of times.

One of those times happened years ago, while at a Thai restaurant with a colleague I barely knew. My heart was in tatters after my husband surprised me with an unexpected request for a divorce. It was a time when my vulnerability left me open to a connection that exists beyond ego, beyond words. Over lunch, my colleague revealed that she lived with a mental condition that had caused her great suffering. Despite not “knowing” each other, I felt our hearts in resonance, and for a moment, part of something greater than the two of us. I’ve experienced, or maybe just noticed, this connection more and more over the years.

I believe we are all wired to experience and think about the world in our own unique way. Our pull toward the transcendent (or not) may reflect that unique wiring, how we move through life, our experiences, upbringing, culture, or community. I have long been one who is a reluctant joiner and more fascinated by questions than answers. There is a beauty in our differences, even while I imagine something beyond those divides that connects and embraces us. To me, that something cannot be contained, within walls or words, and eludes attempts to grasp or hold it.

In this poem, Indian mystic poet Kabir, captures that illusive, yet pervasive experience of the divine that resonates with me.

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, nor in
synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own
neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath. 

Even though I’m a Sunday school dropout, I am a perennial student of mystery, breath by breath.

Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.