I’m sitting in the sanctuary of the Methodist church a couple miles from my house when, for the first time, I feel it: not the presence of Jesus, but a stirring in my heart that tells me I’m beginning to sense his purpose. I’ve been at this church-going thing for several months now. So far I have attended the Sunday services of a handful of Christian denominations that include Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopalian, Baptist, and Unitarian—almost all of what I’ve come to understand are the “mainline” Protestant denominations whose theological roots can be traced directly to Europe—and while I have picked up bits and pieces of wisdom from each, I have not until now felt anything. On the contrary, I have maintained my stance as passive and wide-eyed observer, unable or unwilling to let any aspect of the strange concoction of music and ceremony and prayer reach the sturdy enclosure of my heart.
Why am I, an individual about as alienated from religion as they come, sitting in this church? Here’s the short answer: I realized I’m a fragment and that’s why the panic has returned.
Let me explain.
Several months earlier I moved to a small town in the Pacific Northwest. This happened because I had answered in the affirmative to a series of life-altering questions. “Will you marry me?” “Yes!” “Will you quit your job, sell your condo, and move to the middle of nowhere?” “Sure. Fine. Okay.” I had been a single professional living in Washington, D.C. when I met and fell in love with Phil. I was willing, happy even, to make these changes because it seemed like life was handing me just what I needed at just the right time. Hadn’t I been secretly longing to step off of the hamster wheel of worldly ambition I had been treading so diligently these many years? I was exhausted and mildly depressed, wondering: is this all there is to life? But I wasn’t bold enough to plan an escape route and then along came Phil: Ph.D. student, wonderful man, soon-to-be professor in a remote college town and, then, fiancé.
As I made the transition from old life to new, I felt like an archeologist brushing away layers of dirt and grime to get at some prized artifact: the “real” me. Away went the city, the bustle, and the endless distractions. I cleared the need to be at a specific location for 10 hours a day working hard at something that was not necessarily my passion, along with the paycheck that went with it. I blew; what remained was time, and a stillness to my days I had never known before. But the further down I got, the more irrelevant crud I removed, the more evident it became that what I hoped would be a complete and pristine vessel was a jagged little edge, curved just so and sitting in the earth so that it only appeared to be whole. Once I had stripped away everything, I felt truly unnerved. No tall buildings divided up the air, no city blocks organized the land, no regular job structured my day. I would find myself standing at a window, looking out on the wheat fields that surrounded my little neighborhood and wishing desperately for a crazy, active city to materialize so I could lose myself in it. I would feel the tight squeeze of panic rising in my chest and I would need to lie down and repeat a collection of little sentences—“You are okay. Everything is fine. You are not dying.”—until my brain believed them enough to send messages to my body instructing it to stop freaking out. It wasn’t that I was unhappy with the direction my life had taken. I was content with my decision to get married and leave the big city behind. Even quitting my good job, while difficult, felt right in a life-is-short-so-don’t-waste-a-moment sort of way. The problem lay deeper I realized because all of these changes, while they had eased one kind of suffering, had uncovered another. Which is why this church-going project has taken on such significance: I’m on a desperate search for the bits and pieces that might make my pot whole.