Spirituality in addiction recovery can be a stumbling block for many. As there are myriad ways of “getting at” the spirituality of all things, it can be challenging especially when people have a passionate, particular religious bias or entirely repulsed by religion, period. Not so coincidentally, both of these perspectives and everything inbetween show up in addiction treatment regularly.
As a result, spirituality can be a charged issue in recovery circles while simultaneously being something hardwired in us all. Most people agree, spirituality is an integral part of addiction recovery and wellness. The challenge remains how to frame spirituality in an attractive, both/and, not either/or way.
Recently in an unsuspected way and unbeknownst to her, I was given a treasured gift toward this “both/and” quest of mine by my sister, Jane Bell Goldstein. Jane shared with me a short essay she had written entitled, Under the Sun. She shared it with me because she suspected I’d enjoy the family lore and because she’s a loving, giving woman in the tradition of my own, particular bias.
After years of searching for ways to bridge the semantics gap, I’ll call it, (when communicating with recovery groups) between the often confusing concepts of God, spirituality, religion, atheism, etc., Jane’s essay, while not expressly written for this purpose, speaks to the challenge in a refreshing and unadulterated way.
As you’ll read, Jane is a disciplined and talented writer. Her own discoveries and insights about her cherished relationship with existence bring feelings of joy and unity to me. With her permission, I’d like to share her essay with you and hope you enjoy Under the Sun as much as I do:
Under the Sun
The first time I met God, personally, was in the spring of 1956. I can pinpoint the memory in time, a month or so after my fourth birthday on April 10th. Our church, Trinity Episcopal in Staunton, Virginia, admitted children to Sunday school at age four. I would be the seventh generation of my father’s family to receive my religious education there, in a continuum that had been interrupted only by the American Revolution, when the church was shuttered.
Though I had already been introduced to religious observance in the form of a daily bedtime prayer followed by the blessing of my family—no mean task for a child with 3 siblings, 14 aunts and uncles, and 27 first cousins—the opening procession at the church service provided my first sensory experience of the divine. Bookended in the pews by our parents, children were allowed to witness the spectacle each Sunday before filing out to our classrooms, where we would not distract the adults from the less beguiling aspects of the faith.
The rustle and low buzz of whispers silenced as a long note sounded from the pipe organ housed in the lancet-arched chapels on either side of the chancel. I broke my fascination with the ethereal aura around the ascendant Jesus created by the late-morning sunlight through the triptych Tiffany windows behind the altar. As the instrumental introduction of the processional hymn reverberated through the church, the congregation stood and turned toward the rear door. Though I could not yet read, my mother tucked a hymnal in my hands, opening it to the correct page so I could follow along. I brimmed with pride.
The doors swung open. Voices rose from the congregation, Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war/ With the cross of Jesus, going on before. A splendid young man carrying a giant gleaming brass cross led the procession, his white cassock belted at the waist by a rope that helped him bear the weight. Next came the choir, about thirty men and women in white smocks over red robes that exposed only their shiny black Sunday shoes. As they proceeded down the aisle, the crescendo of voices intensified to the point that I could no longer distinguish any individual voice, not even my own.
As I sang louder and louder, my ignorance of the lyrics and melody became inconsequential. The vibration of my vocal cords inextricably entwined with the sound that enveloped me, until, paradoxically, I felt both apart and merged with the whole, as a baby might, while still in the womb. Even today, my recollection of this seminal communal experience evokes an emotion that inspires and comforts me. As it occurred, however, and since, I never considered it an encounter with the Almighty. That would come several days later.
Before I go on with my story, let me pause to further explain the cultural milieu in which it took place. Low church Episcopalians, at least the descendants of the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who founded our parish, were not known for their religiosity. Public displays of religious zeal, ecstatic testimony to one’s salvation, cases of the vapors, or the speaking in tongues commonplace in some Protestant sects, discomforted them. In communal worship they stuck to the text of their Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal. Even in prayer outside the church, saying Grace before dinner, for example, extemporizing was considered unseemly, and particularly gauche if it went on too long and delayed the meal. Personal conversations with God, if one chose to engage in them, were to remain unspoken and private.
At the coffee hour after the service that Sunday, Mr. Brooks, our minister, stooped to greet me and laud my participation in the morning hymn. Though ordinary in appearance, clean-shaven, with cropped salt and pepper hair and horn-rimmed glasses, his gray eyes conveyed a benevolent authority. Buoyed by his approval, I determined to seek the Lord’s ear. I knew Mr. Brooks was not God. My parents’ mirth upon hearing my six-year-old brother’s awed announcement that God was at the door, when the pastor came to call one day, had disabused me of that notion. I decided to conduct an experiment. I would ask God directly for a specific action, then see if it occurred.
After thinking on it over several days of dreary weather, I hit upon the content of my request. That night, tucked-in with the lights out after our bedtime prayer, I shut my eyes tight. “Please, God,” I implored in an inaudible whisper, “make it sunny tomorrow.” Then I fell asleep.
I awoke early, but not until after breakfast did I get a chance to assess the efficacy of my appeal. At last, my father left for work, my mother and older siblings for school. Margaret, our maid, busied herself washing the dishes, with my little brother, still young enough to require constant company, by her side. I stole down the hall and slipped outside.
As soon as I cracked the door, light flooded the entryway. Pausing on the walkway to absorb the warmth of success and let my eyes adjust, I looked up through a tracery of flowering branches on the dogwood tree in our front yard. Silhouetted against a cerulean sky, the blossoms transformed into silver-dollar-size four leaf clovers, with dew drop diamonds sparkling on the quatrefoils as they swayed in and out of the dappled shade.
I began to spin, slowly at first, instinctively extending my arms and head in the attitude of a whirling Dervish. As my speed and dizziness increased, the mild ruffle of the breeze, flickering light, and subtle aromas of spring vegetation swirled into a hypnotic vortex. Though my feet never left the ground—an impossibility in the high leather shoes I was required to wear until age five to ensure slender feminine ankles—I can only describe what I felt that morning as levitation. In an upright pose, like the stained glass Jesus at church, I rose toward the sky, though unlike him, I had no adoring disciples watching from below.
An authentic claim to an out-of-body experience at age four might have afforded me social advantage a dozen years later as a teenager in the Bay Area culture of the late ’60s, perhaps a following if I’d possessed the moxie to link it to some rite from antiquity. Even had fate not catapulted me to California, I feel certain that such an early brush with the supernatural, at a minimum, would have disturbed my induction into the genteel worship of the 1950s Shenandoah Valley gentry. As it turned out, I will never know.
Just as my spirit began to come unglued, a warbling whistle brought my spiral, and thus my upward soar, to an abrupt halt. Hunched over a branch above me, a cardinal, the bird, I mean, not a high priest in a scarlet biretta, cocked his head to survey me with a black beady eye. Annoyed by the letdown, I responded with a piercing glare. Rather than recoil or react, he calmly stood his ground, peering at me with a benign curiosity that melted my belligerence.
We continued examining each other for a while. I took in his bright red plumage, black mask, and thick coral beak, as I suspect he cataloged my wide green eyes, oval face, and Buster Brown hair. We moved closer, I edging across the grass toward the tree trunk, he hopping down the branch toward me. As I approached him, I began to see beyond his physical details.
Attempting to position myself so I could look him straight in the eye, I stretched as tall as possible, and with my chin up, tipped my head to the right until my ear almost touched my shoulder. Obligingly, he crouched low on his left leg, and looked down at me, his head tilted to match the inclination of mine. Our eyes met, and I perceived his intelligence. We stared for a moment, conversing, it seemed, though not in words.
Our silence finally broke when, without warning, his head bobbed, sending his pointy crest feathers into disarray. It struck me funny. Too young to have mastered the conventions of respect, I threw back my head and laughed out loud. Taken aback, the cardinal called out a series of sharp metallic chirps, but he did not flee his perch. As the quiet returned, he settled back, like the old man with an overgrown nose I’d seen on the bench in Gypsy Hill Park. I stood beside him only a few more minutes, until my mother turned into our driveway. We didn’t study each other anymore, just accepted our separate beings, at home in the same world. That is where I met God: in the space between us, that joined us.
Jane Bell Goldstein
Thank you, Janie. I love you.