In order for one to engage in a theological undertaking (such as I’m doing), it’s important to tell a story. This story is to add context to a ministry being birthed. This “story of me” is the beginning of constructing a theology – a step toward a ministry of public theology.
To begin it’s important to build a narrative – to establish myself in context and relationship to the ministry I’m being called to do – how “the story of me” informs and shapes what is being called forth in relationship to my God, my church, my denomination and my community.
In order to answer the call, I need to establish some authority. I do so by lifting up this “story of me.” The “story of me” that you think you know is not “the story of me” that you will come to see.
The Spiritual Seeker
In order to deeply appreciate and understand what’s to come – I must set the stage.
At Chicago Theological Seminary, my area of interest was spiritual development – that is my spiritual development in particular.
From early age, I suffered from an existential ailment. For those that don’t know much about existentialism, I’m going to lift this definition straight from Wikipedia. It describes it much better than I can:
Existentialism is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the problem of human existence and centers on the lived experience of the thinking, feeling, acting individual. In the view of the existentialist, the individual’s starting point has been called “the existential angst,” a sense of dread, disorientation, confusion, or anxiety in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Existentialist thinkers frequently explore issues related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.
I suffered highly intense, existential anxiety and angst – my soul was in constant dread and confusion.
I wanted my life to mean something – to really mean something. I wanted to know my place in the world and understand my relationship to God. I thought seminary had the answers I was seeking to calm my soul, to lift me out of that angst.
I immersed myself in spiritual literature, took Jungian psychology classes, and a two-semester class on centering prayer. I read Jungian books, did dream analysis, and sat in silent prayer every day. I went on 10-day silent retreats.
I read about spiritual teachers – I learned that they appear when you most need them.
I was a part-time student, full-time worker. In my third year at CTS, the seminary was offering honorary doctoral degrees to people engaged in meaningful ministries.
On that day, my teacher appeared – he was on stage at my beloved school, receiving this honor that CTS was bestowing on him. Surely, if CTS was honoring him, he was vetted. If CTS was honoring him, he was worthy to be my teacher. I had to meet him. I just knew he would change my life.
And so…I sought him out and a relationship was formed.
For the next three years, as I continued my seminary graduate work, I also began to study with my teacher. I made pilgrimages every few months to his intentional, interfaith spiritual community here in NC, just outside of Mebane.
I met fellow spiritual seekers from all over the world and from all walks of life. We sat in meditation together, worked mindfully side-by-side, ate, played music, and studied spiritual texts from all traditions together.
The community had a mission. Believing in “Karma Yoga” – the money from the teacher’s numerous books was used to print his books and send them into prisons providing spiritual guidance for people doing time. Community members wrote letters to prisoners, developed relationships, and provided solace for those imprisoned souls.
A relationship was being built. This was the work I wanted to do. Back home in Chicago, I began to feel less existential anxiety. Long-distance, for three years, I built my relationship with my teacher. When I wasn’t pilgrimaging there, I received phone calls and sweet emails. As I worked toward finishing my studies – I also began making plans to give away my meager possessions, move to North Carolina, and begin the work I felt I was being called to do.
After graduation from CTS in 2002, I arrived at the community ready for spiritual enlightenment. I arrived – smiling face, bright eyes and with youthful grandiose naivety. I thought I was going to become a “spiritual warrior.”
I settled into my new life.
Maybe I missed or ignored the warning signs during my various visits as a spiritual pilgrim, but what came next was not expected. My life, my studies, my education, and my naive heart in no way prepared me for what to come.
Our teacher was a mystic. He was closer to God than anyone else in the group – and his teachings came from this divine authority. He was well-versed, well-read, and could talk spirituality on all levels.
This mastery though…came at a price. Our teacher was also inflicted by a soul-sickness – a sickness that I understand now as narcissism.
In order to learn what he had to teach, you had to have one-on-one sessions with him. The first time he kissed me, I really freaked out. He’s my teacher – what was the lesson here? In private he was all over me. In public – he was married and devoted to his wife. I was young, naive, with very little sexual experience. It wasn’t romance. He was my teacher. He was a spiritual teacher. He was a mystic. I didn’t know what his kisses represented or what his hands groping my breasts had to do with my spiritual teaching.
It’s not my intention here to go into the sordid details. That story has already been written up in a local paper’s exposé. And you’ve heard the stories before, in countless documentaries on spiritual teachers and communities, on cults and abuse – the story is not a new one. If you really want the details, I can share the article link with you. But the sordid details are not really important.
I’m simply building context for what’s to come. I began to keep my head down. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I wanted to do the work – it was really meaningful to me. But I no longer wanted a “spiritual teacher.” My one-on-one meetings with him became less frequent, and to my relief…he began to lose interest in me. There were so many young, beautiful women coming in and out of the community. The community was his playground. There was one woman in particular – on the surface she was a devoted community member and his number one student. He doted on her. He circled her all the time. He stared at her. He was having an affair with her. He arranged a marriage for her. He refused to attend her wedding. He was obsessed with her. He targeted her. He abused her.
I watched this – I kept my head down, but I was complicit in her abuse. I was naive, young and couldn’t hold a candle to the justifications from other community members who justified his behavior, who enabled it. By then I was making all kinds of justifications myself. I was fucking up and making all kinds of mistakes. I had a brief sexual relationship with another member of the community, an ex-convict also inflicted by addiction and narcissism. That relationship turned into a war – which was carried out in the fishbowl of our community. It was painful, embarrassing, damaging, and crazy-making. I was shamed and ridiculed on a pretty regular basis from my teacher and others in the community. Mind-fuckery was being thrown at me from all directions.
Two and a half years into living there, I finally came up with an “escape” plan. I finally found an out. I decided though to stay in North Carolina. I was far from my home in Wyoming, and I was far from my friends in Chicago. I probably could have returned to either place, but by this point, my heart, soul and body was filled with so much confusion, darkness and shame – I couldn’t return yet to people who loved me.
Leaving wasn’t easy. I had to brace myself from the fallout. I began to receive the silent treatment. I became a non-person and simply no longer existed in the eyes of my teacher. When he did talk to me, he pretended not to know my name. I had committed the ultimate betrayal in his eyes – and he was angry and bitter about it.
There was one time, after I left, in an olive branch of friendship, I called to wish him a “happy birthday.” Instead of saying “thank you” like a normal person, he ranted at me. “Who do you think you are? Do you think I’m just sitting around here waiting for you to call? Do you think I give a shit about your birthday wishes?”
That was my last interaction with him.
The existential anxiety I sought to escape was gone – shame was left in its place. I floated around Chapel Hill for several months. I worked several part-time, semi-awful jobs. I didn’t have friends and I didn’t feel safe.
It was at that point that I found my saving grace. The years at Chicago Theological Seminary paid off, and a couple local pastors took a chance on me and hired me to manage their church. I remember the day I started, and all these lovely people came into the office to welcome me into their community. After a year of drifting, I had a place to land.
Transitioning into the “real world” after an experience like this is difficult work. All around me were bright, happy normal people. Inside I felt broken, lost and alone. High anxiety came back. Three years into working at the church, I almost ended it all. I came really close. I had no one to talk to about my experience. I hadn’t told anyone my darkest shame – not my mother, my sister, or my best friend.
Slowly, I found myself in reconciliation with the son and daughter-in-law of the teacher. That was something, and with his daughter-in-law a friendship formed out of this shared trauma.
By now, my anxiety was no longer existential and I no longer concerned myself with spiritual matters. I bought a quiet little house and began to carve out a quiet little job. I made enough money to pay bills. Slowly, over time, I began to live in the real world, pushing aside the pain and shame. My memories of that time, I held at bay. I pushed them aside, buried them, and moved on.
Little did I know that my trauma wasn’t done with me, but I will speak about that on another day.
The Soul-Sickness of Narcissism
In my last blog post, I spoke of two soul-sicknesses – white supremacy and narcissism. I share this “story of me” to establish that I have some authority on these things.
I lived with this very sick man, in a community held hostage by his rage, his manipulation, and his inability to take responsibility for his own actions. This experience was really, really damaging to everyone involved, whether we were the targets or the enablers. I can speak from this damage. This is my authority.
I’m not sharing this story to dredge up the past, or hurt my teacher’s family. I’m not writing out of spite to bring him down or call him out. This is not a #metoo story. He’s been dead several years. I loved and feared this man. I witnessed the most brilliant mind and soul of someone who engaged in amazing, transformative work become wasted and darkened by the illness.
This is a simply a story about a girl, a family, and a community held hostage by an illness – a soul-sickness called narcissism. There are no winners. No good guys. No heroes or victors.
This is simply a story, the “story of me.”
And now…I rest for a while. I rest and reset.
But there’s more to tell. More to come.
And until then, my beautiful people…remember:
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.“
Power: the drive of everything living to realize itself with increasing intensity and extensity.” ~Paul Tillich
“Love: the drive towards the unity of the separated.” ~ Paul Tillich