I grew up in a Presbyterian church in the deep southern Bible belt. I was baptized as an infant, and my parents and my church saw to it that I absorbed traditional Christianity like a sponge from the cradle. I had a difficult childhood medically - I spent 4 - 5 years on a leg brace and crutches, from about age 5 1/2 to about age 10. That journey including things like traction, a body cast, and lengthy hospital stay. This was interpreted to me as temporary by the medical community - every month, every year was the last one I would have to spend in this state. The original prognosis was 6 months to a year and then I would be walking. My peers were of course unwittingly cruel - I was different, Other and alien. My simple faith as a child was my comfort, as was my family...and books.
Many, many books. I read everything I could get my hands on - it was how I experienced the world. And perhaps that is the earliest clue as to why my horizons are so much broader than the narrow path my church laid out for me. One book I read very early on as a child trapped in my medical bonds was "Wind in the Willows", Kenneth Grahame's gentle anthropomorphic adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad. I was deeply affected by one chapter in particular - Chapter Seven - "Piper at the Gates of Dawn". In this chapter a small creature goes missing from it's family and Rat and Mole join the search...in the dawn, they discover the missing baby otter sleeping, protected and safe at the feet of the god Pan, or the Green Man, who is implied to be the god of the woodland creatures. They see him briefly and then are blinded by the rising sun and he is gone, leaving behind the small otter. All that remains are fragments of song, imperfectly heard and soon forgotten:
Lest the awe should dwell
And turn your frolic to fret
You shall look on my power at the helping hour
But then you shall forget!
Lest limbs be reddened and rent
I spring the trap that is set
As I loose the snare you may
glimpse me there
glimpse me there
For surely you shall forget!
Helper and healer, I cheer
Small waifs in the woodland wet
Strays I find in it, wounds I bind in it
Bidding them all forget!
I remember a thrill going through me...as a small child, I had been taught that God was to be feared with awe, and that Jesus was our protector and friend...and here were echoes of that, deity in different form! I never forgot, ever after, that chapter and it's affect on me.
I grew...I was pronounced "cured" - though I can truly give the medical establishment no credit for my freedom when it came at last. I gained my feet and supposedly those years were past and gone. But of course I was marked by them forever. My parents kept me in private Christian schools from Kindergarten through the 12th grade. In my childhood, during those difficult early years, they placed me in a Lutheran church school for Kindergarten through sixth grade. This became a quiet source of gentle confusion for me - the differences between Lutheran and Presbyterian were profound. So at school we had the Advent Candles and the Liturgical Seasons, and said the Lords prayer differently, while at church such things were frowned upon as being inappropriate or unacceptable. I kept my confusion in my heart - truth be told I LOVED the Liturgy, and the great Seasonal wheel of the Church year, and missed them when I was at church. Another mile marker on this journey...
I grew up, officially joined my church at age 8 which was an appalling young age for so great and heavy a vow. In my early teens my church split off from the parent denomination, becoming one of several "reformed Presbyterian" denominations. I, knowing only what I was told, was taught that the original denomination had grown corrupt and was misinterpreting the Bible and other horrible things. Dutifully in my parents wake, I cast my vote and so became a charter member of the new reformed Presbyterian church. At first, the changes were invisible - we stayed in our great almost 100 year old sanctuary, the minister remained the same, the sermons sounded no different. I was an innocent who trusted...and who loved God with all my heart. I left grammar school and moved on to 7th through 12th grades at a Presbyterian Church school of the same denomination as my church. Needless to say my innocent faith soon became indoctrination - the world was an evil place, Christians were to be soldiers who conquered in Christs name and the battle was for souls. I became that most obnoxious and earnest of all creatures - a devout evangelistic teenager who had swallowed down whole the militant language of my church's prime agenda.
And yet, there was also an echo that remained with me in my heart - from the forbidden Liturgy of my childhood, the books that I read and never discussed with anyone, the flare of recognition of a God of Love and not of Hate in certain scriptures, that was slowly being buried under the rise of moral conservatism's darkest incarnation. I could still hear that Horn blowing at the Gates of Dawn...I was happiest focused on the Christ of the Gospels, on his actions and his life, rather than on these knotty thorny esoteric theological arguments. I yearned for a faith that DID, rather than just sat there in it's pew. The hint of the dichotomy that was to tear me apart later was already rising - how do you square a God of Love with the Hate and dishonesty of His people? I some how absorbed the idea that God was love, that worship was doing rather than sitting and being spoon-fed, that Christians were a Priesthood of Believers and God was immanent and indwelling. In short, buried under the bitter load of dry conservatism, I was a budding Christian Mystic, in a church that damned any form of mysticism as of Satanic lies.
Meanwhile the Church I was a member of was slowly stifling the life out of it's people - worship becoming regimented, "Pagan" celebrations of the years turning questioned, women turned out of any role other than baby sitters and cooks and cleaners within the church walls. The Priesthood of all believers became suppressed, forgotten, and the male ministers and session gained in power. Contemporary music was of the Devil - I had acquired the skills of playing the guitar for use in the church only to find guitars forbidden. My greatest joy was to be in the Church Choir and to sing - an active living act of worship that, little did I realize until much later was all that was sustaining me and holding me to the church.
All of this, mind you, was deeply subliminal, fragmentary, deep withing my heart, and even I didn't consciously realize it. Outwardly, conscientiously, I was what I appeared to be - a devout conservative thoroughly indoctrinated young Christian. But the distant sound of the Piper did come to me now and then and at times I was uneasy for no reason I could fathom. It is a journey that is only clear in retrospect, with now obvious twists and turns.
Little did I know that I was ripe for a crisis of faith, for a collision with truths greater than the narrow interpretations doled out to me, and I didn't even know I was the Fool on the edge of a fall off the precipice in a much greater journey
And the fall came...