My good and long time friend Marjorie has walked a journey of faith that I have admired since I met her, 23 years ago, when I first returned to the Church, after a twelve year exodus. I hope you are as moved and uplifted by her example as I have been……..
“At age 10 I discovered on my parents’ bookshelf a ten-volume set of books, encompassing both Old and New Testament stories. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put them down. The books were written in a somewhat old-fashioned manner, with plenty of moralizing at the end of each story. I absorbed the stories and ignored the moralizing. These volumes graphically portrayed the characters of Genesis, the Exodus, the adventures of the Israelites, and the promise of the longed-for Messiah. There was a lot that was left out—this was aimed at children—but it provided a foundation for my understanding of scripture, God’s way of working in the world, and his promises.
At the Presbyterian church we attended, I was well-versed in the Bible stories that were talked about in Sunday School, and was probably an insufferable know-it-all. My mother taught my 5th grade Sunday School class, and the other children accused her of giving me all the answers. In fact, I knew the stories because I’d read (twice!) the entire ten-volume set of Bible stories that were in our home.
While in high school I discovered C.S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters.” I nodded in recognition as the demon mentored his not-so knowledgeable apprentice tempter, describing with such accuracy humans and their weaknesses. His books of Narnia transported me to a place I’d never imagined, and confirmed so many spiritual truths I had grown to know and love in the years I spent faithfully going to church each week with my family.
Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Story Mountain,” his treatise on faith, was eye-opening for me when I was an adult, a first-time mother. I’d never heard the word “contemplative,” and had no idea of the history within the historical Christian church of this tradition. The more I read Merton, the more his writing resonated with me. How strange. Me, a young married woman nursing my first child. What could I have in common with a Trappist monk, a Catholic? I’d spent my entire life attending protestant churches and agreeing with the tenets of the Christian faith as seen through the eyes of the protestant reformation. Merton opened for me an entirely new world of Christian thought.
After I moved to where I still live, a little lake neighborhood south of Boston, a new neighbor moved in who shared with me the fiction of Madeleine L’Engle. As in Lewis’s writing, L’Engle’s fiction transported me to a place where spiritual truths rang out, faith playing out in challenging circumstances. While I grew up with the admonishment to read my Bible every day, to learn the scriptures and incorporate them into my daily life, these books, and more that I’ve read since, challenged and touched my heart.
At age 29 I found myself getting divorced and needing to care for my two very young children. The teachings I’d grown up with in Presbyterian and Baptist churches were challenged. “Real Christians don’t get divorced,” was a not-so-subtle message I’d learned growing up. “Divorce is from hardness of heart. And turn the other cheek, preferring others rather than yourself.” Everywhere I turned in my daily scripture readings the message seemed to be to obey my husband, who was urging me to abandon my children, to get out of their life. I felt so beaten down I was sorely tempted to do just that.
I stopped listening to this soon-to be ex-husband, and stopped my daily Bible reading in self-defense, finding that whatever toxic lessons I’d learned from church teachings in my years growing up were not standing me in good stead in the circumstances I’d found myself in. I continued attending church, a life-long habit, but it was painful.
An incident occurred at church a few years later that challenged my faith further. Rather than obey my pastor, who invoked scripture to insist I forgive a man who had endangered my child, I walked away from that church, and from the power of scripture to control me, spending years wondering if I had no faith. And still, I attended church, a different church than I’d ever attended. It was an Episcopal church, related to C.S Lewis’s Anglican church, which Lewis referenced so often in his writing. This was my first encounter with liturgy, recurring prayers used throughout the service, drawn from the oldest of church writings.
My attitude when attending was different from how I’d spent time in church before. I insisted I was there for the music. Just let me sing the old hymns, I thought, which were the poetry of my childhood, and don’t ask me to get otherwise involved.
Through these dark years, caring for my children and cleaning houses to pay our bills, a bright light appeared, the world of storytelling. I discovered people who stood in front of groups large and small and shared stories. Some stories were whimsical, others deeply touching, but to me they were magical. One day I found myself agreeing to bring some stories to my daughter’s kindergarten class, and afterwards her wonderful teachers asked me to come back again, and yet again! I was plunged into an entirely different world, met people from many walks of life, few of whom were overtly Christian, many not Christians at all. Yet I felt welcomed, loved, affirmed, and encouraged to keep learning, exploring how I could give back through the gifts I was developing.
When talking with one of these storytellers, I expressed my ambivalence about whether I was even a Christian. He laughed. “Give it up, Marjorie. You ARE a Christian.” Well then. The “hound from heaven,” a term Martin Luther wrote about to describe God’s relentless pursuit of those he loves, was clearly not about to let me go.
Parenthood had given me an inkling that I longed for solitude, just when I was allowed NO solitude at all! Through the early years of parenting, I thought I simply needed more adult company, friends my own age. As I settled into our home, I gained friends, and was grateful for these special people who enriched my life.
The day I was felled by a seizure at age 36 marked a profound turning point in my life. I had a large meningioma that had to be removed right away. Brain surgery is scary at the best of times, and although these times were what had been, I thought, the beginning of better of times for me, the future was truly daunting. I’d gotten very stable house cleaning clients. I had my storytelling performance schedule lined up through the middle of the year, and had already earned more money that year than the entire previous year. Suddenly it was not clear if I would survive the surgery.
Well, I survived, but woke from surgery to realize that my entire right side was paralyzed. My life was saved, but I could not walk, get myself to the bathroom, even roll over in bed. Working was out of the question; I could barely feed myself. How was I to care for my children, much less myself? I felt totally dependent, and very angry.
The journey from where I was to where I am today has been long. Healing has occurred in fits and starts, and healing continues to this day. I am able to dance again, (yes, I danced before!), can hike with the support of my walking poles, and drive again after seven years staying off the road because of seizures that were difficult to control. I’ve even written some books about hiking, guides to “Easy Walks in Massachusetts” for those who, like me, love the outdoors, but need to find places where they can get outside without endangering themselves. My solitude and inability to do other work drove me to learn to write, a skill I am continuing to polish as I do the work of helping families, including my own, to preserve their family stories.
Through many, many years in solitude, I’ve learned to live with and accommodate the limitations that are part of my life. Keeping up with the pace of life in America is not something I can ever return to, but I don’t miss the frenetic sense of hurriedness that is part and parcel of that lifestyle. Instead, I’m able to use the time I spend alone to pray: when I clean up from supper, washing dishes; when I’m ironing; when I prepare meals, and when spending time outdoors. As I’ve learned in further reading about monastic life, one’s prayer and work are intertwined; the more mindless the work, the easier it is to pray.
Life is pretty rich for me now—healthy children who have given me grandgirls and boys who call me Gramma who love for me to read stories to them, and love to tell me stories, or simply share what they’re doing. A loving husband who joyfully helps me travel to see wonderful new places, and is proud of the work I do. Dear friends both near and far who say “yes” to some of my crazy ideas. And church, a constant.
When it’s been too long since I’ve gotten to church because of our travels, my husband is the one who says, “You need to go.” He’s right, of course, so I do.”
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, and More Easy Walks in Massachusetts. She has been a freelance writer for the Bellingham Bulletin and numerous other local, regional and national publications for the past 18 years, and is the New England Chair of the Association of Personal Historians. She and Christine met at church and have been dearest friends for over twenty years. http://www.marjorieTurner.com