"Stop blaming!" she implores, her eyes zeroing in on various congregants as she works the room. "Stuff happens." She laughs heartily at her own humor, spurring guffaws from her audience. She is clearly in her element, this compelling senior minister and spiritual director at the Sacred Center for Spiritual Living, a New Thought Church located in New York City. How fortunate I feel to have found this uplifting haven by happenstance, drawn in first by my personal affinity for the messenger and then riveted in a broader sense by the center's "right thinking" philosophy.
I decided three years ago it was time to divorce Catholicism. The priest scandal was the last straw. I had already departed from church doctrine on premarital sex, birth control, homosexuality, priests marrying, and abortion, among other things. With the scandal and its subsequent cover-ups, I finally got the courage to stand up and say, "No more. It's not for me." I vowed to do some church "shopping." I concentrated on visiting churches, rather than get bogged down reading mind-numbing comparisons and explanations of religions. What ensued was a full-blown spiritual journey that has been at once educational, jarring, inspiring and affirming.
I wanted a faith that is culturally diverse, guilt-free and non-judgmental. But did it exist? I gravitated to the idea of a Christian church, mainly because it was what I knew, but kept my mind open. I definitely didn't want to frequent a place run by flakes or spiritual snobs.
First up was Judson Memorial Church, a fixture in Greenwich Village since 1890 and known for tackling issues of conscience. I enjoyed the relaxed, congenial atmosphere and went back several times, partaking especially in the socializing before the service. Next I tried Marble Collegiate Church, the base from which Dr. Norman Vincent Peale launched far-reaching innovations in practical Christianity for 52 years. The grandeur of the church and the formality of the service felt familiar to this former Catholic, but as I sat there I had an overwhelming feeling that the structure no longer fit me.
In the meantime, in my work as a life coach I was helping several clients who had set ambitious, nurturing spiritual goals. One of them recommended I read the book Buddhism Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen. As I read it, I suddenly found the Eastern approach illuminating; I had spent almost 40 years with tunnel vision around Catholicism and hadn't learned much at all about other spiritual paths. Tentatively, I began to question Christianity.
Two incidents around that time punctuated my questioning. First, I applied for a job that required me to fill out a form containing a few optional questions. One of them asked that I check a box identifying my religious affiliation. "Christian" was the top choice. I read it and hesitated. What would have been automatic to me suddenly wasn't so obvious. I didn't check the box. Soon after, I turned down the opportunity to be godmother to my sister's child because it would have required me to join the local Catholic church. My conscience wouldn't let me do it. My cousin asked, "You wouldn't do it for her?" as she pointed to my infant niece. I decided in the long run that my niece will benefit from my presence as someone who stands up for what she believes.
Somewhere in this swirl, the journey had shifted from shopping for a church to shopping for spirituality. I can best trace it to what was happening at the used bookstore in my town, which had begun featuring Wednesday evening salons around spiritual themes. The staff brought in facilitators - sometimes local clergy - to lead discussions on such topics as mysticism, The DaVinci Code, dreams, meditation, and The Passion of the Christ. As a result, I began asking myself questions I never had the forethought or audacity to ask before: Who is divine to me? Is Christianity based on a belief (in Jesus' resurrection) that I just couldn't accept? Where does the Bible fit into my beliefs?
Will I go to hell for all of this questioning?
Read more >>
That first Sunday, I watched with fascination as Rev. Gold delivered her message. I had never seen anyone command a room like that. I returned the following week. Truly, I had no idea what kind of service I was attending. I just knew it felt right in a place that rarely lets me down--my gut. In the weeks that followed, I listened to Iyanla Vanzant and Audrey Kitagawa of the United Nations give meaningful messages.
Once my Artist's Way class ended, though, my attendance at the Sacred Center began to drop off. It was only after the big questions I mentioned earlier-the ones that had emerged through those discussions at the bookstore--that I started to crave the feeling of rightness I had found at the Sacred Center. So it was nearly a year later, in the spring of 2004, that I returned full force.
Finally, I took the time to learn that I was in fact attending a New Thought church. I have since read up on it and, with the help of a wise friend who also attends the Sacred Center, am just beginning to understand why it speaks to me so. According to the Affiliated New Thought Network, "New Thought...is a modern spiritual philosophy stressing the power of right thinking in a person's life, the idea that our thoughts and attitudes affect our experience and that God (or whatever other name a person might have for a Higher Power) is within the individual." Each Sunday, about 100 people come together for energizing song, guided meditation and a sermon-like message.
Perhaps most significantly, I have begun to form answers to questions that seemed to pelt me like big, fat raindrops when I first left the Catholic church. So here goes:
We are all divine. Christianity may be based on a belief I can't accept, but does any of us really know? I certainly no longer feel that worshipping or thinking like a Christian is positive or sensible for me. As for the Bible, it is filled with wisdom, but it was not written by the hierarchical God espoused in Judaism and Christianity. I will not go to hell for living a positive, purpose-filled life in which I take responsibility for my actions. In fact, the concepts of heaven and hell now seem contrived and man-made to me.
What I know unequivocally is that I feel deep peace when I attend the Sacred Center. New Thought doesn't ask me to discriminate, feel guilty, dwell on suffering, judge, worship a punishing God or be anyone I'm not. When Rev. Gold--or whoever else is delivering the message--stands at the front of the room and speaks, I settle in and enjoy the ride. I have begun to heighten my awareness of "right thinking" by reading books that augment my weekly experience. All of this has made me richer spiritually, more effective as a life coach, more likely to engage in healthy questioning, and essentially more evolved as a person.
I guess you could say that I set out merely window-shopping for a church and have emerged instead carrying a shopping bag filled with deeper spirituality. Assuredly, shopping for cashmere never felt this good.