It’s been about 9 months since my return from touring China with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. How appropriate — long enough as a gestation time. In the first few months after my return, I attempted to make sense of the spiritual awakening that came my way during that 10-day trip. I have never in my life had such an intense experience in such a short period of time, changing me to the core. Given that I include transition in the mix, that gives an idea of how life-changing this trip was for me.
I puzzled and wrote and processed with several helpful friends during the fall of 2018. I came away from all that conversation with a much more centered perspective on my identity: I am an honorary lesbian transman, happily married to a woman, singing baritone in the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. All me, all the time. I was at peace with my identity, though still mystified by the speed of my spiritual emergence. I didn’t yet see there was a connection between these various processes.
Come January 2019, I began preparing for my baptism, approaching on April 20. Extending my introspection about identity during the fall, I became more introspective about the history of my spiritual identity. My curiosity was aroused.
During the summer of 1995, as I have written in several blog entries recently, I experienced a breakdown of self and identity unlike any other that has ever come my way. However, sometime during the winter of 1995, my life did an abrupt about-face. I went back to school, got my Bachelor’s degree, went off to graduate school, got my Master’s degree, became a therapist, wrote two books, numerous book chapters, and built a life for myself. Oh, and in the midst of all this change and growth, I transitioned. So… I went from a complete breakdown of identity and sense of self to a jubilant sense of renewed purpose and joy in life? Why? What just happened here? I came back from China asking that same question.
Recently I re-read some of my writings from my grad school days, and therein lay the answer, not only to the mystery of why my life did an abrupt about-face that winter of 1995, but also a new explanation for China:
“I still had periodic bad times, particularly on Friday nights. Sundays had structure because of evening choir rehearsals, but Saturdays had no structure to them, and a structured schedule was much of what held me together that fall and winter. I dreaded Friday nights, always followed by a day with no structure. Whenever I had bad nights, I would wake from a crushingly depressing dream, always, it seemed, at 3 AM. I came to dread 3 AM, a time when I felt no one else existed in the world.
“One such night I woke and was so depressed and in such despair that I just said through my tears, to no one in particular, “Help me. I can’t do this anymore.” And suddenly I felt… lighter. I would not describe it as the presence of God or any other deity known (or unknown) to humanity. I just felt a release from the sense of isolation I had lived with for so long. I no longer felt alone and knew I had come through a darkness that would never be quite so overwhelming again as it had been in recent months. I later learned to call this the dark night of the soul, and to realize I had survived a spiritual emergency. All I knew at the time is that I was through the worst.“
When I re-read this passage, describing a night I had forgotten, I laughed at myself. These days, spiritually woke, I would totally call this “the presence of God, or any other deity known (or unknown) to humanity.” Before this visitation by grace, I was a complete mess. After… well, the rest is history.
After… There were clues along the way that my real spiritual awakening began not in China, but that winter night in 1995. Here are a few examples:
- I chose a graduate school that focused on a holistic view of people as a mind-body-spiritual whole.
- My mother and sister both died in 2004. I was alone on Christmas Eve, and overwhelmingly lonely. What did I do? I took myself off to church. I looked to religion for solace. I didn’t find it – I wasn’t ready to be open enough for that; nevertheless, church is where I went.
- When I met Cristina in 2007, a devout Orthodox Christian woman, I investigated converting to Orthodoxy. If this tradition were already welcoming and affirming, which some generations from now it will be, I would have converted happily. My deepest spiritual experiences have been in Orthodox services, long before the trip to China that turned out to be the last step on my journey. (Or perhaps I should say, the first step on the next stage of my journey)
China was not a 10-day experience that resulted in a spiritual emergence. China provided the last bit of catalyst needed to allow me to recognize my 1995 spiritual emergence for what it was. China provided exactly the right factors:
- We were in a country where I saw no churches for 10 days, allowing me to experience my spirituality without external influence. Back in the 1990s, I was deeply and negatively affected by the anti-gay ballot measures put forth by a few fundamentalist Christians. I had never realized how much those experiences affected me until I didn’t see a church on every corner.
- Traveling about all day every day by bus, we were in a country where not only did we not understand the language, we couldn’t even read the signs out the bus window, forcing us to interact all the more deeply with each other. I had long conversations about transition, religion, and my history, revisiting my early transition time for the first time since I experienced it. One of my bus mates was a deeply spiritual person, affording me an opportunity to talk about trans identity in the context of my emerging spirituality, for the first time ever. I needed that witness, a non-judgmental person who was wholly supportive of my process and would later become my baptism sponsor. (Episcopal)
I have noticed a striking parallel between my transition process and my spiritual emergence process. In 1995, asking the simple question, “What would it be like for me to walk around the world as a man?” changed my self-perception forever, in the realm of gender. It had taken me three months of angst and breakdown of identity to reach that simple question. China provided a confluence of conditions balanced and poised in such a way that they provided the final catalyst, allowing my spirituality to emerge in its fullness, ready to be labeled accurately. Perhaps because it was my second go-round with identity questioning, and I was starting from a more centered place to begin with, it only took 10 days in China for me to come back with a new self-perception, that of a religious person. Ten days – and 24 years.