By Sheri Hostetler
Fourth Sunday of Lent — “Soul Journey: Joyful is the Dark”
In the first sermon of our Lenten series, I told you the story of when I was 32, working at a soul-sucking job in a corporate publishing house but unable to imagine or make happen a different future for myself. And I told you of how things started to shift when I participated in this ritual that was a part of my friend Anita’s graduation celebration. We were at a labyrinth in the East Bay Hills and, as we stood in a circle, we were asked to get in touch with what our soul needed and — one by one — either step into the middle of the circle (so we were surrounded by people), stay in the circle (holding hands), or step out of the circle. When it came my turn, I startled myself by starting to cry and backing away from the group as far as I could. I told them that I loved them, but that I needed to be as far away from them as possible.
Thus began a journey of the soul that eventually led, a few years later, to my claiming my vocation as a pastor. But it began with a separation, a departure if you will — with me stepping back from community and stepping back from a role and identity that my ego had constructed for me but that wasn’t working anymore. For me, that meant that I needed to stop pretending that I wasn’t miserable in my job. I actually had to feel the grief that this was what my life had become. And, even harder for me, I had to give up the idea of control — that if my ego self just tried harder, I would be able to find a way out of my predicament. During this time, I had lunch with our then pastor Rebecca Slough. “I just can’t figure out what to do,” I said to her. She said: “That’s the problem, you’re trying to figure it out.” I took this advice to heart and started praying for the first time in years. “God,” I said, “I don’t even know if I believe you answer prayers like this, but help me.”
Miraculously, several weeks after that ritual, I was able to step away from my soul-sucking job. Out of the blue, Jerome and I were given the opportunity to take over jobs at a church in Piedmont. I became the half-time “publications editor,” which was really a glorified secretarial position, and Jerome became an even more part-time “doorkeeper” which meant that he opened up the buildings and locked them up again at night. As payment for his work, we lived rent-free in a two-bedroom tiny house right next to the church, where we got a free concert every Wednesday evening when the organist practiced. While this change may seem an unalloyed good, it was actually a bit of a blow to my ego. I had gone from being an “up and coming” editor at a professional job in the City to being, basically, a church secretary. In my younger years, I had often defaulted to secretarial work when I needed to make money, but as a 33-year-old with a graduate degree, going back to that kind of work felt like a retreat. I had stepped away from a career path that promised security and at least some social status, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to get back on it again. Fortunately, by that point, my ego-self was so defeated, I was open to new possibilities.
Thus, began a transitional time that lasted a couple of years — a time of journeying, of exploration and wandering. Trying things out. I wrote poetry and essays and sometimes even tried to publish them; I took solo performance classes, writing and performing my own stories. I started up a magazine called “Mennonot: For Mennonites on the Margins.” I started working with a dreams group and a spiritual director and began meditating. I went on retreats for the first time. (I had time because I was only working part-time.) This was rich and exciting, in many ways, but also confusing, much like walking a labyrinth. Just as soon as I thought I was getting closer to What I Was Supposed To Do With My Life, my path would twist again and I’d feel further away than ever. And all this time, I was fighting my own demons — my own feelings of inadequacy and shame, my self-defeating patterns. In the language of this series, I was doing some serious shadow work. It was definitely a journey of descent into the dark thickets of my soul.
It was during Lent, 20 years ago, that I started my return back into the circle. It was here, in this community, that I clearly heard the call to ministry. I went back to seminary and picked up classes related to pastoral ministry that I hadn’t gotten the first time through, did two internships, and eventually took my first pastoral position at a church in Montana, where we had moved for Jerome’s work by then. The soul journey that had started years before at a wind-swept labyrinth in the East Bay Hills had ended. I was reincorporated into the circle with a new identity and role, one that much more closely matched the shape of my soul.
Departure – journey – return. Almost all of our journeys — inner or outer — follow this archetypal pattern. Think of most of the faith stories that you hear in our community. At some point, the storyteller feels compelled to leave their childhood understanding of faith and meaning behind. It doesn’t fit them anymore. Often this means a departure from formerly held roles in their family or communities and a departure from their sense of self. And then there is the time of wandering, seeking, exploring. A time of testing, sometimes, and trial. And then — sometimes (if the storyteller is old enough and has wandered enough) — there is a return to a newer, fuller understanding of faith and meaning.
Departure – journey – return. Jesus’ soul journey begins with his baptism in the Jordan, and almost instantly he departs for the wilderness, for a time of wandering, a time of trial and testing. During these trials, he is promised all the things our ego loves — power, control, security. Saying yes to them will end his soul journey right then. But he refuses them and goes deeper into his wild soul. After 40 days in the wilderness, he returns to his community, embodying his new identify as a beloved child of God, as prophet, healer, and teacher.
Departure – journey – return. Our wolf in our children’s story has to leave her community and set aside her identity as the Red Wolf. She goes through her time of trial — even trying on a new identity as Blood Wolf — before she is able to claim her true soul identity as Sister Wolf. She is then able to return to community, in her new role.
This motif of departure, journey and return is common to all rites of passage. Rites of passage are ceremonies that mark important transitional periods in a person’s life, such as birth, puberty, marriage, having children, and death. Rites of passage usually involve ritual activities and teachings designed to separate individuals from their original roles, guide them through a time of transition, and then reincorporate them back into their community in their new roles. So, another way of saying departure-journey-return is separation-transition-reincorporation.
Although mainstream U.S. culture has largely lost our rites of passage, we still have some. Marriage, for instance, does not usually occur until a pair is prepared to move out of their parents’ house or, in the case of folks who have already made that separation, out of their own home. So, separation. The betrothed often go through an extended transitional period called engagement, during which they are supposed to prepare for marriage, often through marriage counseling and through the trial known as wedding planning, in which they contend with strong forces of parental and societal expectation and struggle to form a new identity vis-a-vis them. And then, the couple goes through the often elaborate ritual of reincorporation known as the wedding. Special ritual garments are worn. The whole community participates in a ceremony during which gifts are exchanged (rings), followed by a communal meal, special ritual foods and dancing. The couple often receives emblems of their new status, such as a new name, jewelry and gifts to help them set up their new household.
All of these elements — ritual clothing, ceremony, gift exchange, celebration — are traditionally parts of rites of passage. Part of what our Children’s and Youth Faith Formation Committee is doing is looking at how we might more richly and fully incorporate rites of passage into our children’s formation — including the all important rite of passage that happens around puberty in many cultures. For many of us growing up in a Mennonite Church, baptism was the rite of passage deemed appropriate for that time. Do we still think that is the right rite of passage for that time? If not, what else could we do that would be meaningful? What can we learn from the Jewish rite of passage known as the bar or bat mitzvah?
A big part of soul work is understanding and undergoing this archetypal pattern of departure-journey-return or separation-transition-reincorporation. My soul intuitively demanded this journey of me at one point in my life, but how less lonely and difficult might that journey have been if I had understood what was happening? What would it have been like if this community had had a more full understanding of that journey as I went through it?
Bill Plotkin believes that our lack of rites of passage and the sorts of encounter with soul that happen during these rites has resulted in a permanently immature sort of culture.“True adulthood, or psychological maturity, has become an uncommon achievement in Western and Westernized societies, and genuine elderhood nearly nonexistent. Interwoven with arrested personal development, and perhaps inseparable from it, our everyday lives have drifted vast distances from our species’ original intimacy with the natural world and from our own uniquely individual natures, our souls. This arrested personal growth,” he says, “serves industrial growth.” And our “industrial growth society engenders an immature citizenry unable to imagine a life beyond consumerism and soul-suppressing jobs.” (Soul craft, pg. 22)
I do believe that we are blessed with a community that honors the soul journey and these rites of passage. In this way, we stand as a counter-cultural community, even as I believe that we can do more to both understand and craft rites of passage and accompany each other through them. I also believe we have an enormous wealth of soul wisdom within our Christian tradition We have so many scriptural stories of people and communities making their soul journey, and we have, most especially, the example of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. The one who ascended but also descended. As the author of our Ephesians passage says, “When we say “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” We have as our exemplar a true adult, one who descended into the wilds of the natural world and his own soul, and now beckons us to follow him.
And we have each other. I told someone the other day that I can’t imagine a better community in which to raise my child, because there are so many role models of mature adults here, people who are “no longer children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind, by trickery,” but people who are grown ups who are doing and have done their soul work. So to quote Ephesians, let us continue to equip ourselves for the work of ministry by finding and developing our unique gifts for building up the Body of Christ, until all of us come to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”