I didn’t know how to tell you that it was over. I did not want it to be over. I didn’t want to flinch at the sound of prayer and worship, or feel nauseous at the prospect of walking into a church. I didn’t want to screen the calls of my Christian friends, or ache when my children came home to ask me why ‘Jesus didn’t die but Poppy did’. But it is over – it has been over for a few years now – and every day that has passed since I closed my Bible has confirmed that reality to me.
Maybe God could be described as a fever that burned through me, before bringing my body back into stasis. As a storm that came, that raged, that moved out to the ocean. As an hypothesis I spent ten years investigating then handed on, exhausted. As a decade-long relationship I celebrated, adored, but eventually had to end. As a house I lived in, lovingly renovated and restored, and finally sold so I could travel the world.
Did I move, or did God move?
I don’t know for sure. Who is the planet, and who is the sun – whom circled whom? I know others have opinions on that. If you feel distance from God, it was you that moved, for God does not ever move. Oh, but he does. He moves like wind and like music and like glaciers and like time, ticking onwards, circling backwards, nudging and tumbling and throttling into the fray. He is the starling against the sky. He is not beyond movement. Not for me, at least. To believe in God is to feel God move. To believe in Christianity is to build a cage for God lest he dare to fly free.
I never loved Christianity. I loved the concept of Christ. I loved Spirit, because Spirit made sense of me in a way no human ever could. Christianity offered me a depth of understanding for Spirit that meant I could live out the poetry of devotion. The poetry could charge and form my actions, my body, my trajectory. I was a poiema – God’s workmanship. A breathing, bleeding metaphor for love. And for someone like me, who sees the world though symbol – that was extraordinary. The charge (to live out God’s metaphors in radical actions) was art in motion. It was body-specific, community-focused durational theatre; it was a practice of purity, obedience, and endurance. The goal was not to be a perfect person, but to demonstrate artistically what ancient ways could achieve in a fast-paced, modern world. I was inspired by so many artist-mystics who heeded that call, who dared to ask what ancient ritual or devotion might bring to their briefly bright existence upon this earth.
I wrote an entire book about how God changed my life, ending with my victorious marriage and beautiful baby – the perfect reward for perfect obedience. That marriage ended four years in. Lies were spread about why it ended, friends and peers believed them, rejected me or patronised me. I lost my father, husband and my church community within the same month, rebuilt my life again from scratch with two toddlers, whilst for two years people wondered why I wasn’t ‘in church’. I had restricted my sexuality to be closer to God, encouraged others to do the same, then decided I didn’t want to deny that magic anymore. How do you come back from that? There were so many wounds received and inflicted, so much loss, such many reasons to feel confused or ashamed. I embodied the fall after pride: the spiritual devotee slapped in the face by reality, the failed convert who crawled back to her cesspit of sin. But I wasn’t the hedonistic prodigal daughter this time – I was the angry, fearless mother, who was ready to fight for justice. Who would endure the humiliation of changing her mind, if it meant freedom for her and her kids. Who would suffer for love in a way that finally made total sense. And yes, it hurt. But it was okay.
Perhaps paradox isn’t failure, even if it confronts you. It confronts me. That’s why I haven’t spoken about it. But the paradox is necessary. We must face it. The discomfort is essential. I am okay. Maybe the discomfort is okay, too?
I am still inspired by sacred practice. I am still enthralled by Spirit. I am still entirely devoted to living poetry. But not to the Bible, and not to the God it describes. The bird on my shoulder flew away from me the day my father died.
By this, I don’t mean God abandoned me. I mean that bird, that one starling in a murmuration of hundreds, finally took off to join the dance. I had not known the limitations of my perception of God, until I saw the expanse of my loss against the sky.
Where did my father go? He went home. He went to Spirit. That much I know. But it was entirely off my map of Christian belief. Some only survive their grief with the surety of Christian rhetoric. The only way for me to survive was to leave it behind.
I still speak to God. God still speaks to me. It’s different now, but I like it. The main thing that has left our conversations is the question of ‘How do I become good?’. The guilt at being desperately depleted and trapped in my ‘Christian life’ has left too, because my life no longer supports that kind of self-betrayal. I no longer house the belief that my destruction, in the process of his exaltation, is to be expected, and considered an honour. In a perversion of the inverted kingdom, I developed a kind spiritual anorexia: ‘I will become smaller, and smaller, until I am nothing. When I am nothing, I will then finally be something worthwhile.’
When Dad died, I stopped wanting to disappear. I stopped wanting to sacrifice hope and desire and joy in this life, for the promise it will all be worth it when I get to heaven. And I was more aware of the fact I would die than ever before because in grief, mortality moves in. It becomes sharp and boisterous. I am not even promised another hour. I am not promised my children’s future. I am not promised a fairytale ending. I am not even promised heaven. My life is a poem, and poems only say ‘maybe’.
In the face of my own mortality, I didn’t cling to the hope of eternity, I decided to cling to present life. And suddenly God was in so many things I had never allowed myself to really hold up to the light. One of those things was my own self.
Ultimately, while I did experience wonder and beauty in my life with God, I didn’t experience it as myself. I replaced my thoughts with God’s, my instincts with God’s, my choices were pushed away in favour of God’s. I accepted myself only in the aftermath of crucifixion and resurrection. God was okay with me because I had repented and was slowly being changed, not because of who I was. There was this constant distance between me and ‘who he had made me to be’, a distance I could not bridge.
At rock bottom, you have to grapple with the ‘me’, and not in an indulgent, victimised, self-care kind of way. It’s more a ‘I am the root cause of every single one of my problems’ kind of way. Alone, in a multitude of ways, I decided to plant the seeds of my truest self and watch them grow. To let myself get bigger, weirder. To map the wilderness. To become more of myself, whether God came along for the adventure or not.
God came and went as my companion, depending on my desire for independence. He was quieter than I had let him be. He was kinder than the men spitting absolutes from the pulpits of megachurches. He was more open-minded than even my most woke and progressive friends. He knew how to start a fire and how to spot a distant comet. It seemed he did not mind meeting me again – the whole me. I wasn’t sure how I felt about meeting the whole version of him. It scared me, and it still does.
I know nothing, and will not pretend to be an expert on any of it. There is nothing to offer the endless ancient debate of theistic philosophy except this: I am sorry if I have hurt you in my wilderness hiding. I’m sorry if I misled you in any way in your own journey. I’m sorry if you felt abandoned by me, just as ideas I have explored may have begun to lead you. I’m sorry if you felt I ran from your genuine care. I have not been safe enough to dialogue with people on this. I haven’t been sure enough, still enough, large or small or brave enough. I’m still not. But I am sorry.
I am not sorry for Metanoia. I still stand by every word – it all happened, and it was all truth, even if my perception of that truth has had to change in ways. I am not sorry for it changing. I much prefer to live in the ‘maybe’, I have realised. Maybe, maybe, maybe – a beautiful word. Maybe means mystery. Maybe means this story is not over yet.
Maybe means I might yet become the person I have been waiting for all this time. Maybe means there are answers I do not have access to, and I do not yet want to force. Maybe means I must have patience. Maybe means growing slowly towards wisdom. Maybe means there are so many more truths than the ones in your head or your book of choice.
Maybe it’s okay. Maybe I am okay. Maybe we will look back and understand everything, but that day is not today.
I have only ever told you the truth, so I have come back to tell it again.
It ended, and I was devastated by all of it. But it’s okay. I grew. I am thriving. Joyful, even.
I am a pilgrim of poetry. I will serve the story. Strive to be a mystic who looks to the ancient deserts of paradox. Someone who is still seeking softness in a hard world, wondering if maybe it might exist for her, the tiny daughters she is raising, and the people she loves along the way.
Maybe there is something divine out there, drawing me ever closer; a soft wing alighting upon a shoulder that is no longer hunched; a smile and a song, the sound of humble power and trembling love. Maybe we only look up at the starlings dancing in the sky so we can look back at one another, silhouetted by a momentary magic hour.
Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe.
“I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough to make every moment holy.
I am too tiny in this world, and not tiny enough just to lie before you like a thing, shrewd and secretive.
I want my own will, and I want simply to be with my will, as it goes toward action; and in those quiet, sometimes hardly moving times, when something is coming near, I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.
I want to be a mirror for your whole body, and I never want to be blind, or to be too old to hold up your heavy and swaying picture.
I want to unfold. I don’t want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie, and I want my grasp of things to be true before you.
I want to describe myself like a painting that I looked at closely for a long time, like a saying that I finally understood, like the pitcher I use every day, like the face of my mother, like a ship that carried me through the wildest storm of all.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God’
3 thoughts on “The Starling”
Love and courage to you Anna. And thank you for this
I’ve never felt comfortable with a worldly church that requires denial, that insists on sin and shame. We’re seeing the results of that form of belief in the public accounting for the life of George Pell.
That fire within you is so much brighter, so much more generous than that
Take care xx
Oh, I don’t have the words right now – and will need to put myself, with deeper meditation on this, into the place where the words could be formed – but I wanted to tell you that I saw something of my own journeys and turnings in your reflection. God and I are having a beautiful, wrought, troubled and loving standoff ( or is it a circling of each other?). It has been 20 years since I left the life that a church had built around me. It still sometimes feels like a phantom pain. There’s grief, anger, doubt, frustration but also love, mirth ( dogma, the habits of people in their religious practice, and belief in general can be gleefully preposterous sometimes), the redemption that comes from seeing yourself as you are, right now, and as you / I/ we can be as the days unfold. I love the possibilities in Christness and God-ness in both the drawing in towards this or my drawing away. Keep speaking your words and know that they reflect the mystery that is God-ness. Bless you in your journey and thank you for sharing. K
Thank you for everything. The future is yours to live.