The Congregation, by Rev. Sherry Daves

On February 27, 2016 I was ordained, along with 21 others, as an Awakening Together minister. I had just participated in a 25-month program of intense, and intensely personal, spiritual study with ten very dedicated others, and I looked forward to what the next steps in that journey would bring for me and for the others. Would I feel called to teach in the AT online sanctuary, perhaps minister in a local brick-and-mortar church, or offer classes to those in my own spiritual community? I trusted that the divine call for what was next would present itself to me in its own true time and in a way that I could not mistake it for anything other than the Divine, itself, calling. I knew not to stir something about in the world for me to do with my ministerialization (was that even a word?), to bring to myself a format within which to express because I, the person, wanted it. But when the call didn’t show up, and it didn’t show, up, I began to miss the congregational feel of those with whom I had devoted my time and opened my heart for those 25 months. Together we had created a space where we could bare our innermost self, where we knew we wouldn’t be judged and where we would be fully supported – we all knew for one another that we could trust ourselves, that we could listen to our own heart in each situation and surrender and learn to act on the guidance that lived there within. They saw in me the holiness that is me, and reflected that back to me so that it was easier for me to be the holiness that I am. And we did that for each other. While I regularly listened to the AT sanctuary recordings, that need for community, for congregation was not being met in me, and I began to feel a bit lost, a bit empty – and I watched myself begin to doubt myself, to doubt my purpose. That little children’s sing-song many of us used to do kept occurring to me – where we coupled our hands together, then raised the two index fingers together, swing open the thumbs, and we’d chant: Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors but where’s all the people…..

One thing that I’ve come to know about myself is that I love to write, so from the journals of my life over the past twelve months, I’d like to share the story of the next steps that were laid out on the path of this one minister…. for indeed, Life has helped me discover my congregation, who I was destined to teach…..

…so, “the story”, part one:

A short two months after that ordination, I spent a Sunday outside planting flowers and tidying up in my grandmother’s yard, which is right next door to mine, along with my friend who is my neighbor. I was back and forth between the houses, which are on adjoining pieces of acreage and can each be seen by the other through the connecting fields and trees. I noticed one time when I had gone back to my house from my grandmother’s for a drink of water, that my front door was wide open. I had watered my own plants on my patio that morning before I went to my grandmother’s and I figured I had just accidentally left the front door open, or maybe just not closed it securely and the wind or one of the puppies had opened it. I just shut the door and went about my business inside of getting a drink, and then I left again to go back to my outside projects at my grandmother’s. When I went back to my house some time later for some potting soil for my grandmother’s, I saw that the front door was open again- and again I just figured I didn’t shut it securely before and I again re-shut it, and went on about my business.

When I stopped with my outdoor projects at day’s end and went home to get cleaned up a bit, the first thing I noticed inside that was out of place was a lid on my bathroom sink ledge. It looked like a lid to a Snapple bottle, but when I picked it up, my mind rationalized that maybe it was a lid to the water jugs I keep in my refrigerator, and I knew that I had had water out that weekend – that maybe I had absentmindedly brought the water jug lid with me when I went into my bathroom area and I had left it on the sink. I next noticed my tube of face wash on the closet shelf where the towels are kept, and knew that it was out of place and that I had no specific memory of putting it there. The mind still wanted to rationalize that while these things were looking out of place, there had to be a rational explanation – most likely due to my not being mindful, perhaps lazily leaving something out of place instead of putting back where it belonged after picking it up. I next noticed my swimsuit top on the floor in my closet along with underclothes and nightwear that were in disarray and strewn around. I heard the mind that was still wanting to rationalize, say, hmmm, the door was open – maybe the cat got inside and into my closet shelves and has strewn everything around. But all of the out-of-placeness did make me interrupt what I was there to do and pay attention, finally.

As I took the Snapple lid to the kitchen to confirm whether it fit a Snapple bottle or the water jar, I noticed that my bedside table lower drawer was open a bit, and that my computer desk drawer was opened – I didn’t remember having been in either of them recently. I had gotten my son a six-pack of Snapple apple that he likes when he was home to visit from out of state the previous week, and I knew there had been two bottles left in the fridge. I saw that there was now only one Snapple in the fridge, and that the lid from my bathroom sink was the same as that on the one bottle in the fridge. I began to feel uneasy.

I walked into my son’s room and saw that his bedside drawer was opened, that the covers on the bed were messed up and when I went into his bathroom, I saw a partially drank bottle of Snapple on the sink counter and a squeeze tube of some of my face lotion on the top of his toilet tank, opened and the lid nearby, and some glops of (what I hoped to be) face cream on the bathroom floor. I left to get my phone and called my neighbor who had been with me all day to come over right away and, uncomfortable being in the house alone, I waited outside for him to get there. I told him what I had seen and that it looked like someone had been in my house, and we went back inside together where I looked, this time, to see if anything was missing. I discovered my electric bass guitar was gone, along with my two computer tablets and a bottle of liquid pain medication left over from when my son had had his wisdom teeth out. What I couldn’t bear to look closely enough at until the law enforcement officers got there though was not what was missing, but what was left behind: the items of my underclothing on my closet floor that had apparently been used by someone pleasuring himself and leaving behind the still-damp trails of evidence, along with two crack pipes and a bloody needle.

I felt violated, devastated, heart-broken, in utter utter grief.

…so, “the backstory”

My space where I live is, and always has been, held as sacred by me. My grandmother’s home next door had been built more than fifty years ago, and she launched eight children out onto their own in the world from the love generated in that home. She also helped raise numerous neighborhood children and her own grandchildren there, one of whom was me. As my grandmother was growing into her later years, I built my house near her to help be a part of her support system. In truth, we were mutual support for one another, as she was a vital part of my connection not only to that particular space but also to a love of nature, gardening, and being out-of-doors in general. She and I had spent countless hours in her flower gardens, in the half-acre family vegetable garden, planting trees and transplanting all varieties of plants. She had inspired in me a true love of the land.

I bought the acreage adjacent to her and sought her input on where to build the house. We walked the property and she shared with enthusiasm that, if it were her, she’d “build it right down there on the creek.” She was so passionate and yet so matter-of-fact about the suggestion, that it seemed like a natural for me to position the house away from passers-by and down past the tree line “right down there on the creek.” As the house began going up (it had to be built high, out of danger of the potential for overflow from that creek) I would stand out on the second-story balcony, looking out past the woods to the creek waters beyond, and it felt like being in a treehouse – everywhere I looked I could see birds, trees and flowers she had planted through the years and … peace. The space truly felt sacred.

After my grandmother transitioned, still the memories she and I had created there over my now fifty-something-year lifespan sparkled in the yearly asparagus that grew back on its own, the many trees we had planted from seedlings, the vinca she and I had planted in the shade near the creek, and the amazing variety of flowering plants that arrived to greet me in each changing season. I felt honored to carry on her original vision of communing with the earth by offering back to the land the care it needed as it offered to me the peaceful space for rest and respite. The land became home to orphaned animals and discarded plants and trees that were rescued and nurtured back to life. A previously undiscovered concrete area some 30 foot by 90 foot wide was unearthed there and it had an open-aired, tree-walled feeling to it, so it soon became dubbed the “treehouse sanctuary” that has now been used as an outdoor yoga studio; there’s a walking path that has been built through the woods to the creek as well as a walking labyrinth. The space began to be visited by others and to be used as a spiritual gathering space, where its feeling of sacredness offers itself as a reflection to all of the sacred that is within each of us.

…..The ground there was where my feet had walked for 55 years, and it was what grounded me after being out in the activity of the world each and every day. The incident that Sunday in April felt like the sanctity of the space had been desecrated; it felt like a sacrilege….

It was weeks before I could go back into my own home unaccompanied by someone else, months before I could sleep there alone. The house, and the space, just languished while I tried to regain my bearings.

I took in all the worldly heart-felt input from those around me who I could bear to share the story with, the suggestions of installing video systems, infrared cameras, putting up fences and gates to help me feel secure, to protect my safety. What I knew was that my feelings of vulnerability and fear could not be arighted by physical security measures – cameras and gates would only fence me in, not fence the fear out. And I had lived for so long welcoming others in, I didn’t want to change who I was to accommodate the “incident” that had shown up. I wanted to look it in the eyes, to see it, to let my heart hear why it was here, to learn what it had come to teach me. My worst fear was that the incident would change me – that it would harden me, and I instead so wanted to soften, to surrender, to be shown the absolute perfection of what had occurred. I absolutely trusted that everything is God – but my ability to see the God in the “incident” and the ensuing feelings of grief that I was engulfed in was clouding my ability to go forward, to take the next right step, indeed to take any step. Yet somehow, I trusted even that – and so I took no steps whatsoever, unless and until I felt some sort of inspiration to step, to move…. I was simply being asked to linger there in the aftermath of the “incident” and the abyss of the feelings of grief and allow them to move, ever ever so slowly, through me, and to allow the little cracks that would bear their tiny heads of light in my heart from time to time to shine ever so momentarily, and to listen, listen for any wisdom, and healing, any “why’s” that might come from all of this….

…so, “the story”, part two:

By September of the same year, I had gradually regained the ability to stay at my own house alone and was still open to what I was to do or where I was to go next. I was gradually coming to terms with the possibility that this space that I loved so dearly may not be where I am meant to be. Perhaps it was time to move on, to let it go. But I knew that the feelings of fear and vulnerability that still crept up from time to time were not isolated to the physical location where the “incident” had occurred – that if I was going to court fear, it was going with me wherever I decided to live. I also knew that the sacred feelings I had attributed to the space were not isolated to the land itself – that if I decided to move, I bring the sacred with me. I was being asking to let go of my attachment to my space, my open way of living, my place of feeling grounded, centered. And I knew that the conversation that it asked of me was an important one.

I was at an early business meeting one September morning and got a text about an emergency – apparently a vehicle had been spotted in my driveway being driven by a man who was recognized as a known drug dealer and burglar. Officers were dispatched there and I immediately left to meet them. By the time we got there, the vehicle and its passengers were already gone; they left behind a slashed window, and what looked like a hurriedly-gone-through rampage of my home – closets and drawers were opened and contents strewn, more items were taken – most of the jewelry, a cell phone, a few other things….

And what I immediately felt this time was (well, initially shock, but then): relief and gratitude
..It could have been so much worse
..It was only a window – so much less expensive to repair than, say, a broken door
..There was no evidence this time of drug or sexual improprieties in my home
..The puppy, who was still inside barking when we got there, was distressed, but unharmed
..The things that were missing were just that – things. In truth, there was nothing in that house that I would not have gladly given away to anyone who asked. To have them ripped out from under me was startling, but not the end of the world.

The “incident” now became the “incidents”, and while the feelings of fear and vulnerability naturally arose again in a large way, so also did my deep curiosity of what this year had really come to teach me…..

As I grieved yet another intrusion into the sanctity of my space, I dove deep, deep into the heart of inquiry.

And what I found there was:

…the “rest of the story”….

The “incidents” of the year required of me that I focus the entirety of my energies on recovering from the PTSD-style grief that settled itself in me. The shame and fear I felt prevented me from wanting to share the stories of the “incidents” with others, so I was left only with myself to sort through the emotions. But I was equipped. Indeed we all are.

Unfolding the layers of grief began with conversations within the heart, my prayers to the Self, essentially asking, “what am I to make of all this; what is it here to show me and how is this possibly love?” What arose almost immediately was the response that “what comes from this is what you want to come from it.” My constant fallback was that I did know what I want in all things – to know Love at its fullest, at its depths…. Could the events of the past year have possibly been here to lead me closer to, deeper into, more fully embraced by, Love Itself? Could this feeling of vulnerability, a trait I had formerly characterized as such a negative, possibly be here to show me the beauty of allowing myself to feel vulnerable, to invite me into surrender, to let go of attachments to even those things I had held most closely – my connection to my physical space I considered so sacred?

My spiritual intellect knows, understands, can repeat back verse for verse that there is only love, yet my continued experience of feeling fearful felt very real. Was I, for some reason, blocking Love itself with my continued focus on feelings of fear? I could admit that I do not know, but that I am willing to be shown. The Heart responds, with gentleness, that wouldn’t Love itself allow the choice for the experience of fear? Wouldn’t Love embrace all, even the fear; enfold fear in its breadth, and simply allow it to melt away in its ever- ever-present gentleness? Fear, I come to see is simply a choice, and a sacred one, at that. And a choice that I can set aside and choose something differently.

The Heart helps me come to see that the problem is, I have been thinking issues of safety are real to us humans and that humans need protection.
The problem is, the Heart says gently, that I think I am a human.
The problem is, I think there’s a problem.
The problem is, I think.

The constant prayer is one of gratitude that I know nothing, knowing that to know nothing is the perfect place to rest. And the request, always: please, please, in-form me. Show me the perfection in all of this. What the Heart reminds me gradually is that what happened here was neutral. In and of themselves, pipes, needles, pleasuring oneself are not inherently bad or wrong – they’re just things, just acts. What makes them bad things or bad acts is only the judgment within my own mind. I assigned expectations for those things to not occur here, for people to not come into my home and do those things, so what makes them bad things and bad acts is my own mind – I’ve judged them bad. I’ve judged them wrong, harmful, threatening – it’s all in my mind.

The shift of the heart’s focus to the neutrality of the “incidents” helped loosen the grip of my mind’s previous focus on the resulting emotions of fear, loss and vulnerability. The shift of the heart’s focus to the positive aspects of vulnerability has allowed me to sink more deeply into the embrace of Love itself. And the shift of the heart’s focus to the deep deep surrender that the events seemed to ask of me offered me the experiential hands-on having-lived-ness of knowing that safety originates from within and can never ever be taken from us, and that the sacred goes with us, always. And perhaps most importantly, the “incidents” have helped me discover that my congregation – who I am here to teach – was with me all along. For I am, indeed we all, are, both the teacher and the student, always – for where Love and I are gathered, together We are the congregation.

And the people said, amen.

Sherry Daves was recently voted onto Awakening Together’s Board of Directors.

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