Two years ago, I went on a short trip to Venice with a friend to celebrate a big birthday. As well as seeing some famous landmarks, I also hoped we could use our famously bad sense of direction to enjoy getting lost in this city known for its labyrinth of narrow streets. I was right and I was wrong, and it occurs to me now that this trip is a pretty good metaphor for my spiritual journey.
I was born a Catholic, no becoming, it just was. As well as church on a Sunday, I went to Catholic school both primary and secondary. It was a straight journey ahead; Christening, first Communion, Confirmation and, despite all the mystery within Catholicism, I don’t remember ever questioning any of it or being asked any questions about what I thought. It was normal life, the way things were. In terms of Venice, it was the Grand Canal; imperfect, winding and crumbly around the edges, but a direct route nonetheless. It wasn’t until my mid teens that a mixture of apathy and frustration saw me very quietly stop going to church.
With no plan I took a year off from religion, believing that it was it for me. But then at a real low point in my life, I started going to a Pentecostal church and became a Christian, ‘for real’, so I thought. At the time I thought I was rebelling against my rigid Catholic upbringing and, that by getting rid of all the unnecessary religiosity, I could instead have something genuine, a relationship with God. I was introduced to the idea that what the Bible said was true and that its words contained power. Over time I became more certain and believed my faith was getting stronger, yet there was still something missing. I was using different words and singing different songs but essentially I still had a clear cut faith with little room for questioning and other opinions. Different gondola, same Grand Canal.
At the same time as I was believing for the best and holding onto promises, illness was slowly invading my body and my life. At first it was mostly exhaustion, meaning that getting to church on a Sunday was never a given and going to both services took most of the day and made for a gruelling Sabbath. It also meant that going to church was now forever tied in my mind with drivenness and disregarding my own physical needs. I gradually worsened and it was ironically on a Sunday after I’d pushed myself to go to church that I collapsed into bed and woke up with what I term ‘full-blown’ M.E. My life would never be the same again.
Silence and darkness of every kind followed. Many in my church now didn’t even know me, or had given up on me, and a rare few tried to support me but couldn’t understand the crushing tiredness their visit would cause. I was churchless once more but in a very different way. For the first time, I had a faith but nowhere for my faith to call home. Unable to leave the house, my ‘church’ was every Christian book I read, every sermon or talk I listened to, every Christian friend I made online. There were evangelicals, contemplatives, Catholics and Protestants of most if not every flavour. There was rich wisdom and large kindnesses, mixed in with some harmful and graceless theologies. In many ways, I was freer, and I explored that freedom, discovering for myself who I believed God was when there was no-one else but us. In the solitude, the despair and the hope, in learning to appreciate the small joys and in seeing what was truly important when life is stripped bare. Yet for all my thoughts of slowing down and being kind to my own body, my focus was still on pushing through to get better. I was still trying to make my way back to the Grand Canal.
It’s hard to pinpoint when this part of my journey fell apart. I had a relapse a decade after becoming ill when I’d believed I was getting better. There were losses and heartbreaks over several years after that. I no longer knew what to make of God, or my faith, but I couldn’t deny my way of living was not working. There was a time of grieving the faith I’d been so certain of. But then I realised, through everything falling apart, I was once again strangely free. Which brings me back to Venice.
In our wanderings we came across a wide canal we’d never heard of. The simplicity of sitting in early March sunshine on plastic chairs, watching life pass on the Giudecca Canal seemed a world away from the crowds and tourist traps we’d escaped. And there were other discoveries, the gondola boatyard, fruit markets and book sales in unlikely corners. Again and again it only took a few turns to enter pockets of astonishing stillness, or unexpected liveliness. My greatest discovery though was that, without an agenda or real expectations or a definite place to get to, it was in fact impossible to get lost. That if you take away the binary decision to go this way or that and replace it with openness and curiosity, what had been labelled a wrong turn became an opportunity. Before I’d been frightened of straying from the Christian path and now I was discovering meditation, Buddhist practices of self-compassion and acceptance and more. And instead of leading me away from faith, these practices helped me discover afresh what I’d always believed deep down. I was even able to revisit the Catholicism of my youth in a deeper and richer way. It is as if what was once a rather black-and-white faith was now becoming magnificent technicolour.
Although I don’t know exactly where I am, I no longer feel lost. And I no longer see others coming from a different direction to me as lost. I find peace in the saying that a maze is a puzzle to be solved but a labyrinth is a path to be walked.
– Jenny Simpson