I grew up in a working-class household on an estate in Essex and spirituality and faith were just not part of my general thoughts or experience. This was mostly because my childhood was traumatic and at times emotionally abusive and neglectful and this led to me having a severe eating disorder from the age of 12. By 17 my Bulimia was out of control and my mental health was failing and I began to have thoughts about ending my life. It was in this backdrop that I began calling out to God for help.
One night in particular, I prayed in desperation to be given a sign that God was real to give me hope and a reason to carry on. I asked for a cross to be put in a patch of light coming from the street lights outside. I prayed with everything I had but nothing happened and I sobbed myself to sleep.
The next day my eye caught something on the wardrobe door. I got up to see what it was. There, under the veneer as a natural part of the wood but going against the grain, there was a distinct cross. The position of this cross would have been in a patch of light the night before. I remember thinking, SHIT…….what the fuck do I do now?
I decided to go to my nearest church on the next Sunday. I then had what I can only describe as a mystical encounter with God. I had an experience of being completely enveloped in love. Love like a tsunami washing over and through me until I was drenched. I thought, if this is God, then I want to be part of it and I fully opened myself to that love.
At the end of the service I was so shocked by what happened that I turned to the person next to me and (unfamiliar with how you speak in church) said, “You are never going to believe what just fucking happened to me.” What I did not know then but came to realise in the coming days was that this love had set me free from my eating disorder. It had just gone. I cannot explain how incomprehensible this was to me because Bulimia utterly ruled my life and eating disorders are complex compulsive mental health conditions that you cannot just snap out of.
I threw myself into being a Christian, but right from the get-go I struggled with church. I was thrown into purity culture, feeling guilty and shameful about sin and encouraged to evangelise. I was told anyone who did not accept Jesus was going to hell and would suffer eternal torment. I simply could not believe that the love I encountered would ever let that happen. The church did not like my love of fantasy and science fiction and said it was evil and harmful and encouraged me to give up this part of myself. I saw intense prejudice towards people not of faith, different religions and sexual orientation, and anyone deemed sinful. The church was also deeply patriarchal and controlling. Yet at the same time I was told I was free of sin, had been forgiven and the Jesus I read about seemed to embody the love I had encountered despite the church not seeming to do so. It was very confusing but I was discouraged from questioning anything.
Over the next four years I became increasingly upset by the Christian Churches I attended. I witnessed and suffered, in my opinion, huge spiritual abuse in that time. For a while I allowed this trauma to overshadow the amazing experience of love I had in the beginning. I increasingly rejected church and God and eventually stopped attending or being a practicing Christian.
However, the encounter with God’s love never left me. So slowly, I separated church from that experience and used it like a compass to look for love with that essence in the world. It was a painful, lonely path but gradually I began seeing this love in nature and in people and in creativity and realised it did not have to be connected to Christianity. At first it seemed like a trickle of things, but over the years this grew until it seemed like this love was everywhere, underpinning and threading through everything. Over time my faith honed itself down to being very simple- God is love.
Free from church I could practice my faith any way I wanted and I began enjoying that freedom. A walk in the woods, paddling in the sea, being creative, singing and silence became regular spiritual practices.
I yearned however to find connection with others on a spiritual level to the point it became an ache. There had been times in church, despite all that troubled me there, when I had felt so connected with others and God’s love. It was a feeling of ‘oneness’ and I found myself increasingly missing this. Sometimes this would lead me back to Christian churches to try again but the experience was always eventually traumatic. I also tried Quaker services but found I needed more than silence.
Over time however, I began encountering some places of spiritual belonging especially, NOMAD, its Book Club, the Beloved Listener Lounge, The Clearing in the Forest, and the Evolving Faith Community. I also found a Spiritual Soul Friend to discuss things with. I came to realise many other people had issues with aspects of the Christian church and its doctrine. I realised that what I had been going through was a deconstruction and reconstructing of my faith. Then in around October 2020, I came to know about and began attending, a Unitarian Church online.
Most Unitarian churches in the UK are not affiliated to any religion and members can follow their own spiritual path. The community gathers to connect spiritually around central themes like love, and unity but there are no doctrines to follow. I had never heard of Unitarianism but many of the churches are hundreds of years old. There do appoint ministers which concerned me as I remain very sceptical of hierarchy in faith settings and I personally believe that we do not need spiritual leaders.
However, the minister there reassured me that his role was only to facilitate others to find their own spiritual path as a role of service. Each individual church and its members decide what happens in their services. At the church I attend, readings, poems, music and personal contributions can come from many different sources and religions. The congregation are actively included in services and our members are multi-generational and come from a variety of religions or none and have varied backgrounds. People of all genders, races and sexual orientation are made equally welcome. God is referred to with both male, female and gender neutral pronouns or simply as being love and I find all of this less triggering. At the first service I attended they played a song from the Lord of the Rings films and it made me cry to hear it because I realised that I would not need to reject parts of myself and the things I loved to be part of this community and that I had found a spiritual home.
I have had some profound moments of connecting with people spiritually in community now and it has made me realise that church does not have to be harmful or controlling and can take many forms and that we can come together spiritually in unity with God’s love with compassion for one another. I still have questions that I do not know the answers to spiritually yet, particularly why there is so much suffering and what Jesus is to me in my faith. But today, as I write to you, I feel at peace. I am content with where I am spiritually and with who I am right now.
This is What I Have Come to Know.
When doubt explodes through our chambers
Detonating foundations that were integral stones
Blasting us till we loose ourselves
And the shrapnel embeds in our soul
I have come to know
Only loves hands can find the wreckage
It is the only balm for wounds
Too deep for stitches
And the amputation of faith
When the wilderness echo’s with isolation
Aching with loneliness as you resound alone
And scorched sun evaporates hope
Till you thirst to dry bone
I have come to know
Only love can line the marrow
Or pull rain from empty skies
Making an oasis of your quarantine
And rivers to belonging
When death defies this truth
Bringing grief to hollow you to husk
And your walls fall in the crush of that pain
And even love lies with the loss in the rubble
I have come to know
Only further love can find the crawl space.
and dig the desperate debris with you
or lie in the dark long side you
Till the tomb opens
And I no longer care
If Jesus was born of a virgin
Or was God made man
Or lived without sin
Or died for us
Or rose again
Or if this was just a story
I have come to know
It does not matter
It only matters if love was there
Because this is the way
And when this does not seem enough
To cover the suffering despite this truth
Despite knowing there is nothing else
I am coming to know
Still, even here it remains all there can be
So, this is all I will hold the face of
And somehow, I will keep seeking it
Till it is enough
Till I know,
– Susan Carleton