This world. This place. This life.

Can I Stay in the Church?


One of the formative experiences in my adult spiritual life was participation in the Spiritual Guidance program of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  I created the mandala included in this post during one of the program’s summer residencies.

When I was actively using mandala-making as a spiritual practice, I often posed a question, and let the mandala help me find an answer.  I created this mandala in response to the question, “Can I stay in the church?”

Even before I came out to myself as not-straight, even before I went into the desert as a Presbyterian minister and came out as an unemployed non-theist, even then the constraints of orthodox faith were tight enough that I was asking if I could continue to live and serve in the Christian tradition.

One of the great saints of Shalem, Tilden Edwards, had introduced the terms “exoteric” and “esoteric” to us earlier in the residency, and they half-consciously informed the mandala’s answer to my question.  The short form of the answer was, “If the church can balance the exoteric and the esoteric, I can stay.”

The outer rim of the mandala consists of exoteric symbols:  the sustaining sacrament of bread and wine, and the Christian story as told in the bible.  Within that ring are more esoteric symbols:  the water of baptism and the fire of the indwelling Spirit.  Sacred Mystery at the center of the mandala holds within itself the seed of Life.

It occurred to me during one of the chalice lightings at General Assembly that my understanding of the flaming chalice is very much tied to what I learned from creating this mandala: water needs a cup, and a cup needs water.  What I need in a religious community is a balance between reason and mystery, between structure and creativity, between passion and common sense.

So may it be.

4 thoughts on “Can I Stay in the Church?

  1. That “balance cetween reason and mystery” is what brought me to UU as well. Neither Christianity nor Paganism were going to satisfy my need for reason and I missed mystery.

    Have any good links on mandala making?

    • When I first started making mandalas (at a retreat center), I bought a mandala coloring book. The retreat director said to me, “I’ll be interested to see what your mandalas look like when you make your own.” Which I think was her way of saying, “Just do it. Color outside the lines.”

      Maybe I’ll do a one-day workshop at the fellowship. Or maybe I’ll write a post about it. Or both. 🙂

  2. For me, the need for reason keeps me in the UU church. Visiting DairyStateMom’s Presbyterian church (a very liberal community within very traditional forms) has re-awoken in me the spark of mystery.

    • Hi, DSD. The PC(USA) was a very good home for me for a while, and it is the tradition in which I was ordained. Seminary (Princeton) played a crucial role in my theological development (does it ever not?), mostly as a sharp knife scraping the crap that had built up on my mind.

      Nevertheless, for the time being I find the balance of reason/mystery among the UUs to be more to my liking–a lot more reason than mystery. Any more mystery, and I start feeling the undertow, and that makes me anxious.

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