I’ve been thinking a lot lately about those who walk alongside us during our spiritual journey. For some it’s partners and spouses, parents, and children. For others it’s grove-mates or brothers/sisters in faith. For still others, our ancestors, spirit guides, and deities are the only beings to share our journey. But for many of us, it’s our friends.
For me, it’s often been friends. I grew up in a semi-Catholic household, with a Catholic mother and an atheistic father. My dad never went to church with us, and my mom really only made us attend church when we were working toward milestones like First Communion and Confirmation. Religion did not shape my family. When I reached middle school, though, many of my friends attended the same very active Methodist church. They were in youth group together, they went on retreats together, they took mission trips, went to choir practice, attended lock-ins, and were confident in their church community.
I was a little envious.
I had one Catholic friend in middle school. In high school, I was dumped by my first boyfriend because I was Catholic.
These actions, this passion, the sense of community that drove the people around me to choose friends and mates from within their own congregation puzzled me. I never had that connection with my spiritual practice: I went to mass… sometimes. I read the Bible… sometimes. None of it stuck. I tried on others’ churches, and they never fit. I was always the outsider looking in during a service, and, to be honest, I was always the outsider looking in among those communities. I never belonged. Those friends and partners would never, ultimately, choose me, because I came from a different world.
Some of that sense of exclusion, of loneliness, probably drove me to attend a Catholic university. I loved it there for a variety of reasons, but I loved it in part because I was no longer Other.
…until I realized that I was now a different kind of outsider, the kind who questioned and who chose to go to brunch instead of Sunday morning mass. A friend told me in our third year that she’d always assumed I was Protestant, like her, because I never did all those Catholic things. Ash Wednesday was a sort of branding-by-absence, when you could tell those of us who were different because of our unsullied foreheads.
So I tried harder. I went to mass. I went to the chapel to pray, sometimes, alone with the silence and the candles. I went to a retreat. And, ultimately, I knew my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t believe, I had no sense of connection.
I let it go.
Although it’s much more complicated than I’m revealing here and now, I eventually realized that I didn’t believe. I didn’t belong. I was outside the community not just because those within it looked on me as different, but because I was different. But to me, that didn’t change my relationships with the people who remained within those silent and often loving walls. The difference meant little to me. I’ve had friends who are nothing like me, male, female, neither, gay, straight, Protestant, pagan, atheist, native English speakers, non-native, you name it, I’ll make friends with it. Friendship in difference meant the connection between us was strong and resilient enough to explore and revel in the spaces we could occupy together. Space between meant there was more room for intellectual, political, and spiritual play.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares that view. Late in my college career, my best friend went, well, super-Catholic. The space between us became a wasteland instead of a playground. Questions and discussion became judgment and disapproval. Discussions became arguments. Laughter turned to silence.
Once again, I was a 13-year-old, dumped by someone she loved because of a religious difference she never chose.
When I discovered ADF and paganism, I reveled in the sense of community. Though I was a solitary, I had found my people. I wasn’t Other anymore; I belonged. People would choose me, as I had chosen them. (Consent in religion: there’s a topic for another day.) I made new friends and explored new grounds, and over the years, these friends have helped me on my journey. They’ve given me a hand up a rocky slope, shared in awed silence with vistas of the sacred, said to me, “You will get through this—I know, because I’ve been there, too!”
We’ve made the journey together. For the first time in my life, I had true companions and partners.
But when the road divides and things change—beliefs mature, questions go unanswered, needs evolve—I find myself both inside and outside the wall of Other once again. I am not the same to my former grove-mates. I am not the same to other solitaries. And I’m not, I am afraid, the same friend to my companions. In the face of change, my sense of betrayal goes outside and in: I feel hurt to lose a treasured co-explorer, and I feel disgusted with myself at perpetuating the exclusion that has repeatedly wounded me.
I am only human. I am not always rational. But when the support-net changes, we’re bound to feel vulnerable. The people around us shape our journeys, just as we shape theirs—and they, too, are vulnerable, fallible. Sometimes we all lose the path, even when we have the steadiest hands beside us.
The hard part is realizing the hands reaching out to us are trembling. And sometimes we have to shake hands at the crossroads on the promise of exchanging different views. Occasionally, we must wave a distant hand and shine a shaky light of hope toward our faraway companions, with the faith that it will be enough to guide us both down our separate paths.
A mature friendship, just like a mature faith, is resilient. I still believe that. It finds detours. It explores the unknown. It looks into the shadows. Friends are more than companions. They are, at times, our faith in humanity.
And I can hold on to that.