November 24, 2017

Sanity and Spirit, Finding Your Lupine

Guest Post

Chris Abbate

Photo by Sharon Penn

In his book, The Story of Your Life: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography, Dan Wakefield provides what he calls a “step-by-step approach to exploring your past and understanding your present,” including excerpts from what workshop participants have written. Bill Finger has used this approach in leading workshops at his church and among men’s gatherings. In evaluations, participants have said things like, “inspiring and joyful… I loved hearing what people wrote. I liked that we didn’t critique but just listened.” Finger is scheduled to lead a similar class at the Five Points Center for Active Adults, Raleigh NC (May), and at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, N.C. State University (October). Chris Abbate, who participated in a 2016 workshop led by Finger, wrote about his mother, Mass, poetry, and lupine, a good example of how reflecting on the past can illuminate the present. A portion of what he wrote follows in this guest post.

 

The highway to work each August was purple. A huge purple field on the east side of the highway, that in the morning, a big orange sun would rise over and create a purple haze. It sparked something deep within my spirit. It gave me an awareness I hadn’t had before. It was new life.

Church in field of lupinesI would later find out the purple flowers were called lupine, which blossomed in this part of central New England each summer. I had a long commute to work those years I lived in Massachusetts, so I couldn’t help but notice this explosion of purple along the highway. I’m surprised it didn’t create a pile up of cars. Maybe I was one of the few to be so moved by this sudden color? A long commute meant time to think. After years of faithful church attendance, I had stopped going. It wasn’t out of any sense of resentment or bitterness. I felt I had turned a corner. I considered myself something of a post-Christian, if such a thing exists.

I had grown up Catholic, which sounds so cliché it should be a bumper sticker. But no, I really did. It was hard core. My family and I identified ourselves as Catholic, from a long line of Italian ancestors, and were proud of it. There was Catholic school, Mass on Sundays, holidays, and even the random weekday. Then my mom went God-crazy. She became born again. This meant that the rest of the family had no choice but to follow. Any Catholic observing this would say we had lost our minds. But the funny thing is, while my mother’s friends left the Catholic church and began attending Pentecostal churches, we continued going to Mass. More than before. Add to that Bible studies and prayer meetings at our house where people would speak in tongues, pray over each other, and get slain in the spirit.

To say it was a lot for a teenager to take in would be an understatement. There were conflicting messages, religious ideas and spiritual speculation. It was like drinking from a firehose. There wasn’t much room for questions; just dogma packaged as definitive truth.

After I graduated high school I attended Gordon, a Christian college. Despite all of its rules and restrictions, I loved every minute of it. However, when choosing a graduate school to continue my study of English, I selected a state school, Southern Connecticut State University. It was the best decision I could have made. Free from the boundaries of faith, I studied literature on a deeper level. My mind began to slowly crack open. I considered the validity of conscience and reason over Christian teaching.

I began working full time and moved out on my own. This is where my breaking away from church came in. This was probably the lost spiritual time of my life. I took on bills and fell into some debt for the first time. I wasn’t making enough money to support me and my wife. Because of the distance I had moved, I wasn’t in close touch with my parents.

On the other hand, it was a time for growth. I began writing poetry. I thought. Deeply. I read. Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. I read Joseph Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. I began to view religion as metaphor rather than absolute truth. I was broken open, released, free. I fell in love with the beauty of nature in the northwest hill country of Connecticut.

Religious validation however, didn’t come for me until I learned about Unitarianism. Prior to this, I had questioned the validity of my beliefs, or non-belief, which brings me back to the lupine along the Massachusetts highway. That overwhelming purple, I could now call God. My spiritual path had become true simply because it was true to me. It was not someone else’s belief I was forced to reconcile and swallow, but it was mine. I was mine. I was good and whole just the way I was and just for what I believed. I knew this was true. The lupine told me so.

Comments

  1. Tom Howlett says:

    Thanks for sharing Chris. I too had to break free from Catholic dogma and beliefs. It happened upon graduating from a Jesuit university. I relate to the exodus of the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt, crossing into the desert and wandering lost for years. Instead of lupine, nature, I uncovered sustenance in the East in the form of the Buddhist Dhamma. 40 years of wandering before finding the path.

  2. Chris Abbate says:

    Thanks Tom. Yes, I found that spiritual breakthrough lies dormant for a while until the time when nature, Buddhism, or what have you, calls out and the path becomes clearer. The lupine spoke to me in that way. I had felt guilty about leaving Catholicism and charting my own course, but driving along that highway one particular August morning, I felt a sense of peace and wholeness that I was on the right path. It was an unfettered simplicity. Catholicism and dogma didn’t work against this, but was an integral part of it. I think that because I appreciated and embraced my religious upbringing, it allowed me to understand it and move beyond it.