A spiritual journey

by Amy Wright Glenn

My main spiritual path for the past 20-years has been based upon a regular daily practice of yoga, prayer, and meditation.

Being outdoors, in right relationship with those I love, and working for a just and compassionate world also are important spiritual practices for me. My spiritual journey began in Mormonism and now rests in the Unitarian Universalist faith. How did this come to be? Why did I, like so many of you, find a home in our liberal religious tradition after being raised a Latter-day Saint in Utah? As I reflect upon aspects of my own journey, I hope that my words support, nourish, and sustain you as you walk your own way home to self, heart, spirit, and a deeper understanding of love.

I am the eldest of seven children, born to troubled and unhappy Mormon woman who once told me in all seriousness, “Patriarchy is the will of God”. I haven’t received a card or letter from my mother in 20-years. A bitter divorce in 2000 split the family and I was cut out of her life. Despite this, the small town Utah home of my youth was often full of noise and laughter.

My father worked as a graphic artist for the Mormon church and he often worked overtime. In fact, he often added a part time night job to his efforts of covering the costs of raising a family of 9. So, he wasn’t home too much. My mother’s hands were also full ~ I remember her with a rotating crew of little ones in her arms and by her side. And as the shadow in her mind grew darker, given that I was the eldest, my five sisters and one brother turned more and more to me. So, I decided to fill our days with creative and outrageous play.

My siblings and I conquered dragons in the acres of trees behind our house and would build secret forts in the hay stacks of Mr. Christensen’s barn. We spent hours climbing and playing in sturdy Walnut tree in our backyard and would dare each other to jump out of the swing going full force. At times we snuck out of my bedroom window to toilet paper an unsuspecting neighbor’s house and yard. And we loved it when mom’s spirits lifted and when dad was home ~ Sometimes as family we would light up the backyard fire pit and roast potatoes, hotdogs, and marsh mellows.

My family grew our own food and I was raised on country music. Our family was definitely working class passing on clothes and trading cars with relatives when the old ones no longer fit or wore out. Eighty percent of the population in our small town in Utah were Mormon. Indeed, all of my teachers, minus one, from pre-school to High school were Mormon. We knew all of our neighbors and had a wide berth for roaming, playing, and adventuring. My sisters and would bike for miles out around the agricultural fields surrounding Utah Lake in the era before cell phones or GPS tracking, we just journeyed off ~ of course, our mother instilled the very fear of God into us when it came to avoiding dangerous strangers and keeping an eye out for the signs of Armageddon.

“You’ll know them when you see them,” She’d say.

“Just say ~ with great faith ~ the name ‘Jesus Christ’ and no one can touch you.”

It seemed like a pretty intense situation to encounter and we thought it best to avoid any such encounter. So, we kept a lookout for strange people to avoid having to test our faith.

“If you are ever out playing and the moon turns the color of blood red, you are to come home immediately.”

Again, that seemed pretty scary to us. We’d look up at the moon resting like a grey orb in the daylight sky. It seemed harmless enough. I tried to imagine it blood red. We all had backpacks downstairs prepped and ready should the end times hit. Not knowing where we would go, my sisters and I used to play “end of the world” games in the basement. We’d turn off all the lights, light some candles, pull out our backpacks and try to imagine surviving it all. Yes, we all loved our mom. But slowly, over time, as we grew, we learned to take her rather intense advice in stride ~ mostly we focused on the work of childhood which involved lots of creative play.

As a child, despite my mom’s idiosyncrasies, the Mormon church felt like a safe cocoon of mythology, ritual, and family. I grew up in a home where church was a three-hour Sunday event and the Mormon dogma permeated our everyday life. Our family gathered every Monday night for “Family Home Evening” where we studied scriptures together and each and every meal and each and every journey into sleep began with prayer.

In the reading prior to this talk, Katie read from a 2015 article I wrote, published in PhillyVoice entitled “Memories of an LDS Girlhood.” In it, I wrote: “Mom always gets serious in church. I try to focus and be serious too. After all, I know Heavenly Father is watching me. But sometimes I giggle and daydream too much. Then I get in trouble because I’m the oldest and I should know better.”

I am happy to say that I did start to “know better” over time and I found myself particularly drawn to the mystical dimensions of Mormonism. Surely influenced by all the talk about end times, I began to have very vivid dreams of demons and angels. Throughout my childhood, I would draw pictures to God and place them at the foot of my bed at night convinced that when I awoke and they were gone, that divine intervention had entered my room. In my early teen years, I was drawn to the silence following prayer and had my own kind of meditation practice before I even knew what meditation meant.

Yet, my major life events were planned out for me before I was born: A Mormon baptism at the age of eight, attending college at Brigham Young University in Provo, getting married in an LDS temple, and having a large family of my own one day and certainly raising them Mormon. It was as if I was dropped onto a game board and the dice had already been rolled. Everyone knew where I would be going and all of the adults in my family were committed to helping me get there safely. Whenever I return to Utah, I am clearly reminded of the enduring connection I will always have to the Mormon religion given how deeply family rituals of prayer and gatherings center upon this faith.

However, I decided at an early age that I didn’t want to repeat my mother’s life story and I often wonder if I had been raised by a healthier and happier woman, if I would have begun to deeply question the tradition around me so vigorously. Perhaps… I do think that my mind would have begun to question everything eventually.

For a time, I did try to make all of the pieces fit and after encountering anti-Mormon literature for the first time, I even went to the bishop with my burning questions. But these older men wise from years of farming and raising large families under the Utah sun didn’t quite know what to do with me.

At times my quest was an angry one. I remember being in high school when I heard that one of the Mormon apostles declare that “intellectuals, feminists, and homosexuals” were the three greatest dangers facing the church. By that time, two of my male cousins had come out as gay and I considered myself a feminist though looking back I have no idea how I came to regard that word in a positive light given how I was raised. I wondered why my Mormon leaders discouraged my questioning mind. And while I felt angry, I also was grateful. For my LDS roots had also nourished me. They had given me deep values, a powerful commitment to faith and hope and courage. I drew upon these values even as I longed to step outside of the LDS fold.

After my experience with Joni’s letter, my father and I made a pact. I could get all of the weekly privileges earned from going to the Mormon church (and these included phone privileges, the ability to see my friends etc.) by attending the small non-Mormon churches in our community as part of my search. He encouraged me and was confident I would come back to my home faith after my wanderings.

And so I set off…. From Baptist revivals to Pentecostal healings, from dancing with the Hare Krishnas, to attending Catholic mass. I would skip my chemistry class in school — a practice at the time called “sluffing” —-and immerse myself in the comparative World Religions books found in the library. I was drawn to the earth based traditions and traveled with friends to the Shoshone Indian reservation to take part in a mass protest against the testing of nuclear weapons on their land by the Department of Defense. I was deeply inspired by the hundreds of activists who had gathered from around the world and began to find my community of progressive dreamers who woke up early for sunrise rituals, ate organic whole foods, and practiced healing arts. I was drawn to visionaries, shamans, artists, and renegades.

My path took me to India three times to study at an ashram in the Himalayas. I earned two degrees in comparative religion ~ one from Reed College in Portland, Oregon ~ another from Teachers College, Columbia University. I’ve climbed the pyramids of Egypt, protested the Israeli occupation of the West Bank with The Women in Black, and spent the night on Mt. Sinai awakening to see a brilliant sunrise over the Arabian peninsula… Yes, from romance to Rainbow Gatherings, all night raves to teaching meditation classes…. I found myself following the call of my own heart. I spent a year abroad studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and took a summer off to work at a horse ranch in Tucson. What my parents thought of this, I can only imagine.

My mom used to tell me that I “made my guardian angels work overtime” and looking back on the choices I made as a young woman, I’m sure I was the source of many of her sleepless nights. I chose a different, unmarked, unplanned and pretty adventurous path, one that was quite distinct from the prescribed life patterns of a conservative Mormon woman.

Looking back, I’m sure I would have been a mystically charged Presbyterian, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Jew. I wonder what I would have been like if I had grown up in a home without any religious center or practice. I’m sure that I would have found my way to meditation and yoga eventually. It was in my blood. Unlike some of my friends who grow up in conservative and intensely religious homes later rejecting any form of religious or spiritual practice, I never “threw the baby out with the bathwater” as the saying goes. I continue to see myself as primarily as a “spiritual being having a human experience” and not the other way around. Intellectually, I can weave together some powerful arguments for a materialistically centered atheism. However, my love for wonder— call it God, call it Spirit, call it Mystery remains and it continued to deepen even after leaving the Mormon faith.

When, at the age of 18 ~ as a freshman at Reed College, I heard poet, author, and UU minister Rev. Marilyn Sewell speak at First Church in Portland I knew I had found a church home. As a young girl, I was perhaps unique in that I would often cry in church. Call me sentimental or overly emotional, it’s just that I found no need to hide my heart. Before questioning the Mormon institution, I simply soaked in the story of a loving Savior who welcomed all into His wounded hands. And there I was again, at 18, stumbling into a place where my newly awakened intellectual, feminist, and progressive mind could simply sink into my heart. Once again I was amazed by the tender power of simple compassion. I realized that I truly missed church. I love the wisdom gained from 80 year olds and the beauty of welcoming new babies into the community.

Our society is so age segregated and I longed for friends who were wiser than I was at 18. Being surrounded by mostly 18 year olds, I felt that important life markers and mentors were left out. Sure I had my college professors, but studying philosophy and religion isn’t the same as practicing it. I missed having a place to mark the rites of passage and rituals of life: weddings, funerals, births, deaths. But I wanted a place where my intellectual curiosity would be welcome and wisdom from all world religions was honored. My heart and mind connected again in church that very afternoon and tears that I didn’t quite understand at the time washed my cheeks. From that point forward, the UU community… whether I lived in Rhode Island, Washington State, New York, or New Jersey would become a touchstone. A spiritual home. A church for my wandering soul.

William Ellery Channing, a famous Unitarian preacher in 19th century America, wrote that the “great end in religious instruction” is “not to impose religion” but to “awaken the conscience”. It’s not to “stamp our minds upon the young” but to “stir up their own”. I’m sure there are Mormon young people who were raised by Channing-esq parents. I just didn’t meet many of them.  Once I started to question the foundational premises of Mormonism, I began to seek out places that Channing described. By affirming and promoting UU principles and ethics that lift up the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” I can bring together my open hearted spiritual experiences with my intellectually curious musings in balance and peace.

The UU community has been an important refugee for me as I continue to understand the harder aspects of my childhood and the continued absence of my mom from my life. It may take my lifetime to fully integrate and understand the significance of these events and I am so beyond grateful that the UU church has offered me a home in this regard. And it is a home that I pass on to my son. For today I am a mom of an 8-year-old boy ~ and as Taber is raised in the Unitarian Universalist faith, I want him to see the beauty of our neighboring faiths ~ particularly the beauty of Mormonism. I don’t shy away from explaining why I left, but I also don’t shy away from describing all I learned due to being a Mormon and I want to make sure I pass these valuable lessons on to Taber, too. For example, prayer is a big part of our life. We pray aloud as we drive or before bed. When Taber is frustrated, he will shout out: “Oh Lord! Please!” and this is particularly loud when the frustration is due to me. J We pray perhaps more so than other UU families and that is certainly a legacy of my Mormon upbringing. Also, we sing a lot of spiritual songs. Yes, Taber knows a good number of UU songs by heart and he also knows some of my most beloved Mormon hymns. In addition to singing “In this Circle” or “Spirit of Life” as part of bedtime, we sing “Give said the little stream” “I am a child of God” and “There is beauty all around.”

“All conditioned things end. Seek out your own salvation with diligence”. These were the last words attributed to the Buddha. I hope that by listening to me reflect on my own journey, each of you feels more inspired to build upon our common ethic of compassion and respect as you find your path, one that respectfully honors both your mind and heart.

Spirit of life, we call you by many names.

Some say Jesus. Some say God. Some say Nature and Spirit and Hope.

We call you and we rest in you. We reach out to you and we find you within. May you strengthen us during these hard days of Covid. May you protect and nourish and sustain us. May you love and guide us as we each find our own way to you.

Thank you.