My Never-Ending Journey
By Judith Blanchard
Contemplative Outreach of Colorado, USA
For as long as I can remember, I have been a spiritual seeker. I emerged into the world and grew up amidst a swirl of conflicting religious beliefs that influenced me for most of my life and fueled the struggles of my spiritual journey. It took over 60 years and much exploration and trepidation to untether myself and find my own voice. I spent most of my life in a tortured frame of mind, looking for a God that didn’t exist – an elusive “beard in the sky” to whom I had to prove myself, and who would reward me after death, reunited with my loved ones and pets, rejoicing in a golden heaven forever. My maternal grandmother reinforced this notion. I had to let go of this limited vision and hope before I could sink deeper into a reality I could not articulate – or possibly even understand.
I seek outside of a given path, but am inclusive of a myriad of paths, honing their wisdom. I neither accept nor reject, but simply stay open to possibilities. My journey first excluded all religion, eventually transforming to include the spiritual aspects of a variety of religions and spiritual paths. I had many transcendent experiences that I could not explain, but that were very real to me. What I was (and still am) seeking is a direct experience of the Great Mystery. All these teachings helped prepare me for and propel me on my path, but none of them were THE path.
Many of my ancestors died of anti-Semitism run amok. My maternal grandfather and some siblings escaped the Nazis by fleeing to America. My paternal grandfather and grandmother fled yet another atrocity, the Russian Pogroms. Too many other ancestors also perished.
Once in America, my grandparents had children and made their way in a new world. My mother’s father stopped attending synagogue after the horrors of the Holocaust; he could no longer believe in a God that had allowed the decimation of his people. My mother’s mother became acquainted with the Jehovah’s Witnesses through a friend. Had Jews for Jesus existed at that time, my grandmother would have been a convert.
My mother, also deeply affected by what was happening to Jews around the world, became a devout atheist, which she remained her entire life. She did not have a positive view of religion, believing it separated people from each other rather than drawing them together. My father came from an orthodox Jewish home, but knowing my mother’s feelings about religion, he did not expose us to any religious teachings. My only exposure to my heritage was cultural. I was a member of a tribe, but didn’t practice the rituals of the faith, nor did I even know much about the faith.
My father gave me the gift of “I don’t know,” and pushed me into a lifelong search for my own understanding. I became very interested in science at an early age, particularly biology. My teachers stimulated and expanded my curious mind, but what I was learning didn’t jibe with my maternal grandmother’s view of Kingdom Come. Seeking an answer and reassurance, I woke my father up from his afternoon nap and asked him, “Dad, is there a God?” His answer: “I don’t know.” This threw me into a tizzy. My strong, all-knowing father knew everything. I became troubled and began having nightmares. I couldn’t fall asleep. I was terrified of dying and going into an abyss. This lasted for a long time, but eventually my fears subsided and I was calm.
Looking back, I realize I had suppressed my fears rather than faced and resolved them, because when I was in my 20’s and then again in my 50’s, the old fears reared their ugly heads. During this time, I had adopted and vacillated between my grandmother’s vision, my mother’s atheism, and finally my own agnosticism. It was time to begin facing my questions for myself and exploring possibilities that made sense to me. I spent 15 years following a Zen Buddhist practice, going on wonderful, long, silent retreats. These made me a more open, thoughtful, and peaceful person, but didn’t address my search for something bigger than me. Although I resonated with the principles of Buddhism and the silent retreats, there was still that transcendent piece that was missing for me. So I joined a progressive Jewish congregation for a couple of years. And although I felt at home culturally there, I could not buy into the religious aspects. I was more drawn to the Jewish mystical path of Kabbalah and read many contemporary writers. I also read Sufi texts. When I married a lifelong, observant Catholic, all hell broke loose for me! At first, I was very defensive and had trouble even discussing spiritual/theological issues with him. I was overly sensitive to being proselytized (even though he said he wasn’t doing that). Organized religion, with its dogmas and stories, weren’t for me and I resisted. I was seeking direct experience with something bigger than myself. My mind wanted certainty, but my spirit knew better.
One day in April 2011 informed my spiritual journey in the most profound way. My husband and I went to a talk on Edith Stein. We thought it was going to be about her life. We walked into the room and sat down in the front row. People were filling the room, and suddenly I felt my skin prickle and an “energy” flow through me. I turned to see a tall, handsome-looking woman, who sat down a few seats away from me. Then came the talk. It was a very academic discussion about phenomenology. I struggled just to maintain attention. When the talk concluded, the moderator came up and said, “And now Sr. Fran Horner will give a response.” And that woman came to the podium. I was immediately drawn in. Not only could I understand all she was saying, but what she said was especially meaningful to me. Afterward, I went up to her and said, “I am not Christian, but your talk was very meaningful to me.” She thanked me.
All the way home, I could not stop thinking about her and decided she came into my life for a reason and that I needed to find her. I went to the website of her monastery and contacted her. I asked if I could visit her. She said yes. When I got there, I told her I felt she had appeared in my life for a reason and asked her to give me spiritual direction. She agreed, but said that she had never given spiritual direction to a non-Catholic. She added that she might have to mention Christ sometime and I should think of him as a person who had a very special relationship with God, just like Buddha or Moses. She asked me if I had “baggage” with the word “God.” When I said yes, she asked me what I would like to call what I was trying to find. My answer: The Great Mystery. I grinned – I knew I was in the right place with the right guide. I recognized a kindred spirit, despite (or perhaps because of) our different paths. She insisted that one’s spiritual journey should bring freedom. I spent three years with Sr. Fran as my spiritual companion and became comfortable in that Zen Buddhist place of “I don’t know” mind, no longer needing the certainty I had craved for so long.
In 2012, my husband discovered Fr. Thomas Keating and encouraged me to join him at his Centering Prayer group. I was concerned that I would not be able to relate to the Christian framework. I did join and felt welcomed. I began reading Thomas’ books, as well as those of Richard Rohr and other Christian mystics. Thomas had managed to weave together Buddhism and mystical Christianity in a way that could speak to non-Christians, and I resonated with his inter-spiritual dialogues. Later that year, my husband asked me to join him on a 10-day silent retreat at St. Benedict’s Monastery.
I worried that I would feel like an outsider and wouldn’t be able to relate to the language, that my resistances would once again arise. Sr. Fran advised me to put things into my own words and listen for the message. So off I went. When Thomas joined us in the meditation hall one evening and said that God was just a nickname, I knew I had come home. In fact, Fr. Keating used the term Ultimate Mystery for what many religions call God, very close to what I had said to Fran: The Great Mystery. And I’ve been going on Snowmass retreats ever since.