Darleen Pryds is a professor of Christian Spirituality and Church History at the Franciscan School of Theology which is part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She was reared Lutheran, became an agnostic vegetarian when she entered college, returned to institutionalized Christianity via the Episcopal church in the early ‘90s, before becoming Roman Catholic in 1999. Her favorite book is Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and looks to Larry Darryl, the book’s protagonist, as a spiritual guide. She is presently re-reading it for about the 8th time. Recently she has started volunteering at Zen Hospice in San Francisco and considers her time there the most meaningful spiritual practice in her life right now. Online she has a webpage for her academic work and a Facebook page for her public talks at Darleen Pryds, Ph.D.
The Journey of a Spiritual Agnostic
Even when I was a strident agnostic (if an agnostic can be strident), I developed an intense spirituality around being a vegetarian. The sacredness of all life formed the basis of my earth-bound spirituality. So the notion of a spirituality of atheism is not altogether foreign to me. In fact I consider just such a spirituality with a fair amount of nostalgia and yearning at times. It would be so much simpler than being Roman Catholic.
For reasons that are not easy to explain especially in a blog post, I decided to become Roman Catholic in 1999. How a feminist, vegetarian, gay-rights activist could become Catholic in the late 20th century is inherently a complex decision. And my life today as the only lay woman teaching at a Catholic graduate school can be at times uneasy. In recent months I have found myself looking back on my agnostic days with a rosy-glass memory: it seems now that my spiritual life was so simple then.
Back then I didn’t pay attention to papal announcements that offended my political and spiritual sensibilities. I slept in on Sundays and did not patiently sit through uninspiring preaching. I cultivated a spiritual sensibility through growing my own vegetables; cooking soup and baking bread; and volunteering at the food co-op in Madison, Wisconsin. I perceived a profound depth of spiritual reality around me at that time. But I can now see that I rarely interacted with people who lived much differently or who thought much differently than I did. I sheltered myself within a community of like-minded earth-bound seekers, as close-knit as an enclosed monastic community.
Around that time I read Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, which recounts the spiritual odyssey of Larry Darryl. Larry intuitively lives his life searching for the Divine, but not in any churchy, gotta-find-God way. He moves from one place to the next, searching. His departures are without judgment; without rejection. His departures are transitions to something else; some other way to learn more about the sacred without rejecting what he is leaving behind. At one point he leaves an ashram in India and returns to live in Paris where he takes up work as a butcher. Even as a butcher, he touches the sacredness in life. Even in the midst of the pain and suffering of slaughter, he experienced the sacred.
When I was 38 years old, I became Catholic. I became Catholic because I experience in the sacraments and devotional practices a sensual spirituality that I had been yearning for. I taste the Divine enter me in the Eucharist. I smell the Divine at prayer. And sometimes I hear the Divine in music so ethereal I feel transported. And I feel the Divine envelope me when I watch literally hundreds of faithful at mass in line for Eucharist: hundreds of people who include professors, homeless, bankers, students, rich, poor, mentally ill, healthy, conservatives, liberals, gay, straight, sweet, rude, arrogant, kind…
I am not blind to the suffering and injustices within this community of church. Nor am I blind to the suffering and injustices created by the community of church, especially its hierarchical leadership. I continue to draw on my agnostic path to find solace when I feel that the church’s institutional rigidity buries the sacred. But I no longer shelter myself in a community of like-minded earth-bound seekers. I have thrown myself into the larger spiritual mix of humanity when I became Catholic. And because of this, I understand on a deeper level the need to pray everyday. Pray.