How I Became Unitarian

Carole TenBrink, 28 January 2018


This month’s theme is growth.  All our lives we are growing, growing spiritually into our larger selves. This is true for me.  Inspired by Marc Boucher’s reflection here recently, I’d like to tell you of the long, winding road that led me being a Unitarian, passing thru many way stations…. From Dutch Reformed, to Catholicism, to Buddhism, on to Paganism.  May this reflection stir thoughts of your own religious-spiritual journey.

I.            CHILDHOOD -  I was born in Holland, Mich. which was a strict Dutch Reformed town. As a child I found it so grim and severe.  It advocated no bright coloured  clothes, no dancing, no going to movies, and on Sunday, no doing anything but church, read the Bible and pray.  Pray, especially for your miserable soul as you are a hopeless sinner bound for hell.  You must try really really really hard to be good and financially successful; then, maybe…. possibly, there could be a slight chance of your going to heaven…. But probably not.

               Even as a child, I remember thinking…. How can this be God?  Aren’t God and Jesus about being kind?  This is sooo mean. I knew God made nature & nature was beautiful & supportive.  My brother & I got these tough messages at church & Sunday school. But my Dad had fallen away from the faith, & eased up on what was expected us.  My mother was religious in a spiritual way, Irish ancestry, raised Catholic, but, in Holland, Dutch Reformed was all there was.
               One time, a sort of evangelist preacher came to visit our church for a special evening service.  Mom took me; I must have been about 8 -9.  He was one of those rousing… ‘come on down, declare yourself for Jesus & be saved’ sort of a preacher.  To me, his message sounded genuine, something positive at last.  I was so moved; I stood up, went down front, & knelt down on my knees.  After church, I could tell my mum was upset, but didn’t say anything.  She just took me outside & walked me around the church several times before we went home.  Soon I was called in to speak to the minister who told me I had done a good thing, but was a little young to join the church & could wait awhile.  I hadn’t known I’d asked to join the church and was relieved to be ‘let off’.

                II.          TEENAGER – Right after HS, I hit the road, off for the secular challenges of University. There, I learned that Holland Mich. had the highest illegimate pregnancy rate per capita of any place in the US.  That made sense to me, because the only thing we teenagers could do for a date was drive out to the lake Michigan, park and neck!

Age 16, I fell in love.  My childhood sweetheart, Bill was Catholic, born, raised.  And from Chicago, the big city, i.e. sophisticated!   After awhile, I started going to mass with him sometimes.  I loved all the ritual…. pageantry, ornate robes, Gregorian chant, incense, the mass & prayers in Latin; it all made for a sense of mystery, a real spiritual experience.  Believe it or not, after Dutch Reformed Church, Catholicism felt freeing!!

After a couple more years, I decided I might like to become a Catholic and took private catechism with a Jesuit priest.  I trusted him, because Bill had been educated by the Jesuits; I took them to be intellectual & wise.  But, I had lots of doubts & would say to the priest things like…. ‘ I don’t know about this virgin birth; I don’t think I can actually believe it’.  ..but the priest would have wonderful explanations for such things…  That went something like… these are stories to explain mysteries beyond our human understanding.   Slowly, slowly, finally I became confirmed a Catholic.  I liked the ritual turn of the year, feast days; I read a lot about the lives of some of the saints, St Teresa d’ Avila, St Francis and later grew very fond of Hildegard de Bingen.

               By this time, Bill & I sometimes had a full sexual relationship.  To me, it was ecstasy, something sacred!   ….but at the same time, I grew uneasy about our behavior: make love, go to confession and later on make love again.  The lingering Dutch Reformed sense of shame & evil would consume me…  I’d say to Bill… ‘this is not good… It’s deception, dishonest.  He’d have an explanation… something about god understands that we’re only human…  it’s an ideal to reserve the sanctity of sex for marriage; it helps us remember & honour that love-making is profound, holding the potential of new life.   For awhile I’d feel ok,  & then shame would slam me again.               

III.         YOUNG ADULTHOOD – Bill broke up with me on my 21st birthday: It was devastating.  He’d been like a rock to me.  Without his support, I felt very shaky; I started going to a contemplative convent on wk-ends, the society of Marie Reparatrix.  I wanted nothing to do with sex and relationship, wanted to be completely spiritual; I fell in love with these contemplative nuns in their turquoise robes with a silver heart of Jesus on their breast  & their lovely plain chant singing behind the mysterious gauze curtain.  They quite liked me too; as the months went by, we talked of my becoming a novice.     There was a priest there called Father Mountain, a Jesuit who I met with a few times. The last time he asked me to do something… to spend a spring afternoon walking around the enclosed garden & grounds of the monastery.  At first it was lovely to sit and wander in this calm place in nature. 

But after awhile I grew disturbed at the realization… that joining these contemplatives would mean being forever cloistered: …NEVER leaving this place.  “No way, no way”…. A voice in me kept repeating.  There’s no way I could live my whole life inside these stone walls.  Suddenly, the wide world was shouting out to me.  I went and told Father Mountain about my experience.  He smiled.  What a smart man.

               My last few years of University, I lived in an international students house run by the Quakers. They felt that building intercultural understanding this way would help promote world peace.  I met a Vietnamese student there, Phu, who was warm, gentle, & full of mischievous fun.  Long story short, we fell in love. His US scholarship obligated him to go back to his country when his studies finished, but the war was on; he’d have been drafted back home he came to Canada, asked me… did I wanted to come too.  Yes.  Did I want to get married?  Yes.  We came in 1970… All we had to do was say… ‘We’re landed’….  immigrants.  We were getting our papers in Ottawa, found it boring, and came to Montreal one wk-end.  We liked it & stay.  Fate settled.

               We had attended some Quaker meetings while living in Ann Arbor at the Friends’ house, & had decided to be married by them, - as he a non-religious Buddhist; I was a mostly a non practicing Catholic.  However, once in Montreal I gravitated sometimes to the beautiful historic basilicas, Notre Dame, and St Pats.

IV. THE INBETWEEN  -  I’d entered a kind of in-between phase….. a searching phase….  Trying out different spiritual practices, & following a philosophy of pick and choose the parts of Catholicism that fit me, leave the rest.  I’d branched out, did St. Ignatius spiritual exercises for quite awhile.  I joined a Benedictine meditation practice at a centre up along Ave Pins, (that’s not there any more)   I learned about Buddhist rituals from my Vietnamese family, (who came over in 1975 when Saigon fell.)  I loved the ritual, of lighting joss sticks and setting out food for the ancestors at the altar in every home. At the Buddhist temple, we attended services for the dead where we prayed, repeatedly stood up and knelt on our knees or prostrate on the floor and stood up again… with the huge loud gong marking off changes. 

               By 1976 I was divorced, and seemed set loose from all previous traditions.   Somehow, I found the Unitarian church on Sherbrooke St., was deeply drawn to the reflections of Leonard Mason and attended regularly, during his last years there, 1976 – 7.  I enjoyed coffee hour afterwards, met interesting people, but felt deeply that I just wasn’t a joiner anymore.  I came to know Wilhelmina a bit, the transgendered organist.  Partly, I liked her Dutchness, & also sympathized with her struggles, but knew nothing of the depth of her turmoil. When the church burned down, I was horrified, couldn’t fathom it: this person I knew burnt the church down; two firemen died. While a part of me wanted to support the community still meeting in Channing Hall, I just couldn’t face it, never went back.  I’m not proud of myself for that.

               I continued searching, still felt longing for spiritual ritual & music, occasionally went to the Gregorian chant vespers at St. Benoit du Lac out in the Eastern townships, & to mass once in a great while.  But somewhere in the 1980’s, the pope did something, and I suddenly said to myself ‘No…  no more’.  Maybe it was when Ratzinger was pope? …. Or when Rome declared, yet again, women cannot be ordained, or when Mathew Fox was silenced (in 1998) or when the first exposures of priest’s sexual abuse in orphanages.  (..? Mt Cashel…) But, I was done: couldn’t stomach any connection to this rigid monarchist, fascist institution’. 

For the rest of this in-between period, I was pretty much wrapped up in being a single parent, and making a living.  My spiritual practice became a psycho-spiritual exploration: i.e. following my dreams, & attending Jungian wk-ends.

V.  BECOMING UNITARIAN -  At long last, I took courage, supposed that the Unitarians probably didn’t hold it against me that I’d run away. In the late 1990’s came to see the new church here on de Maisonneuve & Claremont.  I paid more attention to our 6tth principle… ‘To honour the spiritual teachings of Earth Centred traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature’.  … which actually, I think had been recently added.  Also, I liked Ray Drennan, (1995 – 2005), appreciated his activism, his support of gay marriage, and I finally became a member Nov. 14, 1999. 

VI. BECOMING WICCAN, PAGAN, A WITCH - Also, around this time, I heard the well- known witch, Starhawk speak in Montreal; everything she said felt like home to me!  Spirit was immanent and nature was sacred. I started going to her Witch camps. Rituals were experiential, not in our heads. They involved chanting, drumming, dancing, costumes, enacting stories…  All of it to create expanded consciousness, liminal experiences.

Yes, I thought, this fits! I recalled how was a nature worshipper a child.  …eg. swim in Great lake, whirl around…  Seeing the circle of horizon all around me… lake –sky horizon line, sand dunes sky horizon line… made me feel encircled, held and cared for…. Like a mother.  Even later, as I Catholic I’d speak of Our lady of the Lake as my spiritual connection.  And in childhood, I’d had animal friends… imitated the way grasshoppers hopped, the way toads leapt around the spigot at the back of our house, the way snakes slithered & how dogs showed affection.  By now, I know this is a way indigenous peoples use, i.e. a creature exhibits behavior patterns that will relay messages to us if we are astute enough to observe carefully. Also, I’d pretended I was Indian… made makeshift teepees in the woods pretending I lived on the land.

               The deep Wiccan spiritual experiences must have helped raise repressed childhood abuse memories, which hit me like a semi-truck… & years of healing ensued.  …Finally, I took early retirement, knew I needed some years of sanctuary in nature; chose an area with sand dunes on Lake Ontario, PEC, a landscape reminiscent of my childhood world.  I took up meditation seriously… Mindfulness meditation, Vippassana. Also, I found a Wiccan group there; we celebrated the turns of the year together.  & I could go to the Unitarian Fellowship in Kingston.

Also, importantly, I happened into a meaningful connection with the Mohawk of Tyendinaga and I experienced often their respect for Mother Earth. One evening leaving for home after a HS make up course I was teaching, as I pulled out of the Rez heading for the bridge to the county, I experienced thru the core of my body what their connection to the land really is. It felt like a magnetic pull, something hard to put into words.  Also, through women’s full moon rituals there, I received teachings about our connection to Moon and tides, all the waters. … At a community meetings, I heard the thanksgiving address, where myriad aspects of nature thanked; then the audience is asked to put their hearts & minds together, thankful, all connected, all one, & in that spirit, settle the business, issues of their meeting. 

All I learned from the Mohawk me a longing to find real connection to my own Aboriginal ancestry,… the Irish Celts; that was my own ancestral spiritual connection to the land.  As well, in my little cottage across the road from the Great Lake, I was often hearing a voice from inside saying …’It’s Time, it’s Time to go to the bigger land’.  And realized my creative impulses came also from there… this bigger place of consciousness.  At first I was a dilatant with this path…. Now have become serious, though still struggle with perseverance on this creative and spiritual path.  I know that this is my path… for the rest of this life.

VII.   THE SPRITUAL PATH DEEPENS    Somewhere, early on in retirement, say, 2002 - 4’s, I began to realize I had quite a bit of intuition and instead of ignoring it, I should try to develop it.  Something from HS came back to me; my Biology teacher had said… we normally use about 2% of our mental capacity.  ‘WHAT, I’d thought and exclaimed to myself… I want to learn about how to tap the other 98%!’... and spent quite awhile

studying what I could in the local library about hypnotism… then called mainly mesmerism.  Later, I began to realize that, over the years, I’d always been drawn to things that could expand consciousness.  I ‘ve done Ayawaske journeys, been hypnotized many times where past lives came up, read about near death experiences, anything I could find about expand consciousness.  Plus, it final dawned on me… I’d had this spiritual inclination since childhood.  (You might have noticed….)

VIII.  DEEPER CONNECTION TO UNITARIANISM   After my years in the country by Lake Ontario, I came back to Montreal, ultimately home, and to my home here as a Unitarian, with our sixth source… that speaks ever more deeply to me:     And deepening into my witch/shaman path, mixing up this savory stew with big helpings of my pagan Celtic tradition, teachings of our Indigenous peoples & maintaining my meditation practice.

I am interested to further this source in our services and gatherings.  If any of you have interest in this, I’d welcome speaking with you.

 I’d like to close, coming full circle back to Leonard Mason. I found these words preparing for this reflection.  I had I felt in the past, how he also revered the earth?.….

Here’s a quote from one of his last reflections.  (He gave the 1975 UUA GA Berry Street Lecture, )"Hubris and Humility." He warned "A new apocalypse is bringing the people of the earth face to face with the limits at a time when the litanies of humility are hollow and unable to prevent doomsday." "Our age is surely heading for the biggest cosmic retribution ever yet seen—a counterblow to human arrogance and hubris which no litanies can soften."

He saw as the solution to this modern human dilemma a pantheistic reverence for the earth—  He said… "When I revere the earth, I am revering at the same time all else, finite and infinite."                         Blessed Be.