October 7, 2010

first the ecstasy, then the peanut m&m’s

I was trying to eat peanut M&M’s in the First Baptist Church OF AMERICA. Only twenty-two, and in my first (and what would turn out to be my last) year at the Rhode Island School of Design, I saw its steeple each day from the hall window of my rickety apartment building on Benefit Street in Providence. An austere and elegant structure, I had nevertheless tended to skirt around it. Anyone who has ever grappled with the Southern Baptist Convention would understand.

Yet, this was The North. These were Yankees. I was the pilgrim from far far away, and I required of myself curiosity and open-mindedness in all other exotic lands. Why not New England?

The pews were less than one-third filled and the space much too acoustically acute, so that my munching called out like a really blasphemous form of speaking in tongues. AND, the minister just then entered the pulpit. Gulp.

I had just wanted to finish the last five because I needed the bag for a bookmark. Dr. M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled lay in my lap. It was my first highly intelligent taste of a highly skeptical, yet ultimately very hopeful, take on spiritual growth. “We begin by distrusting what we already believe, by actively seeking the threatening and unfamiliar, by deliberately challenging the validity of what we have previously been taught and hold dear. The path to holiness lies through questioning everything.” Well then, bring on the Baptists.

I had rarely attended church in the last 6 years, and I could remember no single sermon that had made any lasting impression on me in all of those years before. But, this warm blonde man spoke about the true meaning of ecstasy, about how such a joy has nothing to do with us “getting” anything, but is only known when we go out of ourselves, literally “out of our body.” Something about his words just nailed me, just helped me to see that one primary root of my own lack of happiness was my own narcissism, my own nearly obsessive concern with my own happiness. Not that he made me feel bad. Just, well, dur. If all of this looking inside myself for happy answers hadn’t really made for any, it stood to reason to look somewhere else.

This church had been founded in 1638 by Roger Williams, the original Anglo-American questioner of everything. You can thank him for establishing the ideal of the separation of church and state in America, amongst other things. Like, disputing the right of the colonists to take land from the Native Americans without paying for it. But I digress…

Of course, thinking like this got him convicted of sedition and heresy in 1635 by the Massachusetts authorities. So, banished, he and his followers wandered southwest, paid the Narragansett tribe for land beyond the Seekonk River, and called the place Providence, a haven for all those “distressed of conscience.” This place was the first civil society in America founded upon the principle of freedom of religion, or “soul liberty.” Again, thank Roger, NOT your Puritans.

All these years later, when I reached for my old copy of The Road Less Traveled to remember important things, and hopefully to share them, a perfectly flattened Peanut M&M bag fell out of the pages when I opened it. I viscerally remembered being young. Being always hungry. Wanting so much. And feeling so bad about this, so anxious, so somehow not deserving of what I wanted.

I feel so much in the book itself, too. It is heavy in my hands, still full. Yum Yum. Now, I remember something important. Now, twenty-four years later and not young, I promise to all who are young… this hunger is good. Don’t let it scare you. And, don’t try to sate it. Keep it. Even treasure it, like an old book. Keep letting it teach you.

And, say thank you to a Baptist once in a while.

Categories: Christianity, The Baptist Church, The Road Less Traveled

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