I grew up in a very religious household. To my young mind, religion was about rules and punishment. I believed god was like my mother: quick to anger, quick to punish, and really sick of dealing with his unruly children. I practiced religion as a way to avoid eternal punishment, much the way I practiced docile behavior as a way to avoid spankings. The latter didn’t really work, but I clung to the former through my adolescence and into my early twenties.
I also grew up in the country. I didn’t have many friends, so I spent a lot of time wandering around the woods by myself. Out there in the trees I felt something I couldn’t name, but it was deep and real and beautiful. The world out there felt alive. There was a presence in the forests and fields, and it tingled with magic. Sometimes it frightened me a little bit, but my fear was tinged with awe. I never tried to articulate it to anyone; for one thing, I was a little bit afraid my fundamentalist mother would tell me it was wrong, since most things that made me happy were bad. For another, the feeling was too intense to explain; I’d tried writing about it, but words couldn’t capture it.
In high school I threw myself into religion with zealous fervor. My life was like that Jesus Camp documentary, only with older kids. My connection to the mystical force in the woods went to sleep, eclipsed by bible studies and youth meetings. And when it came time to choose a college, I went for a private Christian school . . .
And got the surprise of my life when all the other Christian students and professors had ideas about god that were utterly different from my own and from each other’s. I spent my college years tearing down every assumption about god and about life. I searched for something that felt real and true, and came up empty over and over.
Then one night during the summer after graduation, my friends and I went for a walk in the campus nature preserve after dark. It had been suffocatingly hot and humid all day, but the air was cooling. Walking through the dark felt like dipping into a swimming pool after the heat of the day.
In the woods the air was full of the stirring of leaves and the eerie music of frogs. The moonlight turned all colors into shades of silver and black and glinted on the ponds and streams.
And wandering through that beautiful night, I felt a wholeness that I hadn’t experienced since I was a kid talking to the trees around my house. And I realized what I was seeking, and not finding, in the churches and bible studies. I was looking for something sacred. And I felt its overwhelming presence in full moonlight and frogsong.
That night was a turning point for me, though I didn’t know it yet. It was the beginning of a long, slow journey to a spiritual path that truly feeds my soul.
This post originally appeared on my personal blog.