spiritual writings | retreat center directory

You're invited to visit our sister site DanJoseph.com, a resource site
featuring articles on spirituality, psychology, and A Course in Miracles.

Home | Writings | World | Elizabeth Lesser | American part 3 | next   

Excerpted from The New American Spirituality: A Seeker's Guide by Elizabeth Lesser. Copyright 1999 by Elizabeth Lesser. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.  HTML and web pages copyright by SpiritSite.com.

"Where could one go to hear the voice in the wilderness if the woods were disappearing?"

Elizabeth Lesser, The New American Spirituality, Part 3

My father, a New York City advertising man, had told me that his most religious experience had been when his mother and father finally allowed him to stop attending Hebrew school. He now was free to tramp around the still-wild bogs and streams of Long Island. My mother, raised in a devout Christian Science home, had rejected as an adult its formal spiritual underpinnings, while holding on to some of its more extreme ideas about the body, mind, and health. From my father I received an almost religious appreciation of nature; from my mother, a lover of words, poetry, and enlightened ideas, I absorbed a quest for knowledge and understanding. But both of my parents resented organized religion. My sisters and I were given no spiritual belief system or formal training of any kind. In fact, there existed an unarticulated equation in the family philosophy that if a person was intelligent, he or she would therefore not be religious. And it was not just my family putting forth this equation. In school the reigning divinity was science; in society the supreme being was the individual; in daily life automobiles and washing machines were the sacred symbols of fulfillment and value. On top of all of that, the sixties were upon us, and organized anything was being called into question.

And so, while I was not surprised to learn from Time magazine that God was feared dead, I was shaken to have my assumptions confirmed. As secular as my upbringing had been, I still longed to believe in something that addressed my questions about life and death. At an early age I prayed, although I would have been laughed out of the house if any of my sisters had known about it. I tried to make sense of the Bible stories that my mother read to us along with Greek myths and Grimm's fairy tales. I was aware that some of my friends actually believed that some "mythological figures" (as my mother called Abraham and Moses and Jesus and Mary) were real people who had direct access to God. In the absence of a formal intercessor, I prayed to a picture of the late President Kennedy on my bedroom wall, sure that he had made his home with the God that no one in my family would believe in.

Without some kind of religious institution, my life in the 1950s and 1960s was based almost entirely on material values. Suburbia bred isolation from community and the shared rituals that bring a sense of mythic proportion to life. Age-old rites of passage such as birth, coming of age, and death were no longer part of the fabric of life, but instead were relegated to "experts" in hospitals or institutions. The same society that revered the rational and the scientific held the intuitive, the magical, the unmeasurable, and the wild in disdain. It seemed that every year the natural world was shrinking, as huge housing developments covered remaining tracts of wilderness. When I was twelve my mother experienced a prolonged period of grief when acres of farmland and forests across the street from her hero's birthplace were transformed into the Walt Whitman Shopping Center, one of the country's first malls. Where could one go to hear the voice in the wilderness if the woods were disappearing? In my young mind, the only remaining place was a church.

next ->