Freeing Myself {Part 1: Awakening}

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“For my entire life, it seemed that people had been shouting at me—telling me what to believe and how to act…’There is a new voice,’ Mary Oliver wrote of the journey of awakening, ‘which you slowly recognize as your own.’ Until my mid-thirties, I did not know that voice. But once I listened, it grew more insistent. A calling, a beckoning, and urging toward love. And, as Oliver said, I ‘determined to do the only thing’ I could do: Save my own life. I did not know what would happen. But I was ready to leave the old voices behind. I stared at the cage’s open door, and I knew it was time to walk out into the world. I trusted that Jesus would be on the way.”
– Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus


It feels as if I am embarking on a new journey and yet my entire life has been leading to this bend in the road. So, is it really new? I am simply following the voice that beckons me on toward love.

For a long time, all I could see were the losses on this journey. All in the span of a few years—my family left all we’d ever known to move to work with a non-profit in Bangladesh. Then, we lost our dream of living long-term in South Asia when we moved back to the U.S. The family I knew was forever changed by serious illness and death. I walked away from the church that was home for two decades.

The losses I felt weren’t unique. So many were struggling with faith and church in the wake of so many shifts in society and the church, all over people awakening to what they’d been missing. Then, Covid stole so much from us all. The aches of the world gnawed away at our souls, our societies, and the faith of many.

Even as I heard a voice calling me forward and I tiptoed toward what I couldn’t see, I could not stop looking at all that was slipping through my fingers.

It was only a crawl at first—that day I stepped into the Episcopal church. Wounded, I looked for a place to heal when I found a Centering Prayer group that met at a nearby parish. I nudged open the heavy red, wooden door and stepped inside, begging God to meet me there. I believed with all that was in me I could still find God inside the church. I loved her and wouldn’t let go of that hope.

My exploration into contemplation had saved my faith, and I prayed it would help me find my way forward. Amidst deep anxiety and depression—it was silence, stillness, and contemplative prayer that allowed me to find Jesus anew and discover my own belovedness.

A few years earlier I had ventured onto a hidden property I’d driven by dozens of times before. I had signed up for a journaling and writing retreat at the Trappist monastery, thinking it would be a good way to jump-start my spiritual writing “career.” God had something else in store for me there. I discovered Cistercian spirituality and the world of contemplative prayer exploded into color and light for me. 

Amid the voices shouting at me about all that was right and true, this was a whisper that said, “Pay attention to what is sacred, to what touches the deep places in you and connects you to God and to others.”

I received sideways glances when I talked about what I was learning from Catholic sources and from some—outright disdain. I tucked this little secret away. For the coming years, my retreats and developing centering prayer practice felt like an illicit rendezvous I kept from my skeptical Baptist brethren.

Years into my discovery of contemplation, there in the quiet of my room in Dhaka—8,000 miles from my Baptist church, the monastery, or anything familiar—I had the freedom to experience God in the ancient ways long lost to Western spirituality. Even amid the honking cars, dinging rickshaw bells, and ever-present construction noise, I discovered a silence deep enough to hear God speak.

When I returned to the world of noise that was the U.S. megachurch, it was all too loud. The booming guitars and drum set and the auditorium full of smoke and only unnatural light drowned out the still, small voice of God I had found in quiet spaces, nature, and prayer books.

For others, that space of contemporary worship communicated a life-giving connection. Once upon a time long ago, it had for me. I wondered what was wrong with me. I wanted to make it work, to be able to go back. But I wept for how much I missed the beautiful mystery of God and the freedom I had known in South Asia to explore it. So, I left when I could no longer stay.

Or perhaps, it wasn’t a leaving, but an awakening.

I walked out into the world. I followed the voice calling me onward.

Nicole T. Walters
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