I live in Columbia, S.C. where my family has been actively involved in Jewish life for several generations. Thirty-two years ago, when I told them about my Christian resolve, they reacted with swift antagonism. I had crossed an intangible cultural divide, dishonoring the memory of my grandparents and every generation preceding them. I recall Dad’s telling remark: “At least if you were younger, I could put you over my knee and punish you.”
My shocking radical turn, the most practical decision of my life, entailed breaking away from the only reality I had ever known, the collective conversation of which I was a part. It forced me to let go of expectation, ego, and the conventional wisdom of a lifetime. From the inside, I see my epiphany as a seamless progression of my values and disposition, but for the loved ones surrounding me it remains a complete anomaly.
During the time my faith was incubating, I experienced crushing anxiety due to conflict and indecision. Reflecting on how I came to resolve these doubts, I see an evolving pattern of dissonance and renegotiation. I will always understand the Jewish sensibility—that of a minority group trying to protect itself. Paradoxically, as I contemplated leaving a civilization always on the edge of survival, pride in my identity became strengthened and chiseled, honed as if on a rough-edged stone. Without pretense, I can state that the Jewish mystique, with its timeless unfolding in the blood stream of history, is writ large upon my psyche.
Living in the same city with my parents, I guarded my privacy for over fifteen years. Outside of the sanctuary, I cultivated a faith of my own apart from cultural-war stereotypes. Accordingly, I came to view myself as “a congregation of one.”
On a high wire, balancing faith, family and the politics of identity, I held onto belief as one grasping an unwieldy oxygen tank. Though cumbersome and isolating, I kept it close for the breath of life that sustained me. High doses of the Holy Spirit, what I liken to, “libido for the soul,” kept my life invigorating and purposeful.
Having moved past the wilderness period of existential crisis, I proceeded down a path of wholeness in Christ. Dying to my former self, I pulled back from acquaintances and activities that didn’t fulfill sacred goals. As I moved towards social and self-transcendence, I cultivated a peace beyond cultural boundaries—all the while, never experiencing what one could term “loneliness.”
I meditated on the Bible using the Catholic technique, Lectio Divina, reading small sections out loud and engaging with the text. As I let its meaning seep deep into my heart, mind, and soul, I developed an attitude of knowing that I had nothing to prove and nothing to gain, save intimacy with God.
In 1654, Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Mindfulness through meditation helped me to still the cultural noise that stymies creativity. I benefitted from learning that even when my mind wandered, the simple act of reining it in could improve brain function. Like grace, I couldn’t go wrong.
As my religious identity shifted, I began the practice of journaling. Though rigorous and punishing, it helped me to process confusing thoughts and psychic dissonance. As a form of narrative therapy, it enabled me to frame my story as a coherent whole and connect my past, present, and future.
I drew from the unique ways I had experienced and interpreted my past. Despite having moved away from theological Judaism, it remained the dominant narrative of my life. Today, I continue to align myself with an oppressed, marginalized culture to witness, honor, and respect my experience. My encounter with anti-Semitism, for example, forged the character and resilience that has defined me to this day.
On a recent morning, looking outside my window, I noticed the difficulty of pinpointing the precise moment darkness turned to light. Only by putting pen to paper, could I see that the stages of my life may have been discerned this way—after the fact, and only subtly.
In a similar vein, I realized that my conversion evolved, not from a single illumination, but from many incremental points of light. My resistance to faith simply wore down when I began studying the Jewish roots of Christianity. Conceptualizing myself as a first-century Jewish believer enabled me to live out my faith apart from rigid cultural and religious stereotypes.
I continue to write so that I can better know what I feel and think about a matter. As a spiritual exercise, it resembles prayer, reaching deep into my psyche and speaking to a subconscious part of my soul.
Though my journey occupies the space between Judaism and Christianity, it will resonate with the growing number for whom traditional sectarian categories no longer apply. In 2015, the Pew Center Survey affirmed that an average of 35% have switched religions or disaffiliated from a childhood one. Researcher Diana Butler Bass found that many of those who leave the fold still retain spiritual interests. All who seek transcendence outside of sectarian boundaries can benefit from the insights and lifestyle changes which led me towards congruence.
Gail Anastasion’s upcoming book, Matzah Balls To Communion Wafers: How A Not So Kosher Jewish Girl Fell In Love With Jesus (Hachette) recounts her spiritual coming-of-age against the backdrop of a secular Jewish family.