David: Gerry, perhaps we should start your story with some of your early formative spiritual experiences. Tell me about one of those.
Gerry: As I look back, I see that from a very early age I was drawn to performance and music. When I was four years old, people noticed I could learn the words of songs very easily. The pastor’s wife saw an opportunity in this talent and soon began to read me her poetry and then, about once a month, placed me on a table in the lounge of the local “old people’s home,” where I would perform a recitation. This is my earliest memory of being aware of feeling excited and fully alive while impacting the experience of others.
David: As you look back at this incident, does it seem like a kind of preview of your destiny, perhaps a glimpse into some important part of who you were that had implications for who you were to become?
Gerry: In a word, yes. I have three wonderful and amazingly different children. Once you have had this experience as a parent [of recognizing differences among your children], it is self-evident that we do not come into the world as a tabula rasa. I believe we come into the world predisposed to attaching attention, significance, and meaning to some environmental stimuli rather than others. This was certainly true for me. When I was a child, my attention was drawn to the experience I had of feeling truly alive while giving the recitations. Looking back, I would say that I gave this experience the significance of a sign (if that’s not a tautology!) of endowed potentiality for my life. And the meaning I place on this is that the thing or things we do that bring life to us are most likely to be an indicator of the particular incarnation we uniquely embody. We are made in God’s image. When we identify, develop, and give expression to our gifts, we allow that image to reflect more fully the creative, loving nature of God. This is one of the ways in which God continues to come into our world.
David: I really like the way you put that—our calling as the discovery of things that bring us life, and then living out this calling as our unique expression of the face of God. Ignatian spirituality talks about choosing God as choosing life and choosing life as choosing God. This takes a lot of trust, doesn’t it? How did you find your way into being able to trust your passions as somehow telling you something reliable about God and who you are in God?
Gerry: I experience a deep irony as I contemplate how to answer this. At one level, I feel I can’t answer it definitively because life keeps bringing circumstances that stretch my faith, and hence my ability to be certain about what I have just said. But then as I think about the question, what come to mind are experiences that I choose to understand as God’s speaking into my life in quite definitive ways.
I recall certain people such as the Reverend Rob Yule, the chaplain for the teachers’s college I attended. He said things to me that were like seeds planted in fertile soil. Another was a priest at St. Mary of the Angels in Wellington. At a time when I was discovering the richness of Catholic spirituality, I wound up leading some singing with my guitar at an informal gathering of young people at this church. After we were done, the priest came up to me and quite matter-of-factly told me that he thought God had given me very special gifts. That incident stayed with me.
Another defining moment comes to mind. At one point in my post-graduate training, I received some soul-destroying personal bad news. Several months later, my morale was still extremely low, and I seriously started to question if I should complete my training as a psychologist. One summer morning, I remember getting up very early and seeking a quiet place outdoors. At the end of an hour, I felt so low I could hardly walk back to the farmhouse where I was staying. I had to tell my legs to take each step. I had said in prayer that I needed a sign that day to tell me what to do. As I approached the house, I determined to try to be a little brighter for the sake of my then young children (four- and six-years old). I decided I would take them and another six-year-old child being cared for at the house that day swimming at the local hot pools. My children ran and jumped into my arms in the water. This other child watched for a few minutes, and when I gestured that he do the same, there was intense eye contact between us, and he then joined in and had a thoroughly confident and good time in the water. When we arrived back at the farmhouse, I told his mother about this. Her mouth dropped open with total surprise, and she told me this boy had been totally phobic of water for years. Later reports indicated that he remained free of this difficulty. I felt alive and joyful in this interaction with the children. I felt I was exercising my gift for enthusing and encouraging, and within that context a healing had taken place. I understood this event to be God talking to me in answer to my prayer, and the answer came as I exercised a gift I believe God has given me.
Giftedness and emptiness—both now seem to be familiar friends of mine. And out of a place of being in the company of either of them and sometimes an odd mix of the two, sixteen years after this incident, I can now think of many, many times I have seen God’s healing come to others and myself in similar ways.
David: I seem to recall that your early childhood religious experiences were within a fundamentalist denomination. Tell me a bit about the God of your childhood.
Gerry: That’s true. I was brought up in a very small fundamentalist church. The single saving grace of my childhood religious experiences was that at least I grew up believing God is, rather than God isn’t. That in itself, in New Zealand’s secular society, is quite an achievement. Two central features of this god were that he (this god was definitely male) required a church-centered family routine, and that he might “return” at any time. The latter was to be feared and yet somehow looked forward to. At one time when I was in mid-childhood, the sun was very red at sunset for several weeks (caused by smoke from bush fires in Australia). This was taken as a sign that this god could return very soon—perhaps that very night. My fear was intense. I scurried through my memory-verse knowledge of the Bible and remembered that God would return like a thief in the night, when least expected. Bingo! I decided to lie awake all night to hear the Trumpet of the Lord, thereby holding off the required condition of the unexpected return. It worked. Each new dawn was clear evidence of that.
I suspect that among the many people who still believe in such a god, many might feel they owe me a vote of thanks for this effort!
David: Yes, I suspect they might!
Gerry: However, it saddens me to think how much damage was done by this induced anxiety at such an early age. A greater tragedy was that this particular belief was merely a subset of a more pervasive subcultural trance—the belief that every word of the Bible was to be understood as absolute truth and applied prescriptively. Further, verses could be linked together in a variety of often-repeated formulaic structures. These structures formed the basis of how I was tranced into early understandings of God, the world of nature, people outside of the church, people inside the church, and, most significantly, myself. When one is “certain” about such big issues, a basis is laid for a misplaced sense of self-confidence. President Bush and I understand each other on this one.