David: I’m dying to ask you about your training in spiritual direction and hear where your involvement in Ignatian spirituality has taken you in recent years, but perhaps we should start a bit earlier. Since we are going to be talking about your ways of experiencing God, perhaps it will be helpful to put that in personal historical context.
Barbara: My family were Anglicans—more because of their British roots than their religious convictions. But when I was ten, both my mother and her sister had dramatic conversion experiences and became very particular about the brand of Anglicanism they then embraced. They were told by those who had been instrumental in their conversion that only the evangelicals within the Anglican fold knew the Lord. And so, we switched to a church that advertised itself as scripturally based. There were only two such churches in the city, and I grew up believing that all other Anglicans were non-Christian and needed to be evangelized. I received a thorough, though heavily nuanced, training in the Scriptures there, and enjoyed a deep and lasting relationship with an extraordinary woman whose teaching and example helped me to thrive.
What is also rather sad is that men played almost no part in this early formation. It was always the women in my family who involved themselves with the church, and only the women in the church who took an interest in children.
My God-consciousness began much earlier, however. At the age of seven, I attended a denominational school that placed a strong emphasis on the Ten Commandments and the unforgiving nature of God. Terrified by a looming presence, I lay awake at night pondering the heinousness of my crimes—particularly those I might unknowingly have committed—and waited for the axe to fall. Coupled with this obsessive fear, however, was a realization that I was loved and valued unequivocally by the gentle woman who was my teacher—a woman who ached so deeply for the pain of the world that she shed self-conscious tears as she read us Uncle Tom’s Cabin aloud.
David: That represents a pretty potent cocktail of love and fear at a rather vulnerable age. Did your experience with this woman rub off on your view of God in any way?
Barbara: I was about to say, “No, and I wish it had!” But the fact I have remembered her and that incident for more than half a century makes me suspect that she has always been there, tucked away in my unconscious mind since grade two. In the fullness of time, she emerged and became Christ to me. Thank you for that question. Another example of grace overlooked, eh?
David: What other parts of your early religious upbringing left an important mark on your early spiritual journey?
Barbara: Raised from age ten to see myself as saved because I understood the correct formula and had asked God into my heart, I also saw most of the people around me as enemies of God and in need of enlightenment—certainly not the adults in my church, but definitely the majority of my family members, my school friends, neighbors, and on and on and on. If they couldn’t describe a moment when they had suddenly—the more suddenly the better—felt convicted of sin, repented with hot tears, knew their burden lifted, and then experienced the indwelling of the Spirit, they were suspect. I could neither abandon nor trust them. We could not be close because they were dangerous outsiders, but on the other hand, I had to stick to them like glue in case God was about to use me to convert them.
But as I matured in the faith, I also realized that even though I had appropriated salvation in the acceptable manner, it could become a slippery commodity. I was responsible for maintaining daily fellowship with God and for figuring out—this was the hair-raising part!—what life path God was guiding me into. Getting saved was one thing, but the fine print on that contract was daunting. If I blew it, God would no longer walk with me. The love of God, unlike that of my grade two teacher, was hardly unequivocal.
And as for the pain of the world, well, it was caused by me! And try as I might to feel sufficiently repentant, the concept became an impossible burden, one that grew heavier and more complex with age.
This disturbing and unsatisfying worldview did not go entirely unchallenged. As I later explored liberation theologies, made forays into the feminist movement, and entered graduate studies in religion and theology, the limited tenets of my early faith no longer served, and the foundations began to shake.