My Spiritual Journey

My great-grandmother Mae McCarthy, better known as Ma

Even though both my Mom and Dad’s Texas forebears were staunch Southern Baptists, I don’t recall going to Sunday school or church during my early childhood, and I was never baptized (which according to their dogma would have included complete immersion in water). Sure, we said a blessing prior to the evening meal, but that was about it until sometime in the early 1950s when my great-grandmother Mae McCarthy (better known as Ma) strongly encouraged me to read the Bible she’d given me from cover to cover and to take each message literally. I was eight or nine-years-old and initially undertook the task with something less than religious zeal, but with a desire to please her nonetheless. I ran out of gas in the middle of Genesis.

Around the same time, Ma insisted that I go to the Sunday night Training Union class at the local Baptist Church where youth were indoctrinated in Southern Baptist dogma. During one evening class, for no apparent reason, a red-faced male volunteer launched into a fanatical hellfire and brimstone tirade. “You boys are all going to burn in the fires of hell unless you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and give up all your sinful ways,” he declared. “Repent now, or you will most certainly suffer in agony for the rest of eternity.” I was terrified, and even though I refused to attend Training Union after that, the horrifying visions of Hades implanted by this zealot provided me with an abundance of material for terrifying nightmares during the years that followed. In hopes of avoiding the fiery pits of hell, I started my nightly prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” that I continued for years afterwards, praying that god would keep an eye on my family and relatives, that I’d be a starter on the football team, and later on, that I be blessed with my first sexual encounter, prayers that were all eventually answered in the affirmative.

Fortunately Dad, whether by foresight, intuition, or just plain dumb luck, sought a job at an Air Force facility in Tullahoma, Tennessee that got us out of Texas and some distance from our more fundamentalist relatives. Soon after arriving in Tullahoma in 1953, our family affiliated with the First Methodist Church, where my brother, sister, and I attended Sunday school, and Mom and Dad showed up for church on Christmas and Easter. During my junior and senior high school days, I also participated in the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) gatherings that took place on Sunday night, where we’d have dinner together, listen to some adult pontificate on a topic typically unrelated to our teenage lives, and dance to the top rock and roll tunes of the day. The MYF hayrides were particularly popular since it was one of the few events during which a little kissy-face was tacitly sanctioned, though not the clumsy fondling that occasionally occurred.

When I got to the University of Tennessee in 1961, I entered my requisite atheist phase, even drunkenly telling my freaked-out Catholic friend Fred, “If there’s really a god up there, let him strike me down with a bolt of lightning right now!” No lightning strike, ergo, no god. Interestingly, when I strayed from sports and politics in a conversation with Dad, he revealed that he too was a nonbeliever.

In the fall of 1968, a small package arrived at my brother Butch’s apartment with no return address. Curious, Butch opened it while Rusty, Sam, and I watched. Inside the package we found four sugar cubes and a short note from our friend Bob (who had been drafted and stationed at Edgewood Arsenal, where he had access to the high-quality cornucopia of drugs the military was testing for possible use in wartime): “Have a nice trip, boys.” We looked at each other. “Do you think it’s really LSD?” I asked. “How about we narrow our choices down to one?” Sam said as he popped one of the sugar cubes into his mouth. The rest of us immediately followed suit.

Lost Boys take a trip!

Though it was a dank, overcast day, we drove to a friend’s farm on the Stones River, and on the riverbank the LSD started to kick in. We amused ourselves by watching ants march along and feeling the roughness of the bark on the trees. We stared at the clouds, bewitched by their subtle movements. I felt a deep bond with my friends, with the plants, the animals, and the insects, with the earth itself, which seemed to be inhaling and exhaling beneath my feet. The doors of perception burst open, and I was profoundly connected yet somewhat detached from my surroundings.

Even when the afterglow of the acid trip wore off, I’d continue to appreciate that more was going on the in universe than my human brain could fully comprehend and that time in the great outdoors was essential. While living in Knoxville, with the Great Smoky Mountain National Park a short drive away, we undertook numerous backpacking excursions on the Appalachian Trail, our time in the wilderness only limited by the amount of wine and whiskey that could fit into our backpacks with the other essential gear.

Baby Lilla

My daughter Lilla came bouncing into the world on June 11, 1968. So, at the age of twenty-five, in a state of prolonged adolescence, still hiding behind a hard-ass persona to mask my fears and insecurities, still seeking peace of mind by overindulging in alcohol, I became the father of a lovely little baby girl. And despite my insensitivity and irresponsibility, as Lilla grew into a sweet, sensitive, bright, happy little being, I became powerfully attached to her. I felt a love stronger and deeper than I’d ever felt before. And I knew that I would defend and protect this child with all my being.

Fast forward to 1986, when I found myself exiled to Baton Rouge after a devastating bankruptcy in Knoxville during which I lost my construction business, my swanky condo, my BMW, my marriage, and everyday life with my daughter, then in her mid- teens. After changing mates, relocating, leaving old cronies behind, and even slowing down a bit on my drinking, at long last it became clear: the common denominator in all my challenges was the hypermasculine dude staring back at me in the mirror.

I took a deep breath, screwed up my courage, and enrolled in an intensive personal growth workshop sponsored by the Kairos Foundation that was recommended by my psychologist friend John Hoover. I was frightened and withdrawn at the beginning of the workshop (originally called The Life Training Weekend, now The More To Life Weekend); I participated, but guardedly. On the second day, our trainer John Coats led a meditation in which we were to open our hearts symbolically and literally. We put our hands over our hearts, and led by John, we were to gradually move our hands apart to open our hearts to ourselves, to those around us, to the important people in our lives. Filled with anguish, I sat motionless in my chair. At the end of the meditation, we each had a chance to share how it had gone: “I couldn’t move my hands at all,” I sobbed.

Shonnie, Brad Brown, and me at Way of a Warrior

With a great deal of empathy John, asked me to come to the front of the room and lie flat on the floor. Next he asked all the male participants to pick me up and gently cradle me in their arms. Then he asked the female participants to encircle me and touch me with care and compassion. Time collapsed, as if it no longer existed, and I had a strong sense of being deeply loved and accepted. The macho facade I’d worn like a suit of armor dissolved, allowing my heart to open and compassion to flow into and out of me. Although I wasn’t fully conscious of the shift underway, I felt deeply connected with the men and women around me and, at long last, at peace with myself just as I was.

Though I’d stopped drinking cold turkey, it’s not as if my way of being immediately changed as a result of my sudden awakening. But I’d discovered the passageway to a reality I’d only imagined and a perception that life was unfolding just as it should. And after moving to Austin I continued down my pathway toward authenticity, self-love, empathy, vulnerability, accountability, honesty, and integrity. Through my work with the Kairos Foundation I became clear about my purpose in life: I’m a writer who supports our evolution toward a more compassionate, just, and sustainable world. I went deep to discern the attributes that were essential in my next mate, including among others, physically attractive; loving and authentic; devoted to emotional and spiritual growth; and believes in equality for all. Nowhere on my list was anything about age. In 1988, I participated in Way of a Warrior, an intensive weeklong retreat near the Chattooga River in the southern Appalachians that included ropes courses, whitewater rafting, and solo camping. As I lay alone on the riverbank with only a plastic tarp overhead and my sleeping bag beneath me, I was suddenly overcome with an awareness that this was the part of the world where I was called to be.

Shonnie and me ready to hit the Shut-In Trail in the southern Appalachians

As I became more comfortable with reality—who I truly was, how I had the power to create the life I wanted, how life would support me in doing so, seemingly serendipitous opportunities presented themselves. I landed a long-term writing gig with Holt, Rinehart & Winston’s textbook division. Next I joined a marathon training group where I met a woman who possessed the attributes I desired, and after running together for more than a year, Shonnie and I entered a committed relationship (despite our twenty-eight-year age difference). Then during a weeklong visit to Asheville a few months later, Shonnie was offered a job, and in October of 1997 we moved to our new home in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Meditation and breathwork became a part of my spiritual practice. In fact, it was after Shonnie and I had both participated in a breath workshop in Austin that I first told her I loved here. During a particularly deep meditation after moving to Asheville, I was taken aback as the following words formed in my consciousness in bold, blazing letters: “I am your instrument!” I immediately discerned the meaning of this vision: I am the instrument of God/Life/The Universe/The Big Kahuna (insert your favored term). And I am called to truly live my life’s purpose: to give my all toward the creation of a more compassionate, just, and sustainable world. I continue my meditation practice to this day.

Spiritual but not religious, a description that seemed prevalent among the folks we met when we first got to Asheville, and it was a fit us too. So seeking a church to attend was not high on our list of priorities. In fact, it wasn’t on our list at all. The Mountains-To-Sea Trail was our place of worship, and our Saturdays were dedicated to long runs ranging from one to three hours in duration, including a couple of four-hour plus efforts as participants in the arduous Shut-In Ridge Trail Race. But after several people at various times told us “I think y’all might like Jubilee,” one Sunday morning we decided to forego the Sunday comics and a second cup of coffee and get ourselves downtown to have a look.

Howard Hanger baptizing Gracelyn at Jubilee! in 2011

What Shonnie and I found was an inclusive and spirited group of folks sitting in a circle; an eclectic four-piece band playing rock and jazz tunes; and a unique, expressive, playful, life-affirming minister named Howard Hanger who led uplifting, socially conscious, exuberant celebrations each and every Sunday. Yeah, there was some Christianity thrown in, as well as some Judaism, Native American tradition, Paganism, Hinduism, along with wisdom from other spiritual practices. But there was no fire and brimstone, no dogmatic moral code was demanded, no promises of pie in the sky. There was, however, a call to love and connect with one another, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, and to work for economic/racial/gender justice. It was (and remains) close to a perfect fit for us, though I’ll confess that I sometimes excused myself during the Bible reading to hit the restroom or make brunch reservations down Wall Street at Early Girl Eatery. Since becoming Jubilants Shonnie and I have both served on the Board of Directors, and in 1999 Howard Hanger officiated our wedding ceremony. Currently we participate in the lively online celebrations led by our wise, openhearted, authentic Minister of Transition, Laura Collins.

On September 7, 2010, our daughter Gracelyn was born, truly a sacred moment. I was so astounded as life came bursting from Shonnie’s womb that I almost forgot my job as the baby catcher, but Dr. Lisa nudged me into action, helping me make the catch. Words cannot express the ecstatic expression on Shonnie’s face when Dr. Lisa and I immediately placed our baby on her belly. And caught up in the excitement of the moment myself, I nearly forgot my second duty: “It’s a girl!” I called out a bit belatedly. Once the umbilical cord stopped pulsing, I cut it with great care and reverence, allowing Shonnie to pull our child closer and embrace her fully for the first time. In 2011, surrounded by family and friends, Howard Hanger and our friend Ken Kinnett baptized Gracelyn.

Shonnie holds Gracelyn in her arms for the first time

On a recent trail run, I stopped and leaned against a towering tree that was showing signs of decay and silently commiserated with it. “We’ve both lived a long and fulfilling existence, big fellow. And as the cycle of nature dictates, we’re on the downhill side of our lives.” Eventually I ran on, leaving the tree swaying in the mountain breezes, my mind somewhat more at ease about aging . . . but not necessarily the destiny that lies at the end of the road.

Let me be clear: I don’t believe I’m going to some heavenly reward. Iris Dement sums it up for me pretty well: “I think I’ll just let the mystery be.” Though an afterlife would certainly be a very pleasant surprise. I do believe, however, that my spirit will live on in the writings I’ve left behind, but most importantly to me, in the hearts of those who love me. And perhaps my ashes will help foster new growth in a garden planted by Shonnie and Gracelyn.

I’ve lived much of my life as though I had an infinite amount of time in my earthly form. But I’m finally coming to realize that living a spiritual life means being conscious of my eventual death and being ready to go at any moment—my memoir complete, all affairs in order, everything said that is to be said, everything done that is to be done, releasing relationships that no longer serve me and nurturing those that do, atonement for my misdeeds, forgiveness extended to myself and others, no loose ends. To paraphrase John Donne, you need never know for whom the bell tolls; in due course it tolls for all of us . . . and one day it will toll for me.


It’s not plagiarizing if I borrow from my myself, right? Just to be clear, the final few paragraphs above are drawn from a piece I wrote around a year ago about aging and my response to it. I thought they dovetailed well here and brought this piece to a fitting conclusion. The inspiration for this post came from Laura Collins, Minister of Transition at Jubilee! Community, when she asked the members of the Jubilee! Board of Directors to reflect on their spiritual journeys.

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  • stephen gamboa

    thanks for sharing, bruce. we came back to the church after our son wesley was born. there’s something about becoming a father that filled me with such love that i suddenly started to comprehend the immensity of the universe and how much of it is beyond my comprehension. here in san francisco, going to church is paradoxically counter-culture. we’ve found a home in the episcopal church which aligns well with our values. to quote our book of common prayer, i wish you “the peace that passes all understanding.”

    • Bruce Mulkey

      Just getting around to responding. Stevo. Thanks for your comment, and yes, church going is sort of counter-culture in Asheville too.