The Journey Within

The UA's Pat Youngdahl crafts personal essays on self discovery, joy and God.

If, as Gandhi asserted, the only revolution that truly changes things occurs within the human soul, then perhaps, in a world governed by fear and conformity, the most powerful form of subversion may be to follow one's heart.

Pat Youngdahl, a teacher of writing and literary interpretation at the University of Arizona, is also a Presbyterian minister. She was a pastor at churches in New York and Wisconsin for 10 years. However, she is presently barred from holding a ministerial position because she is a lesbian. Rather than repudiate who she is, Youngdahl has chosen to raise her voice against oppression and injustice. Subversive Devotions: A Journey Into Divine Pleasure and Power is a collection of intensely personal essays in which she shares the pain of separation and the joy of living authentically in the world.

Youngdahl's early experiences with Christianity were self-affirming adventures into the unknown. As a teenager, she attended a summer church camp where she learned that prayer could simply be gratitude for everyday experiences such as "riding horses, hiking canyons, sneaking around after dark in church basements." She came away with the sense that "God cares about the details of our daily lives ... values our pleasure."

Shortly after her baptism, she experienced a sexual awakening when she kissed another girl. It was a baptism of another sort, "waking every nerve in my soul and body ... I knew God when I tasted her."

For Youngdahl, church became "a place to connect with God, learn about love, and make sense of life." She attended divinity school and "felt the delight, the awakening, the expansion of my soul."

However, after meeting her partner, Michal, she began living more openly as a gay woman and discovered that her sexual identity had "turned out to be a problem between the church and me."

It's a problem laced with the irony that often results when religious tenets pass through the prism of individual differences. She learned in church that "God is love," but "now the church says I am evil for loving God like this." She has become a pariah by following the admonition "to be renewed by the inner transformation of our hearts and minds" rather than "to conform to the ways of this world."

Youngdahl is a gifted writer whose unflinching openness gives readers a strong sense of homophobia's deleterious effects.

In a passage of startling intensity, she describes a moment of rage turned inward when she learns that a lesbian couple has been denied the use of their church for a blessing ceremony. Youngdahl writes that "right away I went rotten, saw myself as walking garbage, turned into the abomination they kept saying we were. I recoiled from my own body as if it would poison sacred spaces."

Youngdahl also writes about the people who have strengthened and inspired her. The minister who "taught us to write our own thoughts in the margins of our Bibles." The divinity school teacher who saw "the variety of human sexualities as an expression of the divine." Her grandmother who was "willing to learn and willful in being yourself."

It is Youngdahl's resilient spirit that gives this book its power. She talks of difficult days when "I wish I fit in better with what the oppressors want to hear and know." However, she recognizes that impulse "as an insult to who I actually am and what I deeply desire." She declares that "I do not really want to hide ... I want to be known."

Youngdahl draws much spiritual sustenance from nature, and a number of the essays are meditations on the natural world. She writes of buying an amaryllis plant that sends out a new shoot while still sealed in its box, encouraging her to begin emerging "without knowing ahead of time whether a habitable space will open."

Some, of course, will see this as an anti-Christian book, but it isn't. It is, however, a reshaping of Christianity. Youngdahl states that her study of rhetoric "arose partly because I wanted to figure out how to extricate myself from the oppressions of the church while treasuring its gifts." She maintains that doctrine and scripture are "an always still unfolding conversation about how to make sense of Jesus, God, love, and our own lives."

Quoting Paul's declaration that "love does not insist on its own way," Youngdahl affirms her belief that God "doesn't demand compliance but wants to hear our real voices." She contends that by listening closely, we, too, can "hear the struggle between our internalized oppressions and our emerging valiant, wondrous, loving, irreplaceable selves."

Referring to one of her mentors, Youngdahl says: "Sometimes it only takes one voice to provide enough shelter to help us take the risk of becoming ourselves." This book is such a shelter. It should be read, and reread, by all those, regardless of sexual orientation, "who want to become more freely and joyously who they are."

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