It is no small thing to leave one’s religious upbringing, especially in the South. But my hunger for something different gradually led me away from the Presbyterian faith of my Mississippi childhood.
As a freshman at Ole Miss, I was drawn to Campus Crusade for Christ. When I returned home to Jackson and got married in 1970, I still didn’t know what to do with my new enthusiasm for God. I felt like a spiritual orphan. I didn’t know where I belonged. I wanted a richer experience of worship and sacramental living.
A group of fellow spiritual expats began gathering in the living room of our apartment. I was a sophomore at Belhaven College, and my husband was a freshman in medical school. We began studying church history, especially the decades prior to the Great Schism (1054). We learned about the Ecumenical Councils, the use of icons, the early liturgy of Saint Justin Martyr, and Saint Ignatius, first bishop of Antioch (consecrated in 69 A.D.).
Eventually, our spiritual search led both my husband and me to the Antiochian Orthodox Church, a branch of the ancient Eastern Orthodox Church. I wrote about our journey in an essay entitled “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” which appears in the new book,“Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality,” just out from the University of Alabama Press.
My husband, William “Bill” Cushman, was ordained an Orthodox priest in the late 1980s. We moved to Memphis, and since 1988 we’ve been members of St. John Orthodox Church, where Bill — “Father Basil” — serves as associate pastor. (And yes, he’s also a physician).
As often happens when one converts to a new religion, I exhibited radical lifestyle changes for the first 10 or so years of my new walk with Jesus in this ancient Christian faith.
Reading mostly monastic literature and emulating the strict ascetic practices found therein, I began wearing a head covering to church, making frequent pilgrimages to monasteries and studying (and eventually teaching) the ancient art of Byzantine iconography.
While all of those practices can certainly be legitimate when done as genuine acts of piety, their presence in my life often reflected a lack of balance. I was rejecting much of what “the world” has to offer in the areas of good secular literature and art. I was trying to find my rhythm in the duality of the spiritual and natural worlds in which I lived.
As the contemporary Russian Orthodox Saint John Maximovitch said:
“For all the ‘mysticism’ of our Orthodox Church that is found in the lives of the Saints and the writings of the Holy Fathers, the truly Orthodox person always has both feet on the ground, facing whatever situation is right in front of him.”
By the early 2000s, I began to recover my footing. As I wrote in my essay for “Circling Faith”:
“After about five years of what some of my friends called my ‘nun phase,’ I took off my head covering and embraced my Southern roots. Manicures, makeup and jewelry returned to my arsenal, and my long-neglected hair again got layered haircuts and blond highlights… I was asked to speak at a women’s retreat hosted by an Orthodox parish in Austin, Texas. I chose as my topic, ‘The Middle Way: Finding Balance in Our Lives.’ ”
Part of that balance, for me, meant being honest about what I wanted to do with my art. I wanted to write novels and study abstract painting, but I was afraid these things weren’t acceptable pursuits for a Southern church lady.
I met Cassandra King (Conroy) in 2006. Reading her novel “The Sunday Wife” and her essay “The Making of a Preacher’s Wife,” in the first anthology on Southern women and spirituality, “All Out of Faith,” gave me courage to begin to embrace my true self. Jennifer Horne and Wendy Reed, the editors of both collections of essays, included these words on the inside flap of the first book’s cover:
“The South is often considered patriarchal, but as these writers show, Southern culture has always reserved a special place for strong women of passion.”
Strong women of passion. I knew I had found soul mates in these new friends.
The Orthodox Church is a spiritual hospital offering sacramental mysteries for the healing of our wounds, but it isn’t a panacea for all human ills. I’ve had my share of dark nights of the soul, and there have been times when I’ve wanted to leave. But I’m still here, by God’s grace, holding my own spiritual feet to the fire and learning to embrace what is real for me.
My essay “Chiaroscuro” ends with these words:
“Maybe my brokenness, like the egg yolks that I use to make tempera paint for my icons — themselves a form of life interrupted — is part of my offering to God.”
Susan Cushman, a member of Saint John Orthodox Church in Midtown, is an essayist and writing workshop leader. She will be reading from her essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” which appears in the anthology, “Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality,” at 5 p.m. Thursday at Burke’s Books, 936 S. Cooper. Visit susancushman.com for more information.