Ellen’s Corner: Grounded: Finding God in the World
When former New York Times columnist and religion professor Diana Butler Bass was exploring historic houses and churches on Maryland’s eastern shore with her husband Richard one summer, the two drove down a simple country road and stumbled across a sign for Third Haven Meeting House—an old Quaker meetinghouse built in 1684.
They turned into the meetinghouse’s rough driveway, drove past its sheltering trees, and emerged into the sunlight to find a simple, white clapboard building with green trim.
The two parked, walked to the front porch, and peeked through windows made of old, wavy glass. “We were the only two people on the property, and a sort of profound quiet engulfed us,” remembers Diana in her new book Grounded: Finding God in the World.” Richard lifted the meetinghouse latch, and “…the door swung open to reveal a cathedral of simplicity.”
Diana was entranced. “The scent of old wood overtook me, the vision of light falling across rows of plain benches made me gasp” Diana writes. “The building was both empty and full at the same time, inviting all seekers to come and sit and listen.”
Like a couple of curious children, Diana and her husband explored the old meetinghouse. They climbed the stairs to the loft, sat on the elders’ bench, and ran their fingers over the wavy windowpanes. “I wanted to stay forever, embraced by the spare holiness,” Diana remembers. “I sensed a connection with the place, the strange sensation of once having been there, even though I had never even entered a Quaker meetinghouse before.”
That sense of connection, which is common to many Friends as they enter a meetinghouse, speaks to Diana’s own deep spirituality. It’s a spirituality that, combined with a searching intellect, and decades of religious study that began at Duke University, resonates on every page of Grounded. Together they allow her to pull common threads from a wide variety of historical religious narratives, personal stories, studies, surveys, polls, and newspaper headlines, filter them through her own mystical sense of God’s Presence and the religious scholarship that marks her work, and then weave them into a new, whole cloth that warms us all.
The result is transformative. In lyrical and compelling language, Diana looks at the crumbling edifices of organized religion across the United States today and shows us not a people turning away from God, as most pollsters and pundits would have us believe, but, instead, a people who are turning toward God as they move away from institutions that may have served a fledgling spirituality in earlier times, but now leave us doubtful, questioning and unsure.
Those institutions may have nurtured us in the past, Diana seems to say, but it is the very questions they now raise that may illuminate paths toward new ways of being with God that reflect an emerging understand of God’s reality.
It’s a topic ripe for passionate discussion—whether over the local meeting potluck or Gathering lunch table—even though, for many of us, new questions on our spiritual journeys can often bring discomfort. Many of us are not spiritual adventurers who exult in rappelling down theological cliffs, scaling up doctrinal mountaintops, bushwhacking through dogmatic jungles, or diving 20,000 leagues into a mystical sea. No, many of us would just as soon sit quietly with God under the nearest tree and open ourselves to all that God is.
Admittedly, I am among that many. But by pulling together the myriad social and theological forces urging us along rock-strewn paths toward a new understanding of God, Grounded literally frees us from much of the uncomfortable and untethered feelings of exploration that are caused by what is, essentially, no less than a shift in our reality. And it does so by allowing us to see where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going—and by assuring us that we are not alone.
Diana reveals that God is right where God has always been: Between us. Among us. Within us.
Ellen Michaud is the editor-at-large for Live Happy Magazine, and the author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life, which was named the #1 spiritual/inspirational book of the year by USA BookNews. She is also an alumna of the School of the Spirit’s program on contemplative living and prayer, a past writer-in-residence at Earlham School of Religion and the former book review editor of Friends Journal.