The best word for the place I come from is awkward. Really awkward. I come from an awkward family situation, which I suppose is now commonplace for people my age. My parents divorced before I had said my first word and I never knew much of my father. I grew up in my grandparents’ house in a small town with my nan, pop, mom and her three brothers. I’m my mother’s only child, but I was raised as my uncles’ baby sister, albeit with at least twenty years difference in age between me and my youngest uncle. I was always “Pop’s little buddy” and stuck to him like glue. Everything I did, I did to make him proud. My family was Anglican and always had been. My mom and her brothers had been active in the family church when they were children, serving on the altar or singing in the choir. After confirmation, as it is with most youths, they drifted away. There never was and still isn’t much for youth between confirmation and adulthood in the Anglican Church. I don’t blame them for drifting. Being an adolescent leaves you a total misfit in the church, and it gets old after a while. To be honest, I don’t know why I stayed either, but I’m glad that I did.
Anyway, I wouldn’t say my family was particularly religious and certainly not strict. We were involved at church because everyone was. That’s just what you did. We only said grace before meals on special holidays like Christmas and Easter because that’s just how we always did it. I had to kneel down and ask God to bless every single member of my immediate and extended family every night before bed just because it was part of my routine. I never minded and I would miss it if I didn’t do it. I went to church with my mom, grandfather and my great-grandmother every single Sunday from the time I was baptized at twenty-one days old. Mom taught Sunday school for a little while, but eventually stopped going altogether. When my great-nan passed away, it would only be Pop and I in the back pew of the church every Sunday. Even when I was very small, I loved hymns and had a fascination with the organ. People always looked at me in amazement when my squeaky five-year-old voice belted out those big words in the “old” hymn book. Vouchsafe, penitent, omnipotent, those are huge words for a kid! I still don’t know what half of them even mean. I begged to be in the choir, and they finally agreed to let me join when I turned seven, an age at which most kids can read well enough to follow a score. I would go on to become the assistant organist at the tender age of thirteen, record a Christmas CD with the choir and serve on the alter.
After confirmation, most of my friends drifted. I stayed and would be granted my Eucharistic assistant’s licence, and my lay reader’s licence. I’m not sure why I stayed. In all honesty, there wasn’t much for me there. I was a sixteen-year-old in a choir of only senior citizens. There were no youth clubs or youth ministry programs except CLB, which I wasn’t allowed to join because “that’s only for boys.” I was either the youngest or the oldest in every branch of the church. All the same, I was there. Every single Sunday. Nobody was forcing me to go. I don’t know what it was, but something kept me going back, week after week. Part of it was making my Pop proud, but there was something more to it, I know it. My childhood dreams of going to music school soon shifted to seminary. I can’t pinpoint the time in which they changed or even why they changed, but they did. I had the talent to be a wonderful musician, but it wasn’t where I belonged. I belonged in the church and that sense of belonging to something bigger- much bigger than the ACW or the alter guild or what have you- is probably a lot of the reason I stayed.
I began to pursue the steps to jump right into seminary straight out of high school, but was greeted with some huge obstacles. They were painful but, looking back, necessary and even beneficial. They would upset all of the plans I had made and send me down a path that would be long and rough, but where I would be forced to slow down and take my time learning about living life, my faith, my purpose, and ultimately, myself. I would have to learn how to ask for and accept help when I needed it, and how even when I had nothing to my name, I could still give something back. This path would teach me first by tearing me apart, but then leading me to the right people and places where I could find a strong foundation on which to build myself back up again.
The biggest obstacles came in the form of illness, but not my own. My grandfather and grandmother whom I absolutely adored both fell extremely ill, both at the same time. Exactly the same time, and both with unrelated illnesses. The timing was bizarre. Their sickness placed enormous amounts of stress on me. I flunked my first year of university because I skipped class so much and just couldn’t concentrate. I was put on academic probation and forced to wait at least another year before I would be re-admitted to school to give it a try again. When my grandparents returned home from the hospital after months and months of rehabilitation, things weren’t the same. Tensions grew between us. The changes in their health, especially the changes in my grandfather’s personality and demeanor following his stroke, were massively difficult for a teenager to adjust to. I was only eighteen, I couldn’t even drive a car, but as the only one still living at home and the youngest girl, I was suddenly expected to do a lot more to look after them, all while I was trying to begin my own life. My grandfather wasn’t able to walk or talk, let alone go to church, for a very long time. Because of that, I stopped going too, but I missed it. I wanted to move out and get a grip on things myself. I loved my grandparents with every little bit of my heart, and still do, but you can’t pour from an empty glass- you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. So I did.
I moved to town with nothing but my clothes, my bed, and two semesters worth of debt. I worked odd jobs for a year and saved up enough money to get back into university. I went back to school with the intentions of pursuing a double major in political science and religious studies. I loved religious studies, but I was also very interested in politics, and it would give me employable skills, right? I wanted to get working right away. I didn’t have much money; only what I got from my student loans. If I was going to go into the ministry, I wouldn’t be out working for at least seven years. I couldn’t wait that long. I wanted my life to begin ASAP.
Something intervened. Something caused me to step back and slow down. I discovered new talents at university, when I thought everything even remotely special about me had already been revealed in childhood. I had a real knack for political science and I enjoyed it, but I had even more of a knack for religious studies. I loved picking apart the Bible, an enthralling series I’d never really taken the time read (outside of Sunday mornings). I loved the real-life, down-to-earth, here’s-what-actually-might-have-happened-and-here’s-what’s-probably-bogus nature of the discipline. I came to believe everything in scripture serves to teach us something, regardless of whether or not it actually happened. I no longer found myself groaning “but why does this even matter?” and quickly found myself discovering more and more reasons why everything mattered. Literally everything mattered all of a sudden. It was thrilling to sit down and try to decipher what such familiar passages were actually trying to say to me, and I wanted to share this way of understanding that was so new and so exhilarating to me, with everybody. I could read about how my own faith blossomed from other ancient beliefs over and over again. It never got old because I learned something new every single time I sat down to study. While looking at scripture so objectively could destroy the faith of some, it only strengthened my beliefs in a way I had never thought possible. Maybe in a way, this study brought the distant, celestial God that I could never seem to reach down closer to my own level. I could wrestle with my faith in the context of words on a paper rather than things I can’t see. I was never bored, because I could never learn everything there is to learn.
“Look how many ancient religions told stories similar to ours! There must be something to this.”
“Look at how quickly the political authorities silenced Jesus…they were scared of him…there must have been something to him.”
“Look at how many generations have passed, yet even the greatest scholars still have no idea what this book even means…there has got to be something to this.”
They told me I was good at it. I received scholarships for my work. My marks in religion soared far above anyone else’s and made my own marks in other subject areas pale in comparison. I was the most talkative and attentive person in religion class, but the most sleepy-eyed in any other subject. I struggled with science and language and geography, but I absolutely excelled in religion.
I’ve been given something.
In the same way I’d been given the gift of music, a gift which I didn’t realize as a child I so urgently needed to give back to God, I’ve been given a gift of…well I’m not sure what this is a gift of really. But it’s a gift. A talent. An unbelievably strange and unique enjoyment I get from reading and studying and dissecting scripture. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly this gift is, why I have it and what I’m meant to do with it, but for the time being, I will continue to study and to grow as much as I possibly can. In pursuing my Master’s degree, I’ve joined a community of others who are just as confused yet just as strongly called where I might try to discern just how I’m supposed to use this gift, and how I can give it back to God and to the world he created. In the past year I’ve found more and more blessings laid out before me, quite plainly now that I think about it, that are clearly meant to help me along my way. One of them is this wonderful man I’ve found whom I will soon call my husband. He is not only supportive of my journey, but is interested in everything I am learning. He has been supportive enough to put aside his own initial assumptions about the church and come along with me, learning everything that he can and finding his place in the church, too. We have been blessed enough not only to find each other, but to be welcomed into a beautiful parish family that has accepted us both in every way. We look forward to learning more about ourselves, about each other, about our faith, about our gifts and about our place in this great big world together.
Ashley is currently studying theology at Queen’s College and hopes to become an ordinand in the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, and eventually a priest. Ashley and her fiancé are new to St. Mark’s but both have been warmly welcomed and have gotten involved as readers and regulars at Pub Theology. In January Ashley became our Junior Organist at St. Mark’s, which involves singing in the choir and filling in when our organist is away.