"The spiritual practice of transformation holds within its wide embrace the personal renewals that come with a spiritual awakening, a conversion, a mystical epiphany, or an enlightenment. It covers the deepening that takes place when we get in touch with our Higher Self or Spirit."
— Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Sometimes mystical epiphanies come very early in life, on playgrounds. And the lessons they offer are not about a cosmic source from which all things emerge, or even the absolute interconnectedness of all things. The lessons are more practical and pertain to how we might live our lives, year by year, month by month, by pumping: a metaphor for reinventing ourselves in light of new situations. At least this is the case with my mother, Virginia McDaniel. Now 100 years old, she wrote at age 95:
"I remember when I was a little girl, I loved to swing on a swingset in the schoolgrounds. I think I was about six years old. You know what it feels like to swing? It's a feeling of independence and being in airy space. Sometimes your best friend is swinging right next to you. This is what I experienced.
"My home was not a perfect world. So going to school and being with my wonderful teachers, and being loved by them, and being able to swing on the swingset, taught me something about life. It taught me that there's a goodness in life that cannot be erased by any disharmony.
"When no one was around to push me on the swingset, I also knew how to pump. You know what I mean by pumping? You move your legs on your own to get momentum. I have been thinking about that these days, which may be because, these days, my legs don't work well. Still I sometimes need to pump, not only with my body but with my heart and my mind. For most my life I’ve been pumping: re-inventing myself with help from others and God. Pumping at fifteen, at twenty five, at sixty five, at ninety five."
My guess is, along with my mother, we all know what it is like to be at the top of the arc of a metaphoric swing: to have a feeling of joy and independence, of being in airy space, when the boundaries and troubles fall away. But we all know that life cannot be lived from joy alone, and that life includes pain, struggle, difficulty, and tedium — and the simple need to adapt to changing circumstances, internal and external, whatever they happen to be. Joy is but one of the words in the spiritual alphabet. Another is transformation. My mother calls it self-reinvention.
Here I am drawn to another way that Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat describe transformation:
"Transformation usually involves the shedding of old ways, especially those that have become burdens. This practice proclaims that no matter who you are, no matter what has already happened to you, no matter what you have done, it is still possible to be and do something new."
My mother thinks that God is of assistance in self-reinvention, and I do, too. We process theologians believe that the Higher Self of which the Brussats speak — God — is an embracing womb in whose life the whole universe unfolds. This Higher Self is within and also more than us. I imagine it as analogous to a mother who carries within her very body a developing embryo that has agency of its own but is also part of who she is — except in the case of the Higher Self, the entire universe is her body.
We also believe that God is in the very process of creative transformation here on earth. It’s not that God is the sole cause of the transformation, as if God is doing all the work and we are doing none of it. When we pump — when we reinvent ourselves relative to new circumstance — it takes effort, an act of the will. And it is our will, not God’s, that is pumping.
To say that God is in the process of creative transformation is to say that God is inside each of us, everywhere and all the time, as an inwardly felt and empowering lure to create ourselves anew from whatever circumstances face us. God is the calling of the Spirit to become who we can become, to become fully alive relative to each new situation. God is the lure to pump and also a companion to our pumping.
So what does God lure us towards? Sometimes it is indeed transformation: personal renewal. But just as we cannot live by joy alone, so we cannot live by transformation alone. We need so much more to be fully alive. This is part of the beauty of the spiritual alphabet. It does not reduce the spiritual side of our lives to one modality.
We process theologians agree. We believe God is inside us, not only as a lure to creative transformation, but also as a lure to attention, beauty, compassion, imagination, justice, listening, play, peace, and a sense of mystery — to name a few. Always the beckoning of Spirit is towards full aliveness, but what "full aliveness" means is very much relative to circumstance. At the end of a long day, the lure of Spirit is to sleep, which is a kind of peace. And so it is at the end of a long life.
My mother would be the first to say that the purpose of life is not to live forever. But she trusts that, in whatever circumstances she finds herself, there is a Spirit who embraces each and all, while we are awake and while we are asleep, in times of sadness and in times of hope, helping us find some kind of aliveness in this life and, should it transpire, in a continuing journey after death. Life is a journey filled with new beginnings and with new opportunities, sometimes delightful and sometimes challenging, for self-reinvention. One such beginning, for my mother, was on a swingset. May you, too, find your arcs of joy and the capacities for self-reinvention, for in them is the kingdom of God.