How I found my way from the convent to Unity—and found my truth in the process
I decided to be a nun at age 12. I was a little gay kid learning to hate myself because of the teachings of the Catholic Church. By 11, I was suicidal, leaving desperate notes in our bathroom wastebasket.
Sister Helen Charles, my sixth-grade teacher, saw my distress and saved my life through “positive reinforcement,” a new approach in the 1960s. If nuns had that kind of power, I decided, I wanted some for myself.
That’s how on a fall day in 1967, at the age of 18, I entered the convent. My family dropped me off at St. Joseph’s Provincial House, not knowing when they would see me again. I could not have been happier. I’d waited six years to trade the hazards of my life as a queer outcast for the safe shelter of a convent.
Closing the door on my family’s red Chevy that day felt like closing the door on trouble.
The Vietnam War was raging. Race riots had erupted in 150 cities. Police from New York to San Francisco were attacking homosexuals, and soon our nation would be weeping over the My Lai Massacre and the murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
As fast as I was running toward a life of prayer, I was running away from a life of turbulence, both inside and out.
Letting Go of the Old
In our first week as postulants, a Jesuit priest named Father Grabys arrived to teach us theology.
He was a tall, burly Lithuanian with a thick accent. After barging into the room a few minutes late, he flung an armful of books on the desk and whirled around to face us.
“All right, let’s hear it,” he half-shouted. “Here you are, all ready to marry God. Someone stand up and tell me something about this God you love!”
Right away I didn’t like him. How were we supposed to say something about our relationship to God? We had all the facts from the catechism, but he was asking about feelings. That was uncharted territory—and I liked it that way.
“Can’t someone say something?” he barked, frustrated with our silence.
One postulant raised her hand, stood up, and said, “God made me to show his goodness and to share his everlasting life with me in heaven.”
I nodded, having memorized this doctrine many years ago just like everyone else in the room had.
“That’s it? That’s all you got?”
“Sit down,” he yelled. “Someone else!”
Two other postulants tried their luck to no avail. Father Grabys rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and surveyed the group with disdain. Sweat broke out on my forehead. A fat tear dripped down my cheek.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves. Are you just a bunch of parrots, repeating everything you’ve learned?
“If you are to be a religious worth your salt, you have to have a faith that is deeper than what you’ve been taught. You have to speak from experience. You have to create your own spirituality from your ultimate concerns,” he said.
I didn’t know what he was talking about. Wasn’t faith something we were born into? Something we inherited, from the outside? I was a Catholic by default.They told me what to believe. As far as I was concerned, I was just lucky to be born into the one true faith. I didn’t have anything to say about it. That’s what infallible popes were for.
I raised my hand. “We have been studying religion since second grade,” I said. “We have memorized everything. We know every answer to every question. What you’re talking about was never in there.”
Father Grabys towered above us, his brow furrowed.
“What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for—that is faith.
They are two different things, and faith is what we are here for. Your faith is what you create and declare. It’s the essence of your life.”
His voice thundered on the words “faith” and “essence,” his thick accent adding to the drama.
Embracing the Present
Father Grabys insisted that faith was a program for action more than a set of beliefs. He spoke of God as a verb instead of a noun: Being Itself; not an entity that exists in space and time, but Creation Itself in the process of unfolding.
When we struggled to define our ultimate concerns, he reminded us that what any of us believe is not the essential thing. The action, not the beliefs, is the manifestation of faith. Creating our own spirituality was a painstaking process—we had been taught all our lives what to think, but not how to think.
I was not the only emotional toddler in the room. It took weeks to understand the meaning of “ultimate concerns.” I yearned for my comfortable certainties. I was hesitant, suspicious about being creative in matters of faith, but Father Grabys was insistent.
“What are you living for?” he’d shout. “What means so much to you that you would give your life for it? What are you committed to?”
He hammered at us from every angle, chiseling away at our rigid ideas, our childish fears, our embedded illusions until he carved right into the core of our beings. This process of liberation was agonizing, humbling, and astonishing.
His questions were Himalayan and we were barely at the foothills. The only place I knew to go to determine what I was committed to were to the words and actions of Jesus. He was my role model, so I pondered his life and considered my commitments. Then I proclaimed my faith, independent of my religion, rooted in my ultimate concerns.
- I am committed to be a peacemaker and to insist on justice wherever I am.
- I am committed to caring for others as I care for myself.
- I am committed to being a light in the world, wherever I am.
I finally understood the distinction between faith and religion. I felt them in my body in two different domains: religion in my brain, faith in my gut, where I felt my power. How proud I was that day, standing up to proclaim a faith that was truly mine—original and real—born from my body and inseparable from my soul.
Creating the Future
Two years after entering the convent I was dismissed for being gay. One year after that, I was denied absolution by a priest who said I would be living in sin as long as I remained a homosexual.
My own mother wanted me to stay away from the family so that my father wouldn’t find out and have a heart attack.
Who would I become, I wondered, without my community, my church, and my family?
I took to activism, wanting to break down institutions that perpetuated self-hatred and homophobia. If I was considering suicide at 12 because I’d learned to hate who I was, how many other kids were suffering from this same affliction?
I became a photojournalist, made a yearlong peace pilgrimage around the world, and metabolized the religions I was exposed to as I stayed with families of different faiths: Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Bahá’í, Sikhism.
I realized that religions are like stepladders, helping us rise into the awareness of our own divinity. They are a means to an end: the astonishing discovery that nothing in this world exists that is not God.
On the flight home, after a year away, I considered how much I’d changed spiritually. Even Christianity, as they think of it down there, is too small for me now, I thought, peering out the plane’s window. I had no idea where I’d fit in or if any community would ever feel like home.
A few weeks later, a friend invited me to her Unity church, and it felt as if heaven itself had broken open. The principles printed on the pamphlet in the pew were the exact ideas I had awakened to on my journey through 20 countries. There is nothing but God and we are cocreating this world in consort with the Source of Everything—cocreating with our thoughts, our words, and our actions, living out our truths to the best of our ability.
For Us and Through Us
I’d found a community of beloveds, a community of people who embodied the sacred and cherished it in each other, a community of finders, not seekers. The joy in the room was palpable. The light was radiant. The minds were in agreement: The Divine is unavoidable, not inaccessible.
I’ve remained active in the New Thought movement, speaking and teaching throughout the U.S. and Canada. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to my own community when our minister was away. I reminded them how we forget that we create turbulence so our soul will have something to transform, something worthy of its magnitude.
I also reminded them how we speak of events happening to us, seldom acknowledging they are also happening for us and through us. I shared the story of being dismissed from the convent, how it had me in shackles for 30 years—until the day I sat with the provincial director of the community and told her the whole story, just trying to heal my heart.
At the end, she asked me to forgive her, and then the entire community, for this “terrible injustice” done to me.
In that moment I realized there was nothing to forgive.
They gave me the privilege of two years in a monastic environment and then they let me go. I created that reality but wasn’t spiritually aware enough to know it.
Now, after all these years of a committed spiritual practice, a daily encounter with that divinity within, I am grateful for every upset that ever came my way, for I know it happened through me and for me, so I could transform myself from a misfit into a mystic.
Explore the book from Phillips, Still on Fire: Field Notes from a Queer Mystic. (Unity Books, 2021)