Leonora Wassell is the Equality Officer for the Leeds District, Out in Faith and Pride in Diversity founder. “I’m an early retired Lesbian minister but first I’m a mother and grandmother. I have a passion for human rights and justice. So thankful for God’s awesome love I want everyone to experience it.”
As an ordained Anglican Priest my prayer life was centred around the daily offices of morning and evening prayer. I had used a variety of Offices from Roman Catholic, Celtic from the Northumbrian Community, Common Prayer and Franciscan. I loved the rhythm of prayer in the monastic tradition, marking points in the day with prayer. All very formal and liturgical. I would practice Lectio Divina in which I would meditate upon passages from the bible, entering the story as if present and then reflecting upon the insights this brought me. This brought me a rich spiritual life and a feeling of closeness to God to the point that I had an experience that I can only describe as an ecstatic union with God, a falling in love with the divine. That was 24 years ago. Since then life has taken on some dramatic twists.
Full time ministry looking after 5 churches, a partner with Bipolar, two teenage daughters and an illness which manifests itself in chronic pain and fatigue all led to a drain upon my ability to pray. I was literally too exhausted. However I knew that what I needed most was that precious time in prayer with God. I knew that if I could recapture where I was at ordination that all would be well. “When you seek me wholeheartedly I will let you find me” Jeremiah 29 a passage I reflected upon for years. So I tried to recreate the pattern of my life which brought about that spiritual experience at Whitby all those years ago.
However my health continued to deteriorate to such an extent that I could hardly walk, I couldn’t talk for long, I couldn’t interact with other people, I couldn’t go to church, I couldn’t read and I couldn’t PRAY. All would bring on excruciating headaches and nosebleeds. I had basically shut down. Now living on my own, I asked God what was the point of life for me. So I spent my 61st birthday on a 9 day silent retreat with the Sisters at Whitby Retreat Centre contemplating God`s plan for me.
The first thing that struck me was the noise. It was quieter at home I thought. Whitby was a very special place for me. I used to love walking the beach at 6.00 am when it was empty, imagining being with Jesus on the shore. Sharing in the monastic way of life with rhythm and stillness soothed my soul. I couldn’t do any of that so I began to wonder if it was a mistake being there. After 2 days of excruciating pain and nosebleeds I contemplated going home. However experience had taught me that God can bring something good out of even the worst situation if you only look for it. So I stayed.
I listened to Thomas Merton`s book on contemplation in which he spoke of the masks we wear. Masks that act as barriers to our relationship with God and others. I then began to reflect on the Authentic me, what masks do I wear? Sister Helen had suggested a different way of prayer. DOODLE prayer. That is using drawing as a means of communicating ones thoughts and prayers. I so happened to have brought my pens and sketch pad with me. So off I went.
So as I looked at each of the many masks I wore and what each of those meant I came to a fuller understanding of myself in relationship to God and to others. So as mother, grandmother, priest, creative child of God there was one unifying factor. GAY. This was not some lifestyle choice but the essence of who I am, created by God, to relate to God and the world as I was made. Although not fully in the closet, so to speak, I was apologetic of who I am.
I then decided to doodle pray the text I had been contemplating for 14 years. I had always assumed that to seek wholeheartedly meant fervently but what I now understood it to mean was that I was to seek God with all of me. Every facet of who I am was to surrender to God. Not to subsume who I was but to celebrate and offer up with thanksgiving the being who I was. A child of God, created in love for love. I was equally loved as anyone else was by a God of unconditional love. I was to relate to the world as God created me.
So when I got home I did exactly that. I came back from Whitby full of the Holy Spirit and understood how they felt at the first Pentecost. I was on fire, feeling blessed, feeling whole , walking tall(well as tall as my 5 foot height would let me, feeling I could achieve anything, and within a week I was healed of much which had brought me to a point of shutting down. I donned a rainbow ribbon around my clerical collar, started going back to church, went back on the plan and shared my testimony.
I continued to doodle my prayers looking at issues as well as bible passages. With healing I looked at what that looked and felt like.
I had indeed been healed and restored but nothing is without purpose. I now knew after 14 years what God was calling me to do, where my ministry was to be focused. I had to shut down totally before I was able to hear God speak to me. A Damascus road experience indeed . The scales fell off and I was able to see clearly the path God had for me. To be an advocate and minister within and to the LGBT community whilst being openly me within the wider church.
Prayer has always been about a close relationship with God but the way I related to God changed at Whitby. It changed thanks to a totally different way of prayer. Not formal, liturgical or traditional but childlike, free and fun. I now take my sketch book and pens to Bolton Abbey, Nero`s coffee shop and in the car and doodle away my thoughts and prayers with God. I can now read again, go to church and meditate upon the scriptures but I now feel most at home doodling and talking to God out loud as I would to a friend.