I recently sat down (virtually speaking) with my dear friend Rebekah Berndt. I’ve known Rebekah since our ’emerging church’ days, and I’m always inspired by what she’s up to. In this dialogue, we do a deep-dive on where her spiritual and life’s journey has taken her. I’m guessing that you’ll be both challenged and encouraged by what follows.
Shall we begin?
Like many of us, you grew up in a conservative evangelical home. What was this like for you?
I grew up with a profound sense of being different. In the late 80’s and 90’s there was a push to create a totally separate evangelical culture to protect kids from the influence of mainstream culture. My parents weren’t the worst example when it came to “separating ourselves from the world”— I had friends who weren’t allowed to watch TV or play with the neighborhood kids, for example— but there was definitely a sense that we couldn’t really trust those who hadn’t “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.” They sent me and my brothers to a church-run school, and the idea that I didn’t belong in the outside world was hammered home there.
There was a real sense of community, though, that was wonderful at times. I grew up in the suburbs of DC, where there’s a lot of transience due to the nature of government and military work. The church I was part of helped to create a feeling of rootedness, which was why it was really difficult to leave.
But you couldn’t stay in that flavor of faith, could you? What did you ultimately find untenable about the spiritual climate of your youth?
My father had a car accident and a head injury when I was 12. That turned everything upside down in my family. There was a lot of instability at home, and I became deeply depressed by the time I was in high school. People in the church didn’t know how to respond to this, other than to see it as a spiritual failing.
By that time I was attending a public high school, I did have people reach out to me. But it was hard for me to trust because I had been taught to be suspicious of the “the world.” That was one of the worst things about Evangelicalism — the sense of superiority that fostered paranoia about people outside the fold.
I did become involved in my church’s youth group, and had some friends there. We were charismatic, so they would take us to these week-long camps in the summer where we would have ecstatic experiences, dance around, and give ourselves to Jesus. I would get caught up in it; there would be a rush of excitement. But afterward when the high wore off, I felt so manipulated. Even amongst the adults, I would see people chasing a spiritual high in a way that felt really ungrounded, insisting God was going to perform miracles that never came to pass.
Intellectually, this church environment was making less and less sense to me. The teachings of Jesus didn’t align with the conservative politics we were expected to support; the hostility to modern science was something I couldn’t really get behind. The cognitive dissonance required to maintain these contradictory beliefs became more than I could handle.
The final straw for me came in my mid-20’s. I had tried to leave and found myself pulled back in several times, usually because I was going through a rough time and needed comfort. I was feeling myself pulled in two different directions constantly, torn between what I had been taught to believe was right, and what my own reason, desire and consciousness were telling me.
A woman in my church came up to me one day and said “I have a word from the Lord for you.” I performed a mental eyeroll, because in my experience, that usually meant I was going to hear some kind of moralistic admonishment.
But instead she quoted Jesus in John 10:10, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly,” and told me to meditate on it.
I did. I decided that whatever I was experiencing was not abundant life. I was constantly obsessing over every little decision, questioning whether it was in alignment with God’s will or not, and I was sick of it. So I left. For a while after that, I would constantly ask myself the question, “Is this abundant life?” and if the answer was no, I said “F#^% it, I’m moving on.”
Your questions and seeking heart led you to what many of us called the ‘emerging church’ conversation – that’s when we first met! You were a mover and shaker in the emergent ‘scene’ – what did this path offer you that your earlier Christianity didn’t? And what were the drawbacks?
Yeah, I can’t believe that’s over ten years ago! It was so nice to find a group of people that were also questioning and deconstructing like I was, who had grown up with similar experiences. At the same time, it tended to be heavily male and heavily academic. While the intellectual conversation was welcome after what felt like the determined anti-intellectualism of the evangelical church, it started to feel increasingly disconnected from anything practical.
On more than one occasion I would find myself in a pub with a bunch of dudes all trying to impress whatever emergent Christian celebrity happened to be in town on a speaking gig. Sometimes they would get in a heated back and forth and I wanted to pull out a ruler, slap it on the table and say “Let’s settle this now.”
Eventually, after all the deconstruction, a lot of us were left asking – “What now?”
Because the postmodern analysis didn’t really provide us tools for actual re-construction. I missed the sense of meaning and purpose I had when I was evangelical, as well as the embodied mysticism and sense of enchantment. I don’t think I understood that at the time. I didn’t know how to articulate it, but something was missing.
Another thing that I only see in retrospect, was how many people were really suffering from trauma in that space. Nowadays there are books about religious and spiritual trauma, but that wasn’t really something we were talking about just yet. There was a lot of unhealthy coping with alcohol— practically every event took place at a bar. I remember being at a party where a guy who was somewhat well known in that world got really drunk and started getting touchy and hitting on me….in front of his wife.
Nowadays, the people who are going through this have so many more resources. There are a lot more female voices, there are more resources for addressing the psychological and emotional issues, and there’s more emphasis on spiritual practices like meditation as opposed to pure theologizing. I like to think that’s because we opened the way for it.
Your emergent disaffection eventually led you to the shores of contemplative spirituality – practices like centering prayer, the more mystical side of Christianity. What was this like? And, was this enough?
There were a lot of people who were just giving up, and moving on to full-on atheism and agnosticism. But I knew that my life just worked better when I believed that something out there cared about me and had my back. Someone gave me The Meaning of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Bourgeault, and it blew my mind. I didn’t understand everything she was talking about in that book, but I wanted to. I was very compelled by a more feminine and contemplative approach to Christianity.
I started reading Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating, and practicing Centering Prayer. And that truly changed my life. It gave me a framework for belief that was beyond the rational without being anti-rational. And the practice was very grounding and healing for me. I really felt that I was finally coming into alignment with my soul in some way. Like I had a sense of who I was, and that I belonged in the world.
I also began having more what I would call psychic experiences. I had experienced a few of these before, though I would have understood it as “just” the Holy Spirit. Which I still did, in some ways. But they started getting more intense and more frequent.
I ended up moving into an intentional community of activists that also practiced Centering Prayer. And I did a lot more meditation, including Buddhist. I got really into a scene of activist, Inter-spiritual contemplatives. And that was also wonderful in many ways.
But again, it was dominated by men, and tended to have a heavily Buddhist and Christian influence. There’s so much patriarchy in both of these religions. There was a lot of focus on “dissolving” or “surrendering” the ego in a way that felt unhealthy. A lot of shaming of desire and agency and emotion.
I was experiencing a lot of energetic body phenomena when I would meditate— what some people might call Kundalini awakening. I would ask instructors how to deal with it, and they would always tell me to just “let it go” or “be equanimous.” And when it came to the psychic phenomena, they tended to say, “just ignore it” and “don’t get engaged in it.”
But I really felt like there was something I was supposed to do with it, with both of those things. Powerful energy was being released in my mind and body; I needed to learn how to channel it. But nobody could tell me how to do that. Unfortunately, Centering Prayer and mindfulness don’t know the first thing about how to do that. There are many yogic traditions, and some traditions in Buddhism that do, but they tend to be more esoteric. I should say there are a few in Christianity, but they are very esoteric.
So how did you deal with this?
Well, I had a dream telling me to move to Puget Sound, on the coast of Washington State. And I knew that when I got there, I would find a teacher who would help me. So I did.
That began what I call my “going to Hogwarts” phase. Within a week of moving to Tacoma, WA, I was introduced to a psychic teacher. She had a year-long development program beginning the following week, and I had two days to decide whether to enroll. Moving forward was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Not only did I learn to develop my intuition, but I also learned a form of meditation that taught me how to channel the energy in my body. I started studying astrology, energy healing, magic, and other esoteric skills. And it was so fun! I no longer felt like spirituality was about trying to fix my hopelessly broken self; instead it was about discovering my gifts, developing skill and power and purpose.
That’s not to say that it hasn’t been healing, or that I haven’t had to confront some of my issues. But when you’re putting the emphasis on positive and pleasurable development, it becomes easier to let go of old wounds
How would you describe your current path?
I still identify as Christian, although for me that’s a cultural and ancestral identity as much as a spiritual one. I feel a responsibility to help heal what’s broken within Christianity as well as the damage it’s caused to the world at large. One of the biggest pieces of this is the denial and subjugation of the feminine, the body, and the earth. I have zero interest in preserving any kind of doctrinal orthodoxy or the church as an institution.
What I am interested in is how we look at our history to understand where we’ve come from, what has shaped us, asking what will serve us moving forward. For me, a lot of this means reclaiming feminine expressions of God— not just for women, but for all of us— and integrating more animist and pantheist practices that allow us to see the world around us as full of intelligent spirits capable of being in relationship. When we look at the history of how Christianity was practiced by common people and what got suppressed in “official” versions, there’s actually a wonderful diversity of beliefs and practices available to us. I really believe at this point that the fate of the planet rests on recovering these capacities.
Western civilization is responsible for the destruction and degradation of the planet, and it largely rests on a Christian foundation. I believe that a radical-reimagining of spiritual understanding and praxis is necessary to shift the course we’re on. And because Christianity is my ancestral lineage, I feel I have a responsibility to show up for that. To quote Rosemary Radford Ruether in her book Gaia and God:
“Our kinship with all earth creatures is global, linking us to the whole living Gaia today. It also spans the ages, linking our material substance with all the beings that have gone before us on earth and even to the dust of exploding stars. We need new psalms and meditations to make this kinship vivid in our communal and personal devotions.”
On a practical level, my personal practice is much more magical and pagan as well as Christian. I do have several altars I maintain at any time, depending on the spirits I’m working with. Right now, that’s a small altar for my ancestors, another for the goddess Hekate, who helped me break some of my toxic programming from Christianity, and one dedicated to Mary and the saints — Jesus is on that altar, but I give Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene more prominence.
There’s a tremendous amount of assistance and guidance available to us through Mary. She has undoubtedly served as a survival of earlier goddess traditions throughout Christian history, and I had a profound experience with her several years ago. She has really been upping her appearances in recent years, to people all over the world, because she knows what’s coming. And the saints are really an ancestral veneration practice for Christians. It’s a shame Protestants threw all that out.
I usually pray the rosary and meditate in the morning, and perform a ritual and mantra with Hekate at night. The spirit world — all these older forms of gods and goddesses, our ancestors, and especially Mary, are really wanting to assist us right now. They know we’re at a crucial point in our history.
What’s been the biggest breakthrough you’ve experienced on this path – something within your life that you couldn’t have imagined when you were embedded in restrictive Christianity?
Learning to tap into and trust my essential desire, and to believe that it is inherently good. Desire is really the compass we are given to follow our own unfolding spiritual development. It’s how we discern and live into our purpose, and when we teach people to mistrust it or suppress it…it’s one of the worst things you can do, and frankly, it’s the reason we’re in this mess.
The truth is, when we get past the surface level cravings and the things we’ve been taught to desire, what most everyone wants deep down is to live in authenticity to self, reciprocity with others and to have a sense of purpose and belonging. To know that they have a gift to offer that will be received. We really do want what’s best for ourselves and what’s best for the world. But it takes peeling off a lot of layers to get there.
What’s been the hardest thing to let go of from toxic religion, and/or a codependent relationship with ‘Jesus’?
Letting go of “shoulds” and “oughts.” When I started working with Hekate, I would ask her questions like “should I do A or B?” And she would come back at me with, “well, what do you want? Tell me what you want and I’ll tell you the best way to get there.” That was so radical for me, and took a lot of getting used to. The idea that a deity might value my own will and desire and want to help me achieve it.
So many of the people I work with are suffering under the burden of shoulds and oughts. They’ve been taught that they should strive to be as much like Jesus as possible or follow scripture in a literal way, because that’s the only way to fix what’s wrong with them. Or they’ve been taught to conform to capitalist notions of security, productivity and usefulness.
So they want to explore shamanic healing, or magical practice, or their sexuality, but they can’t get past the fear and shame. Or they want to quit their jobs and find something more meaningful, but they’re afraid of losing their pension or getting pushback from family who won’t understand.
Activists are another group I sometimes see — the levels of judgement and shame that are created in communities that are supposed to be liberatory is tragic.
What’s one thing you’ve kept from Jesus and/or Christianity that you regard as healthy?
Jesus was an OG DGAF badass magician. I love when he says “you have to lose your own life to find it.” People hear that and think it’s about becoming a martyr. It’s not. It’s about letting go of the things you think you need for safety and security so you can tap into a deeper level of power and authenticity. It’s about setting fire to everything that’s holding you back and becoming pure flame. And if they kill you for it, well, at least you’ve lived your life to the fullest and been true to your purpose.
What guidance would you offer others on this path — those who have begun doing the work of deconstructing harmful beliefs, but who are wondering how to rebuild with grace and power?
There’s so much I could say, but I would start with following your desire and your curiosity, and don’t be afraid to really mess up — that’s where all the real learning and growth comes from. Explore traditions and practices outside of your own — it’s hard to see what’s missing in Christianity and what’s really possible without this perspective.
Focus less on what makes sense from a rational perspective, and ask instead what works? What actually helps you feel more grounded, more alive, and more purposeful? What helps you trust that you are inherently worthy, that you belong here?
When developing a relationship with any spirit or deity, you should start with beings that show kindness, care, and want the best for you. If a spirit only ever tells you what you want to hear and never challenges you, you’re probably only talking to yourself. But they should challenge out of love. And they should respect your boundaries. The same goes for people — any teacher, guide, or mentor should do the same.
It’s okay to be syncretic — i.e., mix and match — but you do have to show respect. If you are drawn to the goddess Kali, great, but I recommend finding out more about the actual tradition, learning from people in that lineage, or engaging specific practices of devotion to her.
First of all, this approach allows you to do it in a way that’s respectful and not appropriative. But also, tradition has real power. When millions of people across time have been chanting the same mantras or prayers and performing the same rituals, there is a tremendous reservoir of energy you can draw upon when you do the same. Not to mention, there are aspects of traditions that might not make sense until you experience them. Genuine spiritual practice will be challenging at times. Once you have a deeper understanding, you can start to jailbreak it.
And finally, even if you’ve left Christianity, consider re-engaging when you’re ready. If you have a long ancestral history with a religion, there is a lot of support and power available to you through it. And I believe healing the Christian imagination, theology, and praxis is a necessary part of healing the world. We need bold, grounded, courageous people to help do it. And not just seminary professors and ordained ministers. Institutional Christianity is dying, along with capitalism. Whatever comes next will have to be rooted in land and community. It will be less hierarchical, and less academic. There will always be a need for leaders, but we will all be growing into our own unique leadership, and supporting one another in that.
How can people learn more about you, and work with you?
I offer psychic aura readings, astrological readings, and spiritual coaching. But what I’m really excited about is my upcoming course, Initiation, the first offering in what I’m calling the School For Magical Purpose, starting May 4th. It’s my attempt to respond to the current moment we’re in — all the fear and uncertainty caused by the climate crisis and now COVID-19. When the things we’ve been relying on for security fall apart, it can be really terrifying. But it’s also the moment when a radically new world becomes possible. Death leads to rebirth. The tomb is also a womb. It’s not a guarantee that what comes next will be something better, but it’s possible, if we choose to commit to it.
I’m teaching what I believe are essential skills for navigating this time. How to create a spirituality that works for you, how to open up intuitive capacities, how build collaborative relationships with other forms of intelligence (i.e., spirits), how to stare into your deepest fear, receive its wisdom, and emerge on the other side with a renewed sense of power and purpose, and how to start manifesting your deepest desires.
Just that, huh? : ) It’s like a real-life Hogwarts! Sounds awesome.
Thanks, I think so! People who can practice these things will become the leaders that carry us into the future.
The School for Magical Purpose: Initiation will take place over 12 weeks, and the lessons will be live, but I’ve recorded a preliminary orientation lesson that is available for free. You can download the full lesson, with practices and guided mediation, here.
So there you have it.
If you find yourself de-constructing the religion you grew up with, how are you doing it?
And what are your initial perceptions of Rebekah’s spiritual path? Is there anything here that deeply resonates with you – or scares you?
Would you consider participating in something like a School for Magical Purpose, as you’re re-constructing a spirituality that actually works for you?