Aimee Halfpenny made my day.
It's no secret I have an expanding author-crush on Elizabeth Gilbert; ever since listening to her read BIG MAGIC, I have quoted her incessantly. Shortly after BIG MAGIC, I dusted off my copy of Eat Pray Love, finally believing the time was right for my soul to weave itself within the story. I couldn't put it down; it brought pieces of me to life I didn't know were dead. I didn't want it to ever be over.
Luckily for me, it was Eat Pray Love's 10th Anniversary and Elizabeth Gilbert celebrated by releasing Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: a collection of 47 essays from 47 people on 47 unique paths of their own expressing how Eat Pray Love affected their lives. With each one I could relate, because timing was essential to their relationship to the book.
The Universe knows what you need when you need it.
Fast forward a couple weeks after I finish Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It; I receive an email from a woman with an oddly familiar last name - Halfpenny - but I can't place it.
"I stumbled across your website via an Instagram post. I'm a featured essayist in Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It. I love what your site is all about and thought maybe you would be interested in featuring my discovery process. Hidden in my essay are glimpses of a complicated spiritual journey; I left Christianity over a 10 year period and started redefining God."
I may have screamed from excitement; I immediately responded with a resounding yes. Then I jumped up and danced down the stairs to share the news with my husband. My brain adolescently deduced: Aimee Halfpenny was chosen by Elizabeth Gilbert and now Aimee has chosen me, therefore Elizabeth chooses me! Eat Pray Love came full-circle and affected me in an entirely new way - through personal connection.
I'm honored to feature Aimee's discovery process today. Her essay in Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It is titled Penny Prayers and chronicles her broken engagement a mere three months before the wedding and a life-changing escape to Ireland.
Buy Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It and read Aimee's essay!
Responses by Aimee Halfpenny
What do you believe, and why?
I believe in embracing the mystery of a spiritual life. I believe God exists in the mystery.
I believe in quiet prayers, spoken in the middle of the night, when life is bleak and hard. I believe that there is something bigger that honors those prayers; even if help is not immediate or obvious. I believe that it is an ongoing, active conversation that we have with ourselves.
I have learned to embrace the unknown and release my desires, dreams, and heartache to a loving presence that is the truest part of me. It’s not always easy, but I believe that too is part of the process - how we grow and evolve.
I believe in a continuum of grace and I believe that an act of love has the power to change everything.
How did you discover your beliefs?
I’ve always been drawn to the spiritual life. When I was single, I used to tell people that my retirement plan was to become a nun. I read an article in The Atlantic about a nun in Germany who is a brew master. Early each Sunday, she is dismissed from prayers so she can brew, finding holiness in the barley and yeast. This is so overwhelmingly appealing to me: beer and contemplation.
I grew up mildly Catholic. When I was thirteen, I went with a Baptist church to a summer camp in the mountains of Central California. They did an alter call; I raised my hand thinking every other person in the place had their arm stretched to God in the ultimate act of devotion. Twenty six years later, my viewpoints are radically different. I have a clearer understanding of the brokenness much of the world lives in. I have survived debilitating depression. On a visit to Nicaragua, I encountered communities still struggling to rebuild after war. I have seen people suffer from horrible illness. So much of my discovery of my current beliefs comes from a greater understanding of the world. It’s messy - so why wouldn’t belief and faith be?
How do you interact with your beliefs?
Prayer, breath, and contemplation are still powerful tools for me. They connect me to myself and God; they allow my body to slow down and be present. I’ve also found that part of self-awareness is the acknowledgement that there are contradictions in my beliefs, and I try to approach them with thought and a measure of kindness and ask myself the tough questions. Again, I believe it is an ongoing conversation.
What do you do when you doubt your beliefs?
I try to return to that truest place inside myself. I have come to see belief as something fluid and bendy - that doubt is built into belief. Our questioning opens us up to learn new and important things about ourselves and each other.
Bonus questions in reference to Aimee's essay, Penny Prayers, in Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It:
Where were you at in your discovery process when your engagement was broken?
Over the years I slowly crept my way into more and more "progressive" churches. I attended Tim Keller’s church in NYC and eventually found a church with an openly gay pastor in San Diego. It was important to me to be in an inclusive community. My ex and I met there. It was a big part of our relationship which made the break up even more devastating; I lost my church community when we divvied up the wreckage. My ex was significantly involved and it just made sense that I would be the one to walk away.
Years prior to my breakup, I read a book about a woman that went through a broken engagement. I remember at the time pleading to God, "Please don’t let that ever happen to me. It would kill me.” I meant it. I literally thought I would die. I’ve returned to that moment many times: Did I consciously or unconsciously set those things into motion? Did I perform my equivalent of the ultimate self-sabotage? Was it God?
At the very essence, my ruin (as Liz Gilbert describes it) was about belief. I had a core belief that I was unlovable, even though I believed in a loving God; a loving God that didn’t rescue me from any of it.
During that time I started finding comfort in the saints. I was taught, in my non-denominational church days, that praying to the saints was wrong and sinful. The first time I prayed to Mary, I half expected a lightning bolt to strike. But in my broken engagement, the saints felt accessible. They were real people that suffered and survived, asked the same questions as I was, and struggled with doubt. They were an integral part of my story and essay in the book.
Where were you at in your discovery process when you wrote the essay for Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It?
After studying the Bible, and prayer, and meditation, and theology, and post modernism, and world religions, I just sort of mentally threw my hands in the air and said, "Fuck it." I have become more and more comfortable in the unknown and that God’s love is not contingent on me landing on certainty in my beliefs. I still pray through the Prayer of St. Francis, and occasionally through St. Jude’s Novena.
Is there any one thing that caused you to separate from Christianity?
I’m not sure I’m completely separated from Christianity. Christ, for me, is a loving presence and the image of Christ brings me peace. I have no beef with Jesus. However, there was one particular interaction that flipped a switch for me.
I had been in a horrific car accident. A woman was driving on the wrong side of the road and hit my car pretty much head on. It made the nightly news, and somehow I had walked away from it with a few sprains and lacerations; I was extremely lucky.
A few weeks later, I was approached by a woman from church at a party. She proceeded to tell me that though it was unfortunate and she was glad I was ok, God needed to wake me up and turn me from my disobedience because I was dating a non-Christian. I was shocked, but mostly I was saddened that this woman was so indoctrinated that this was the God she believed in: an unloving, ungracious vindictive prick who sent a woman careening down a hill, with a child in the back seat, all because he cared deeply about who I was dating.
And how do you feel now, about that separation [from Christianity]?
I try to focus on the good. There was a group of women I met with weekly for years who are loving, supportive, and kind people. I had a community that kept me from self-destructing at times. I met and befriended people who I never would have under any other circumstances. For all their faults, churches are still filled with saints; complicated, imperfect, lovely, brave souls.
Shortly after Aimee and I connected, she posted a photo of herself meeting Elizabeth Gilbert at a book event for Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It. Elizabeth told Aimee she visited Ha'Penny Bridge in Ireland because of her essay. I was ecstatic! Aimee said it was kind of a fluke she even had the opportunity to meet Elizabeth, a happy coincidence, and I reveled in the moment as if it were me meeting both of them. Which, something tells me someday I will.
To read more My Discovery Process submissions, you can find them here.