Written by Colin Amato
Here we all are! It’s great to see everyone here. I’d like to invite you to turn in your program to the scripture reading that you see. Isaiah chapter six, verses 1–13.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” He said, “Go and tell the people: Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise, they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “For how long, Lord?” And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted, and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.
When I was seven years old, my mother who, as you heard, she has taught me everything that I know, it was her habit when I was a small child that we would almost every Sunday, routine, go to different churches around the San Francisco Bay area. Which, as you can imagine, there are a lot of different churches in the San Francisco Bay area. We went to many—I have faint, flickering memories of some of these churches, but one in particular that I could not wrestle out of my memory although it seemed like pure fantasy, was a church where walking past brick, into a small courtyard with a garden, and a pool of water, and then entering into a sanctuary where I perceived with my seven-year-old eyes tree branches holding up the sanctuary. Thinking that it was a good service, not really remembering much else beyond that point but feeling like it was a special place. We departed and life, as it does, rolled on. But I could never shake this image of this sanctuary with tree branches. It wasn’t until fast forward (I will be coming back into the middle part of the story) into after I had met this group called Swedenborgians, and then discovered that there was a church in San Francisco for Swedenborgians, that I went there in my mid-20s and walked into this sanctuary… tree branches. It was the sanctuary in my memory. I turned to my mother, and I said, “I swear I have been here before,” and she said, “Oh yeah, I took you here when you were seven,” as if it was just another one of the many stops on our tour together as I was growing up.
For me, being called to the ministry has been not only a search within, in forming relationships with many of you, all of you that I see here tonight, but Divine Providence or, as Carl Jung might say, Synchronicity, meaningful coincidences. Those things that just happen and you look back and you go, “Wow I know I have free will but jeez it just really seems like I’m being pulled, tugged, moved.” There’s a pattern here whether the times are good or whether the times are bad. There’s a purpose behind it, in retrospect. We may not be able to see it in the present. We may not know where the future leads, but we certainly can look back and see that pattern. That has been true for me.
After growing up, moving past being seven, I found myself in high school which I think is very normal for many teenagers, and maybe the teens in the sanctuary tonight can relate to this, you start to really question and rebel and doubt the things that your parents have taught you about, really important things including religion.
I was raised a Roman Catholic and in high school I thought I had it all figured out. I’ll just read these books. This theology doesn’t make too much sense to me, I’m going to reject it, there’s a bunch of other religions to look into, why spend my time just fixated on one? Throughout my high school career, I read about many different religions. I’ve read the scriptures of these different religions…I was that nerdy high school kid that had the Dao Tai Ching and the Upanishads under my arms, and each day was a new book (for those who know me well I have a habit of doing this, “What book does Colin have today?” is a question that I’m asked), and I would read these things, and I came out of it with a broad appreciation for the world traditions, but in all honesty I felt lost. I could see the thread of divine wisdom throughout these various scriptures but still I didn’t know where I was going to land personally.
At the conclusion of high school, the last text that I read was the Qur’an. For reasons that were probably more wisdom-based, or up here in the head, comparing the theologies, it made sense to me at the time. So, at the age of seventeen I converted to Islam, and I was a Muslim for about six years. Fascinating experience! I felt that I had finally arrived at a place where intellectual discussion could happen. Where there was no room for doubt or questioning of the core tenants of the faith and I felt welcomed as a convert… or at least, I felt welcomed at a cost. That cost, my friends, is that for those six years I could not fully, unedited be totally who I am. That means being a spiritual person and also being someone who is in this natural body. Someone who identifies as a gay man. So, I suppressed that for those years. Suppressing that love even though it was something that was billowing up inside of me, burning, yearning to be let free. I had satisfied that wisdom part of my journey, I felt, but where was the love? Where was the love being truly expressed? So, when I decided to come out publicly, I could not stay in that tradition. I once again found myself lost.
Now during this time, my mother was reading books by this guy named Emanuel Swedenborg (interesting timing) and meeting people named Wilma Wake, who had this online church; Sherrie Connelly, who had this beautiful little library ministry in Vallejo, California. She would say, “Yes, I’m reading these books and I’m meeting these wonderful people. You should check this stuff out.” And I would say to her, “No! I’m on my own trajectory here.” She was respectful of it, but she would seed me with these things throughout those years. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Finally, in this other moment of being lost and confused she mentioned it again. “You know there’s this guy Swedenborg?” So, I finally read Heaven and Hell and Presence of Other Worlds by Wilson Van Dusen, and oh my! That was it. That was it. Words cannot fully express the impact that it had on me, and I thought, “Who is this person?” Then found out there was a church, and lo and behold, there’s a local church in the San Francisco Bay area—Hillside. So, we went. Well, first I did research on the denomination, and I couldn’t find anything that made me think that I, as who I am fully, would not be accepted into this church or this congregation. In other words, I felt like I could be myself and when I arrived there was this gentleman named the Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence giving a sermon. And the sermon was unlike anything I had ever heard before.
I still remember it to this day: David slaying Goliath, getting the stones, throwing them, and slaying Goliath. The stone right in the forehead and I thought, okay I’d heard this story many times before… but here was the nuance. He mentioned this word “correspondence” and unpacked it in a way that I was yearning for. It was mind-blowing. From that point forward I knew, okay, I have found a place here. I found a safe place here, and the journey just continued from that point. But I will confess my first draw into Swedenborg was largely again, very much up here, with the wisdom. “Oh, I can study this theology it’s really fascinating let me just get all these books. Hey Jim, let me have my own set of The Green Thirty! You know I’m a brand-new member, but I want those thirty volumes.”
I just started reading, and reading, and reading. I felt that I wanted to go to seminary. I knew that I wanted to do this. I knew I wanted to study religion alongside psychology and counseling, and so I did. Then I was asked by amazing people, “well you know what is it that you want to do with this. You want to join this church? What do you want to do?” It was a question that was difficult for me to answer at first because I knew I was helping others suffering, but that spiritual component was still uncertain. How to actually live that? How to express that with others?
I graduated seminary right before the pandemic. I was very tired; I had been non-stop grad school for five years—two masters degrees, I was burnt out. I just moved into my own home, so I felt like a really responsible adult at this point. No roommates, just me and a cat in a house in Vallejo, I was by myself, and I thought that was fantastic. I’ll live as a hermit for a while. Yeah, I’ll see my patients, I’ll feed my cat, I’ll talk to people, but I’m going to really enjoy just not having very many extroverted connections for a while. Seemed like a good idea at the time and then the pandemic happened and suddenly we were all forced into this period of very intense introversion.
In that moment it was something like we see in Isaiah, the reading that we just heard and read together, being in this place, this darkened place, and suddenly having an experience that erupts before you that is uncontrollable, undeniable, changes you. It was at that time that my mother became very ill and almost passed at that time during the pandemic. Very scary for me, and never been in a situation like that before. In that moment I felt very, very alone in my darkened house with my cat. I felt truly like Jonah in the whale. I felt like it was just me paying attention to the phone, obsessing about whether she was going to make it through. Trying to keep, you know, reaching out as much as I could but I really felt like I was breaking, and this is what Swedenborg talks about with vastation. Sure, I had read it conceptually. Vastation, that’s a thing, right? But until you experience that, it isn’t real until you have it well up in you. I thought to myself, everything is over. What am I going to do? How can I function? In that darkness, I swear to you that I heard in that darkness and silence a voice that said everything will be okay. It wasn’t my own though I’m a very imaginative person, but it was genuinely a voice other than myself, and as I was praying and visualizing my mother in the hospital, I thought of her parents.
My grandfather was a doctor, and my grandmother was a nurse, and I imagined them coming to her in the hospital and standing with her. Again synchronicity, or providence, unfolds here because two independent events occurred: one while I was unpacking my books in my new home and coming undone, I discovered a small photograph of my grandparents that just appeared in my house. Maybe it was nestled in a book somewhere, I have many, and on the floor there they were. After I had just been thinking about them; and when my mother was released from the hospital, independent of this story, she told me that in her scariest moments in the hospital she saw her parents standing next to her at her bedside. When I showed her this picture, I said I don’t know where this picture came from, she didn’t even recognize the picture. It is these experiences, it’s this gnosis, this direct knowing, it was in that moment that I knew for myself that even in the darkness of suffering here I am, I’m helping people with severe mental illness questioning struggling with their sexual orientation, gender identities to be accepted, and I had the privilege of not facing the level of suffering that I had only heard or read about. And yet here in this moment, lived it, we made it, and the voice was right—everything will be okay.
Looking at the passage in Isaiah it seems rather bleak. “For how long Lord you’ve purified my lips” and now I’m going to speak to a people that are going to probably just blow me off, right? And it’s rather bleak. Well, it’s just all going to be devastating, but when we read this correspondentially, when we read this with correspondence, this is the point of vastation. When we may have our doubts about where we’re going in life, what am I going to be doing? Me as a minister, what is that going to look like? I tell you truly, from this experience that I’ve described, from that point, and then the outpouring of support from many of you in this room tonight, signified to me that not only would things be okay, but that I could go forward as a minister with the intention of helping others, guiding others, as I have been guided, mentored, and supported.
So, it is an honor to be here in this sacred space and as I start my journey as a Swedenborgian, unknowingly at the age of seven, with a sanctuary with tree branches. Here I’ve come full circle in a sanctuary with tree branches. Synchronicity? It’s Divine Providence for me and I see it that way. So, I want to thank you all so much for being here, I look forward to this being the beginning, just the beginning, of this next step in our collective journeys together. Thank you.
Read the full issue of the July / August 2022 Messenger
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Meet Colin Amato
Rev. Colin Amato was ordained in 2022. He is a psychotherapist at the Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa County in California. Rev. Amato holds a certificate in Swedenborgian Studies, a master’s in Theological Studies from the Pacific School of Religion, and an M.A. in psychology from San Francisco State with certification in California as a Marriage and Family Therapist.