Catharine Clarenbach

I begin by offering my bio in brief. If you want the in-depth story of my journey with faith and love, from being bullied, living with bipolar illness, coming out, becoming a priestess, living in a convent, going to seminary for three years, getting ordained, and finally to living into a fuller version of my heart’s mission, that’s a little lower down.

I help people alienated from or ambivalent about religion find their own, authentic spirituality. Whether religious trauma, isolation, or alienation have been a part of your past or not, I am here for your work on your own path.

I am a white, fat, cis woman, a sovereign queer femme with well-managed mental illness and trauma from sexual assault. I am an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and an Initiate in the Tradition of Stone Circle Wicca (USA). I spent four years in discernment with an order of Roman Catholic religious sisters, and I am trained and credentialed as a spiritual director.

Catharine Clarenbach
Catharine Clarenbach

I begin by offering my bio in brief. If you want the in-depth story of my journey with faith and love, from being bullied, living with bipolar illness, coming out, becoming a priestess, living in a convent, going to seminary for three years, getting ordained, and finally to living into a fuller version of my heart’s mission, that’s a little lower down.

I help people alienated from or ambivalent about religion find their own, authentic spirituality. Whether religious trauma, isolation, or alienation have been a part of your past or not, I am here for your work on your own path.

 

Catharine Clarenbach
I also know that none of those things may tell you all of what you need or want to know about me.

If you want to have a fuller, more tangible sense of how I came to be the person I am, read on.

The Longer Story

I have always longed for what T. Thorn Coyle calls in the title of one of their books, “The Kiss of the Limitless.” Other people have called It simply God. The One. The Real. The Source of Love. The Goddess. The Energy of Life. The Universe. Love Itself.  I honestly don’t care at all what you call it. I really don’t.

What I have always known about it is that It both chases me and I yearn to be caught. I burn for It, and no matter how much I drink from the Holy and Limitless well, the more I thirst for that sweet and living water.

This longing found me under a pine tree, age about 6, earnestly explaining God to a child of my parents’ atheist colleagues. The same longing led me to the bank of Slab Cabin Creek, the stream that ran through the little town where I grew up, and where I baptized my best friend when I was twelve. And it led me into many late-night conversations with my beloved father, my first teacher, and scholar of poetry, writing, and the Bible as literature.

My longing found its first great flowering in the years when I was 7 until I was 17. Along with my mother, I was a musician at Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church, one of only two parishes in the county. “We” had a registered population of more than 2000, and many others attended regularly. My parents had chosen to attend Our Lady of Victory, or as we called it, OLV, because of its thriving music program. I was in it up to my neck from the time I began attending church there.

I wasn’t part of the music program because I was a musician; not really. If I had wanted just to be a musician, I could have stuck with my piano and voice lessons; parts in high school theater (you’ll be just shocked to know I played the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music); district, regional, and state voice and piano competitions; marching band; jazz band, and orchestra. I mean, there was no shortage of music to be had in my life.

But no matter how important music was for me, it was always a means to an end.

lil c in dress
church organ
choir 2

I was at Our Lady of Victory because given the options, I had at the time, it let me be near the Holy. I was young, and I believed then that the liturgy of the capital-C Church got me as close as I would ever come to God, to Mystery of the Sacraments, and the beautiful revelation of the turning Liturgical Year. 

Church was my haven, my home, and the place I knelt, sat, stood, and sang with everything I had. Church was how I lived through the merciless bullying of being a fat girl in junior high. Church was how I lived through being molested by my best friend’s boyfriend and then later, another “friend.” Church was how I lived through the bleak suicidal depressions that grasped my mind at irregular intervals and had done since I was a small child.

If Our Lady, the Mother of Sorrows, could live through the death of Her own Son on the Cross, killed like a common criminal, surely I could live. Surely I could make enough music to drown out the voices that said I deserved to die, I was a failure and a disappointment, and that I never should have been born. 

I attended five Masses on Christmas, where I helped toll the bells of joy. I worshiped and cantored throughout the solemnity of Lent and Holy Week, and sang and played for the magnificent Easter Vigil where the priest blessed the Paschal candle in a great vat of holy water and then lit that tall, perfectly white candle out of the New Fire kindled before our eyes.  

You might not be surprised, then, to learn I ended up in a convent. But just you hold your horses…

Something terrible, something wonderful, something truly apocalyptic (“apocalypse” literally means “revelation,” you might find it pertinent to know), happened to me.

Late in 1990, when I was seventeen years old and a first-year student at Penn State University, it was steadily revealed to me, and then to others–my friends, my family, and ultimately members of my church community–that I had come to understand I was lesbian. Queer, really, but I didn’t use that word with them; “lesbian” turned out to be bad enough. 

My life changed overnight.

My choir director, the one who had only months before said that I was a prize lyric soprano, that I was a credit to the Church, and that he was so grateful for everything I had given, turned his back on me. I was no longer an acceptable role model for the children whose choir I had directed. I was no longer an acceptable leader of the music of holy liturgy. I was no longer welcome at Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic parish. He made it clear without saying a word.

I was no longer welcome.

What did that even mean, I was no longer welcome? I could hardly grasp it, it seemed so impossible.

It meant that when the people of the God I knew cast me out, it was Queer community that took me in.

friday I'm in love
cc retro
at the club
our house in the middle of the street

It meant that I sang at the top of my lungs and vogued to Madonna, danced to Depeche Mode, and threw myself into the desperation of Nine Inch Nails until I could hardly breathe.

It meant that I passed out from drinking at parties, feeling safe in the knowledge that I was surrounded by my people. 

It meant that when bipolar illness steadily gripped more and more of my mind and left me talking to myself on the street, and then standing in a shower in a small pool of my own blood, it was queer men and women, fellow campus musicians, who rescued me and came to see me in the hospital. 

It meant that I began working for the AIDS Project of Centre County when I was 18 and my first acquaintance died and all my male friends had fear behind their eyes.

It meant that I found a home among Radical Faeries and Lesbian Avengers and friends of many genders I went to bed with and the other ones with whom I had passionate, tumultuous affairs.

And eventually it meant that I met a belly-dancing witch whose name is now Noor Jihan.

In 1991, she was the only witch, the only practicing Pagan, I had ever met. It meant I fell easily into the rapture that only a mid-adolescent young woman finding the Goddess and Her rituals could fall.

I wept openly at the first ritual I ever attended where I heard these words of the Charge of the Star Goddess: “Know that your seeking and yearning will not avail you unless you know the Greatest of the Mysteries:  If that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without. For behold! I have been with you from the beginning, and I am That which is attained at the end of all desire.” Those lines are still at the heart of my thealogy.

I had no organized place for ceremony. There was no Pagan church, as such. There was still no home for my spiritual heart. So I kept wandering, like Jesus with the wild beasts in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 1.

Because of course, it was all still there. Those lines I knew so well from the Song of Songs:  “Refresh me with apples. Stay me with raisin cakes, for I am sick with love…” They still echoed inside my heart. The sense that there was always a Love greater than I could see, just beyond the horizon. The feeling that I could never explain but had never, ever gone away. 

I just didn’t believe that there was any place that could hold a fat, mouthy, ex-Catholic dyke with the heart of a mystic.

In my mid-twenties, I found a place full of “witches, and Faeries, and bears, oh my!” It was an interfaith, largely Pagan campground and religious organization. I would stay there for twelve years among crackpot mystics and urban shamans, Gardnerians who believed in the polarity of gender, and deeply hedonist fire dancers who said they had all genders and none.

This was the place I learned to weave a Maypole really well; to build an altar; to lead torchlit ceremony for 3, 30, or 300 people; to carry Aspects of the Divine in my own body; and to become a spiritual leader, teacher, listener, and counselor. This was the place I befriended and was welcomed into the lives and rituals of practitioners of la Regla de Ocha, which you may know as Santeria. This was the place I learned to wield the Sacred Tools and grow the Twilight Vision of the Priestess.

Still, I wanted More, even more. Something even more than the muscular beauty of drumming for the ecstatic dancers at the Fire Circle. Something other than the songs I led and the choir I directed. Even something other than the ceremonies I helped to build inside a growing Circle of Standing Stones.

Catharine Clarenbach
happy buds
forest ceremony
happy buds
Catharine Clarenbach
forest ceremony

That More I wanted was depth, serious, demanding, and unrelenting.

Now you can see what happens next. You knew it would happen eventually.

I sought out the sisters, the Roman Catholic religious sisters I had first investigated when I was sixteen, the Sisters of St. Joseph. And I spent four years with them, one of those years actually living in a convent, and I did receive the gift I went to them seeking. 

With the Sisters of St. Joseph, I met women who read my poetry and did not look at me strangely afterward. These women taught me the formal art of Ignatian discernment that serves me well in my teaching and spiritual companionship, as well as in my own prayer. They taught me about spiritual direction and their centuries-old practice of “Sharing the State of the Heart.” 

Most of all, they taught a young woman with undiagnosed (still!) bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder that routine and structure could be her friends. Amazing! 

I had a spiritual director who never let me off the hook and who taught me the important truth that as an extrovert, I am at somewhat of a disadvantage in the life of prayer and contemplation. I can be caught by the shiny things of the exterior, social world rather than responding to the longing I had always had. She taught me that longing is best nourished by turning toward the heart, by listening there, attending to what is written there, and doing so as part of a spiritual routine.

And that turning happens in silence. In stillness. In the calling after the One Who is Love, whether our minds make Them, make It Male, Female, Both, or Neither. The turning happens in music. It happens in dancing. It happens in ceremony. But I had never known the beauty of silence before. After all, it had never been demanded of me.

The thing was, though, I was a priestess. I was a committed priestess and a wide-embracing, nearly indiscriminate lover of God/dess trying desperately to fit into one place, one shape, one understanding of the Divine. “Catharine certainly has enough faith for us,” wrote my vocation director. “My only question is whether the Church has enough faith for her.” 

How right she was. 

And so many other things happened. 

I left that convent in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania for the home of the dear friend whom I would eventually marry.

We began attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation where I learned that much of me could be at home in that tradition’s embrace. I realized I was profoundly drawn to the external and internal life of ministry as I understood it, and so I went to seminary.

And wonder of wonders, they let me become a minister! Still a priestess. Still a wanderer. Still queer and fat, mouthy and mentally ill (though by now, thank God, armed with a diagnosis and a team of helpers who have helped keep me well for years).

qira and julie
laying on of hands
relaxed in the pulpit
cc flower

The fit is not always perfect. 

Just as I was not cut out for poverty and chastity, much less obedience, nor was I cut out for a tradition that has little silence, no fasting, and all feasting. 

Just as I longed for depth among my Pagan comrades, I longed for creativity, theological resonance, and delight in my “detour” with religious sisters.

And yet all these things are part of me, no? Some are part of my past, sure. I’ll never be Roman Catholic again. Hell, I couldn’t even manage the theology and the social exclusion when I was living in a convent! 

But I am indeed a minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. 

And I am indeed a priestess in the Tradition of Stone Circle Wicca (USA).

And I am indeed, as folx say today, queer as fuck. 

In 1977, I knelt next to my mother and wondered at the chiming bells, the signal that the miracle of transubstantiation was happening. Along with other early worship experiences, that time, that sense of the miraculous shaped my heart. While I may no longer believe in that particular miracle, the literal transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of a god, I still find power, glory, and grace in liturgies of many traditions. 

Furthermore, I believe, as Peter Mayer says, “Everything is holy now.” Turning water into wine was a great thing, sure, but the sheer improbability, impossibility really, that we are here at all takes my breath away. What about you? What takes your breath away?

My Hopes

Traditions and history aside, my desire is to help you experience the gifts I have seen emerge over and over through yearning toward intimacy with the Running Spring of Living Water, the Never-failing Well of Creativity, the Great River that Leads to the Sea of Eternity, the Source of Life and Love.

However you feel called, I encourage you to call back. I encourage you to open your heart and sing out to the Divine Self within and beyond you. I encourage you to sharpen your thirst for the Holy.

Nothing in my life has ever proven so glorious, so alluring, or so steadfast as this yearning, this leaning in toward the Divine. 

As a queer, cisgender femme who beholds the beauty in people of many genders and none, I am called to companion those of us who have been rejected and abandoned, whose identities even the most progressive religious communities have tried to erase. 

I am called to companion you, non-binary friend whose friends cannot seem to make their own way around “they/them.” 

I am called to companion you, candidate for ministry, as you try to navigate the byzantine path toward credentialing and ordination. And you too, religious professional, who feels so alone in the exhausting work you do.

I am called to companion you, gay, poly kinkster friend, yes you, the one who can only bring one of your partners to church. 

I am called to companion you, to behold you, to reflect back the brilliance that you are, you child of Earth and Starry Heaven.

In our seeking for the One Who Is Many; All Genders and None, many of us gather on Facebook, in The Way of the River Community Group. We share classes, discussions, articles, queries, celebrations, and ritual time. Please consider joining us.

I also invite you to subscribe to my weekly “Love Letters,” called simply, Reflections. Reflections may include meditation on the season, the day, or something that I have been pondering in my heart to share with you.

I have been a spiritual seeker with an unquenchable thirst for Divine Union since I can remember. I am here to help you find what you need to both to sharpen your own thirst and to find the never-running-dry, drenching, quenching Well of Love that exists in the center of your heart and throughout the entire universe.

This desire for depth, for wisdom, and for Divine Union is what moves me to be here with you.

To be here.

To be.

I am here because you are.

The Credentials

You may want to know about some of what I’ve learned, where I’ve learned it, and what my spiritual and religious “cred” is.

I have learned many of my skills in institutional community, seminary, and congregational life:

I obtained my Masters of Divinity with honors from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC in 2013. And after preaching, teaching, offering counsel to and learning from hundreds of people through a year-long internship in Portland, OR, I was ordained a minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition by All Souls Church Unitarian in DC, April of 2015.

I am also an initiated priestess in the tradition of Stone Circle Wicca and began my Earth-centered studies in 1990. I have led rituals for thousands of people in individual ceremonies as large as 400. Most large rituals took place in a Circle of Standing Stones under dozens of branching oaks. Some small ones have been just a couple of folks in a living room.

Stone Circle Wicca
Wesley

Finally, I am credentialed in and have offered spiritual direction—what one might also call spiritual accompaniment or sacred conversation—for nearly twenty years. I experience formal, Ignatian spiritual direction and discernment with the Sisters of St. Joseph. I also studied spiritual direction at Wesley Theological Seminary and the Washington Theological Seminary with Pat Manchini a Sister of the Holy Names. My formal credentialing is through the Urban Spirituality Center, an interfaith spiritual direction program in Portland, OR. I belong to Spiritual Directors International, the Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Directors Network, The Liberal Religious Educators Association, The Unitarian Universalist Society for Community Ministries, and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association.

Over all that time, I have companioned people as they encountered, explored, and shared their relationships with the Divine and with their own Deep Selves. That is my work, and I approach and delve into it with joy. I hope you’ll join me.

If you’d like to know more about my work, I invite you to download my e-book, Your Perfect Day, and perhaps sign up for a free consultation call to see whether we might work fruitfully together.

Free Download

So what’s one step you can take in the direction of your own deepest, wisest heart?
What’s one way that you can be encouraged in your journey to that place where your
own wisdom and the voice of the Divine come together?

 I invite you to download Your Perfect Day, a guide for you as you move through
the world and try to make Spirit-led, wise decisions.
It uses techniques I have found invaluable in trying to make good decisions.
And along with Your Perfect Day, you’ll get a weekly spiritual boost from
Reflections, a love letter from me to you.

If you’d like a deeper sense of whether you and I might be a fit,
please feel free to go to the “Is This You?” page and learn more!

Free Download

So what’s one step you can take in the direction of your own deepest, wisest heart?
What’s one way that you can be encouraged in your journey to that place where your own wisdom and the voice of the Divine come together?

 I invite you to download Your Perfect Day, a guide for you as you move through
the world and try to make Spirit-led, wise decisions.
It uses techniques I have found invaluable in trying to make good decisions.
And along with Your Perfect Day, you’ll get a weekly spiritual boost from
Reflections, a love letter from me to you.

If you’d like a deeper sense of whether you and I might be a fit, please feel free to go to the “Is This You?” page and learn more!