The Quest: An Interview with Karen Soleau

by Dave Hurlbert

In 2000, St. Gregory of Nyssa began celebrating a ritual for its youth. In this biennial event, called the Quest, young people aged 12 or 13 spend a weekend camping together with adult companions. During this time, members of the group meditate, sing, pray, and engage in a variety of spiritual, creative, and athletic activities. Afterwards the young men and women share their experiences with the other members of St. Gregory’s in a special Sunday morning service.

The Quest was the inspiration of Karen Soleau, a professional illustrator, mother of two, and Sunday School teacher at St. Gregory’s. In this interview with Dave Hurlbert, Karen shares some of her own experiences.

What was your life like when you were 12 or 13?

As a girl I was always gathering pinecones or acorns, feathers or shells. I’d give them as gifts, or I’d use them to create altars out in nature, art that other people could stumble upon.

My family lived next door to a Presbyterian church, which was always doing fun things: having a luau, decorating for Christmas, singing. I signed myself up there for Vacation Bible School each summer. I loved the crafts and the field trips, and I could share what I created with other people.

What has your own quest been like?

As far as a quest goes, a questing for God, I think it must have started for me in high school, when my life fell apart. My parents divorced, my grades dropped, I started hanging out with a bad crowd and skipping school. I felt neglected and completely alone. Things got even worse in college. I dropped out, and started working as a waitress. Up until I was 21, I’d work all night, then go out to clubs with my friends, drinking and carrying on. Towards the end of this phase I would find myself in the bathroom at a club, beating my head against the wall, saying, “O Lord! God! I’m so sorry! I’m wasting my imagination!” I’d always thought God gave me this really great gift, and I was just wasting it. I was destroying myself. I knew I had to get out of New Jersey.

Liam, by Dennis Murray, 2002

My sister had moved to San Francisco, and she invited me to live with her. A day later, I moved there, and set up a new life for myself. I went back to college, got a job as a graphic artist for the San Francisco Symphony, married a man from Ghana, and had two children.

After seven years, though, my marriage ended. There were cultural differences between the two of us that we couldn’t resolve, as much as we tried. I was left with two young children and a heap of bills. I was working then, part-time, as an art teacher, and barely making it. I got sick to the point of death with meningitis, and I contemplated suicide. I knew there surely couldn’t be a God, and I wanted to give up. This was the only time in my life that I didn’t have any faith. Luckily for me, I was hospitalized for extreme stress. This gave me the opportunity to realize there were people around who loved me. I just had to stop thinking I was in control of everything, and let them in, and let them help me.

I realized that God had been walking with me through this whole experience, and that I needed to “bottom out” in order to rise up. My faith in God had been reconceived and restored. I felt God’s presence in my life, stronger than ever. I began running hard in a park near my home, every day. As I ran I would chant over and over, “I am a child of God; I am a pillar of light.” I began to refer to this ritual as “Running with God.”

Eventually, I found my way down the street to St. Gregory’s. I was thrilled by what I saw happening in Sunday School. The kids and the teachers were combining spirituality with art. They were painting icons, and sharing their lives with each other. After a time, I was invited to be a Sunday School teacher.

I had always taught art to children, and this was a way to combine my love for children and art, and my newly rejuvenated faith in God. In my running and chanting I would become inspired with ideas for my Sunday School class.

What were your ideas?

I wanted to create a safe place where children could experience a weekly ritual, and have a forum to discuss things that were going on in their lives. I wanted to show them that they could make a sacred space in their own rooms, and just be still, and know that God was with them. If I had only known then, when I was their age, what I know now, how much easier my own life would have been, how much less lonesome and self-punishing.

I tried to model what was going on upstairs, in the church, and bring it downstairs to the class, but at a level and pace the children could digest. We started by creating a sacred space with rocks that the kids brought in. We began by singing the Sh’ma and lighting God’s light on a big candle. Then we’d hold hands and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Then we’d offer our own prayers and light our individual candles. We would sing “Servant of God” and pass around a “talking stick” that we’d made together. Each child would share his or her news of the week. That’s been our own sermon, just as upstairs people were sharing from their own experiences, during and after the sermon.

How did the idea of a ritual for adolescents come up?

Until a few years ago, we didn’t have a significant group of adolescent children at St. Gregory’s. Now that group exists. The parents began asking for a ritual akin to a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, something beyond Confirmation. The church gave me the artistic license to go with my creativity.

Even so, or maybe because of that, it was one of the most difficult learning experiences of my life. I had to deal with the complicated logistics, the clergy, adolescent kids, and parents with fears of letting their children make this passage. This was a brand-new baby, something we had never done before.

Alex and Nicholas, by Dennis Murray, 2002

How is the Quest structured? What’s involved?

The children begin intense preparation at the beginning of January of a Questing year. They each choose an adult companion, a member of the congregation, not a parent, to join them. In the two Quests we’ve had so far, kids have chosen single parents, other parents, or singles in general, gay and straight, to be their companions. These companions agree to Quest with them, and to act as mentors.

We have sleepovers at the church to discuss what the Quest is about, work on our projects, and knit the group into a closer, more intimate community. This past Questing year I asked the children to choose a saint who truly spoke to them, and then to create a triptych to illustrate how that saint revealed Jesus to them. Our inspiration was the multitude of dancing saint icons on the church walls—everyone from St. Teresa to Anne Frank to Malcolm X.

The Quest itself lasts for three days. Our first two Quests were held in Lake Del Valle in Livermore, California. zIt’s a remote spot.

The activities and ceremonies were slightly different for each Quest. In the first Quest we started with a blessing of the group, then set up tents. At the onset, the children and their companions were asked to find a rock or stick that spoke to them. In the evening the group gathered at the campfire to sing, discuss St. Gregory’s values, pray, and engage in ritual.

The next morning began with singing the Sh’ma again, along with other hymns, and prayer. We asked the children to construct individual altars within the environment. They gathered sticks, rocks, bones, and leaves, and combined these with special things they’d brought from home. Working in spaces they chose—coves, trees, fields, a small carved-out embankment—the children built their altars. After lunch the whole group gathered together and made a pilgrimage to each site, where they gathered in a ritual each altar-builder had prepared.

That evening the Questors read letters from their families, and offered their reflections on their parents, brothers, and sisters.

On the third day, the kids sang together again, recited the Lord’s Prayer, celebrated the Eucharist, reflected on their experiences, packed up the tents, and hiked back to the vans and cars.

An excerpt from the Questors’ worksheet, “What does the Quest mean to you?”:

“Questing requires thought, prayer, song, art, meditation, ritual, movement, risk-taking, and the ability to listen and respond. Through this Quest we want to give you spiritual tools to carry with you throughout your entire lives.”

Did the Quest go exactly as planned?

We were nearly overwhelmed by the surprises. When we arrived, we found that all our supplies had to be delivered to the campsite by boat. That was an unplanned event engineered by the Holy Spirit.  Finding a boat moored there, we got in with our supplies and sailed across the lake.

Then the children discovered a huge rock jutting out over the lake, and they decided to add a new ritual to the Quest: jumping off. For most of the kids and companions, this was an act of overcoming very real fears. The rock was a symbol of jumping off into adulthood. It was frightening, and it was joyous.

I think the biggest surprise was the emotional and spiritual intensity of the event. Some, maybe all, of the children and their companions thought they were going to spend a few pleasant days together, camping out. That certainly happened. But the deeply personal sharing about the children’s lives and their families was unexpected. During our final group prayer before departing, we, the children and their companions, were in tears. Today, three years later, some of those Questors and their companions have continued strong, close relationships with one another.

I understand last year’s Quest, the second one, was a difficult time for you.

Yes, it was. My own son was a Questor. Because I’d made up the rule that no parents could accompany their kids on the Quest, I couldn’t go; I couldn’t lead. I had to let go of everything. I had to let go of my adolescent son. I had to face not being in control of planning the rituals, the games, or the discussions.

Trevor and Damon, by Dennis Murray, 2002

When it came time to attend the Quest “Mitzvah” party to celebrate the kids’ return, I could hardly get into the car to drive to the church. I was lying on my kitchen floor, crying and crying because I hadn’t truly processed what this meant for me as a parent, not just a Sunday School teacher. It all came to me that that I’d have to let go of my son, as he moved on from childhood to young adulthood, and I felt that I couldn’t let him go.

Finally, I made it to church. I can hardly remember that Saturday night or the special liturgy that followed the next Sunday morning, but I know they were both good.

It’s taken me months to understand this experience. I’ve been trying to process the whole experience of the past four years, when the Quest started. I have strong faith that God has a plan, and that we are here to do what we can with our gifts. The sooner we realize what these gifts are, and how to share them, the better life can be. I’ve learned to let go, and let other people give their gifts. And I’m learning to let my son shine in his own gifts, and be joyous in that, and embrace that shining.

I’m content knowing that I’m a child of God. I don’t need to run hard and chant anymore. Now I just walk with God and try to listen quietly. Mostly, I breathe deep in the silence, and it is good.

Karen Soleau continues to teach in St. Gregory’s Sunday School, and is now helping to plan the next Quest. Dave Hurlbert is a member of St. Gregory’s, and serves on the Editorial Board for God’s Friends.

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