One Man’s Odyssey
Many of my friends are believers. They have faith in a personal, creationist God. They go to Church regularly. They have families who wed and die in these churches. And they see this life as a preparation for an eternal one. Some believe that only a select few will reap the benefits of their good lives. Others believe that everybody will have a shot at it.
Their deep faiths continue to nurture me, even though I have gently moved away from all theistic traditions.
I also have friends on spiritual journeys who do not believe in any sky-god, who do not accept an eternal punishment-or-reward model for their lives, who see this life as the last house on the block of their brief stays on this planet.
I grew up among believers. We were an exclusive lot in the 50s. We were taught, in no uncertain terms, that “there was no salvation outside the Church” (I’m talking Catholic here). Protestants were going to Hell. Jews would live in infamy as the unforgiven crucifiers of Christ. Hindus lived somewhere “over there.” Masons were a cult. The YMCA harbored heretics.
In spite of the no-salvation-outside-the-church theology of my early Catholic education, I still continue to hold on to what I learned from those in the trenches of my early faith—service and self-examination. The rest, I was to learn much later, was nothing more than unnecessary theological icing on an irrelevant church cake.
On my own private journey, I became partial to Catholic mystics and monks. Theresa of Avila was my saint-bride in waiting. In her bleary-eyed trances, I imagined her on her knees looking up in ecstasy at the heavens for her bridegroom to “ravish” her with his love.
Not unlike Luther, Theresa believed in a personal, unmediated relationship with her God. The institutional church became a kind of rejected lover. After all, Theresa went right to the top; she didn’t need any clerical courtesans masking as intermediaries.
Although mystics seem to like pain. So I suspect Theresa loved the Saturday afternoon confessions where she probably purged herself of guilt that allowed itself to be flagellated into a frenzy during the week.
Sin, after all, in the grand Lucifer-God, Adam-and-Eve narratives, required Cecil B. DeMille entrances and exits, often ending in a magnificent, sometimes horrific “fall from grace.”
And Christ, if the New Testament narratives are true, would have no less an epic exit.
And then there was Teilhard de Chardin. He was the first spiritual evolutionist I had experienced (Are you listening Mat Cohen?). I was attracted, not to the physical aspects of evolution, but to the possibility that our souls could “evolve” into a higher state of consciousness making it impossible for us not to be drawn into the omega-point of all omega points—the glorious, post-Resurrection God arrayed in layers of translucence and, hopefully, all the primary colors.
Thomas Merton then moved into my little house-of-cards- gathering of mystics. After all, he lived as a hermit-monk. His solitude appealed to me. I was drenched in aloneness. I was woeful. I was sad. I was serious.
Merton died in the Far East. He was moving more and more towards Buddhism. I started to devour commentaries and explanations of Buddhism.
I fell in love with the Four Noble Truths, particularly the first Truth that all life is “suffering” or “illusion.” I was attracted to high seriousness as a university student, so I naturally thought intellectual intensity came with an emotional tool-box of self-lacerating traits—guilt, unworthiness, inadequacy, unfulfillment, chronic sadness, and a general sense that anything good wouldn’t last for long.
My world, at this time of my life, was a dim 30 watt bulb.
After the university, I attended a parish-church Sunday services. I was appalled. There was no mention of Theresa or Chardin, and Merton wasn’t even reduced to a footnote.
Unlike the solitude-driven, meditative readings of Theresa of Avila, the dense mysticism of Chardin, or the quiet, self-reflective writings of Merton, all I heard at these Sunday Masses, “herding rituals” I call them, were constant references to “Holy Mother the Church,” the pope, and the “second collection.”
Everyone around me seemed nervously conscious of time. I imagined all of them morphing into church-going neurotics nervously looking at their wrist watches, wondering when the mortgage was due, did they turn off the front stove burner, what time did the babysitter have to get home, why was the electric bill so high, were the public school teachers going to strike.
They were all in their pews but eerily absent at the same time.
After a brief interlude of marriage (11 years) and two kids, I stopped going to a church that had abandoned me in one of its annulment tribunals. The tribunal told me that my marriage never existed because I had other agendas, my motives were not pure, I was psychologically unfit, that I was a fraud.
Of course my children were biological illusions, two virtual creatures dropped on a doorstep by some force of nature oblivious to the sacredness of a marriage that had been rendered annihilated by a church seal.
I began to see the writing on the wall. It was all about power—male power. I never went back to the church I had inherited as a child.
I had a brief brush with progressive Protestantism attending a church in which the pastor was a divinity graduate from an ivy league university. He preached ambivalent, subtle sermons that sounded more like sociology lectures. He read the New York Times and seemed to love his daily cocktail before dinner.
One of his new assistants left this church in search of a less heady pulpit. He eventually became a pastor of a community that seemed to like pot-luck dinners and iced tea. He remains happily ensconced there.
I then began to sneak off to a Unitarian Universalist church and heard sermons about the interconnected web of humanity, respecting the rights of all to pursue their own paths to truth—theistic and non-theistic, that the disenfranchised needed active support. I was hooked.
The possibility that spiritual, intellectual, and emotional enlightenment are open to all—the Universalist code—was a new gift of discovery to a guy steeped in spiritual elitism and exclusivity.
The pulpit readings can range from the poems of Mary Oliver to one of St. Paul’s letters—anything that speaks to the soulfulness of being alive, of grief, of compassion, of being one, of being connected, of being inside nature in all of its rhythms, its hummings and sweet spring odors, its grumbling skies and craggy rocks.
In the wide-scanning world of Unitarianism, nothing is excluded from the ever-present divinity from within and from without. Sacredness, I discovered here, is a very wide hoop.
Before settling in to my find-your-own-path community that was a good fit for me, I escaped into booze and jogging. Vodka martinis went well with Chardin, Merton, Buddha, and liberal Protestantism. I could jog my way into a healthy body, feel the compassion of liberation theology, put the Vodka bottle into the freezer, come home from a jog, sit in the bathtub next to a plate of crackers and half-pound of cheddar cheese and a tumbler full of freezing-temperature vodka.
In the warm blanket of tub-water, I could read about how desire and craving were both the causes and the effects of suffering, the first Noble Truth. I was not well.
Twenty-six years later, I remain in recovery.
Over time, with the help of those on the same emotional and psychological path, I have generally managed to infuse my life with certain basic principles and actions:
—Pay attention to what I do and think
—Call a friend
—Take somebody to a doctor’s appointment
—Clean my apartment
—Be silent more
—Be cautious with those who don’t like me
—Try to see the other side of any argument
—When necessary, assert myself with kindness and directness
—Read more Pema Chödrön and Trungpa Rinpoché
—Write every day
—Be open to new behaviors and actions