Thursday, December 31, 2015

Finding My Roots, Feeding My Spirit

Following is a slightly modified post I made in 2014 to my Facebook account. 

"In some of the delightful conversations with you … the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other."
-- Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to my ancestor, Benjamin Rush

I've never been a joiner.

It's not that I don't want to belong to or identify with any particular group. It's more that I tend to examine things with great rigor, and I almost always find something that doesn't sit quite right with me. I can often be sympathetic to a particular group's outlook, yet I rarely feel comfortable enough to hold myself out as an advocate for that group.

And so it has always been with religion.

I was raised Catholic, and some of my earliest church memories are of questioning the things I was asked to believe. Generally, the answer I received was some variation of "because that's what the church teaches." Circular logic and "because I said so" answers don't work so well for me. Never have.

There was nothing I actively disliked about Catholicism. In fact, I very much enjoyed the beauty of the Mass service itself. But it asked me to believe things that I simply couldn't make myself believe. It took many years and lots of courage, but I eventually left the faith of my upbringing.

And I didn't stop there. Various life events converged to lead me away from Christianity in general.

But I still felt the pull of spirituality. Not religion, in the sense of being handed a list of rules and being told to follow them, but spirituality -- a need to be connected to something larger than myself. A place where I could find refuge and peace.

In the process, I became a student of world religions, and after much reading and contemplation, I drifted toward Buddhism. Central to that decision was Buddhism's emphasis on not accepting things on blind faith. That was exactly what I needed. The Buddha essentially told his followers, "I've found a path to happiness and fulfillment. Try it for yourself, and hold the teachings up to scrutiny. If they work for you, follow them. If they don't, I wish you well."

I was also drawn to Buddhism through my immersion in the words of the Dalai Lama, perhaps the best known Buddhist to most of us in the West. The Dalai Lama represents Tibetan Buddhism, a tradition that's rich in symbolism, pageantry, ritual, and even a pantheon of saints. Those things made Tibetan Buddhism somewhat analogous to the religion of my upbringing -- the Catholicism of Buddhism, if you will. The Tibetan tradition therefore served as a bridge of sorts for me.

That was well over a decade ago, and my Buddhist practice has been irregular at best since then. I'll meditate and then start to find excuses not to do it anymore. I have numerous statues and altar trinkets -- some on display, but many packed away -- along with unused boxes of incense and candles. Dozens and dozens of books on Buddhist philosophy line my shelves, along with several translations of the Tao Te Ching and the occasional book on Confucian teachings. I've read up on just about every sect of Buddhism imaginable and have taken in influences from other Eastern religions along the way. I philosophically understand Buddhism, and I try my best to follow its precepts. But as with most things I encounter in my life, I've never felt entirely comfortable calling myself a Buddhist.

Perhaps it's because I came to admire both Theravada Buddhism and Soto Zen and I could never settle on which "flavor" of Buddhism best suited me, and I never made the time commitment to seek out the temples and sitting groups to find out where I really belonged. Maybe it was because I always cast a skeptical eye toward the teachings on rebirth and karma.

Or maybe it was because Buddhism just always felt a little bit foreign to me, as if I was trying to appropriate an Asian tradition that I, a white American male raised as a Christian, had no business taking part in.

At the start of 2014, I put my best effort into restarting my meditation practice, but it predictably fizzled out. At that point, I started to finally put the spirituality aside. After years of considering myself an agnostic on matters of the supernatural, I declared myself an agnostic atheist -- someone who lacks a belief in a deity but holds that the existence of a deity is ultimately unknowable -- and moved on with my life.

But then life took a turn, as life does.

First off, my mom died. And it unsettled me a little bit that I really didn't feel anything. My mother had many faults and didn't make my life easy, and I decided years ago to cut off contact with my family because of the toll they were taking on my mental health, with my mother and brother at the top of the list. In a sense, I mourned my loss and buried her years ago. But to feel nothing at the news that she was gone … well, it just made me question where the humanity of my spiritual teachings had gone. Did I ever really learn anything? How could I set an example for others of how to live a righteous life if that was my reaction? Moreover, how could I claim to embrace the universal spiritual teachings of love and forgiveness if I had so easily pushed someone out of my life in the first place?

Then came my health problems. As of now, I still don't know what's wrong with me. But I've felt poorly enough at times to be frightened for my own mortality. It's moments like those when the absence of a spiritual connection makes itself known. Not that I was longing for a god to pray to, but just lacking that sense of being connected to something bigger than oneself left me feeling adrift.

And then toward the end of 2014, my wife got the news that her only sister suddenly and unexpectedly died. She was only 45. I was 43 at the time. If anything puts your mortality in perspective, that'll do it -- especially if your own body isn't working the way it's supposed to.

We went home to Michigan to grieve with my wife's mom and her family. We were there for a little over two weeks, and it was the longest period I'd spent in Michigan since we moved away at the end of 2003. Much to my surprise, I felt the pull of my home state. It was reminding me that my roots were planted there, whether I wanted to admit it or not. Part of me had forgotten that. When we moved away, we threw ourselves into our busy lives in metro D.C., and then in the Seattle area, and we didn't give our native Michigan a lot of thought. But people are different there, back in our home state. They're simple, humble, hard-working, plain-spoken, and largely religious folks. They're the people I grew up around. To some extent, I am those people.

That connection became most apparent when I took a day to drive over to my hometown, a place I hadn't laid eyes on in at least 11 years. Many of the storefronts in little White Pigeon, Michigan, were empty, and I saw no one I knew, yet the pull of the place where I grew up was undeniable. I rode my bikes on those streets. I worked with my dad at the corner gas station he owned and ate lots of chicken dinners at the restaurant right next door. I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic church on the eastern outskirts of town. I saw my first movies -- back in the days before DVDs or video on demand -- at the cinema that's since been converted into a church of its own. I shopped in the family-owned hardware store that now houses the village government offices. I went to the street fairs, and I marched with the school band on the now-empty football field.

I also got my heart broken in that town for the first time. Deciding that drowning my sorrows needed some good company, my best friend, Tony, and I stole a bottle of wine from my parents, got drunk, and staggered around arm in arm down the quiet streets in the middle of the night. It was also the place where I was regularly bullied in school, picked last for everything in gym class, and never really fit in with anyone -- even with the brainy kids, who were nice to me but never let me into their inner circle.

Good and bad alike, that little town was the story of me. And I had mostly put it out of my mind.

But now a confluence of events had put me back in touch with my roots -- not just my geographic ones, but my spiritual ones as well. And that was not the easiest thing to grapple with, after I'd turned my back on it all for so long.

Let's face it: There are a whole lot of people who look down their noses at Christianity these days. I'm not saying some of the reputation is not deserved, but that has more to do with certain practitioners than it does with the tradition itself. I've been guilty myself on many occasions of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, condemning practitioners and tradition alike.

But whom am I fooling? I've never stopped admiring the moral teachings of Jesus. Like Thomas Jefferson and his cut-and-paste version of the Gospels, I admit to holding the supernatural claims of Christianity at arm's length. To others, of course, those beliefs are supremely important. We all need something to hold onto, to center us, as we walk through life.

A few nights after we got back home from Michigan, I was looking up some information on the anarcho-pacifist movement of which I consider myself an ally. Even though my politics are somewhat mixed, the one thing that's pretty consistent across the board for me is my commitment to nonviolence. I'm pro-life, anti-war, anti-death penalty, a vegetarian, and as environmentally conscious as I can be. I like to think I'm pro-life for people, animals, and the planet alike. Anyway, that online search led me into a discussion of Tolstoy and the Christian anarchist movement, which also holds pacifism as one of its guiding tenets. In the process, I happened to read that one prominent Christian anarchist, Ammon Hennacy, was born into a Quaker family.

Not knowing much about the Quakers, I took another detour, wondering why somebody born a Quaker might become such a staunch advocate for nonviolence in the name of Christ.

As I quickly found out, the Quakers have been at the forefront of the Christian peace movement since their founding some 350 years ago.

Learning that, I had to find out more. And what I found deeply intrigued me. Turns out the Quakers were instrumental in winning conscientious-objector status for those opposed to serving in war. And before that, they were leading the fight for the abolition of slavery and the right of women to vote. They were fighting for those rights while other denominations were either dragging their feet or still staunchly opposed on scriptural grounds.

Why did they lead the way? Because the Quakers were believers in a kind of radical equality. Where others may have regarded blacks as property and women as inferior, Quakers said all men and women were equal, because we all had the same light of God shining within us. That stance got them into a bit of trouble over the years, because it also meant that a Quaker would not show deference to judges, clergymen, or political leaders. No one was above or below anyone else in the eyes of God, so removing a hat as a show of respect, or kneeling before a king, or calling a judge "your honor" had no place in Quaker philosophy. Whether you were dirt poor, the president, or the richest person on the planet, you were an equal, and a Quaker would refer to you by given name only.

Quakers also refused to take oaths, because they valued directness and simplicity of speech, which implied that whatever they said was the truth -- and taking an oath, conversely, implied that they might otherwise lie.

But what really intrigued me was the Quaker worship service. Though some sects take a different approach today, many Quaker gatherings remain "unprogrammed," meaning that there is no preacher to guide the service. If all are equal, how can there be a minister preaching down to the congregants, right? Instead, Quakers position themselves in chairs or benches facing each other, and they sit in contemplative silence, waiting for the spirit to move one of them to speak to the congregation.

That is spiritual anarchism in action! There is no hierarchy in such a setting, no one dictating rules or rituals to the gathered members. Instead, everyone in attendance is considered equally capable of speaking to the congregation. Rather than packaging God into a pre-programmed hour-long ritual, the congregants allow the space for God to come to them as they feel called to do so.

The Quakers' meeting spaces are generally unadorned. You won't find the abundant statuary of the Catholic church here. Not even a cross. In fact, outward symbols of faith aren't a part of Quaker tradition. There are no outward sacraments, either, not even a baptism ceremony. The belief is that a simple, humble life lived in service to others, as a reflection of Christ's love, is the greatest sacrament of all. Quakerism is a religion of actions, not words.

Well, I still can't simply make myself believe certain things. But in the Quaker religion, there's room for seekers of the truth. You aren't expected to have all the answers, nor will the answers be dictated to you. Many Quakers surely believe in a personal God, but they are also free to experience the idea of God in their own way, whether as an impersonal creative force like the Tao, or simply in the way one comports oneself, much as someone may tap into his or her Buddha-nature. It's not what concept somebody has of God, but rather the manner in which they represent their beliefs and carry them into the world, that matters. It's not what you believe, but how you act.

Feeling the pull of wanting to connect again to something bigger than myself, I began reading about the Quakers, and I eventually decided to attend some meetings (their word for their church service). In all, I attended five different meetings in the Seattle-Tacoma area. I first visited the Eastside meeting in Bellevue. The setting of the meeting-house was beautiful, nestled into a quiet wooded area outside the city. The design of the wooden building put me in the mind of mid-century modern architecture, with the low roofline and wall-sized, floor-to-ceiling windows. The place blended naturally right into the wooded surroundings.

Two ladies in the kitchen, preparing the social hour after the meeting, graciously welcomed me. After I helped one of them move a couple of tables, they showed me to the meeting-room. Rows of folding chairs faced each other in three directions. The fourth wall was a massive window that looked out onto the woods, and before it sat the only adornment in the room -- a small table with a Bible on the bottom shelf, and some evergreen sprigs sticking out of a clear glass bottle on the top. On the opposite wall, behind the chairs, was a table filled with all kinds of Quaker literature. I saw lots of things pertaining to conscientious objection, and also some information on a gun-control proposal that was on the recent state election ballot.

OK, fair enough. I took my seat, and I settled into the silence. The picture here shows you my view (it's from the group's Facebook page, so I think they wouldn't mind if I reproduce it here). Not too bad.

I sat looking out at the trees, and the first thing that came to mind was one of my heroes, Henry David Thoreau. I imagined I was looking at the woods surrounding Walden Pond, and I felt serene. Visiting Walden was probably the closest I've come in my life to having a genuine religious experience. It's no surprise, then, that I felt a sense of peace and tranquility settle over me at that Quaker meeting, much as I often do when I manage to meditate.

Maybe 20 minutes into the service, an elderly woman rose from the back corner of the room and spoke at length about how she'd felt the terrifying helplessness of being homeless and now wishes she had enough money at Christmas to help others in need. Mentioning the hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," she said that her understanding of the divine meant that God would give us guidance, but that we needed to be active here on Earth to carry out his will. He wasn't going to do it for us.

A few other speakers later on rose and built on the idea of needing to essentially act as God's emissaries on Earth. Taking matters into their own hands to get things done -- direct action, democracy, anarchy at its finest. It's that attitude that has made Quakers such tireless supporters of social justice throughout their history.

Still others rose to say a few words about contemporary issues such as race and white privilege. Notably, the entire congregation of 30 or so people was solidly Caucasian.

After about an hour, the congregants shook hands to greet each other, signifying the end of the meeting. I would have enjoyed staying for social hour, but I had to go home and get back to work.

However, in the time I was there, I got a sense for what a typical service would be like. It felt very gentle and welcoming. It wasn't quite like a Buddhist meditation, as there was a constant feeling of mild anticipation hanging in the air, wondering who might stand next to speak, and when, and for how long.

I didn't agree with all of the views spoken, but then the Quakers are nothing if not inclusive, so I didn't feel as if having the "wrong" opinion on some political or religious matter would have them shun me. The only thing I was concerned about going in was that the services might be overshadowed by politics. I'd heard that the Unitarian Universalists were like that -- their services were more like political meetings with a thin veneer of spirituality drizzled over the top. I have no interest in that. I want my spirit fed, not my political mind. I can do enough of that on my own time.

But even though there was some politics in the Quaker meeting, I didn't feel as if it overshadowed the spiritual message. In fact, the silence that followed each speaker allowed time for reflection on what was said, with the result that even if your opinion may have differed, you had time to think about where that person was coming from and respect his or her point of view, rather than having an instant knee-jerk reaction. Our society has too much of that today. If we could all take time to silently reflect before we react, we might be able to create a much more respectful dialogue in the public square.

That alone would have made me want to come back to another Quaker meeting. I have a tendency to get myself worked up into a self-righteous lather about things and then end up ranting about it somewhere on social media -- which really serves no purpose other than getting yet more people riled up. Meditation has helped me with those tendencies, but mediation has always been a dead end for me. The weekly Quaker meeting became somewhat of a happy medium in that regard.

I think I can also benefit from the Quakers' emphasis on simplicity. My wife has long been wanting to simplify our lives. We have too much clutter, and we fritter away too much money on things we don't need. Following a new spiritual path won't get us out of debt, but it could well help change my relationship with material things. It's notable that Thoreau, the Tao Te Ching, Zen, and now Quakerism -- all things that have crossed my life's path -- hold in common the theme of simplicity. Perhaps it's time to listen.

And I haven't even mentioned my daughter. She's 4 now, and although I'm raising her to be independent-minded and think for herself, I also want her to have a spiritual grounding of some kind. Giving her one in which she'll feel free to question may be just the right thing. She already knows who the Buddha is from the statues around the house -- now she may have another path to choose from, if she so desires.

If you want to know what the Quakers are about at their core, some have summed it up in the acronym SPICES: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship. How can those values be a bad thing to build a spiritual life around? I can think of many less desirable alternatives.

Meeting with the Quakers was my first step on a new spiritual path, one that I hope centers me a little bit better. I have a tendency to burn out on things and not see them through, but I'm hoping this one sticks. It's been a year now, and my interest has only deepened.

In his book Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the common ground between the Christian and Buddhist traditions, offering those who have been alienated by Christianity to find a path back "home" by seeing the faith in a different light. Jesus and the Buddha have both been a part of my spiritual journey, and both will continue to be -- but perhaps I've finally found a way back home, to the teachings I grew up with.

Sometimes you just need to see things in a different light.

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