Sunday, June 26, 2016

One Step Back Too Many

Inspired by last week's visit to the Ananda temple, I decided to revisit some of my old spiritual stomping grounds today.
First was a visit to the University Friends Meeting in Seattle. This is the largest Quaker meetinghouse in the Puget Sound area, with two meetings every Sunday. I used to attend both meetings when I was serious about the Quakers, because they're markedly different from each other. The 9:30 group is smaller, with around 15 to 20 in attendance, and the meetings almost always pass in complete silence. At the end of the service, we shake hands -- as Quakers customarily do -- and then we join hands in a standing circle. The leader of the meeting introduces herself, and we go around the circle doing the same, adding any other thoughts we have that we may have felt didn't rise to the level of vocal ministry.

Then there's the 11:00 group. It consists of around 40 people or so, and almost always there are multiple people who rise to address the congregation.

Today I only had time for the 9:30 meeting, and as usual, it passed in total silence. I made an effort to still my body and mind, close my eyes, and focus on the moment -- something I tend to have trouble with. I've never been a good meditator, but at least in Quaker meeting there's no expectation of assuming a proper posture, twisting yourself into a pretzel, focusing on your breaths, or anything of that sort. In fact, Quaker silence really isn't a whole lot like Buddhist meditation at all. It's more of an active experience, because the purpose of the silence is to allow yourself to hear the Spirit speak to you, if said Spirit chooses to do so. It's never happened to me yet, and in fact I doubt that I'd ever be able to tell whether what I had in mind to say was divinely inspired or just something I wanted to get off my chest.

I've never been sure how those who do rise to speak make that determination. Some of what's spoken at the meetings I've been to consists of light anecdotes or perhaps an observation on a current event -- and though it's not for me to decide, it seems as if some of these messages have less to do with divine inspiration and more to do with the ego's desire to have something to say. Indeed, the less inspiring messages that come across in meeting tend to be filled with first-person pronouns -- I, me, my, mine.
Yet there are other messages that resonate deeply with me, even if at first it doesn't seem as if the message had any relevance to me. That's the beauty of sitting in Quaker silence -- when someone stops speaking, you get a chance to absorb the message, cutting off the urge to have an instantaneous reaction and allowing yourself to see more deeply into the words. When you do, you often find there was something buried in the message that unexpectedly speaks to you. At least that's been my experience.

Those are the things I enjoy from the 11:00 service. I like the calm silence of the 9:30 group, and when I used to attend both meetings, I found that they enriched me in different ways. But if I had to pick just one to go to, I'd choose the 11:00 for those occasional tidbits of wisdom. However, the Shingon temple's service starts at noon, and there's not enough time for me to get from the meetinghouse to the temple without leaving the Quaker meeting early.

So I don't know if I'll be back for a while. I enjoy sitting in the silence, and I still deeply admire the Quakers' testimonies on peace and equality and their tireless work and advocacy for the poor, marginalized, and forgotten -- the "least of these." But is that enough to sustain a spiritual practice? And do I really have the time to commit to the Quakers, when I'm already moving toward membership at the Shingon temple? I have no problem with being a spiritual dual citizen, but I also have a full-time job and a wife and kid. I'm lucky I can carve out enough time to get to the temple once a week.

When I started this blog, I was on the verge of joining the Quakers. But then I went to the Seattle Insight Meditation Society's refuge and precepts ceremony, and I realized that I needed to explore Buddhism one more time to make sure that wasn't the path I wanted to take. In the meantime, I kept meeting with the Quakers, and I was looking forward to that month's meeting for business. That's when the Quakers get all their work done. It takes place in the meetinghouse, as the clerk reads off the items for consideration on that month's agenda. Members can rise and speak their minds, and if there's a sense of the meeting that the congregation is being called to act on a matter, it can do so accordingly.

At University Friends, the meeting for business includes introducing new membership requests, by way of reading the applicant's letter asking to join. A committee takes the request under advisement, meets with the applicant, and reports back to the meeting, usually in a month or two, to recommend either for or against letting the new person become a member.

Well, my letter to the clerk requesting membership had been in his hands for a couple of weeks, so I was expecting my letter to be read. But the committee responsible for doing so gave its monthly report on some other membership matters, and then the meeting moved on to the next agenda item.

I was a bit dismayed. Thinking I wasn't going to be considered for membership, without even so much as a hearing, I got up and left, determined to commit myself to exploring the Buddhist path.

The following month, I received an e-mail from someone on the membership committee, saying my letter was going to be read at that month's meeting for business. So apparently I hadn't been snubbed after all; the notoriously slow Quaker process was simply acting as it usually does. My fault for jumping to conclusions. But by that time I'd thrown myself pretty deeply into my Buddhist explorations and wasn't sure I wanted to look back. So I wrote back to the committee member, explaining that I had to make sure Buddhism wasn't for me before I made a commitment to the Quakers.

And that's where things were left. I'd moved on, getting involved more deeply in Buddhism than I ever have before, thanks to the Shingon path. But after visiting the Ananda temple last week and getting a taste of a different spiritual path, I decided I might pay the Quakers another visit, just to test how I felt there after all this time had passed.

And I have to admit I felt a little alien in the Quaker setting. Odd, since I was so close to becoming a member just a few short months ago. Maybe I just can't identify with Christianity anymore, even in its most liberal form. Or maybe I'd settle back in if I kept going back every Sunday. I just don't know at this point -- but I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep over it.

Lord, have mercy
My second stop of the day was inspired by a Facebook friend of mine, who quite a while back mentioned something about a Latin Mass. Did those still exist somewhere in the world? Curious, I did some research and found that there were Latin Masses being said right here in Seattle.

I was raised Catholic, but I was born nearly a decade after Vatican II, so the Masses I attended had all been in English. I was always curious what the "old" service was like. I enjoy the Shingon Buddhist service, most of which is in Sanskrit and Japanese -- so maybe I'd find something intriguing and mystical about hearing a Catholic Mass being done in Latin. It would be the kind of service the church offered when my parents discovered Catholicism, so I'd be seeing the church as they originally knew it. Would I get some insight into what it was that attracted them in the first place? I knew there was no chance the Mass would interest me in coming back to the faith of my youth, but still, maybe I could learn something, or at least gain an appreciation for something I'd never had the chance to experience.

Memories came flooding into my head as I sat down in a pew near the back and looked up at the huge crucifix at the opposite end. Memories of weekly Masses with my parents -- those were there for sure. But there were also memories of all the questions I had that never got satisfactory answers, of all the months and years I sat in a pew out of deference to my parents and my own guilt and fear. Every time I questioned anything about what I was supposed to believe in, my mom guilt-tripped me when the church didn't. And all these beliefs had been hammered into my head from such an early age that I was afraid of eternal damnation if I ever chose to leave. In a lot of ways, the faith of my upbringing felt like a spiritual prison.

And here I was again. What was I thinking?
Well, the organ music was nice. I've always loved pipe organs. The colorful and dramatic Stations of the Cross that circled the room were pleasant to look at. And just like in the Catholic church I grew up in, flanking the crucifix were statues of Joseph and Mary. I thought back to how my Protestant friends and relatives always freaked out about Catholic statuary, claiming we prayed to the statues as idols. Me, I always took comfort in them, as an object to focus on during the Mass. Looking at them now, so many years removed and with so many other spiritual avenues traversed in the intervening years, they reminded me of nothing so much as all the Buddhist statuary I've seen over the years that serves the same purpose -- to give us something reverent to focus on as we try to still our minds.

I watched other churchgoers filing in -- all the women having their heads covered with scarves or veils, in accordance with pre-Vatican II rules. People kept coming and coming. By the time the service began, there must have been 100 people there -- for an alternative Mass in a foreign language. Apparently there's a hunger for this kind of service. I could only imagine how many more people must attend the regular English-language Mass.

Then, finally, the Mass started -- and I couldn't hear a thing. The priest, with his back to the congregation, was unmiked. All I could hear was a faint rush of foreign words that echoed around the cavernous church. I tried to follow along in the missal, but I just couldn't make heads or tails of anything being said.

I was getting nothing out of this. On top of it all, we were sitting, standing, and kneeling at intervals I wasn't familiar with -- and we seemed to be jumping from one to the other without time to settle in at any of them. I finally gave up and left, concluding that I was just wasting my time.

Perhaps my mood had already been soured by the bulletin I'd been reading before the Mass began. It seems that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the group that puts on these Latin Masses, issues a bulletin called "Memento." And on the front page of "Memento" was a message from a Father Gerard Saguto -- a message I found deeply disturbing.

The first thing he wrote that rubbed me the wrong way had to do with people who approach him concerned for his salvation: "It can be both very interesting to hear the reasons and an opportunity to instruct the ignorant, depending on how docile the person is; sometimes all we can do is patiently suffer and absorb the challenge, confident that God will use it for His greater glory."

Wow, really? Instructing the "ignorant" as long as they're docile enough to listen, but suffering through what they have to say if not? Seems a bit harsh, and certainly not very loving.

But it got worse. Speaking of the slayings of Catholic missionaries in Yemen, he said their attackers "reveal the diabolical hatred of Jesus Christ and His Church."

He goes on: "And yet these events should prompt us to consider Christ saying ..."

I'm going to pause there for a moment to let you guess what he thinks Jesus should say in a situation like this. Maybe "Love your enemies"? "Turn the other cheek"? "Do unto others"?

Nope. The words of Jesus he cited were "My words shall not pass away."

In other words, these killers can suck it, because we're not backing down and we're not meeting your hate with love. We're doubling down, getting up in your faces with our beliefs.

This is getting really divisive and combative, and it just gets worse:

"Christ commanded the Apostles to teach all nations and baptize them. ... He wants converts made to His Church. ... Failure to make efforts to evangelize the Faith -- either by example or by word -- compromises the divinely mandated mission of the Church in her unique work for the salvation of souls." Driving the point home, he goes on to mention the parable of the marriage feast, wherein the king commands his servants to go out and force people to come to the wedding.

So, basically, we're going to convert these heathens, whether they like it or not, and we'll do it by force if necessary. If this isn't the kind of talk that triggered the Crusades, I don't know what is. The arrogance, condescension, and self-righteousness are breathtaking. As is the stunning lack of empathy.


"[W]hen Catholics have grown unconcerned about evangelization and fail to live in a habitual state of grace, or have settled into a comfortable life thinking that religion is a private matter and that we can all just get along and hold hands, all this serves to promote the very force that is terrorizing the world."

Wow. So seeking love and harmony will divide us, while seeking to divide by putting ourselves above others will be a victory for our side. So much for William Penn's "Let us then try what love will do."

Finally, the clincher. I'll just give you the whole paragraph:

"It has become evident that we cannot all just get along -- and maybe that is a good thing -- but how we don't get along is very important. We do not go lopping off heads; rather, with firmness of Faith, we go to the Cross and profess unashamedly the divine identity of the Crucified, ready to absorb what comes in a charitable effort to evangelize those steeped in the darkness of Islam and every other false religion. Always remember: the weapons of Christianity -- devout prayer, penance, the Rosary, and (most especially) the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass -- wage more terror in hell than a bomb does in an airport."

It's a "good thing" that we can't all get along. Islam is "darkness" and other religions are "false." The "weapons" of Christianity "wage more terror" than a "bomb."
Are you kidding me? This kind of talk from a representative of the Prince of Peace does nothing but stoke hatred and anger, contributing to the atmosphere in which people resort to violence in the first place. If this is what a moderate denomination like Catholicism has become, I don't even want to think of how radicalized truly evangelical Christianity is these days.

Maybe I'm just more attuned to the tone of words, having been involved in a Buddhist tradition that puts such a heavy emphasis on the impact of our words and the need to choose them carefully -- but it baffles me how the writer could not see that his words engender the kind of anger that he condemns in other people. The lack of self-reflection is stunningly disturbing, as is the entire attitude of this supposed emissary of Jesus.

The whole thing really took my breath away. I originally left the Catholic church over things I couldn't bring myself to believe, but in all my years as a Catholic I never encountered this kind of open hostility from a member of the clergy. Well, at least I know I made the right decision to walk away. If I remain Christian in any capacity, I'll stick with the Quakers, thanks.

Having left the Catholic service early, I ended up having enough time to get to the Shingon temple to enjoy the monthly Goma fire ritual. And I found that I really felt at home there, more confident than ever that I'd made the right choice for my spiritual path.

Sometimes you have to see the bad before you can fully appreciate the good.

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