Randomness is part of nature, but where humans are concerned, I don’t believe in coincidences. I’ve been encountering a lot of Catholic people lately. Since I didn’t begin rising as a contemplative until I became what they call a “fallen away Catholic,” I’m not sure what to metaphysically make of it.
A profound convergence may be occurring, both inwardly and outwardly. For example, I had a lovely talk with a woman in Oregon who seems to have harmoniously combined her Jewish and Catholic upbringing from parents who were both but imposed neither, along with a strong splash of Zen she adopted as an adult.
Two days later I had an excellent conversation with a Zen teacher and psychiatrist near Portland who “uses his Buddhist understanding to inform his Catholicism.” What does that mean, I wondered?
No doubt because I was compelled to attend the Mass in Latin six days a week, before school and on hellfire-if-you-miss Sundays, and because four years as an altar boy enabled me to literally see behind the curtain of Catholic rites, I had my fill of ritual by the time I was 17.
Even so, I didn’t leave the Church lightly, but researched and reflected on the faith I was raised in for four years after being caught up in an instance of terrible physical abuse by a nun on a friend in the 8th grade. My parents went ballistic when I came downstairs one Sunday as a senior and calmly announced I wasn’t going to Mass that day or ever again.
In 50 years I never did, except to make my mother happy if I happened to visiting my native state of Michigan at Christmas. Nor did I even consider another organized religion, or even the organized non-religion of Buddhism.
Organized religion, I sometimes think, is a little like growing out of eating meat or playing football. When I was young I enjoyed both, and was pretty good at the latter, though by my senior year I also had enough sense to resist the coach’s repeated entreaties to play end. I was the fastest sprinter in the county, but couldn’t catch worth a damn.
After a while you get so far away from things you can’t understand why people do them. The smell of BBQ literally turns my stomach, and football now seems synonymous with self-inflicted brain injury.
Intense mystical experiences began within a year of leaving the Church at 17, though I didn’t know what they were at the time. Afterward, belief systems, churches and rituals seemed to me to be pale imitations at best, outright obstructions to the religious life at worst.
Without any urge to return to Catholicism, my curiosity has grown about how anyone could be a practicing Catholic these days, in the inadequately addressed shadow of worldwide pedophilia by priests, not to mention the financial scandals of the Vatican.
Nevertheless, where there is curiosity without judgment, there is the beginning of understanding. But I want to understand atheists too, with whom I feel some affinity, to the degree that I reject deism and theism.
I’m certain of only one thing—the immanence of impersonal sacredness imbuing the universe, with which we human beings can have communion (there’s a Catholic word!). However it requires the complete negation of ‘me’ and the total, spontaneous stillness of thought in undirected attention.
Therefore the belief that there is nothing but randomness and meaninglessness in the universe, except as we self-centered humans fabricate meaning in our minds, seems even more absurd to me than the belief in the Virgin Mary.
The word ‘catholic’ means universal. And Catholics through the centuries attempted to extend their belief system in to include everyone. That project was not simply a conceit, but a license to do great violence on others, including children and indigenous peoples.
“Once a Catholic always a Catholic,” they say. Not always true.
Years ago a non-Catholic friend teaching English in a Catholic high school asked me to speak to his class about writing. One of the nuns, who wasn’t wrapped in six layers of wool like the nuns I knew but in normal attire, approached me in the hall and said, “You’re a Catholic.”
I was raised Catholic, I said, but I haven’t been one for many years. “We’ll get you back,” she said, in a voice that seemed both droll and menacing to me.
I looked her in the eye, dropped the capital ‘S,’ and said, “No sister, you won’t.’
I can understand how a person can be religious without a religion. I’m still working on understanding how, and whether one can be religious with one.