For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now. To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.
Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina. Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause. It would mean the world!
Traditionally, I was raised in a rather predictable Catholic fashion. Until we moved in 1998, I went to Catholic school, memorized the textbooks, participated in the school’s morning group prayers, and went to church with my family on most Sundays. I didn’t understand that there was an option to believe anything otherwise. Every Catholic kid from our church was introduced to the religion in the best possible way, through a caring man named Father Charles Hudson. He told stories in a conversational, calming tone, he spoke to the whole audience, he preached kindly and collaboratively about other religions, he invited other spiritual groups to Mass–he was an open-minded, inspirational dude that left the world quite suddenly at the age of 61 after a heart attack. He was known for his extensive list of humanitarian work, founding a hospice center, and creating inspiration tapes for the ill. My mom said that you couldn’t get near the church for the funeral, it was so packed that people spilled out into the parking lot.
I was lucky that when all the anger brewed up in me later in life, when the broken politics of the church sent me running from Christianity, I had people like Father Hudson (and awesome Catholics like my grandmother) to remind me it wasn’t all bad, there were those that rose above the ulterior motives of the outdated system. However, I took a sharp left turn in high school, when the community surrounding my hometown church went against any teachings of the religion. To me, this group of parents acted like a special club for those with outwardly “perfect” lives, and only those that followed the rules were welcome to socialize with the grade-A Catholics of the town.
And so, after a fateful trip to a bookstore one afternoon, I found Buddhism instead. I was at that age when everyone seemed to be finding Eastern religion, but the snooty comments thrown my way about being a part of a “typical and predictable” trend, only pushed me father away from what felt like a bitter Western tradition that was losing members by the day. Buddhism simply made the world seem clearer. Instead of focusing of accruing good deeds to be given good fortune, you are encouraged to revel in the discomfort of pain and confusion–these were the challenges that helped you grow into a more caring person. Fear and sadness were nothing to blame yourself for, they were emotions recognized as passing clouds that, in the meantime, could bring you closer to understanding someone else’s suffering.
I’ve found there is a mainstream misunderstanding of karma. Many seem to believe that it’s a 1 to 1 cause and effect–such as, if you are a bad person, bad things happen to you. If that were so, then at the age of 14, how would I have explained all the things that happened to my family and I to that point? That we had “sinned” and bad karma was punishing us? It’s more complicated than this. Pema Chodron (the author I found that day at the bookstore) sparked a change in the way I studied spirituality from then on. Suddenly, I had a woman, speaking about living your life in a way that related to psychology and the philosophy of the world. About karma, she says, “People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.” And in this religion’s context, “opening” does not mean blindly trusting something outside yourself, it is the opposite. It is an opening to the true nature of the moment around us, whether it feels good or not. It is about breaking down the judgements and false realities we have built up to protect ourselves from feeling the pain necessary to grow. This, at 14, I could connect with.
Years pass, and I continue to seek out ways to understand Buddhism and comparative religion more deeply. I obsess over Joseph Campbell (one of the biggest similarities between Ben and I), I try to find meditation centers that do not intimidate me, and I take a class in college to soak up as much history as possible.
Heading into my Junior year, I go to a presentation about the DIS (Drew International Seminar) Trips. In a nutshell, you take a semester course on a topic and then travel to a related country. Well, nothing was lining up for me. I didn’t speak another language fluently enough to go that direction, and other trips had bad timing with theatrical duties. And so, life guided me in yet another direction by sending me toward the course on the Camino de Santiago.
Here I was, back in front of the religion I had turned away from eight years earlier. However, the class explored the somewhat-contraversially named “Golden Era of Spain,” when all three major religions of the time coexisted–or tried to–for a short time until around 1390. Since this was soon after the claiming of the Camino by the Catholics, it was rich with relatable history. The most interesting part of the class was when we invited representatives from all three religious groups on campus to come chat about their basic beliefs–welcoming any and all questions to clear up political or social misconceptions. In my opinion, everyone should attend a meeting like this at least once. It was wonderful and loving.
A year later, after my Drew-lead trip to Spain, I decided to join my roommate Claire on the tackling of the whole Camino. So here I am, a confused Buddhist, raised as a Catholic, feeling super angsty about all spirituality, heading out on an ancient Catholic pilgrimage. Well, as I’ve written about at length, my fellow hikers and basic experience of walking such a great distance was life-changing. Sometime you just want to sit in a church at the end of the day to escape the heat and to pray to whatever god you believe in that your calves stopped spasming. There were many days when we sat silently, worn out to the core, in the cold stone recesses of a Gothic-style chapel, surrounded by Catholics, Episcopalians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, you name it, just looking for some solace and community. No one had the energy to point out differences, we were just there, protected by the loving nuns who opened their homes to us. It was a constant reminder of the connection between the human spirit and a community’s capacity for setting aside politics and anger.
One of my favorite towns on the trip is called O’Cebreiro. It is one of the first towns you come across after crossing into Galicia, the final province of the trip. After a day of steep trails over the Cantabrian Mountains, a small Celtic-style town–speaking a whole new language–greets you with a new culinary style of food, small friendly shops, a breathtaking view, and of course, the oldest chapel on the Camino, Santa María la Real, built in 836. Yup, not 1836…836. Always took my some time to process that as an American.
We visited the stone structure in the early afternoon when the chapel was empty. Courtney and Claire sat nearby or looked at the famous chalice on display, and I found myself sitting in one of the pews, looking toward the alter. I was struggling with my battle between Buddhism and Catholicism again. I deeply appreciated the history of the hike but there was constantly this nagging skepticism inside my head, bringing me back to the centuries that came after the “Golden Era,” when other religions were far from respected. I thought of the judgmental families from my teenage church, from the way I felt shunned because I didn’t come from a Stepford-esque family arrangement. And I leaned on the way Buddhism accepted me, anxiety and all.
I have always been confused by the grotesque representation of Jesus’s death on the cross, and this particular crucifix was a rough one. It spared no detail or painful body angle, or thorny bit of his crown. But it was his face in this depiction that grabbed me. This man, whoever he was, was no Stepford-family man either, no judgmental character turning people away when they took a different life path or suffered from some ailment. But that still begs the question, why show this particular moment of his death behind the alter we all worship? I was always told it was a reminder of his martyrdom for us. But I never knew what to do with that idea. So I owe him something? I should only be a good person because he suffered persecution? That doesn’t seem to fall in line with the stories about his character. Seems like a misconstrued message to guilt people into being nice.
And then, as if the Joseph Campbell gods smiled in my direction; and as if the room suddenly filled with all the caring Catholics, welcoming Buddhist monks, and rapping nuns; with my grandma, with Father Hudson, with Siddhartha himself–I got it. The story of the Buddha is very, very similar to the story of Jesus. After freeing himself from the sheltered life of wealth and royalty, Siddhartha sets out into the world to learn the truth of all men’s suffering. After being attacked by all temptations and forms of hatred, he eventually meditates beneath a tree and obtains enlightenment, only to return to the world to teach the idea of impermanence–or the idea that our bodies, and everything around us on Earth, not will go on forever. Everything will eventually die and find rebirth, and once we accept this without fear, the moment we can go on living and caring for one another in the present. So here you have Siddhartha throwing away the idea that our physical attachments are important, and then you have Jesus looking all grotesque and at peace with his death in front of the church. Though this may only make sense to me, I realized that Buddhism and Catholicism (and I’m sure many other religions) are all saying the same damn thing. Everything is impermanent, and here is a weekly reminder, right in front of the church, that life goes beyond our obsession with a permanent existence. Once we make peace with the passage of time and transience of physical things, we can truly focus on the connections and love we have for one another.
At last, I made peace between the two main spiritual stories I had carried with me for nearly a decade.
I once got stuck on a stalled Path train, next to a girl that was proselytizing about her religion. She was trying to get me to come to one of their meetings. I explained to her that I was cool on the spiritual front, but it was kind of her to offer. Since she kept pushing, in the name of my “salvation,” and since we were totally stuck on this train together anyway, I started to talk to her about my acceptance that we all believed in the same idea, even if we called it somethings different–and as long as we were loving to ourselves and one another, no one needed to be “saved” after all. She didn’t care for this idea. She never got nasty, but she looked at me like I had just told her aliens had landed. She even laughed at me. But it’s not my job to make people feel the way I do. If that time in O’Cebreiro was my start to living a caring, and sometimes very painful life, without judgment of others, then it doesn’t matter how I, or anyone else, gets there. We all use different tactics to learn facts in school, so why would we use the same tactics to understand our spiritual selves?
I left the O’Cebreiro church, at peace with my impermanent, spasming calves and dwindling knee strength. I dream someday of returning to that church, perhaps even with Ben to get married again, because, why not? Either way, I will always give those old walls the credit they are due. All the loving thoughts that have filled those church stones still remain, and I am grateful they helped me carry on my hike as a new person.