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Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Personal Reflections ... Religion ...

It’s Holy Week for the Christian Faith, time once again for the remembrance of Jesus’ final week of life. Jesus spent that week in Jerusalem with his close followers, making purity preparations for the Passover ritual. So let’s not forget that it was all a Jewish thing, entirely Kosher. I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith, entirely non-Kosher. But in my middle age I joined the legions of Catholic baby boomers who left the church, looking for a Christian (but still non-Kosher) alternative.

After fiddling around with the Episcopalians and Quakers for 20 years or so, I dropped the whole subject after reading a bunch of entirely reputable books about the life that the Jewish Jesus may have actually lived (as opposed to the Christian “God-Man” view). The “historical Jesus” scholars convinced me that Jesus was not God or the Son of God or the Christ. He was Jesus of Nazareth, biological son of Joseph, fellow human being, a man who was born a Jew and died a Jew. Period. No more bodily resurrection for me, no more transubstantiation of the sacred body and blood during the Mass. No more communion wafers that start smoking or burn the rug if dropped on the floor (as we were told in Sunday School).

And yet . . . I don’t have bad feelings about Christianity, and harbor no destructive wishes against the Catholic Church. In fact, I still feel a sympathy towards it. Luckily I was never abused by a priest, and as a guy I was never treated as a second-class child of God. Had I wanted, I could have applied to become a priest, unlike about half of the Church’s members (and probably a much bigger percent of those who still go to church on a regular basis). So yea, other than the Church’s pig-headed doctrines about marriage and its hypocritical annulment policies (with which I did have some bad experiences), I don’t have much reason to look under the “rock of Peter”.

But I acknowledge that the Catholic Church is a human institution and has always been a human institution. Over its two thousand year history, it has played host to humankind’s worst instincts, including power politics, exploitation, war, misogyny, genocide, sexual perversion, and many other forms of rank hypocrisy. It had a dark side in its earliest years (e.g., in Acts when the disciples marveled at how a couple who were holding back some property from the church were struck dead), and it still has a substantial dark side today. It has broken many a good young man and woman who came to it with much idealism about serving the Lord and His/Her Children. People argue that the Church is morally no better and no different than, say, BP or the Soviet Communist Party or Hamas.

And yet . . . I still feel, down in my heart, that there is something different about it. And to find that difference, I think we need to get back to the Kosher point of view. The Jews find God in their powerful sense of history, captured in their Torah and other sacred scriptures (the Old Testament to us goyum). The Hebrew Bible isn’t exactly an accurate historical textbook, as it has plenty of myth and mythology to it. Still, it is quite honest about human foibles. There’s plenty of war and oppression and idolatry and adultery and hypocrisy practiced by the tribes of Israel, and it hardly seems to get better as the narrative progresses from the time of Abraham to Moses, thru David and Solomon, past the Exile and into the Prophets and further conquest by the nations (with that crazy little Hassemodian blip where the Jews got their kingdom back but quickly frittered it away through ego, political infighting and disunity).

And yet, somehow in the midst of that stinking mess, millions of devout sons and daughters of Israel find God. Well, if they can do it, why couldn’t a post-historical Jesus version of the Catholic Church re-interpret its theology and teachings as to find God somehow manifest in the story of all those who devoted themselves over the centuries to the story of an idealistic Galilean apocalypticist who was exterminated by the Romans for calling on God for a just kingdom? When I was a young idealist myself volunteering with a Catholic homeless shelter outside of Washington DC, I had a friend who took the Church very seriously. (I believe that he and his wife are still devout Catholics.) We were all quite angry about the hypocrisy and stodginess of the Church’s bishops and priests, and often insulted them and called out for revolution of some sort (usually over a couple of beers somewhere down on King Street in Alexandria).

And yet, when we pushed our angst to the point of wondering why we remained involved with such a terrible institution, my friend said something that I’ve never forgotten. He told me that you have to look at the Church as a “matrix”, a container, a holder of something. He said that the walls of this “matrix” were certainly corrupt, as were all earthly things. And yet, somehow they have preserved and coveyed over many, many years at least some part of the sacred intentions that Jesus must have felt, and which his disciples surely sensed in him. Despite all the corrupt priests and popes and bishops over the course of time, somehow the Church occasionally spawns a timeless soul, a Francis of Assisi or an Edith Stein or a John 23rd or a Mother Theresa. And probably countless other women and men who struggled and died without fame, but are known to God for what they did to help lift the poor and comfort the sick and wounded.

Yea, sure, other organizations having nothing to do with God or Jesus also accidentally turn out truly wonderful humans. I can’t prove that the Catholic Church has a better rate of spawning saints then say a college university or a Wiccan coven or a community development corporation. And yes, I will admit that even those Catholic saints-by-accident aren’t perfect either (the late, great Trappist monk Thomas Merton, for example, certainly had his dark side). I don’t have statistics, I can’t provide energy readings or such. I can only say that I myself still feel something holy “coming through the matrix”, even though I know just how corrupt the walls of that matrix can be. (And further that there is no “Trinity” or “Incarnation” powering its leaders in their imperfect teachings.)

Today I am part of a Zen sangha, and I have much regard for the teachings of the Buddha and other eastern sages. But ironically enough, they themselves provide me with a strong rationale supporting the “spiritual matrix” viewpoint. They often focus on the important of emptiness. They offer saying like “we define the house by its walls, and yet we live in the emptiness between them”. “We form pots from clay, and yet it is the empty space within those pots that hold what is important to us” (wine, for example!). We cut holes in windows to allow light through the empty space. Without emptiness, no light. Without the walls, made of corrupt earth, there is no usable space. There’s a yin-and-yang thing here, as if God requires human foibles in order to convey Her / His true spirit.

From that point of view, I can still feel reverence for the tainted Roman Catholic Church; I still feel the need to keep it around. And yes, in an odd sort of way, I still feel a part of it. I will not go to mass this Easter Sunday as I’ll be sitting zazen at the zendo. I have no desire to go to confession. I have no plans to go and cross myself in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, I will not recite the Apostle’s Creed, and I will not take the precious body and blood from some neurotic priest. And yet, I still believe that God is there in the midst of that Church. But to see that, you need the right kind of lenses — the Kosher and Buddhist kind!!!!

(And yes, admittedly, it also helps not to have been severely hurt or disappointed by all the “walls” that comprise the Holy Church.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:45 pm      

  1. Jim, I certainly can understand your position regarding the RCs. My reasoning for the same withdrawal from the RCs is different, but the effect is the same. Well, maybe not because I tend to take the position that they can’t get rid of me as long as I say I want to be one of them; I’ve been baptized so can’t be “thrown out” when it comes right down to it. But in the end, I guess it’s just a matter of semantics.

    I also tend to think that, for the most part, attending and being active in a religion (whatever one it may be) is a matter of social acceptance and in many cases friendships that develop among those who attend the religious services (whatever form those services may take). I’ve seen many cases where people “extremely devoted” to a particular cause have ended up completely disbanding, almost in a kind of unconscious response, when the social aspects of the work fail–specifically, should a particular leader leave, should a certain group’s work not be endorsed by those in charge, etc. So, it seems to me that often the “glue” of a particular religion or branch of a particular religion is mainly the social benefits that come to the participants.

    I’m not disapproving or taking a judgmental stand on any of this, but it is something I’ve observed. Perhaps the social aspects of religion are just what is meant when the “church” is spoken of as being “the people.”

    I do find myself lately being amazed at all the good that people with very clay feet can do. It’s amazing.

    One thing that is different about the Christians (from other religions) is that they maintain that God became a human being; other religions (ancient and modern) believed that men became gods or that gods walked among men or that god was not there at all; it’s the Christians who believed that God became human.

    And lastly, I do think that of all the rituals of all the religions, the RCs have the most beautiful liturgies and rituals. That may be just a personal preference, but of all the other religions whose ritual and liturgies I’ve experienced, all leave me (sorry to say) bored, actually; however, the beauty of the RCs liturgies and rituals almost always strikes a note in me. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — April 20, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

  2. Jim, I just glanced through your website. I now can say that your self entitlement of thinker/geek is valid. I am amazed at your content that you have put onto your website. I too had this interest until I had my mind blown away. Am beginning to use it again and am convinced that clearing the mind through meditation is no mean feat. What is the mind? It is a process fueled by fear and or hope. Does it work well. Sometimes, and sometimes not. Prayer is directing our affections toward the divine. Do you believe this is possible or is it an illusion as Freud had the nerve to say. I will cease and desist at this time to read some of your content. My feeling off the top of my head is that you are very much a thinker who is afraid of his emotions and feelings. Just a guess,however, a possibility. Let me know what you think. Bye for now frank Penotti

    Comment by frank p. — April 20, 2011 @ 5:31 pm

  3. Mary, thanks for your thoughtful comment, as always. You left the Roman Church? News to me! Maybe neither of us really ever left, despite the fact that both of us disagree with so much of it (and hardly ever go to mass or rcv “the sacraments”). In our own differing ways, we both feel that we see something missing or mostly disregarded in the life of the Church today, something essential to its future. Prophets crying in the wilderness, perhaps . . . and not alone in being alone, as the lyrics of “Message in a Bottle” goes.

    Frank, thanks for your interesting point about my being afraid of emotions and feelings. Yes, I would say that that particular theme applies to much of my life story. And now, in my old age, as emotions and feelings release their strong grip on the psyche, I’m almost starting to miss them!

    But hey, we live in a world of limits where you gotta make choices and get used to not getting everything you want. I made some choices at the expense of emotional satisfaction and fulfillment, and that’s the way that it goes. Recall Billy Joel’s lyrics, from back in the days when he was popular: “you may never understand how the stranger is inspired, but he is not always evil, and he is not always wrong . . .”

    Nonetheless, a very wise and perceptive comment on your part. Thanks much, and hope to hear more from you, when you have the time.

    Comment by Jim G — April 25, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

  4. Jim, Second comment on my part today.After sending you my first comment, I then saw your comments on working in Alexandria with the homeless and your struggle with the Churcha as an entity. I too have had that struggle and spent my own time with the homeless. I will end now since there is not much time left. FP

    Comment by frank penotti — May 2, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

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