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To Zen and Back

A pilgrimage to know home for the first time

A Japanese woodcut depicts people crossing a bridge

"A pilgrim sets his or her sight on a place where the veil between the ordinary and the transcendent has been lifted. Each step moves the pilgrim away from the structures that have bound our lives, and each step moves the pilgrim closer to knowing the whole of reality as for the first time."

During my first years of parish ministry, my closest colleague was Rabbi Barry Altman. Rabbi Altman and his wife sent me an invitation to their son’s bar mitzvah. I was honored by the invitation but, never having attended such a ceremony, expected only a prescribed coming-of-age ritual and a party.In the course of the ceremony, the rabbi’s son read from Torah in Hebrew, then translated the passage into English, and finally offered a commentary.

The 13-year-old proclaimed that Torah was wrong, that God does not protect the just, nor does God punish evil. We need only remember the Holocaust to recognize this truth, he reminded us. Therefore, the choice of how to live our lives, the choice to do good or ill in the world, belongs entirely to us. There are no external rewards or punishments either here on earth or in an afterlife.

Fearing for the Icarus in this young man, I glanced at Rabbi Altman more than once during the service. He beamed with pride. When the commentary was finished, the scrolls were rolled up, fastened with an intricately embroidered cover, and carried around the room. People reached out to touch the sacred book. I have seldom experienced a similar commitment to both confront and revere in Christian worship.

I grew up Catholic, or at least the ambivalent Catalan version of Catholic. My family attended church every Sunday; then, over breakfast, we critiqued the sermon. Mercilessly. Nothing was off the table. Over the years we argued that Jesus was fully human, that the crucifixion was a mistake, and that the resurrection never happened. We explored what the priest might have meant by the word God as well as what we ourselves meant. We dismissed popular images of heaven and hell; indeed, we wondered whether there were any circumstances in which a just and loving God would sentence one of God’s own creations to eternal punishment. We included in our conversations perspectives that we had learned from the radio broadcasts of Alan Watts and from the writings of Paul Tillich. Separately and as a family, we struggled toward an authentic articulation of faith.

The family church, however, fell short of the active spiritual reflection that I experienced in family discussions and that I witnessed, years later, in a bar mitzvah. In his sermons, our pastor clarified church teachings with the tacit assumption that the teachings were correct and that other perspectives were heretical. The Sunday school teachers were trapped in a literalism that bore little relationship to reality. Did they expect us to believe that the hand of God physically inscribed words on a stone tablet? Was hand attached to body? Does God have a physical presence not unlike our own?

In high school I stopped going to Sunday school and then to church; finally, I stopped calling myself Catholic. To my father’s credit, he accepted these decisions, but only after I offered cogent arguments. Catalan to the core, my father continued to worship in a church with which he fiercely disagreed.

I, on the other hand, experienced profound loss. As there was much that alienated me from my childhood faith, there was also much that drew me to it. Through college and graduate school, I read, discussed, and searched for a faith community that would nurture my spirit. I learned Transcendental Meditation and then learned and began to practice zazen. I experienced a sense of freedom in leaving Christianity behind me.

In my late 20s, it finally hit me. Even as I was still struggling to define my faith, I was called to the ministry. After exploring several options, I enrolled at the Unitarian Universalist divinity school at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Fresh out of seminary, I accepted the call to a church in Daytona Beach. I was not prepared. In divinity school, I had developed a theology informed by Buddhist insight and existentialist integrity; with an irony that embarrasses, I preached this theology with the same certainty that I had encountered from my childhood pastor. My parishioners, unlike those in my childhood congregation, openly verbalized their disagreements, and I was ill-equipped to engage creatively with theological difference. Our relationship lasted only three years. In subsequent churches I slowly learned to listen and to respect, and I learned to express my perspective as just that, my perspective. Increasingly, over several years and several churches, I experienced moments of authentic encounter.

One of my parishioners, for example, was a highly respected academic who was outspoken about finding religious language useless. I was his pastor when he came out to the congregation, when he decided to marry an equally remarkable man from Scotland, when he was diagnosed with cancer, and when he died. As death approached, I visited Shelton and Andrew at least once a week and frequently stayed for 90 minutes or more. I know that lengthy visits are often not welcome, but the three of us connected deeply, and each time I said that I should go, there was a chorus of nos. The two of them spoke of love, of life, and of death in their language, I spoke in mine, and we heard one another. At the beginning of these encounters, I apologized for words like blessing, but soon none of us felt the need to apologize for differences in language. Words no longer mattered. Being present mattered. Love mattered. Life mattered. That which cannot die mattered.

Entering deeply into relationship transforms us. As I came to recognize the truth of Shelton’s and Andrew’s perspectives, certainty in my own formulations lessened. The experience, analogous to what Buddhists call beginner’s mind, reflected the Sunday-morning breakfasts of my youth. My father’s observations often elicited an “aha” from me, and my father celebrated when our perspectives were insightful for him.

Entering into authentic relationship threatens our current cosmology because we learn from one another. As we fully acknowledge our mortality and as we fully acknowledge that there is something in each life that transcends death, we experience the limitations of binary language to describe the whole of our experience. Language no longer holds. We are mortal beings, limited in both time and understanding; and each of us touches that which is eternal. We die utterly alone; and we exist only in loving community, a community that reaches beyond this moment and across generations. Our lives are without preordained purpose; and, embedded in each is a primal faith that every life is holy.

A pilgrim sets his or her sight on a place where the veil between the ordinary and the transcendent has been lifted. Each step moves the pilgrim away from the structures that have bound our lives, and each step moves the pilgrim closer to knowing the whole of reality as for the first time. Once we reach the shrine, once we experience the whole, the holy, a paradoxical calling emerges. We return home with new eyes, appreciative of what has always been ours, and with a commitment to transform this ordinary place into our shrine.

The pilgrimage returned me to the wisdom of my inherited tradition. Like Buddhism and Taoism, like the Lakota faith of a valued friend, perhaps like all religious traditions, Christianity embodies wisdom. Psalm 131, for example, deliberately pushes the limits of binary language:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore [NRSV].

Like many other psalms, Psalm 131 recounts a personal epiphany by walking us through the perceptions that led to insight, but the message can be reframed as an analogy. As the weaned child comes to rest cradled in her mother’s arms, so the mother, who weaned herself from all that is beyond her mortal nature, comes to rest in God’s embrace. Having weaned herself from God, the psalmist rests in God. Having abandoned the image of God as wholly other, the psalmist stands in the presence of the God that permeates all life. We hear echoes of words attributed to Lao Tsu (translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, 1972):

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

I have come to embrace the Christian tradition. As the lives of my ancestors are present in my DNA, so Christianity is a somatic presence. I love the great men and women whom Christianity has nurtured—people of insight, humility, love, and service. I love Scripture—a thousand years of insight, trapped, as human insights are, amid the mundane. And I love the attempts to make sense of Scripture in the two thousand years that followed. I love that those who have dived deepest into the tradition have there encountered a faith that transcends Christianity, a faith that opens to the unutterable, which no religious tradition owns, but which each reveres. An intimation of the unutterable exists even among those who, like the two men for whom I served as pastor, claim no religious tradition.

In its current denominational forms, Christianity may not survive this century. Perhaps it should not. The church has made and continues to make significant contributions to the culture at large, but, like American culture as a whole, it remains stuck in the tribalism of saved versus unsaved, Black versus White, conservative versus liberal. We need a Christianity that runs counter to this tendency toward tribalism. We need a Christianity closer to Jesus’ teaching.

The various brands of Christianity define themselves by doctrine, not by the fearless encounter I experienced from Rabbi Altman’s 13-year-old son. The failure to encourage authentic theological reflection is alarming. My father, who came to this country without a word of English, who left high school to join the Marines, and who sacrificed dreams of higher education in order to provide for his wife and son, was able to think for himself and to encourage authenticity in others. The family parish, trapped in binary thought, could not keep up with him.

My father needed—as I need and as many others need—a Christianity that looks a lot like Rabbi Altman’s Judaism. We need a Christianity in which one is free to articulate that Scripture and tradition are sometimes dead wrong, even as we reach to touch the holy at the core of our faith. We need a Christianity which recognizes that the holy cannot be named and controlled. We need a humble, open Christianity like the faith that T.S. Eliot struggled to articulate in Four Quartets:

                                                      Every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating.

If Eliot characterizes his struggle as “a raid on the inarticulate/With shabby equipment always deteriorating,” then we would do well to approach our faith with humility and to recognize that each articulation, however valuable, necessarily falls short. “For us,” Eliot concludes, “there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Pilgrims, each of us must leave home in order to experience the place where the veil has been lifted, and each must return home—both to know that the veil has also been lifted right here and to live in a way that will encourage others to know the place for the first time.


Frank Rivas is minister emeritus of the First Unitarian Church of Omaha.


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