Bill Nolan and I are in the middle of a four-week segment of our Adult Faith Formation series for parishioners of St. Thomas Apostle and Christ the King, a segment devoted to interfaith dialogue and interspirituality. During the first session of the segment (while I was enjoying the warmth of Clearwater Beach at the CCMA National Convention), Bill walked the participants through Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II 1965 Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.
Among other things, Nostra Aetate reminds us that “other religions which are found throughout the world attempt in their own ways to calm the hearts of [people] by outlining a program of life covering doctrine, moral precepts and sacred rites,” and, more importantly, that the “Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” Thus, we benefit greatly be entering “with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.”
During the second session, in preparation for the next two weeks, which will focus more directly on my new book, Growing in Love and Wisdom, I shared my faith story with the participants, talking about my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and my subsequent conversion back to Catholicism, as well as about some of the things I learned during my years as a Buddhist that continue to aid me in my spiritual growth. (I wrote more about the latter of those in a Huffington Post piece in November, which you can find here.)
We had a rich question and answer session after my remarks, which I always find more revealing than whatever initial remarks I deliver. One of the questions had to do with God’s presence in my life during my years as a Buddhist. During those years, if you had asked me on any occasion if I believed in God, I would have said no. God was simply not part of my spiritual life as a Buddhist.
Only after my return to Christianity was I able to look back during my prayer to earlier episodes of my life and see the hand of God at various points along the way, see where God had been walking with me (or carrying me) even when I had no awareness of it. I learned from that experience that God’s presence is not at all dependent on our acknowledgment of that presence – or even our acknowledgement of God’s existence.
I was reminded during my colloquy with my questioner of a scene in a book I read (and movie I saw) many years ago, Stephen King’s That Stand. After a virulent virus wreaks havoc on the world, a small band of people are discerning how to deal with the forces of evil. The wisdom figure of the group, an older African-American woman named Mother Abagail, tells a young deaf mute man named Nick that he figures importantly in God’s plan. Nick writes a note on a piece of paper and hands it to her. The note reads, “I don’t believe in God.” When she reads it, Mother Abagail laughs and gleefully tells him, “It doesn’t matter, Nick. He believes in you.”
That is something we all need to come to understand – that God is with us always, without any doing or even believing on our part. Always there. Always loving.