Help Through the Desert

When I talk about Growing in Love and Wisdom, I often start by talking a bit about my own faith journey thought Buddhism and back to Catholicism (the subject of another book I’m in the final stages of editing).

In telling people about my abandonment of Catholicism at the age of seventeen, I share that when I told my high school chaplain of my decision, his response was “Well, Sue, you’ve entered the desert. And all you can go is keep on walking until you reach the other side.” I add that I didn’t really find that advice all that helpful and walked out of the chaplain’s office feeling very alone. (He did add something like “Go with God,” but having just told him I didn’t believe in God, that didn’t do much for me.)

At a recent book talk, someone referred to that comment, asking what advice I would give someone in that circumstance. Essentially, from where I stand now, what would I have said to someone like my seventeen year-old self?

At various times, I have thought about what I wished someone had said to me at the time. I might have benefited had someone suggested that I read Thomas Merton’s Seven-Story Mountain (which I found extremely helpful when I read it years later during my difficult transition from Buddhism back to Catholicism), or even Augustine’s Confessions. By those I mean: Something that would have clued me into the struggles of faith other thinking, questioning people had undergone. Something that, if nothing else, would have let me know I wasn’t alone and that it was OK to experience what I was experiencing.

I would have also benefited had the chaplain offered to be available if I needed someone to talk to, or recommended someone else I might have talked to. Even if I never took him up on it, the invitation would have meant something.

Of course we live in a different world now than in 1974 when I had the conversation I did with my high school chaplain. I suspect he had never read Thomas Merton (and maybe not even Augustine’s Confessions) and so could not have made that recommendation. And he may not have had any recommendations for people I might have talked to.

It is much easier today to walk with people like my seventeen year-old self and I feel privileged whenever a young person struggling along their faith journey comes to speak with me. And I pray that something in my own experience can be a source of guidance and strength to them.


Conversion, Interreligious Dialogue and Evangelization

I first became acquainted with the Cistercian monk Christian de Cherge through the film Of Gods and Men. De Cherge was part of a Cistercian community at Tibhirine in Algeria, living and working among the Muslims there until he and six of his fellow monks were abducted and then assassinated in 1996.

After seeing the film, I gave little thought to de Cherge until my friend Richard gave me a book for Christmas, Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope, written by Christian Salenson. I started reading the book this week an am loving it.

Since I often talk about conversion, both in retreats and in the book talks I’ve been doing about Growing in Love and Wisdom, I smiled at Salenson’s description of de Cherge’s way of understanding conversion (a subject about which he wrote much), since it echoes what I often say on the subject. Salenson quotes one of de Cherge’s chapter talks, in which he said:

Conversion is a dynamic process, a way of being meant to remain active. It is a ‘tropism’: we turn toward God the way f plant turns toward the sun. Conversion must not be confused with change of religion…Change of religion may bring about an important shift in focus, but it does not exhaust the whole meaning of conversion, and it may well turn out that it is not even a part of the meaning of conversion.

De Cherge understood that all, of whatever religion, are called equally to conversion – a conversion that is a turning toward God.

For de Cherge, this understanding of conversion as, first and foremost, a dynamic process of turning toward God, says something about the goal of interreligous dialogue. The purpose of interreligious dialogue is not to convince the other person of the tenets of our own religion. In Salenson’s words, “Interreligious dialogue obliges us to distinguish between conversion to God and change of religion. Although conversion remains the heart of dialogue, this conversion of all participants does not mean a change in religious affiliation but a turn to God.”

This also invites us to think about how we articulate the goal of our Christian mission of evangelization and reminds us of the importance of distinguishing between evangelization and proselytization. Witnessing to Christ and proclaiming the Gospel is our task, not seeking to have adherents of other faith traditions abandon theirs in favor of ours.

The Love That Converts Us

Today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. This is an event with which we are all familiar. Paul (then Saul), a persecutor of Christians, is on his way to Damascus when “a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.” At that, Saul falls to the ground and hears a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” When he asks who is speaking to him, he hears, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus continues with instructions, which Saul follows.

What is it about the appearance of Jesus that converts Saul from his life of persecuting Christians to becoming one of the great preachers of Christianity. Heather King offers this thought,

Christ never cuts us down with a gun or sword. He looks at us with love….He looks us in the eye with love and says, “Why are you persecuting me?”

To be forgiven when we know we don’t “deserve” to be forgiven is radically transformative in a way violence can never be. To be forgiven does another kind of violence: to our whole tit-for-tat notion of crime and punishment. To be forgiven makes us realize that, unbelievable as it may seem, God needs us for something. We have a mission.

In Jesus words, Paul hears, not condemnation, but love and forgiveness. And in that look and voice of love and forgiveness is invitation – invitation to conversion, to transformation. Invitation to mission.

As it was for Paul, the invitation is there for each of us.

Born Again

On Sunday afternoon, I was interviewed (via phone) on Kate Turkington’s Believe it or Not, a talk show that “offers a non-denominational but multi-dimensional approach to philosophical, moral and religious topics and issues drawn from our daily lives.” The show has been running for an amazing 19 years with the same host. Kate Turkington is extremely knowledgeable and it was both interesting and enjoyable to talk with her about my experiences with Buddhism and Christianity and about my new book, Growing in Love and Wisdom.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of days about my reaction to one comment that she made. As best as I cam remember the actual words she used (I haven’t yet gotten the link to the podcast of the interview, but will post it when I do), she said, “you sound – in your passion in talking about your experience of God and Jesus – like a born-again Christian.”

I felt myself immediately draw back as I head the question. “I’m not one of those,” was the first thought that went through my head. I immediately had a vision of several people I had known when I was younger, who announced they were born again, and in whom could not detect any visible sign of that label. And “born again” is not a term Catholic tend to use.

What I said to Kate Turkington in response to her comment was that I think I sound like anyone who has had a deep religious experience – that when we experience God, we are changed. I think it is impossible to sound anything other than passionate about a deep experience of God.

As I thought later about her comment, my reaction and my response, I realize that, despite the negative associations the term has for some people, the “born-again” is actually a quite good phrase. What came to my mind was Jesus discussion with Nicodemus about the need to be born again. (“You must be born from above.”) I don’t think Jesus is talking simply about baptism, but about a fundamental transformation of our being – a transformation that comes from our experience of God. Born again may be a good way of talking about the fruit of our foundational religious experiences.

A Christian Faith Enriched By Buddhism

“A Christian Faith Enriched by Buddhism.” That is the title of the blog post I wrote for Huffington Post, which which had asked me to explain in 700-800 words how Buddhism has enriched my Christian faith.

Yikes – that question occupies an entire chapter in the manuscript I have just completed on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism. The task of distilling what I expressed in 13-15 manuscript pages into a shot essay was not simple. But I think I managed, with some success to at least convey something of both how necessary Buddhism was to my ability to return to Chrsitianity and the ways in which it has influenced my spirituality.

You can judge for yourself how successful I was by reading the whole piece, which was posted by Huff Post yesterday. You can find it here.

The New Evangelization

One of the major themes of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XIV is “The New Evangelization.”

The USCCB’s website has posted “Seven Things Catholics Should Know About the New Evangelization,” written by Peter Murphy, executive director of the Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis of the USCCB.

The two that popped out at me (the second and fourth of the seven) were these:

It begins with personal conversion. The New Evangelization begins internally and spreads outward. We are called to deepen our own faith in order to better share it with others. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described this in the Jubilee Year 2000 as daring to have faith with the humility of the mustard seed that leaves up to God how and when the tree will grow. Conversion to Christ is the first step.

It’s about a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Before a person can share Christ with others, they must first experience Christ in their own life. The New Evangelization is about promoting a personal encounter with Christ for all people, wherever they are in their lives. Whether that means finding faith for the first time or spreading the Good News, the most authentic and effective efforts are the ones closest to Christ.

We can’t envangelize others until we deepen our own faith. Our own conversion. Our own relationship with Christ. We need to work on ourselves before we can effectively work on others.

And that requires prayer. The external work is important. But internal work must precede it.

Feast of the Transfiguration

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. The Transfiguration is one of the events recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels; our Gospel today is St. Mark’s account of the event.

Mark tells us that when Jesus led Peter, James and John to a high mountain, “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.”  The disciples see Jesus in all of his divine glory, getting a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus and seeing him in conversation with Elijah and Moses. After that, a cloud came over them, and from the cloud they heard God’s voice saying, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”

Now that sort of thing doesn’t just happen every day. Even for Jesus’ friends, who were used to seeing him do some amazing things, this must have been an extraordinary thing to behold. You might even expect it to be life-changing.

But, no. Peter, James and John come down off the mountain, and James and John still worry about whether they are going to get to sit at Jesus’ right hand, Peter still denies him and they still all run away when Jesus is crucified. 

I want to criticize them for their slowness, but I also have to realize that I am a lot like them. I’ve had some incredible experiences of God on retreat, in prayer and at other times. I’ve had experiences that have caused me to
marvel at what God has revealed of Godself, feeling like nothing will ever be the same. And, while at some level it is not the same, suffice it to say that occasions arise where I’ll think or do or say something that seems completely inconsistent with the revelations I have experienced.

So on the Feast of the Transfiguration, I pray, continue to reveal yourself to me, Lord. And let me thoughts, words and deeds more and more mirror that revelation.

Newfound Faith: The Fourth Fisherman

One of the great things about being asked on occasion to review books on faith and spirituality is coming across books that otherwise hadn’t found their way onto my radar screen. The most recent to fall in that category, sent to me for review by Random House, is Joe Kissack’s The Fourth Fisherman: How Three Mexican Fishermen Who Came Back from the Dead Changed My Life and Saved My Marriage. It is an inspiring story…actually two inspiring stories in one book – that of Joe Kissack and that of three Mexican fishermen.

Five Mexican fisherman set out from a small town on the western coast of Mexico in October 2005.. A horrible storm damaged their boat and took away much of their supplies, including their fishing net. It also made it impossible for them to get back to shore. In the nine months they were adrift in the Pacific, two of the men died and all were given up for lost. Amazingly three were rescued. (Their rescue got a lot of worldwide press attention, although I didn’t recall the incident when I started to read the book.)

The story of the fisherman, and how the Bible and their faith helped them stay alive, is told powerfully by Kissack. Even if the only story here were that of the three men who were lost at sea, the book would be a worthwhile read. But there is a second story.

The fourth fisherman in the book title is Kissack himself. Interwoven with the story of the Mexican fisherman is Kissack’s own story. First, the story of his fall: How he went from a man on top of the world – high-paying prestigious job, nice home and everything money could buy – to a state of addiction, anxiety and joblessness. (Those who suffer from depression and anxiety or who have experienced drug or alcohol dependency will recognize much in Kissack’s self-portrait.) Second, the story of his redemption: how God found him at his lowest point and how he started to dig himself out. And how his search to meet the three Mexican fisherman helped change his life.

Regarding both the Mexican fisherman and Kissock, the book is a story of healing and restoration. Their stories are different – as someone points out to Kissock at one point the fishermen looked lost, but weren’t lost at all because they had God, whereas Kissock didn’t look lost because he had everything, but really was lost. But there is much to learn in looking at the stories side-by-side.

This is a book you will pick up and not want to put down until you are finished with it. The writing is good, the story is compelling and the hand of God is evident throughout.

The Centrality of God

I just returned from several days in New York, where I presented both an evening program on Thursday, Growing in Love and Wisdom, on the subject of my forthcoming OUP book of that title, and a weekend women’s Lent retreat on the theme of A Lenten Pilgrimage. Both were wonderful experiences.

Since Thursday evening’s program was about adapting meditations drawn from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for Christian prayer, not surprisingly, several questions both during the Q&A portion of the program and afterward were about my conversion back to Catholicism from Buddhism. (That is a subject that will be addressed in much detail in the book manuscript I’m finally about to get back to now that the meditation book is in production.)

One woman, someone who described herself as not having given up Catholicism but who primarily practices Zen Buddhist meditation, came up to me after the program to express surprise at my return to “traditional Catholicism.” She was surprised by my mention at one point about the Sacrament of Reconciliation (the primary source of her “traditional” label, I think, since I don’t tend to be labeled a traditional Catholic all that often) and wanted to know what was missing in Buddhism that I had to come back to Catholicism.

I’ve addressed the subject of Reconciliation in posts before, and I shared with the woman some of what I’ve written here in the past. (See e.g., here.) I also shared with her (to her surprise) that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has a confessional practice for monks and nuns that doesn’t look very different from the Catholic sacrament. I engaged in the practice many times while I was a Buddhist nun.

As to the “what was missing” question, my immediate answer was the centrality of personal relationship with God. My years as a Buddhist were incredibly worthwhile and important to my spiritual growth. But, although I never before framed the question to myself the way the woman did, what was missing in Buddhism for me was the centrality of God. For some people, that may not matter, and their spiritual lives can be complete in ways that don’t require God at the center. But not me. I came (albeit after a lot of years) to realize that without God something was missing. And not just a something that could be replaced by something else. But the something that is irreplaceable and without which nothing else could make sense. The something that defines everything about who I am – that is the ground of my being.

Maybe that does make me traditional. But, if so, that is a definition of traditional that I’m completely comfortable with.

By the way: You can listen to the talk I gave last Thursday evening on Growing in Love and Wisdom at the icon below. You can also download the podcast here. (The podcast runs for 42:33.) In the talk, I explored some of the common values and understandings underlying Christianity and Buddhism and talked about how meditations drawn from the Buddhist tradition can enhance our prayer lives as Christians.

The Process of Conversion

Yesterday I gave the reflection at our Weekly Manna gathering at the Law School. I had been planning to talk on the subject of Prophets vs. Protesters and had spent some time the day before thinking about my remarks. However, on the way to the law school yesterday, I stopped for morning mass at my new parish, Christ the King. It happened that yesterday was the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul and the first Mass reading was Paul’s account in Acts of his conversion experience. After listening to the reading and to Fr. Dale’s sermon, I decided to change my topic and speak about conversion.

The story of Paul’s conversion in Acts is a great story, a dramatic story. It is the kind of redemption story we love to hear. (As I said to the students yesterday – who didn’t love the scene in Star Wars Episode Six when Darth Vadar sees the light and saves his son…who wasn’t smiling (or in tears) when we see his redeemed spirit with Obiwan and Yoda at the end of the film.)

The risk of such dramatic stories is that we see conversion as a single dramatic event. It is true that we all have some significant conversion events in our lives, moments we can look back at and say – something significant happened to me here, events after which nothing is really the same. (And I shared a couple of mine with the students.)

But looking back at those moments, and at what transpired between them, helps us to see that we are engaged in an ongoing process of conversion that continues and is not complete until we die.

One important implication of this, and this is one of the points Fr. Dale raised in his homily yesterday morning, is that our conversion doesn’t proceed in one direction. Conversion can be called a process of moving closer and closer to union with God, but the reality is that sometimes we do better than others. Sometimes we move closer…and sometimes we take a step or two back.

Understanding conversion as process also helps us understand how important are each of the steps we take along the path of our conversion journey. We have such a strong tendency to judge harshly what we in hindsight view as missteps along the way. It is so very easy for us to forget that everything we experience and learn from contributes to our growth process, is part of who we have become and how we relate to God and others, and is a potential source of grace. For me – some one who returned to Christianity after spending 20 years of her adult life as Buddhist, this meant coming to understand that my years as a Buddhist, far from being a misstep, were an integral part of my spiritual journey.

So, by all means, enjoy story like Paul’s conversion. But don’t be fooled into thinking conversion happens in a flash and is done.