Exchanging Worry for Wonder
A Catholic priest’s encounter with God through Zen
Illustration Credit: Communion by Anna Herrick
As a Catholic priest I resisted—and I encouraged others to desist from—practicing Eastern meditative disciplines. A few years ago, however, I began to read—to my chagrin—how several Roman and Anglican priests encountered in Zen meditation an affirmation of God and the certainty of planes and realities beyond those of our senses. For them, Zen was not theology; it was community. It wasn’t a theory, but an evolutionary process where the encounter with God occurred within oneself and not without.
So I began the practice and realized for myself that zazen doesn’t demand subscription to any dogma or doctrine. In this freedom, I was able to grow my prayer life. My prayers became centered, less talkative. Rather than making petitions and demanding things from God, my mind transcended the “me of want” and led me to an unnerving place where the “deficient me” resided. How do I work on myself so I can be truly receptive to God’s instructions?
Zazen has helped me to earnestly begin much of the real work in plumbing the genuine health of my spiritual identity. It is the equivalent of walking through parts of the house we’ve cleaned and spruced up for guests and finally opening the door of that room wherein we’ve shoved everything we didn’t want our company to see. I’ve done quite a lot of cleaning up and donating (letting go) of stuff I had no use for and no place to store anymore. Lots of clutter, indeed.
I am often asked, “So, where does Zen meditation take me to?” I answer: “To nothingness.” It’s my secret place that hasn’t been inhabited by me probably since birth. It’s an intimate location where I genuinely divest myself of attachments, release expectations, and loosen my death grip on trying to keep everything sorted. It is where I discover the tangible reality of faith. This is how I feel faith. I can let go and sense the vacuum, and instead of feeling despair I can embrace the nothingness—because that is where I find the Everything that is, according to my spirituality and theology, in control.
Most of our daily thoughts are chatter. Chatter entertains, distracts, and often convinces us that we are something and someone we really aren’t. As I taught myself to take the bold step of stepping over and under the veil of my mind’s incessant chatter, I discovered silence. Now I wonder why I didn’t take this trip before. Noise, chatter, and so-called entertainment all contribute to sustaining spiritual white noise that succeeds in divorcing us from the silence which is the context for spiritual reflection and growth.
I believe all members of any faith community can benefit from zazen. If there has ever been a process whereby we can arrive at a place of sameness as a human race, it is through zazen. All the things that seem to divide us are passed over, left behind—until we arrive as individual, sentient beings at a collective spiritual nakedness before the great abyss. In this place within ourselves, we gain an indispensable awareness of our inability to hold on to this mask, or that lie, we’ve been selling ourselves and others for years. We are challenged to come clean. Our ideas are shattered and our identity rescued.
As a Catholic priest, I often tell people that through this individual process of zazen, we can acquire a sense of confidence and sobering reality about exactly who we are presenting before God. Personally speaking, I have a renewed passion for the words of Jesus and for serving others because I realized in meditation how unrealistic my idea of my faith was. I discovered the humbling truth that we depend on God for grace and merciful provision, but I must work my salvation out with fear and trembling.
It’s not easy to meditate, and there are times I skim through the process. I believe this is healthy, because I am forced to acknowledge the weaknesses in my discipline and the need to further my study of meditation.
It’s often assumed by clergy and lay folk alike that what ministers impart through preaching and other methods of instruction makes utter and complete sense to them. Divesting expectations about having to know it all has afforded me the opportunity to come clean before God and myself. I now realize that it may not make sense to me, either—deep within. I am free to be me and not to have to know everything as a prerequisite to receiving God’s grace. I have often told others that faith isn’t about having all the answers, but living with the questions. I wasn’t as forgiving with myself, though. Now I see that in my ignorance I discover the opportunity to empty myself of theory and invite authentic community with the Light.