Monday, May 31, 2010

Zen Bland

My friend Laurence Platt just sent me a piece he wrote called “Zen Bland.” [Please see Laurence’s website: Conversations For Transformation: Essays By Laurence Platt Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard, And More]. In it he makes a strong case that simple and unembellished language is the only authentic way to describe deeply moving, transformative experiences. His essay was not a bland piece at all but very juicy. What a really radical notion—living life here and now, speaking about it simply, not altering our experience trying to make it into something else! I think that it applies to meditation practice, and living, as well as writing.

As you may know, I have been a committed meditation practitioner for more than 35 years, the last twenty + in a rather disciplined Zen practice. For eleven years before that I was a member of a catholic religious order, the Jesuits, which has, at least in the first years of training, a disciplined, formal spiritual practice.

At the beginning of January this year, I was on retreat in Santa Rosa where our group, the Pacific Zen Institute, rented a former catholic convent for the week. The Angela Center had been the California motherhouse for a congregation of religious women, the Ursalines. The few remaining nuns have turned their property into a retreat center. The buildings themselves have that rather bland institutional architecture, working with very basic, simple materials, characteristic of most buildings put up to accommodate the large numbers of men and women who were entering religious life after World War II. As I unpacked my bag, I thought to myself that my “cell” was just a slightly less Spartan, more feminine version of the one where I was isolated from the outside world for two years as a Jesuit novice, August 15, 1966 to September 8, 1968. That period was for me an extremely difficult initiation into religious life, exactly the way that St. Ignatius, or his successors, designed it.

My Zen retreat at the Angela Center might have been a re-stimulus for both the ecstatic and painful memories of my noviceship. And like clock work, floods of memories and other mental stuff occurred in silence and meditation from 4:30 AM to after 9:30 PM–a schedule slightly more demanding than in a Jesuit house of formation where we got up an hour later and went to bed a half hour earlier.

After breakfast on the morning of the 4th day, as I was walking back to the room that we had set up as the meditation hall, I noticed that my perception of the building had suddenly shifted. It was not dramatic, there were no flashing lights of insight, no angels descended from heaven with all the answers that I had been so hungry for, or had told myself that I really sought. I was just walking on a linoleum floor that was just a floor, and the walls of lightly plastered-over cinder block were just walls. Nothing more. Nothing added, no sounds but the sound of my feet and no visions but what I saw through my eyes – just walls, just a door, just a room, just a grey carpeted floor with black cushions. Rather bland for a mystical experience.

But then I began to notice something very powerful open up inside me—every burden that I had been carrying since my Jesuit training was gone. It was extinguished, not conceptually but actually. My past life as a Jesuit was gone, completely gone. Not that it didn’t happen, not that it had no effect on me, but I understood in a non-intellectual way that anything I carry into the present moment was for me to carry. It isn’t there; it isn’t real; it doesn’t drag itself along.

And suddenly I realized that in that moment of bland Zen that I was totally and irrevocably free—no one, no thing, no outside authority, no god, no doctrine, no experience could ever enslave me.

Three cheers for bland Zen!

Monday, May 24, 2010

No Sackcloth and Ashes for these Guys!


"I would just say this. The most important thing is to clean up the truth. And the truth is I have never said anything."

What kind of double-speak is this?

They are the words of then Archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Eagan, regarding a statement made by the rector at St. Patrick's Cathedral, one Monsignor Eugene Clark, in 2002. Standing in for the embattled Cardinal Egan, Clark blamed the sex abuse scandal on gays, railed against homosexuality as a "disorder" and said it was a "grave mistake" to allow gays into the priesthood. Clark would later be forced to resign after his affair with his secretary, a woman 30 years his junior, came to light in 2005. You can bet the king of outing high level hypocrites, Michelangelo Signorile, had blast with this: A Monsignor's Closet, 2005-08-24. 

I have also said at least a few things about the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, though with a more sympathetic voice, I hope, having some experience of the cloak of secrecy that gay priests are forced to wear. I didn’t fit me well, but that is another story. Here is what I wrote when I revisited a conversation that I had with my friend Avery Dulles (who by the way did not much like wearing his cardinal duds). I did not mention him by name when he was alive out of respect for his position and our friendship; though I think that he might have endorsed what I said, I didn’t want to expose my version of his words to the lurkers on the Internet who love bits of gossip that they can distort. 

I don’t want to make some high sounding statement and then stand back. It’s time to keep up the pressure. So let’s try a little humor. I don’t think that it will surprise anyone that among gay clergy there’s a lot of dark humor and jokes that float from one “pink” rectory to another. When I heard this one, the main characters were John 23, Francis “Fanny” Cardinal Spellman, and John Joseph Cardinal Wright of Pittsburg and the Vatican. Even though Wright wasn’t yet a cardinal during Vatican II, it still works. John 23 and Wright, even if gay as suspected, were straight arrows, but “Fanny” was notorious for his liaisons with any number of New York chorus boys and hustlers, so much so that it seems he had part of his staff dedicated to quelling rumors and preventing them from reaching the pages of the NY Times. In New York gay bars in the 60’s there was always someone who swore that they heard from his lips: “If you threaten to go public, who’ll believe you? You’re a nobody and I’m the Cardinal Archbishop of New York.” That was another age, though his brother cardinals are now reaping the fruit of his indiscretions—among others.

So after all that preamble, here’s the joke.

When John 23 sent out the official announcement to the opening of the Second Vatican Council, he included a private note to all the cardinals, archbishops, and bishops asking them to tone down their dress. It was to be a solemn occasion, yes, but given that he as Pope was striving for reform, remaking the image of Church in the modern world, simple clerical garb would be enough. In other words, leave the cappae magnae home.

The day of the opening of the Counsel rolled around and the US prelates were gathered together in St. Peters, dressed down as requested. After the appropriate drum roll and trumpets, the doors swung open and there was John 23, sporting a Triregnum, carried on his sedia gestatoria by 12 hunky guys in red, surrounded by fans of white feathers (a boa that might have seemed out of place). 

Spellman turns to Wright and mutters, “Bitch.”

The current occupant of the chair of Peter has called for penance for the sins of the Church, one presumes for not reprimanding pedophile priests and allowing them access to children even after their crimes had been reported. But I hope that it’s not lost on anyone that Benedict’s penance doesn’t call for sackcloth and ashes. Oh no, quite the contrary. He’s taken the Pope’s little red slippers out of the closet—you have to have shoes to match.



He’s taken the papal throne out of the Vatican Museum where it has been since Paul VI's reign.

Even lowly bishops have taken to the 60 foot cappa magna once again. (It is reported to me from a reliable former Jesuit source that it was cut to 12’ by Pius XII more than 50 years ago).

The photograph is of Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on April 26th of this year.
And there are humors that Benedict will dust off the sedia gestatoria “for security reasons.” This certainly doesn't look like penance, or maybe that is how old queens do penance. I could check that out if I could find any among my friends who really did molest teenagers, or even have that proclivity. But they’re not in the Castro. They’re all in jail or under Vatican protection. (The picture is of Pius VIII riding high in 1828).


Penance my ass.