Thursday, May 15, 2014

Goa, Saint Francis and me

McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh
April 7, 2014

(This was written for a publication of "Spiritual Journeys" written by a group of former Jesuits).

One Sunday this past February, Ashish and I went to the English mass at the Basilica of Bom Jesu in Goa. Initially we were steered into the line to pass by the shrine of Saint Francis which is no more than just a small Baroque style side altar with his body encased in glass--during mass people venerating the saint wind through the courtyard of the Jesuit residence.

Once we negotiated our way into the back pew of the church, and began to feel at home with the “Jesuit-ness” of the ceremony, I was able to pay more attention. The priest’s sermon was not entirely easy to follow. As he struggled to connect Xavier’s religious enthusiasm to martyrdom, something I felt didn’t match the facts of his remarkable life nor the current situation of Christians in India, I looked around at the rest of congregation, mostly Indians, Goans I suspect, and certainly, as English speakers, educated. They were also, as far as I could tell, remarkably uninspired, not unlike the Irish American parish of my childhood.

The sermon and the ceremony were also disconnected from what was happening at the side altar. Men, women, and children, Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, pushed their way forward towards the barely visible body of the saint. Ash and I had seen almost identical scenes at the many temples, mosques, shrines, gurdwaras we’ve visited across India. What they were seeking was a personal matter, blessing for a new marriage, healing, relief from suffering, forgiveness for a personal transgression, a prayer for a child’s good fortune, or perhaps even a superstitious belief that contact with a realized being would produce a child. And to be honest, it also seemed unconnected to the Francis I knew as a Catholic, Jesuit saint. But it was real.

I turned my attention back to the priest at the altar and felt deep compassion, even kinship. He was obviously competent, educated, thoughtful, even a devout, spiritual man who was sincerely trying to connect our messy lives with another dimension. With any luck, I might have turned out like him. In that same moment, I also realized why I’d left the Society.

After I graduated from Dartmouth in 1966, over the objections of my parents, I entered the Jesuits at Shadowbrook,  and stayed for more than a decade. When time came for me to be ordained, I took a leave of absence and extended it for 2 years before I signed my exit papers. I realized that I had to confront, and deal with coming out as a gay man, my addictive personality, and, at the time, it seemed that the most effective path was psychological work rather than prayer or meditation.

I had of course done the spiritual exercises of Father Ignatius many times. The experience was rich. When I was trying to decide whether to leave or stick it out, I undertook then again as well as trying to recreate some of that experience through a study of the enneagram, and beginning Buddhist meditation practice. Then for more than three decades, I either wore the designation “ex-Jesuit” as a badge of honor, or disavowed any value in my religious training except on the rare occasion when I ran into someone from that era.

Twenty-five years ago a chance meeting with a Zen priest who was starting a hospice for people with AIDS turned my attention back to meditation practice. It also allowed me to carefully trace the roots of suffering through a spiritual practice that is agnostic with regard to any particular religious system of beliefs.

Today my experience in the Society grows dim, like a series of events in a very ancient land, but what also remains is a sense of intimacy that feels indelible and timeless. I regard things “spiritual” as reflecting on some of the questions that life presents squarely. Most of the puzzlers of my youth--the struggle of coming out in an unaccepting culture, finding a spiritual expression that suited me, etc.--have faded into the background. I no longer seek the kind of answers that I demanded years ago, though I value seeing things through to the end, even things that do not turn out well.

In my view most of the ordinary language of “spiritual” conversation is inadequate. Describing my particular path as as series of “transitions” feels melodramatic. Speaking of a path or a journey sounds like I just bought some nifty running shoes to train for a marathon at my unlikely age. It feels more like just growing up, looking around and realizing that our lives amount to only a brief second, but in that time we can leave things better than we found them, that we are not alone, and that the universe is vast and awe-inspiring.

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