In search of faith

When I returned to the Catholic Church at the age of 29, I had a burning question:  What does it mean to be Catholic?

Every day after work, I went straight home and consumed the spiritual classics (which, alas, sailed right over my head).  I obsessively checked to make sure I wasn’t breaking any commandments.  As a result, for a long time, I utterly failed to understand what Catholicism is all about.

In the end, I realized, Jesus told us plainly:  the two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor.  Catholicism is basically about love.

My next question was, how do I become a loving person?

Faith, hope, and love are the three quintessential Christian virtues.  And I’ve heard it argued that they go in that order:  faith in God’s goodness allows us to hope for good things in the future, and when we have hope for ourselves we then have positive energy to spare for loving others.

So that meant I had to start with faith.  And, as I would come to realize, accepting a creed on an intellectual level wasn’t enough.  I had to really live my life as if I trusted God completely that even when things looked like a total mess, they were going to work out somehow.

As it turns out, I am really, really bad at that.  I’ve met people who wouldn’t call themselves Christians at all who seem to do that better than me purely on instinct.  But I’ve come to believe the important thing isn’t to compare and nitpick and intellectualize things.  I just have to point myself in the right direction and keep walking.

I have a little angel on my desk now that says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”  Throughout the day, whenever it catches my eye, I recognize that frustration, impatience and cynicism have crept into my heart, and I remember to return to a place of patient trust and peace.

It almost feels as if, three years after returning to the Church, I’m finally taking the first step in becoming Catholic.

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When fitting in is a sign that you’re crazy

In Japan, it’s called “culture.”  Staying at work until late at night (or early in the morning) without overtime pay.  Maintaining perfect deference to your superiors even as they bully and abuse you.  Basically perfecting the art of denying yourself a lot–even healthy things.

So why are some foreigners so eager to fit into this culture?

“We’re full of self-loathing,” an American colleague once remarked at the lunch table.  I had come to suspect the same thing.  Maybe there was something about Japanese culture that appealed to us codependent types.

Only, as I had discovered, it was difficult for someone from a Christian background to sink to the depths of self-abandonment the Japanese were capable of.  My self-loathing had limits, and when I reached them, I would direct my anger outward at whoever it was who was currently making my life difficult.

Perhaps only the Japanese could have pushed me to my breaking point, and perhaps that needed to be done in order to wake me up to my own expectations of how people should treat me.

Interestingly, I think it was beginning to realize this–that there was some part of me, deep inside, that would not accept the erasure of my healthy sense of self-assertion–that cured me of my desire to assimilate into Japanese culture.  As the Church would say, I became aware that I believed in my own dignity as a human being.

After returning to the Church, though, I would eventually learn that anger–whether directed inward or outward–was not something to aspire to.  And so, after praying many novenas to Mary, Untier of Knots, and slowly becoming aware of my issues, I’ve embarked on a journey of learning to be assertive–changing the things I can and accepting the things I can’t, as the prayer goes.

 

Holiness, healthiness, and feeling the feels

Recently I have been reading The Tao of Fully Feeling by Pete Walker.  In this book, Mr. Walker argues that in order to be fully human, we have to allow ourselves to feel and express the full range of human emotions.  We can’t, for example, decide that we are above feeling or expressing sadness or anger.  Repressing these emotions only causes psychological dysfunction.

Reading this and Mr. Walker’s newer book on CPTSD, I realized that anxiety is an almost constant state of being with me, and has been for about as long as I can remember.  I finally had a breakthrough when I realized that my anxiety is not actually warning me about danger in the world around me–it’s my repressed childhood emotions leaking out sideways, so to speak.  Dismissing this anxiety as something unreal and not productive gives me an astonishing–and unfamiliar–sense of clarity.  I guess that’s what normal feels like.

An interesting thing happened when I went to church in this state.  I felt that God wanted me to be free of anxiety because it was crippling my ability to live as a healthy human being.  I was surprised by the thought that being holy includes maintaining one’s mental health, since this is one part of pursuing what is good, rather than what is disordered, in all areas of life.

Interestingly, Mr. Walker’s words, “fully human,” have a deep significance in Catholicism–it’s been said that to become a saint means to become fully human.

But I didn’t realize this when I first returned to the Church at the age of 29.  When I wanted to know how to be a good Catholic, I looked back to my childhood and its distorted idea of what holiness meant–basically I thought that the more I denied myself, the holier I would become.  However, I came to realize that thwarting myself was not actually producing the fruits of the Spirit.  It seemed to me that I’d been living a healthier life before I returned to the Church, but I couldn’t justify returning to that way of living without any intellectual basis for it.  Finally, with Mr. Walker’s books, I realized that my concept of holiness was lacking in humanity.

Mr. Walker himself touches on religion and points out that my issues are not uncommon in the West–we seem to have lost some of our groundedness in the reality of what it means to be human, especially in terms of accepting our negative emotions.

In fact, it seems that sometimes we can’t even understand our own spiritual heritage because of this.  How many people have, like me, been perplexed by all the “complaining” in the Psalms?  Isn’t complaining a sin?  Reading the book, I had an “Aha!” moment where it finally made sense–they’re not complaining (which is non-productive), they’re engaging in healthy emoting (processing feelings)!  Mr. Walker even points out that Jesus’ words on the Cross–“My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”–are also an example of this healthy expression of negative feelings.  Remember that the Church teaches us that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine!

One of the tools Mr. Walker suggests to rectify issues with healthy emotional expression is “reparenting.”  I think this is essentially what happened to me the first time I went to Japan.  Being a somewhat helpless foreigner encouraged grandmotherly types to dote on me anyway, and sitting in on the assemblies in the elementary schools where I worked was probably as educational for me as it was for the kids!  I can’t speak for the cities, but at least where I was, in the countryside, I feel there was still very much a holistic sense of what it means to be a healthy human being that included our emotional nature.  I often saw adults help children put words to what they were feeling, and gently suggest a healthy response.  Even adult society seemed to have more consideration for our emotional nature as human beings, lending it a charming, old-fashioned, pre-industrial feel.  I think absorbing these lessons helped me to heal from the truncation of my emotions.

It fascinates me how my experiences living in Japan, of all places, helped me to understand what Catholicism is really about.  Becoming a better Catholic requires embracing reality–something that the humble Japanese are very good at teaching.

 

Breezes and pigeonholes

In The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Father James Martin explains that the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are characterized by their practicality.  When it comes to finding God, they turn first to experience, rather than lofty theology.  The fact that God chose to be incarnated into this world, Father Martin says, proves that He wants to communicate with us in our everyday lives through the things of this world.

Here’s an example of one of Father Martin’s spiritual experiences in the everyday world:

Fat grasshoppers jumped among the daisies and black-eyed Susans.  Crickets hid in the grasses and among old leaves.  Bees hummed above the Queen Anne’s lace and the tall purple and pink snapdragons.  Cardinals and robins darted from branch to branch.  The air was fresh, and the field was alive with creation . . . I felt an overwhelming happiness.  I felt so happy to be alive.  And I felt a fantastic longing:  to both possess and be a part of what was around me.

This longing after the mysterious and beautiful, Father Martin says, is ultimately a longing for God.  But, he points out, the idea that God communicates with us through our experiences in this world is antithetical to the mindset of the modern West, which denies spiritual experiences altogether, instead lumping them in with “emotions”:

So you disregard that longing you feel when the first breath of a spring breeze caresses your face after a long dark winter, because you tell yourself (or others tell you) that you were simply being emotional . . . It’s a natural reaction:  much in Western culture tries to tamp down or even deny these naturally spiritual experiences and explain them away in purely rational terms.

I love his wording here:  “Western culture tries to damp down or even deny . . ..”  Isn’t that just the case?  We all have these experiences–we just don’t talk about them.  After all, the great project of the Enlightenment was to explain the entire world with no reference to the spiritual.  This necessitates lumping a whole lot of things, from spiritual experiences like the above, to inspirations, movements of the will, nudgings of the conscience–into the laughably inadequate category of “emotions.”

Guess what:  Japanese people talk about their spiritual experiences.  They’re not embarrassed to get poetic about, for example, the ways they feel inspired by the sky.  And it’s refreshing.  It makes more sense to simply admit to these things than to write a thesis trying to explain them away.  It’s more freeing–more human.

Reading Father Martin’s book, I was reminded that encouraging me to acknowledge reality–including its mysterious, beautiful and poetic aspects–was a major way in which Japan coaxed me out of atheism and prepared me to return to the Catholic Church.

The Malawi of Japan

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a diplomatic couple who had come to America after a posting in Malawi.  I just had to hear about it.

“Once I went on a trip,” the husband began, “and when I came back, I saw my security guard holding some radishes.  I asked him where he got them from and he said, ‘your garden.’  I mean, it was kind of ironic that the security guard was stealing things.  But he was so straightforward about it, it was cute.  I couldn’t get mad at him.”

As he went on telling stories, like how his cook scrubbed every speck of the “dirty” teflon coating off of a pan, I could tell what affection he had for the people of Malawi; how he admired their innocent and childlike nature.

“So tell me about your time in Japan,” he countered.

So I told him all about my experiences living in the little fishing village–how the men would spear a wild boar in the mountains and make a cauldron of stew in front of the community center; how strangers would recognize me, the village’s only foreigner, on the streets, and offer me bags of homegrown tangerines; the grand folk dance at the summer festival.

His eyes widened.  “I had no idea there were places like that in Japan,” he said with wonder.  “It’s like the Malawi of Japan!

Now it would probably not occur to most people to compare one of the least-developed and one of the most-developed countries in the world, but I knew just the sense in which he was doing so.  I believe, from the stories we exchanged, that we experienced something of the same nature.  We had both been awestruck by the beauty of a pure soul.

And I wondered again, as I sometimes do, just how accurate it is to say that I fell in love with Japan.  I have been to places in Japan quite different from that fishing village, and my diplomat friend, apparently, had been to a place somewhat similar on another continent.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I fell in love with something I encountered in Japan–something that even now, as then, I am not sure I have a name for.

 

Anatomy of a Japanese barbecue

Recently I had the chance to work at a Japanese barbecue.  I’ve been to plenty such cookouts before, but this time it struck me afresh just how unique they are–spiritual, even.  And I knew I had to sort out these impressions and write them down, because as strange as it sounds, the Japanese barbecue was surely part of my journey from atheism to the Catholic Church.

So here’s what I feel is unique about them:

  1.  Emphasis on the team.  First of all, when you have a Japanese barbecue, you do it en masse.  In this case, it was my employer putting on the BBQ, so dozens of my coworkers and I left the office and donned matching happi (traditional jackets).  Papers were distributed in advance dividing us into teams and each person was given a specific job to do.  Every procedure, from washing our hands at the outset to carrying the empty pans back to the kitchen at the end, was carefully choreographed.  I find that there is a lot of satisfaction in working this way–it seems to make honoring the dignity of the human person and of work as much of a goal as eating delicious grilled squid.
  2. A Japanese barbecue is lo-tech.  The men fetched bags of charcoal and poured them into a metal trough, then covered it with a metal grate.  Voila–the grill.  They then carried large styrofoam crates of fresh whole fish and squid from the kitchen, presumably just the way they were received from the fish market that morning.  Everything is reduced to its bare essentials–one could feel that it was the effort of our team that converted a grassy spot into civilization–which I find gives a satisfying feeling of connection to the earth, your team, and existence itself.  You haven’t felt the soul of a grill until you’ve seen one assembled from the minimal required elements.
  3. A Japanese barbecue is gendered.  We were given no particular directions regarding the happi, but most of the women chose red and most of the men chose blue–the traditional colors for the genders.  The men were directed to carry the heavy items out into the yard, and my very gracious partner offered to do any tasks that involved running up and down a hill.  My manager saw to it that I wouldn’t be assigned to the grill, lest I burn my hands.  And it was a delight to watch the women slicing the grilled squid respectfully flatter the men on their grilling skills (it seemed to me the men’s hearts were singing at the opportunity to grill!).  Some people’s worst nightmare, perhaps, but I find that approaching gender with such reverence is like water to my parched soul.

There are other aspects of the Japanese barbecue that I struggle to describe–one would be the childlike “scripted comments” that give many Japanese gatherings their uniquely innocent character–but perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

For now, I think I can conclude that, once again, it is the Japanese art of listening–to what a human being is, to what a team is, to what work, a man, a woman, a grill, and a fish are–it is their sensitivity to and reverence for the essences of these things that makes a Japanese barbecue such a satisfying and spiritual experience.

And I think that learning to listen to these things was one of the experiences that gently led me out of atheism.

Thank you, Japan!

If beauty makes you sad, what makes you happy?

A Japanese coworker once told me that he wasn’t happy.  He didn’t want more money or a better position.  He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.

“You need a vacation,” I told him.  It was an objective fact–I’d never actually witnessed the man leave the office.

Knowing that he liked camping, I added, “Why don’t you go camping and think about the meaning of life or something?”

“No, then I would get depressed,” he said.

That broke my heart.  I’d always thought of spending time relaxing in nature as an uplifting and spiritual pursuit.

Then I remembered a T.V. show I’d caught a snippet of once in a Japanese dentist’s office.  On this show, a group visited different tourist attractions and restaurants in Japan, and gave a witty running commentary.  One joke, in particular, made an impression on me.

After a particular experience that everyone was raving about, one man quipped mournfully, “But this will fade into oblivion too someday!”  I felt it was a particularly revealing joke, as the sincere emotion that he was making fun of was that Japanese wistfulness at the transience of things.

And I wondered if sometimes Japanese people look at beautiful things and feel sad.

Fast-forward to today, when I visited a particularly beautiful garden.  It was one of those gardens that somehow feels like a map of the heart.  It felt like a place I’d longed for–remembered or dreamed about long ago–and I couldn’t believe it was real.  It occurred to me that maybe such a place is a spiritual symbol for Heaven.

Then my mind wandered back to that coworker, and I wondered if it would do him good to spend some time in such a garden.

Or would it make him sad?