The Joseph in our family nativity set had a sizable blue dot of marker on his forehead and a broken foot. I liked that about him. His flaws made him seem like an amiable chap. That’s why I didn’t think he would have much of a problem if I put my Mickey and Minnie figurines inside the stable. They wanted a peek at the baby Jesus just like everyone else. So, I just nestled them up in there next to the farm animals. As I suspected, Joseph didn’t seem to mind at all. My mother, on the other hand, deemed it ‘sacrilegious’ before telling me I had to remove them.
I’d like to say that was the only time my behavior was considered sacrilegious, but it wasn’t. It was fairly obvious to me from an early age that it wasn’t going to work between Catholicism and I. I played the part until I left the house and eloped, a move my father told me was never going to allow my mother to ‘rest in heaven’. Ouch, pops. And, see, that’s the problem with Catholicism, it’s a bad business model. It’s all, you’re going to hell for this and you need to say ten Hail Marys for that. Take it down a notch. Be more like Joseph’s kid.
Just like the easy going fellow that had no problem letting Mickey and Minnie in on the most badass baby shower ever, Jesus turned out to be pretty cool himself. He was humble, forgiving, accepting, patient, and enduring. Attributes I didn’t learn about until recently when I decided to start reading the bible. I don’t, by any stretch of the imagination, consider myself to be some sort of authority on the bible, but I do have to wonder if some of the people that carry on about it have ever really read it.
According to my father, my decision to marry outside of a Catholic church had eternally doomed my mother’s soul. I had committed the spiritual equivalent of having her spend every night sleeping on a lumpy mattress. I never really could connect the dots between how I chose to get married and the quality of my mother’s afterlife, but apparently I had sealed her fate. I’d already grown tired of being labeled a heretic at every turn, so when I left home I decided to hang up the rosary beads for awhile, twenty something years and counting. I’ve never excelled at much in life, but I’ve got the gold medal in being a lapsed Catholic.
Soon after I left home, Bill Moyers and PBS introduced me to Joseph Campbell who introduced me to Buddhism via The Power of Myth series. After reading a few of Campbell’s books, I took on Buddhism, which is a lot easier said than done when looking at it through the lens of a former Catholic. The idea that the highest form of thinking could conceivably be attained by us mere mortals, that I could be a Buddha, was a little mind blowing for me. I was drawn to the idea that I didn’t need a priest or a church or a rigid set of rules to be a decent, fruitful human being. I have to admit, though, I found meditation exceedingly difficult and, quite frankly, boring. Enlightenment is not an easy three-step process and it’s difficult to contemplate your Buddha nature when your underwear is sliding up the crack of your ass and your foot’s asleep.
I spent a lot of years being a nonbeliever, and quite happily so, I might add. When I was diagnosed with a desmoid tumor I adopted a ‘shit happens’ attitude. When my oncologist informed me that my tumor had recurred I remember vividly saying to him over the phone in a plaintive tone, ‘well that’s unfortunate’, because that is sometimes how life can be. I’ve never felt that God is smiting me because I’ve had lustful thoughts or didn’t say as many Our Fathers as the priest had instructed me that one time. I just can’t believe that’s how an omnipotent being would handle things.
In those dark days, though, when my hair was falling out and my body ached at even the thought of moving around, I needed something. Something more than closing my eyes and pondering enlightenment and something less than kneeling in a pew every Sunday. I longed to connect to a plane of thought at a higher elevation than my fear and anxiety. I needed the space within that to accept my own imperfections. More than anything I wanted to be cloaked in peace, if only for a moment.
Those were the words my sister gave me and I heeded them. In the beginning I wasn’t sure who I was praying to and what I was praying for, but the action of getting on my knees and momentarily removing myself from the running loop of fear in my head felt nice and necessary. Every day it changes, sometimes it leans toward meditation with no clear goal in mind other than concentrating on my breath and hoping for calm. Other times, there is intention in my conversation with a god that I’ve determined is not wrathful.
See, if Jesus and Buddha had a love child, figuratively speaking, and gave birth to a dogma, well that would be my spiritual jam. The forest could be my church, every hike akin to a mass. Or your living room or my living room, or even the coffee shop we meet at. They are all holy places if we deem them so. Deep conversations with your fellow man are all prayers sent to heaven. When we respect one another, say please and thank you, we are all that much closer to enlightenment.
Believe it or not, it was my father, the ardent Catholic who broke my heart by equating my decision to elope with harming my mother, that helped me arrive here. One day, when I was at odds with my faith, he gave me some wisdom. Take what works and leave the rest, but don’t leave it altogether. And that is, in the end, what I did. I took pieces and parts of all the things I’ve learned along the way that made sense to me.
It’s a work in progress, as am I. I respectfully reserve the right to change the way it looks and how it operates on any given day. If I had a nativity scene it would be a hot mess, but at least it would have a sense of humor. My religion may not look like yours, but it was born out of something special. It was pieced together from all the people that I love and that loved me, from all the mistakes I’ve made and every lesson they taught me. It rose from despair so badly wanting to find the good in every turn. See, Jesus and Buddha did have a love child and it might have just saved me.