I don’t think it was my parents’ goal to raise a family of passionless, non-churchgoing Protestants of an indeterminate denomination, but my religious education was made up mostly of playing Handel’s Messiah in the school orchestra and feeling a wistful crush on St. Francis in the movie Brother Sun Sister Moon. That sounds flippant, but those impressions rang a thrilling chime deep inside me that was hard to describe. I found that trying to talk about that feeling with adults brought out the same tone of condescension they would use concerning pre-adolescent crushes. Yes, they seemed to say, you’re having some strong feelings you don’t understand, but there’s time enough for that when you’re older.
At college, where questions of ethics (let alone spiritual truths) were considered hopelessly old hat, I came to believe that my childhood yearnings for something “beyond” were in the same category as wishing for a prince on a white steed to whisk me away to a sparkly kingdom. I was not the most likely candidate to sign up for a ten-week class in Buddhist meditation. Yet that is where I found myself, on the recommendation of a therapist. She had described it merely as a “stress reduction class.” Perhaps she knew that if she used the words “meditation” or “Buddhist” I’d raise one skeptical eyebrow and say, “No thanks.”
The teacher, Beth Roth, was a registered nurse who used meditation in treatments. That apparently scientific rationale for the benefits of meditation helped to allow me to immerse myself in the vipassana practice. I took to it like a duck to water.
I found it so valuable that I went on a three-day retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. Meditating for twenty minutes at a time had been valuable, but the retreat took me to the deep end of the pool, where I experienced moments of timelessness and oneness.
I felt at home among other meditators, I felt calmer and kinder, and I liked the values that my meditation teacher taught. You might say I was “in like” with Buddhism, and I was considering settling down there.
Someone speaking from within
And yet, something strange happened, and kept happening, that stopped me from going further on that path to Buddhism. I often felt as I meditated that someone was speaking to me from within. This voice sounded wise, and kind, and often gave me insights of unexpected clarity. It wasn’t like talking to myself; it was more like someone turning the light on. All of a sudden, the things that troubled me would seem simpler, less scary, easier to navigate. And this happened over and over again when I meditated.
So I started to think that it wasn’t just the meditation that somehow gave rise to these insights; it felt more like a personal God might be reaching out to me, Anne.
It was the person-hood of God that was present to me, not his (or her) particular identity. As I explained it to my brother, who considers the Christian idea of “God the Father” to be deeply uncool, “I may I find out in the afterlife that God is a council of blue elephants, or a woman with the head of a snake, but for now, I’m pretty sure God is someone I can speak to and will get to know better in time.”
Finding a Christian form of contemplation
I could see that what little time I spent in Sunday school might have been more effective if the church had taught meditation to train and exercise my capacity for charity and patience. And I sensed a common ground between the Buddhist ideal of practicing compassionate awareness and the Christian ideal of loving one’s fellow man.
I turned to C.S. Lewis to learn more about Christianity and found echoes of my meditation experience on every page. In Mere Christianity, Lewis talks about the necessity of letting go of your own anxious, fretful “self” in order to let the Holy Spirit work through you. He tells us that loving others is not the same as liking them, but is more like an attentive awareness that wishes them well-being and peace even as you are aware of their flaws. And his explanation that it is Jesus, a wholly human and wholly divine person, who enables us to have a personal relationship with God rang true to me.
I still wanted to do “Buddhist meditation,” because I believed it was the meditation practice that allowed me to hear God’s message — “Be still and know that I am God.” But I also wanted to learn more about Christian faith, since Christianity offers a personal relationship with God in a way that Buddhism doesn’t. I started to look for a Christian church that encouraged meditation as a regular practice, and might accept me and my purple Buddhist meditation cushion.
I learned that a number of Catholic and Episcopal churches offer something called “centering prayer” or “contemplative prayer.” I attended a series of classes on centering prayer offered by a local Catholic school and there I learned two important things: that Christian faith and meditation are not mutually exclusive, thank goodness; and that a lot of people just like me had “discovered” a spiritual path through Eastern forms of meditation, without any awareness that there was a tradition of contemplative prayer within the Christian church, too.
Camping out in the hallway
So far, this story of mine sounds like a pretty successful march up the spiritual mountain. But here is where my progress stumbles and breaks down. Although I have an active, nourishing prayer life, I have not joined a church.
C.S. Lewis says you can spend a certain amount of time in the “hallway” of Christianity, opening the doors to various churches to see what they have to offer, but you have to choose a door; you can’t live in the hallway. So far, I have been camping out in the hallway. I have to admit that it has been a convenient excuse to say to myself, “Of course, I would go to church every week if only I could find the right one.”
Solitary prayer is not always easy — sometimes I feel I’m shivering naked in the light of truth — and yet, as you will have gathered, it’s a practice that I embrace and love. It would be easy to claim my prayer practice means I am living my Christian faith, but I can’t deny that voice of the Spirit which has guided me to this point is telling me gently I can’t stay where I am, alone on my knees before God. If I want to grow in my love and understanding of God and his creation, I must join into an active communion with my Christian brothers and sisters. I am not going to find that easy to do. But He wants me to, so I will try.