For God so liked the world…

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While volunteering at Global Gifts last Thursday, I found myself in a quick conversation concerning the Catholic Church—maybe  two responses a piece before a customer walked through the door. The weather was pleasant. No humidity, the temperature was near seventy degrees, and a gentle breeze caused the plants and leaves to sway near the sidewalk. One block away on New Jersey, I heard the hourly bells from St. Mary’s Catholic Church ringing, and the sound reminds me of Dropkick Murphys’ song, “Famous For Nothing.” At the end of the chorus, they sing “And the bells of St. Mary’s were ringin’.” I mentioned the song to my co-volunteer, and she suggested I visit St. Mary’s because it’s a good church. I became sheepish and said I probably wouldn’t be welcomed there, and that I felt displaced since the election. The big push out the door came from St. Jude’s when the priest told the packed sanctuary how persecuted we Catholics were, and how we should respond with a militant faith—going so far as to say we should impose the Church’s interpretation of morality on our neighbors. I couldn’t get out of the church fast enough. The priest’s attitude was so far removed from Jesus. When I went to mass at St. John’s after the election, Fr. Nagel said we all needed to get along with Trump and his supporters. I felt betrayed by the church where I had been confirmed. I heard nothing of a rebuke towards those Catholics who voted for Trump or how they supported the anti-humane policies of the Republican Party. So I stopped going to mass. I felt Jesus had already left the building, and I went out to find him.

I ruminated on my co-volunteer’s suggestion. After my shift, I sat on a brick median under a few trees outside of Starbucks and Bru Burgers a few doors down from Global Gifts, and read Henri Nouwen’s Can You Drink This Cup? The title came from Jesus’ question to James and John who asked to be seated on his right and left hand. Nouwen equates Jesus’ cup to the cup of human suffering we all drink. Jesus also drank from this cup. I thought about my own suffering and the abuse I received from my family and church, and my clinging to the past. I decided, I would visit St. Mary’s, but I needed to go to confession before I attended mass. I didn’t think God cared one way or another, but I wanted to be honest with myself. The next day, I went to St. John’s.

The experience was painful, but that had nothing to do with the sacrament. Confession, or the rite of reconciliation, is about getting right with God by owning your behavior, thoughts, and words that causes separation between you and God. Confession is also about getting right with the Church because unskillful behavior, thoughts, and words can damage The Church’s reputation. The Church is Jesus’ body on earth, and to hurt that image, in my opinion, is nothing short of blasphemy. Something all Christians need to consider regardless of their denomination. My experience was painful because the priest was an asshole.

I didn’t catch his name because he isn’t a regular, but he was older with a pointed nose and sharp chin that lacked mercy. When I went into the room, the air was stuffy. There was no ventilation, and the red carpet and yellowish off-white walls pressed against my windpipe causing this penitent to gasp his confession in quick breaths. I told the priest I had not been to mass since the election, and I still struggled with anger and hatred with Trump and his supporters.  The priest snapped that I should “just get over it,” and that I should go to mass regularly to avoid these moral pitfalls. It took all I had within me to not dull his sharp chin with a right cross through the mesh screen while responding, “Fuck you! What if The Church is the problem?!” I didn’t. I reminded myself that my being there had nothing to do with this prick, or my feelings towards this situation. I was still in the presence of God receiving grace. If Fr. Nagel had taken my confession he and I would have had a chat while offering me the necessary tools to overcome my hostility. Fr. Nagel is like that with everyone, though, because he is compassionate, and genuinely cares for whoever comes across his path. He is a good priest.

After I made my penance, I drove to St. Mary’s for their daily mass, and yesterday, I attended the mass celebrating The Holy Trinity. The first thing I noticed was the sign outside the church stating in Spanish, English, and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

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When I walked in, I saw a wide range of age, skin color, and nationality. I also witnessed the genuine care people had for one another as well as visitors. For the homily, Fr. Carlton said that we need to reexamine how we view God. God is not angry or wrathful, but loves his/her people regardless as stated in Exodus 34. The role of Jesus was to demonstrate that God is in the flesh calling us all into the divine dance between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I smiled for the entire mass, and almost giggled and clapped when Fr. Carlton held up the host and chalice saying, “Receive what you are, become what you receive.” After the Eucharist the announcements called for donations to support radical hospitality and acceptance, and standing against policies marginalizing people for any reason. After I genuflected, I saw my co-volunteer in the aisle, “What did you think?”
“This is the first time I’ve been to mass, and left really understanding that God likes me.” We’ve all heard that God loves us, but it’s a wholly different thing to know that God likes us. We all know how that works when we’re around family during the holidays. God liking us is such a powerful movement of the soul opening the heart to give and receive love. That is the point of The Church. Instead of striving to be Republican why not be like Jesus and proclaim the good to everyone that God loves them, and then treat people with such compassion so they know God likes them.

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Following Jack

Sunday was a lucky day for me. Ronnie and one of our friends spent time at our apartment to have a girl’s day. The original plan was to hang out with another friend, but he was otherwise incapacitated so I opted to go to the north side to Half Price Books to search for my more books by and on Jack Kerouac. There are four Half Price Books in Indianapolis—one on the south side, two on the north side (Castleton and 86th & Ditch), and another in Avon. I prefer the Half Price in Castleton because they have free coffee, and a quality selection of literature and Jazz. What I wanted to do at the bookstore was to sit, drink coffee, read a few books before buying them, and get in a little writing. Unfortunately, Half Price was busy with people lounging at the tables. No bother. There are plenty of coffee shops to go to, one of them a Starbucks one block east of the store. I found Stephen Eddington’s  The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation Writers as Spiritual Guides and On the Road the original scroll with four essays of brilliant literary criticism. I have a On the Road based on the original scroll, but I had loaned it out to a friend who also enjoys the writings of Kerouac. I texted him to let him know he could keep the book as a gift. I think the 1957 Viking publication of On the Road too tame and did not say what Jack wanted. When Kerouac first wrote the book in 1951, he spent three weeks of all-nighters tapping out his story on a scroll so his thought would not be interrupted by the changing of paper. When told he would have to edit and revise, Kerouac, with his right index finger in the air proclaimed, “This was dictated by the Holy Ghost!” like an Old Testament Prophet. Having read both versions of the story, I am inclined to agree with Kerouac.

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With Eddington’s book, I felt like I hit the literary jackpot because this is the kind of criticism I should have written for my senior thesis on Dharma Bums. While keeping up with my regular academic load, I researched Jack Kerouac, The Beats, the political and religious culture of the United States, and, the protagonist’s, Ray Smith, role as a spiritual wanderer to support my claim that Dharma Bums, though published in 1958, was still relevant to 21st century spiritual seekers. Eddington made the remark that On the Road is the gospel for the modern world, and I agree. For many Christians I know they rely on the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to point them to Jesus. For me my four gospels are, On the Road, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, and Big Sur pointing to the wilderness to look for the God who left the churches seeking honest hearts.

For the introduction of Eddington’s work, David Amram, who was a friend of Kerouac, noted how Kerouac was at peace with his Catholic background even though he stopped going to mass at the age of twelve. The reason he stopped had to do with the hypocrisy of the Church, and its control issues. The control wasn’t about the people, though that did play a significant part, but controlling God—going so far as to tame this God into a bland New England boil. I have similar objections with my refusal to go to mass. The doctrine of Republican Christianity has infected the holy faith and tainted the host. Every Mass has become an act of sacrilege. My last Mass was just before the election at St. Jude’s off Thompson & MacFarland where, in a sanctuary packed with white people, the priest roared about the persecution of Christians in this country, and how the laity needed to galvanize and impose their faith on everyone. I was done. The other Catholic Churches I went to in Indy shared similar sentiments, or talked about playing nice with Trump and his supporters. At the moment in the Mass where Christ descends upon the altar becoming the host we Catholics imbibe to be his image to a world searching for peace, he skipped the altar and ran out of the sanctuary.

I have been in a state of dissonance ever since I walked away from Mass, and I’ve been fighting that tension at every turn. I exacerbated this internal struggle when I threw out everything connected to Christianity, including God, but I am no more at peace than when I sat in the pews encumbered by robed Trump acolytes. The reality is, and I am loathe to say it, is I am still very much a Catholic who cares deeply about the image and message of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and Holy Mother Church. Kerouac didn’t waste his energy bashing the negative behavior of The Church, but sought God’s face in everyday life while wandering. Perhaps, I should as well. Like Kerouac, and many others who were of similar mind, I am a displaced Christian. Alan Watts in his essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” talked about these Christians who desire to be like Jesus but lack the tools and examples in a Christianity whose adherents make the company man with the grey flannel suit synonymous with being a good Christian. That spirituality chews life into a gnarled mush spitting it on the ground. Where is that abundant life that Jesus talked about in The Gospel according to St. John? That life is overshadowed by waving American flags and hate pouring out from red clean shaven faces like sweat on the pulpit. It’s one thing to acknowledge this lack of life, but it is quite another thing to remain in the pew with constant complaints. The better option is to get up and leave the building, and finding God for yourself. Waiting for Godot in the church is an act of futility because “he” will not set foot in a church anymore. God can be found in the homeless face, the child’s laughter, the open flower, and the transparent artist. God is found on the road with a rucksack strapped to “his back” looking for anyone who wants to meet “him” in spirit and in truth.

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The way Kerouac came to peace with his own faith background was through the teachings of the Buddha which he came across by accident. One of his favorite American writers was Henry David Thoreau who daily read the Bhagavad Gita, the holy scriptures of Hinduism, and the basis for Thoreau’s writing. Kerouac wanted to tap into the same spirit as Thoreau, but instead found the Buddha. Kerouac’s discovery of The Buddha was serendipitous and answered the questions of his sensitive heart through the four noble truths, and the first noble truth, “All life is suffering,” spoke to him. Kerouac wanted to know more so he devoted three years to studying Buddhism. That research produced his book, Wake Up: The Life of The Buddha, and his posthumous work, Some of the Dharma. From his first four published novels, I can only speculate that Kerouac was influenced by The Dhammapada, the collected sayings of The Buddha. In this Buddhist text, The Buddha says, “’He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease. ‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.(3-4)” Kerouac does not mention his disdain for the poor practices of The Church, but remains Catholic while looking for God outside of The Church. He forgave everybody while walking down his road.

Pererin Pt. 2

dharma bum

 

Millennials are insulted because they are considered lazy with an overwhelming sense of entitlement. The irony of this derision is that it’s mostly said by my generation, Generation X with added knocks from the Baby Boomers. In the 1990’s, those who belonged to Generation X were considered shiftless and lazy without the consideration of the culture, and the new issues we were facing. I will not be so presumptuous as to speak on behalf of my generation, but I will speak for myself and how I viewed the world as part of Generation X. The Baby Boomers who dismissed us as a generation of slackers were, thirty years prior to us, living in communes, living on the road, smoking and snorting whatever they could find, and living on their terms. Why? In the 1950’s Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac wrote of their reaction towards the newly created military industrial complex in “Howl” and On the Road. American culture had adopted the need for conformity and becoming the company man for the sake of building up the machine that was otherwise anti-humane—either to the people in its own borders or outside its borders. There was no life and no equality, and the American Church accepted the complex, and distorted the image of Jesus with Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and Bishop Fulton Sheen. Ginsberg and Kerouac traveled the world to find the piece that had been discarded—the piece that could make them whole. For Kerouac and many others in The Beat Generation that missing piece was Jesus. Jesus had left the building in a hurry lest he be crucified again by the people who worshipped him.

Many of the Baby Boomers took Kerouac to heart, and translated his words into their story of racism, sexism, freedom, and Viet Nam. The religious and political system was not working and the Hippies sought alternative expressions of spirituality through religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism; and through their spiritual practice formed their own community. By the 1980’s, though, these same Hippies became clean cut and donned the three piece suit to involve themselves in Corporate America—some went so far as to reshape Christianity in the corporate image and created megachurches. My parents were not middle class even though they were part of the Baby Boomer Generation, but their outlook was somewhat liberal. They imposed Christianity on my brother and me because of the guilt trip my great-grandmother put on my mother. A bible had been thrown at me to figure out the religion, and I liked the bible just fine, but I loathed the preaching. The pastor would speak of Jesus’ message as revolutionary, but would equate following Jesus with voting Republican and being a “good, American citizen.” What’s revolutionary about that? When I turned sixteen, I was told to get a job to pay for the rest of my high school education, and I saw the same structure in the workplace as I saw in church. I was disgusted, but I wasn’t the only one. Many people my age had the same reactions to culture and religion, and I, like them, went our own way to form our own communities.

Here we are twenty years later and we Gen Xers are middle aged, and many people I know—not all—have went the way of their predecessors finding their way back into the corporate world of work and religion. To an extent, I do not fault the people I know who returned to such a destructive culture. They were motivated by fear, uncertainty, and the prospect of instability because they married, divorced, had kids, and watched their parents die. I went through some of these things myself, but I didn’t have kids; however, I’m not returning nor will I return to that way of life. Yes, losing parents, relationships, and having kids is scary—I think a person foolish if they weren’t fearful of such things in their life. What I find equally foolish is returning to the corporate world with a corporate religion to medicate the pain of real life when those things are the cause of suffering; and expecting their kids, The Millennials, to join them in their way of life is simple desperation. Choosing to reject the corporate life for a simpler life with love and community is a criticism on those who have retreated; and one they cannot ignore. We all must live with our choices, but to force others to make a similar choice so we don’t feel alone in our consequences is childish. This sentiment, I think, is something Jack Kerouac touched upon in the second part of Dharma Bums.

 

 

The Sangha

 

What I find ironic about this childishness is Kerouac’s character, Ray Smith, is dismissed as naïve because he chooses to live as a bum out of his rucksack—hopping on trains while blessing the people he meets on his journey. Smith found himself as part of a community with the San Francisco poetry crowd, partying, drinking wine, discussing poetry and the Dharma, and learning how to climb a mountain. Kerouac illustrates the insanity of those who condemn Smith for his life choice in the sudden suicide of Rosie Buchannan. Rosie seemed to have suffered a psychotic break, and wrote down all the names in their little community—along with their “sins”—, including Smith’s, flushed them down the toilet, and taken out by a man from the sanitation department after the paper clogged the toilet. She believed the man to be a cop, and attempted suicide by slashing her wrists with a dull knife. Smith had to watch her while his friend Cody went out, and Rosie begins to tell Smith that he and all the other “religious squares” they know are going to be hauled off by the government. Smith put aside Rosie’s excited rambling by telling her it was all in her head; but she ignored him. Smith thinks to himself, “I had the feeling I always got when I tried to explain the Dharma to people…they never listened, they always wanted me to listen to them, they knew, I didn’t know anything, I was just a dumb young, kid and impractical fool who didn’t understand the serious significance of this very important, very real world.” Rosie’s second suicide attempt was successful after she went to the roof and broke the glass on the skylight so she could slash her wrists with the shards. A neighbor saw what she was doing and called the cops to protect her, but when they went after her, Rosie threw herself off the roof. A befuddled Smith remarks, “Was I talking so dumb after all? Are my ideas about what to do so silly and stupid and childlike? Isn’t this the time now to start following what I know to be true?” The old way wasn’t working and ended in death, but in the mysterious presence of the Dharma there was a chance at life.

Before meeting up with Cody and Rosie, Smith was already in the process of buying necessary items for his trip across America to spend Christmas with his mother, sister, and brother in law in South Carolina. After Rosie’s death, Smith starts his journey east, and is picked up by a truck driver, Beaudry, from Ohio. Originally, Beaudry agreed to take Smith as far as Tucson so he wouldn’t lose his job for picking up a hitchhiker; but he changed his mind after Smith cooked steaks for them and cleaned the dishes, and decided to take Smith further east to Ohio. While they talk over their meal, Beaudry asked where Smith learned to survive as a hobo, and how to cook saying, “And you know I say funny but there’s sumpthin so durned sensible about ‘em. Here I am killin myself  drivin this rig back and forth from Ohio to L.A. and I make more money than you ever had in your whole life as a hobo, but you’re the one who enjoys life and not only that but you do it without workin’ or a whole lot of money. Now who’s smart, you or me?” Smith made no judgment about Beaudry, or the life he had chosen, but he had sympathy for the man who bought many things with his money and didn’t have the time to enjoy them. Smith did not think himself better than Beaudry, but viewed him as a great man who had befriended him.

Once Smith arrived to his sister’s home, he lived a simple hermit lifestyle by sleeping out on the enclosed porch in a sleeping bag, and going out in the middle of the night to a solitary place to meditate. The quiet beauty of his spiritual practice brought him to the conclusion that “One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls.” What did the churches, priests, and dogmas do for Smith other than twist the image of Jesus into the American company man with a grey flannel suit, and watered him down with practicality. Smith saw the difference between Jesus and the church through the eyes of his own Buddhism regarding “Augustine as a spade and Francis my idiot brother.” In the dark hours of Christmas Eve, Smith watches the midnight mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and reads the words of St. Paul while sitting by a warm stove, “Let him become a fool, that he may remain wise…already are ye filled, already are ye become rich.” Smith’s affirmation becomes a source of contention between him, his sister, and his brother in law over their dog, Bob. Smith would unchain Bob so he would have company during his mediation. Smith’s brother in law has money invested in Bob and doesn’t want to lose him. Smith argues, “How would you like to be tied to a chain and cry all day like the dog?” They don’t listen, and his sister said she did not care. Besides ignoring Smith, the two of them wondered why he wasted his time with the Buddha when he should come back to the religion of his family. Why would he associate with a religion that condoned the mistreatment of people and animals that are fellow creatures of God?

This disconnect between religion and the God who inspired said religion is why people like Ray Smith seek out alternative practices to be true to themselves and to their environment. Many people like Smith’s family confuse Buddhism for a religion and, depending on who ask in the different Buddhist branches, it is a religion; but the Zen Buddhism practiced by Smith and those in his generation deconstructs Buddhism from its pomp and circumstance to get to the core of the Buddha’s teachings. The teachings themselves are a science of the mind, rather than a religion, and allow people to grow into a better whatever they may be through focusing on the breath. For Smith, Zen gave his spirituality a substance his Catholicism could never give because it was too concerned with conforming itself to the image of the American machine. When people like Smith want to increase in love, charity, and gratitude they will gravitate towards a practice that cultivates those virtues. By doing so a community is formed around them, but not in the sense of belonging to a specific group of people who share a common goal. The community is one based on interconnectedness because they are something in common with all sentient beings: they are alive, they want to be happy, and they want to be free of suffering. Even in solitude we are connected, and every small act kindness we do is an improvement in the world around us. Ray Smith ceased to be a Buddhist and a Christian, and became Buddha-like and Christ-like.