At the end of middle school, I decided to go to Brebeuf, a Jesuit, Catholic, and interfaith high school where I would be the only kid in my grade from St. Matthew. After having a transformative experience at the 2004 Republican National Convention, where I climbed over police barricades and covered a massive protest, I felt like I needed to attend a school that embraced the wider world I had begun to experience. I was drawn to the Jesuit environment that encouraged exploration and questioning, and I wanted to have peers and friends who shared my curiosity.
For my freshman year religion course,“World Religions”, I was lucky enough to have a thought-provoking teacher who introduced me to spirituality beyond Catholicism. Though I wouldn’t realize it until years later, this was the beginning of the “outward” phase of my religious journey. Yes, this may sound a bit corny, but if you know of Joseph Campbell it makes a lot more sense.
Philosopher Joseph Campbell believed that every person goes on some kind of journey throughout her life. Generally, this journey is defined by a person leaving her comfortable, and sometimes constricting, environment, and moving into a bigger place of new people and ideas. This place challenges her established beliefs, and it is often seen by others in her old world as being dangerous. But with the help of new friends and guides, the person maneuvers through this environment and learns a lot. (I’ll leave out the end of the journey until later, when I will post links to his writings.)
My exposure to faiths beyond Catholicism during my freshman year was the beginning of my outward journey. During the next two years of high school, I traveled from a space filled with Jesus and into a space mostly occupied by the general idea of God. I looked increasingly for prayers and texts from Eastern and mystic traditions, wanting to get away from the historically-focused and inflexible religion that Catholicism often appeared to be. I read most of Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, and the poetry of 13th century Muslim mystic Rumi. Those writings gave me the feeling of oneness with God that I felt I was missing in the Christian scriptures, and, as I wondered during car rides in middle school, I questioned how Catholicism could be the only religion that was right.
The Bhagavad Gita spoke to me of the oneness of God, how He transcends the dualities that exist in our world–light and dark, good and evil. Rumi’s poetry expressed the personal, loving relationship between God and man, and Khalil Gibran’s message emphasized the importance of self-reflection.
I never stopped identifying myself as Catholic; I continued going to Mass with my family every Sunday and even lectored (reading from Scripture during the service). But only in Masses at the local Carmelite monastery led by Brebeuf’s Jesuits did I seem to get a moving religious experience. But we didn’t go there much since St. Matthew was our parish. I was also frustrated because the Jesuit values of education, service, social justice, and intercultural awareness and engagement–the things I admired about my faith–were so foreign to many Catholics. I remember being asked by Catholic friends when I decided to attend Brebeuf Jesuit if I was going to a Jewish school. They didn’t even know what a Jesuit was, making me feel like people who shared my religion didn’t share my values.
I found that during Mass, I wasn’t able to agree with many of the things I was saying along with the rest of the congregation. I wasn’t sure what I believed about Jesus, and had a hard time saying that he was my Savior. ‘Why did I need Him if I believed that other people would go to heaven without having a belief in Him?’ I thought. I tried to look for more symbolic meanings for the words said and readings read in Mass, something that I had never been encouraged to do before. No one had ever told me it was ok, but it was the only way I could get anything out of Mass, so I did what worked. For example, I tried to think of Jesus in this way: He represented all those working for justice and the common good in this world who are doing that work to bring God’s glory to earth. But I still wasn’t completely happy with that picture; it seemed hollow. And, I thought, ‘If no other Catholics aren’t thinking about Mass in this way, does that make my thinking wrong?’
For those two years or so I didn’t see myself as only Catholic. I was a Catholic who incorporated the writings or beliefs of other faith systems into my own relationship with God. I had heard of others who felt similarly about their faith. They called themselves “Catholic pluralists” or “Christian pluralists”, so I considered myself that too.
_____________________________Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
For the soul walks upon all paths.
The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed.
The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals. -Khalil Gibran, On Self-Knowledge, The Prophet
Questions for reflection: What texts, outside of the texts of your own religion, speak to you? What do you feel you gain from those readings? What do they contain that your traditional religious texts lack?
If you are interested in reading…the Bhagavad Gita, I recommend the translation by Stephen Mitchell; Rumi’s poetry, I recommend the translation and anthology by Coleman Barks; The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, I recommend the version linked in my essay.
Part 3 will be posted tomorrow.