To enter a sacramental universe is to know all of creation and all of life lived in relationship as the Body of God.
As an outpost dweller when it comes to religion (in my case Christian/Catholic) I know how susceptible I am to converting. Outpost dwellers are naturally curious about “the other” and for that reason often see the lure of another tradition or cause, religious or otherwise.
At least that’s the way it is for me. I watch one movie and I’m ready to march, I hear a public lecture and want to know where I sign up. Even being pulled off focus by a pesky Facebook video can leave me teary-eyed and wondering if I’ve missed my life’s purpose. I want to become that, I want to be that.
I think that’s typical of outpost dwellers. I think that’s why we waffle in our own religious tradition or belief system. There are those at the centre of our respective traditions who see our endless longing as a weakness of conviction. Maybe, but what can be done.
I prefer to think of our outward-looking stance as a unique capacity to recognize the innate beauty of human/divine breakthrough in “the other”, even when it contains elements that contradict our own adherence.
I share the story of my “conversion” to the Catholic faith not for the purpose of enticing others down the same path (I’m too much of an outpost dweller to have that sort of agenda). Rather I share it to illustrate my conversion to a tradition that is completely outside my own homegrown, bred-in-the-bone, the-air-I-breathe Protestant/evangelical moorings.
And to reflect on what it means for outpost dwellers like myself to straddle two, or more, religious traditions.(My kids joke with me: “What’s next Mom? Hinduism? Islam? Buddhism? Indigenous spirituality? Ha, I laugh out loud. Then under my breath….”Maybe.”)
You might think the starting point in any conversion experience is euphoric conviction, rose-coloured glasses and all that. That wasn’t the case for me.
Crippling doubt was my starting point.
For every reason I could find to become Catholic (acutally I could only find one but I’ll get to that later) there were one hundred valid and important reasons why not to convert. Most of them you could probably come up with yourself:
#1 Why voluntarily place myself under the weight of a religious institution from whose gender-exclusive hierarchies the enlightened conscience of the 21st century has finally emerged?
#2 What possible logic could there be in me, a theologically trained and gainfully employed Baptist minister, rendering myself vocationally obsolete by turning my life over to the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church?
#3 How could I so blatantly betray the historical sacrifices and cultural distinctiveness of my Protestant heritage? What will my parents say? And what about my Protestantly-dedicated children?
#4 Why go through all the hassle of changing religious traditions when, at the end of the day, prayer is prayer (Do you really think God favours the prayers coming from a Catholic Church over those coming from a Protestant Church)?
Of course there was no shortage of people in my wider sphere of influence who were appalled at the thought of anyone voluntarily choosing to join the Catholic church.
#5 A Mexican acquaintance likened the methods of the Catholic Church in his country to multinational corporations which gut the continent for institutional and financial gain.
#6 A literary friend raised her eyebrow and suggested I read Angela’s Ashes, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that paints a scathing portrait of the Church’s privilege, arrogance, and abuse in turn-of-the-century Ireland.
#7 My Italian brother-in-law who was raised Catholic in the heartland of Catholic culture is at war with the Church over its stand on gay marriage and viewed me as a traitor for even considering joining the ranks.
#8 My Catholic-raised Canadian sister-in-law warned me about the legacy of guilt imposed by the Church’s relentless systems of checks and balances. (“And believe me, Tama, you’ll find that you are always one down.”)
Nor was I immune to the headlines in the daily news: the devastating revelation of #9 sexual abuse by clergy, #10 cover-ups by bishops, #11 the devastating history of the Church’s involvement in running Canada’s residential schools.
And note that I haven’t even touched on theological objections all of which were well rehearsed at my Protestant boarding school (#s 12-99): Mother Mary, purgatory, indulgences, penance, beatification, the Magesterium , the Pope, the Apocrapha, transubstantiation, priests as mediators. Have I forgotten any?
But it was one of the teachers at my kid’s (Catholic) school who summed it up best. When she heard what I was thinking she looked truly perplexed:
#100 “I understand for those of us born Catholic. It’s the burden we bear. But who in their right mind would cross the line and voluntarily relinquish their freedom?”
So as you can see, I didn’t have too much encouragement in my decision.
I was swimming upstream against a forceful counterflow.
But so were the salmon in the rivers where I live on the west coast of British Columbia. Driven by an inner compass that keeps them going (apparently it has something to do with their sense of smell….?!). A migrational pull so strong that the run can be suicidal.
Nevertheless, they swim.
So what was my inner compass, my homing signal?
The invitation to step (“through the wardrobe”) into a sacramental universe.
That was “the hidden treasure” for which I sold all that I owned and bought the whole field.
In Grade 4 we were given class time to draw a blueprint for the house that we’d like to live in one day. I made a large round circle on my page, added two lines to mark the door then set my pencil down. My teacher looked up from his desk at the front and frowned. The rest of the class was busy turning their rulers and paper this way and that. I quickly took up my pencil again and spent the remaining hour designing roundish furniture to fit inside my circular house.
Recently I listened to an interview by someone described as “an intuitive empath.” (There was a time when the voices inside my evangelically-formatted head would have cautioned to keep an intellectual distance. I’ve learned over the years however that when it comes to spiritual integrity curiosity generally serves me better than suspicion.)
Penney Peirce has devoted her career to the study of human intuition and makes the case that human consciousness is undergoing a critical shift. Up to this point in our development, she maintains, the “human geography of perception” has by and large been linear and left-brained. In a linear world everything is premised on the concept of separation and the space that exists between things.
Peirce makes the case that the relational universe is spherical rather than linear. Inside a spherical universe there is no separation, not even within time itself. Some things exist at a different frequency or have not manifest themselves physically yet, nevertheless, maintains Peirce, everything exists all at once in a unified cohesion. Access to this reality is a matter of practised “softening” to what is already there, what Peirce calls “playful attention”.
This is a concept I can hardly wrap my Western-educated brain around. Everything I’ve ever been taught, whether religious or secular, is decidedly linear with a beginning in the Garden of Eden (or its organic-y, evolutionary equivalent) and an ending in the Heavenly City (or its utopian, secular equivalent).
Peirce insists that the more we move out of the word-based left-brain and into the intuititive-based right brain the more we appreciate the interconnectedness of all things. One of the ways the muscle of right-brain perception can be exercised is through meditation (or “contemplative prayer” as my tradition would say). In the interview Peirce described the effect this way:
You will begin to experience yourself moving out in all directions until you realize that you are shaped like a sphere. That your energy level is you at a different frequency. That it goes out all around you in every direction and it gets bigger and bigger, and it includes more and more time, more and more space, more and more knowledge, other dimensions – everything. All the beings in the world…once that starts happening to you start to realize how interconnected everything is. That’s where we start seeing that other people are in me, so I must know about them and they must know about me at some level.
When I was a kid in rural Africa I would go up the hill to my friend Wangari’s house for sleepovers. Wangari lived in a circular mud hut with her sisters and mother and grandparents. Everyone, even the young goats and the chickens, slept in the same round room around the dying embers of the central cooking fire. I would lay awake beside Wangari on our goat-skinned framed cot and think how I could draw a straight, unimpeded line between me and everyone else in that home. It was different from my family’s missionary house down the hill where we all slept in our own rooms, separated from each other by stone walls and doors and hallways.
I’m learning to meditate/pray in the early mornings with my hands open and my palms turned upward on my lap imagining the universe as a sphere about me. There is a direct field of energy between me and everything that exists. I think of it as the Christ Presence at the centre of all of us that connects us all to each other.
For now I’ll hold off standing up on my chair in my Grade 4 classroom and shouting “I knew it”. All the same it is reassuring to know that my grade school instincts about living in a round world may not have been that far-fetched after all.