During my last week of graduate school, I had the great fortune of working with one of my professors one-on-one. Sister Celia Chua is a Catholic nun and a practicing Buddhist who was raised in China and the Philippines where she found peace in both disciplines. (The two are not viewed as contradictory by the Catholic Church so long as the practitioner doesn’t believe in reincarnation or other conflicting doctrines).
Originally I had thought to spend my one-on-one time with my professor studying the far Eastern faiths and what they believed about the Virgin Mary. But on my first day, as we were choosing which disciplines we wanted to study, Sister Chua asked me why I was interested in the Eastern faiths to begin with. I told her that they seemed very peaceful, especially compared to a religion that to me felt so rife with conflict.
My teacher asked me why I did not feel at peace in my religion, and at the time it was easy to answer. That class came just after a class that was very combative. Like many of the classes I took at the International Marian Research Institute during my graduate studies in Mariology (the study of the Virgin Mary), I had asked questions of the priests and nuns who were my teachers, only to be berated for them by my classmates.
For example, in that particular class, the teacher brought up a story about a man who called the church the week prior. He lived in a rural area, and asked if he might be able to evoke the sacrament of confession via phone. The priest wanted to do it, but it is against church laws, and so he told the man that he would have to drive to the church to meet for confession.
One of the students in my class was very disturbed that the priest wanted to do something that the church was against, and that I would be willing to endorse it, but it made sense to me. Why should someone not be able to enjoy the sacrament of confession just because they live far away? The priest felt the same, but the class devolved into a debate, and the students were left feeling offended that something the Church decided could even be questioned.
(In case you’re wondering, theologically speaking, why someone who lives far away can’t enjoy confession via phone, the answer is: because of church discipline. This is not the same thing as church doctrine or dogma, meaning that it has no grounding in scripture, nor was it ever defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The only reason a Catholic can’t enjoy confession via phone is because: “that is the way it’s always been done.” This, by the way, is true of a lot of Catholic teachings.)
This is a small example, but, even in the case of larger, more foundational teachings, where doctrine or dogma is defined, I frequently found myself frustrated by the inability of my classmates to discourse with me on why those doctrine or dogma were defined. And worse, to be made to feel inferior to them for being unwilling to accept something as fact that had very flimsy reasoning behind it.
I mean, this was my faith! The foundation upon which I was building my life! Was I not to understand why a council that took place in 325 AD defined so much of what we believe, and then was never to be questioned again?
All of this is to say that I could not find peace in my religion because, though my personal spirituality has always been very important to me, and Catholicism has always felt very beautiful to me, adhering to the Church itself always felt like trying to put structure against something that was so simple. Or trying to define something that could not be known.
When I explained this all, in a very exasperated fashion to my professor, she discarded my final project and asked if I would spend the week with her, discovering my own Buddhist mantra instead. One that might bring me more peace.
Absolutely, I said.
The past of my faith
The next afternoon, my professor gave me my first assignment: to write a timeline of my faith that included all of the good moments of my faith, and all of the bad moments of my faith. It was a very involved homework assignment and I spent hours writing it all down. From the first mystical experience I had as a seven year old, all the way through to the intense debates that occurred in the class prior to hers that morning.
I came to her office the next day and told her my story. The intimate conversations I had with God as a child. That moment when, as a teenager, I was lying in a hammock looking at the stars and decided to give myself to God and become a Christian. There were the moments I felt something magical occur, and the times I felt God’s presence in a Cathedral, or listened to the whispered words of an ancient prophecy. And those times made me feel good and beautiful.
There were the moments between my faith, when yoga helped me get through my depression, and the Dalai Lama’s words brought me peace. I felt very happy in this time, and very fulfilled, and I remembered that it was actually the Dalai Lama, whose teaching inspired me to become a Catholic. “Choose the religion you grew up in,” he instructed, “for all paths lead the same place, but there is peace in choosing one.”
And then there were the moments that made me not want to be Catholic. The neighbor who prayed for me in a condescending way. Classmates who wrote me emails to tell me that something I wrote was “sinful.” The priest who refused to let me volunteer for a Catholic organization because, based on what he read on my website, “I was lost to my Catholicism” and thus might be at risk for leading his flock astray.
Writing it all down made me realize that I felt most connected and at peace when I was on my own. When I was reading and praying and sitting in silence, but that connecting to people within my chosen faith, or attempting to make public my faith, made me feel restless and ostracized and rebellious and angry.
So you see, my teacher explained, seeing how simply the story of my faith played out: you feel most peaceful when your faith is yours.
The present of my faith
The next afternoon I was given my second assignment: to write my creed. I was to write down what exactly I believed, what I was still unsure about, and what I did not believe. It took me a lot of soul searching to think through what I actually did, very concretely believe, and I wrote that all down here.
My teacher absolutely loved what I had written, and told me that most people don’t take the time to think about what they actually believe, they simply recite the apostles creed in mass and then go about their lives. But after hearing my creed, she exclaimed with glee: “Ah! You are not Catholic after all, you are Buddhist!”
She went on to explain that my beliefs most closely aligned with Zen Buddhism, and even elements of Confucianism. As she explained: Buddhists do not deny the existence of a Divine Existence, they only believe that that Presence does not concern them. Because we are human, and unable to understand the true nature of the Divine, there is no use in attempting to. That would only result in a guess, and a very human one at that.
It is thus a better use of our time, she said, to focus on what is within our understanding: that everyone suffers, and that we can do something to ease that suffering.
As she told me this, I felt an inner “yes!” ring out. I do believe in some Divinity, and I do have some personal inclination toward that Divinity. But I do not believe that a bunch of men voting on that Divinity, defines it. (I am speaking somewhat abstractly of the Council of Nicaea in which it was voted upon that Jesus was God, 300 years after he died).
I later learned that this concept is referred to, in secular terminology as “theistic rationalism.” The idea that God exists and can be prayed to, and even that much of the Bible is true, but that reason can also be used to decide what of it to accept or reject.
This, to me, feels very reasonable.
Sister Chua simplified my beliefs even further: So you believe in God, but you do not need doctrine or dogma to define it. We’re just over-complicating it.
The future of my faith
The next afternoon, my assignment was to make a list of everything that brought me peace and happiness. Then I was to prioritize that list from most to least. This was designed to help me understand what parts of my faith were most important to me.
At first, I acted like a dutiful Catholic, listing things like the book of John, which has always been my favorite, and Psalm 23 which has always made me feel peaceful. I added pictures of Cathedrals, which I have always loved, and the portraits of Mary I created. But then I asked myself honestly, when, truly, have I felt the most peace and happiness?
From there I went off script. I wrote about all of the French women books by Mireille Guiliano, as well as the tidying books by Marie Kondo. The book The Longing For Less has become a cherished addition to my austere collection of only three authors (the rest I get from the library or Kindle).
I wrote about the yoga classes that brought me a lot of peace when I going through depression. Every episode of Friends. A day at the Louvre that was most healing and decadent. A chance encounter with caviar at a champagne bar in San Francisco. A day at the winery with my sisters. An olive oil tasting I took in by myself.
A swim in a warm sea is one of my favorite things in the universe. Actually, anything that happens in summer makes me happy. An afternoon on a balcony in Corsica comes to mind. A swim in the Med. An evening under a canopy of twinkling lights in a far off jungle. As long as I’m warm, savoring the sunshine, sipping something pretty, and have a dozen oysters before me I’m feeling like the world is made.
Having a clean home also really makes me feel at peace. When my home is tidy and my plants are watered, I feel nourished and spacious. When I bathe in warm waters, and touch my skin with blue tansy oils I feel cared for. When I put money in savings I feel abundant. When I buy myself flowers or a bottle of wine from the top shelf, I feel prized. When I write, I am doing what I love.
The more I added to my list, the more I had to put each item in order, and I was shocked to discover that my happiest and most peaceful moments had nothing to do with religion. Spending a day with my sisters is more inspiring to me than reading the bible. I still love cathedrals, but they are outdone by a perfect evening my husband and I spent at a mezcal bar where we sat between wooden shutters that fluttered in a warm breeze as we listened to Spanish guitar and sipped peaty sotols.
Perhaps the Dalai Lama was wrong about the best way to practice my faith, I thought, perhaps it was all so much simpler than that. As my professor summed up: Your faith is best experienced by enjoying beauty.
What is my mantra?
By the end of the week, I felt as though I had whittled my faith down to it’s essence. I had effectively Marie Kondoed my religion, removing everything from it that did not spark joy, and leaving the only thing that did: that I feel most at peace when I recognize that everything is simple, and that I best practice that simplicity by experiencing beauty.
My mantra became two words: Simple. Beautiful.
I felt an instant peace when this mantra first came to me. It felt like the essence of what I believed distilled down to two words. In my mind I pictured a minus symbol, and thought about what that meant for me. Less. Less. Less. But I wanted to give it some space in my life to see how it worked for me in practice.
In the seven months since then I have not attended church, nor have I read the bible. When the winter turned colder and I could feel anxiety and depression reaching for me, I decided not to fall back into my religious habits just to see how it would feel to follow instead the things that trumped it on my list of peace.
I found that working out feels really good to me. Reading by the fire has become one of my favorite pastimes, as have deep stretches and long, warm baths. A pair of wide leg, black velvet pants have become my favorite evening respite, as have lingering glasses of Amaro tinged with cacao bitters, adorned with orange peels, and topped with never-ending doses of sparkling water.
When I kick off my blue, crocodile heels at the end of the day, and they land beside my paradise palm against the black backdrop of my walls, I admire them as I would a still life at the Louvre. And when I watch The Hookup Plan on Netflix-a French sitcom with very Amélie vibes-I feel the same delight that comes over me when I am traveling to far away places.
On the weekends, I go for a Nordic ski with friends and imagine that I am a little French girl skiing through the alps to get groceries. By day, I am a ballerina, I think, and must continue to ski through the mountains with that same grace. And though I haven’t reached the summer of my experiment yet, I know I will feel that same peace when I am lingering on the water and my hand is trailing through its wake.
In short, I feel happiest and most peaceful when life is simple and beautiful.
“We tend to rely on systems in order to help us solve [challenges],” says the author of The Longing For Less. “It could be the Ten Commandments, Tarot cards, focusing on the swirl of tea leaves in a cup, the position of the planets, or communicating with the dead… We look all around ourselves for instructions on how to live only to be confronted with the basic unknowability of the world.”
I relate all too well. For so long I craved those instructions. A manual for life. I wanted a set path laid out before me that would lead me to peace and happiness and contentedness. Instead, I found myself constantly upset with the direction it was taking me and unwilling to follow where it led. When at last I reached the end of my religion, I found that it did not bring me the peace I longed for. Instead, I found that all on my own.
Just as Henry David Thorough did in the woods of Walden or Elizabeth Gilbert did on the beaches of Indonesia, I have found that I don’t need anyone else to define my faith for me, but that I can define it all on my own. In fact, I have found that I am far more happier for doing so.
During my week with Sister Chua, I asked her if she ever felt unrest in her chosen faith. She told me no, that she chose to join an order that did not focus on complexities of religion, but on the simplicity of faith.
That’s what I’m doing too. And I’ve finally found my own order.
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