I was born into a Catholic family and have never left the Catholicism of my birth. This is the starting point and the basis of my religious life: I was born a Catholic, I did not choose it or make myself into such a thing. As long as I don’t interfere with this inheritance, my Catholicism feels empty in the spiritual sense. Its connections to Zen Buddhism are primal, absolute, and have nothing to do with belief.
I am not a Catholic because of what I believe or because of rules I follow. I used to think that way, and even today, when people hear what I have to say about the soul, so pagan and so tolerant of humanity, they ask dubiously: “Are you a practicing Catholic?” My guess is that they find it difficult to believe that I could think the way I do and still be a Catholic.
There are many Zen Buddhisms and many Catholicisms. Emerson said every church has a membership of one. I don’t feel compelled to be a Catholic in the style of my local priest, my bishop, or my pope. They are authorities whose job it is to help me author my spiritual life, not emperors or sadomasochistic dominators, though some seem to feel that way. I don’t seek their approval for my Catholicism. Their job is to help me find my Catholicism, not theirs. I respect them, but I don’t pin my salvation, as my spiritual friend and namesake Thomas More of England said, to their sleeves.
Generally, the Catholic press has been highly critical and dismissive of my work. I think they must sense how far I am removed from the preoccupations of contemporary Catholics. But that doesn’t mean that I am not a Catholic. I feel more Catholic now than when I lived in a monastery. But it’s a subtle Catholicism and not a little influenced by the Zen writings that have inspired me for thirty years.
Zen plays the role of janitor in my religious life, and if my understanding of Zen (pardon the expression) is right, that is a compliment. The Zen I know pulls the rug out from anything I land on as the truth and blissfully blows away dangerous moments of intelligence and understanding. It inspires me to laugh at the way segments of society have identified me with the word “soul.” The idea of caring for the soul is not mine in any way: the phrase was used frequently for centuries, and I found it often in Plato, Jung, and many other writers. I learned so much about it from James Hillman, who has focused on soul in all his writings, that some of his followers hate me for plagiarizing him. The New York Times Magazine once published an article, in which I fully participated, thinking it was a paean to my friend Hillman, saying that I made money on his ideas. I understand these painful exposures as lessons in kenosis, a cousin idea to shunyata, the ongoing process of emptying one’s whole basket of intellectual and moral achievements.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.