Monday, July 18, 2005

On the Journey Home

San Fransico Gate has this story. An estranged Catholic finds her way home. From devout Catholic to Atheist to Buddhist to Catholic, Denise Carrigg has made quite a journey. David Ian Miller interviews her in a special to the paper:
What role did religion play in your life growing up?

I was raised in a strict Catholic home. My parents were very religious. In fact, we moved to Fatima, Portugal -- a Catholic pilgrimage site -- when I was 11 years old because my father wanted to raise us in a more traditional Catholic environment. We came back to the states when I was 14.

When you got older you rebelled against your upbringing. Why did you leave Catholicism?

I became an atheist after I got into college. Some of my professors there introduced me to different philosophers and thinkers with an atheistic perspective, and I became convinced that God wasn't real. To me religion seemed like a lie, a projection of human desires and fears. Still, I remained interested in existential questions about why we're here and the meaning of life. I was always reading philosophy and looking for answers. Then, when I was 21, I had a mystical experience.

What happened?

I was hitchhiking with my brother through Europe, and when we got to Paris I decided to stay a while. It was a pretty dark period in my life. I didn't have much money. I was living in a tiny room on top of a building on the Left Bank, wondering what to do with my life and feeling pretty depressed. One night around 2 a.m., when I was coming back from seeing a movie, I was walking up the usual eight flights of stairs to my room. I reached into my pocket for my keys and they weren't there. I was shocked and figured they must have fallen out when I was running to catch the last train home. When I realized I was locked out, I immediately flashed on a passage in a book called "A Sense of the Cosmos" by Jacob Needleman, which I'd read a year or so earlier. The passage had haunted me because I had the feeling that I almost understood what he meant by it -- but not quite.

What was troubling to you about it?

In the passage, he talks about running out of money in a foreign country. The banks are closed for three days because it's a holiday. He is in a residential neighborhood and is hungry, and he realizes that he will have to beg for food. He notices that at first people seem open to helping him, but then they almost immediately close their minds -- he can see it in their faces -- and turn away. It's as if he's just another homeless person, and they've already decided they don't feed the homeless. That experience showed him how we adopt a habitual stance towards things. Only rarely do we break out of those habits and see reality as it is. Something happened to me on the stairs that night -- I don't know how to explain it, but it was as if the veil parted for a moment and I was given a glimpse of the ultimate reality behind all things, the reality that is always there but that we are too caught up by habit to perceive. I felt like I experienced God's presence then, and I had the realization that everything I had been taught as a kid was true.
I can relate to her story. Although I never became an atheist, I drifted from the Faith in College. I had been to Catholic schools for twelve years. Although my family was not particularly devout, they took me to Mass each week. Still, Catholicism wasn't my choice back then. It was the religion I had been raised in, not the covenant to which I gave my assent. Apart from them in college, I drifted into a maze of metaphysics. I even picked up a book that Ms. Carrigg read:
At first I thought about going back to the Catholic Church, but that didn't feel right because of some problems I had with the liturgy. Then I ran across this book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," which kind of started me on a Buddhist path.

So you became a Buddhist?

Not exactly. I studied Buddhism and other religions at S.F. State, and I spent a lot of time at the Tibetan Buddhist center in San Francisco. But I never actually became a member. It felt close to what I was looking for, but it didn't feel totally right. And about three years later I became interested in Catholicism again.
I hungered for truth, and I thought I could find it in the mysticism of the East. Zen Buddhism of the soto school and the philosophy of Lao Tzu and Chiang Tzu appeared pretty mystical to me back then. While I never renounced Catholicism or formally joined a buddhist school, I essentially blended zazen meditation and readings with a vague "spirituality". From this yearning for truth, God met me and led me home. That's why I consider myself more of a revert than a strict Cradle Catholic. I encountered Christ while looking for truth in all the wrong places. Wrong, because I had unknowingly turned from the fullness of truth to seek the reflected rays of him that I sought. Fortunately, as Simone Weil once said, if you leave Christ in search of Truth, you'll soon fall into his arms. Thank God I did.

It appears that Ms. Carrigg has come home as well. Like all of us, she'll continue to journey to the fullness of home until she crosses the last threshold. May she--and all of us--stay true to the Way, so that at the journey's end, he'll welcome us with open arms.