Take it or leave it.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


All life's variegated experiences inform us and make us who we are. And if you examine events really closely you'll find that even the most wildly divergent ones are a lot more similar than they at first seemed.

I was raised a Catholic starting at the age of 8 when I transferred from public school to the Good Shepherd Catholic School, mainly for the education. The nuns there ran a tight ship, and used fear and embarrassment, or more properly the fear of embarrassment, to drill facts into their petrified pupils. I'm talking rote memorization at its finest. This would later help me through medical school, but I don't practice medicine any longer, which brings me back to square one. 

It was the custom at my new school to take the children to church for the holy days, including every school day during the 40-day period of Lent leading up to Easter. We would attend the 45-minute Mass and do without our daily playtime. How I disliked the imposed inactivity. We did get to walk the one mile to church, so there was at least some exercise built in. I also disliked not being able to receive Holy Communion. Holy Communion is the second of seven sacraments. It's only permissible to receive the "body of Christ" (read: wafer of unleavened bread blessed by the priest which by a process of transubstantiation becomes the Savior's flesh, and they say this religion's founders weren't dropping acid) - it is only permissible to receive the second sacrament if you have received the first one, which is Baptism. As a second grader, I had not. And so I asked my parents to let the priest bathe me in holy water so I could eat doughy snacks with my friends. They complied. 

By the time I graduated from the Good Shepherd I had received my First Confession (where you get to tell your sins to the priest - more fear of embarrassment) and also Confirmation. All that remains is Holy Matrimony and Last Rites. That is, marriage and death. How often they go together - marriage representing the death of certain freedoms I hold quite dear. This from a guy whose time with a prostitute in a Rio brothel was his finest hour ever in the company of a woman! Best two hundred bucks I ever spent. In fact, I wouldn't exchange the precious moments spent in Andrea's embrace (nearly 20 years later and I still remember that fair girl's name) for a million immaculate conceptions and a few transubstantiations, and I'm usually not one to strap on a condom. Nowadays two bills hardly covers dinner at any of the many high-end places that pass for fine dining in LA, and after shelling out such a substantial sum I'm lucky to get a measly peck on the cheek. And so I make like a good Christian and turn the other one, while screaming inside, "The lips, what about the lips!" Thanks for letting me vent.

I emphasize the ritual part of Catholicism - the liturgy, as I recall - since this is the part that most Catholics emphasize. A practicing Catholic is less one who abides by Christ's injunction that you love your enemies and turn the other cheek and more one who attends church on a regular basis, or at least twice a year on Christmas and Easter. But there is so much depth and beauty to Christ's message! To really absorb it you have to sit down some time and read the four Gospels. These are the biographical accounts of Christ's ministry, basically the last 3 or so years of his life, from his interaction with John the Baptist until his death on the cross and resurrection. Each gospel is a different take by a different evangelical author on that historical period of Christ's life. Recently I went back and reread Scripture, since as a boy my purpose in memorizing facts was simply to regurgitate them on tests.

As a boy I was also exposed to the tenets of Eastern spirituality, specifically Hinduism, specifically Vedanta. My father was a follower of the holy man Sai Baba and so each Sunday after church we were carted off to Balvikas, where we sang bhajans to Hindu deities like Rama and Krishna and Shiva and of course Baba himself. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, and Vedanta, one of the orthodox schools of Indian philosophy,  emphasizes the teachings found in the ancient scriptures (the Vedas, thus the name), which are replete with fantastic stories of a multitude of demigods fighting demons and keeping the planetary peace. The 9th century philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara took Vedanta a step closer to truth when he propagated the notion that the individual soul or self is identical to the highest metaphysical reality, the cosmic soul or Self. In essence, creation and Creator, man and God, are one and the same.

Now you may think that for a child, exposure to such disparate belief systems would make for a ton of confusion, but as with many things, there is more similarity between East and West than initially meets the eye. Christianity derives its belief that God as Creator stands outside and apart from his creation directly from the Bible, where God fashioned the world in six days and, resting on the seventh, stood back and marveled at his work.

But this is where a little reasoning power avails us. Christianity also posits that God is omnipresent. Everywhere all at once. So God cannot be apart from his creation any more than you can be separated from your arm and still call it part of your body. In truth, the world emanates from God, who then enters into it as bird and bee and flower and tree and you, too, and me.

We find support for the unity of all in the New Testament. Take Christ's words that "I and my Father are one." We can interpret this in two ways. Either Christ is the Son of God, part of the Holy Trinity, exalted above men and in this statement expressing his identity with God. This is the interpretation espoused by most Christians. This three persons, one substance belief was the result of many councils and much debate in the 4th century. But if we take it that Christ, in identifying with God, is speaking as a representative of humanity, then what applies to Christ, a perfect individual, also applies to you. Or can, once you recognize your identity with divinity.

Sai Baba was the Christ of the East for my family. He was a guru, a holy man, an Avatar, which is to say a "divine incarnation." Sai Baba himself, who left his body in 2011, said that there was little difference between himself and the common person. "I am God, and you are too," he was wont to say. "The difference is, I know this to be true. And so should you."

So blaming God for your sufferings is like God himself doubting his own decrees, and all-knowing as the divine Maker is, second-guessing himself is something he'd never do. Nor you.

For the Hebrew brethren, it's interesting to note that the Lord's command that Moses refer to him as "I am" corresponds patly with the Sanskrit chant "So Ham," which means that exactly. I AM.

Even the Bible had its doubters. But ultimately Thomas, to give him a name, came around. And so should you. And me three. Since when we're talking about the Creator and Source of all that is, square one is really not a bad place to be.

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