Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tales of the Koko Lion, Part 12: Finding Simple Religion

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy...
our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness."
The Dalai Lama

It was no coincidence that the first time I became open to religious experience in my life was when I first fell in love. (The medium of spiritual connection is Love) She was a beautiful Mormon girl who lived about as close as you could in our spread-out canyon community. I became interested in her religion. And while I do believe the true search for religious meaning is a search to find love, to find connectedness, the truth is that I really wanted to impress the girl.

I'm sure that my parents probably intended for me to get the basic values that people often find attending a church, but their limited and unsatisfactory experiences with organized religion apparently didn't inspire them to pass along any kind of spirituality, or even dogma, to their kids. My father had grown up a left-handed Catholic, which is to say persecuted and defiant. He quit the church at his first opportunity. My mother never went to church, and didn't have much to say about religion, except that it was probably a good thing for some people. I recall her suggesting that it may be a good thing for me, but she wasn't sure which church I should go to. She did offer to drive me to which ever one I picked out.

I had my own spiritual inspirations of a sort from the stars and canyons- that sense of a native experience with the land, perhaps my Kickapoo blood arising. My gung fu teacher had shown me a mysterious invisible force called ch'i, and given me some eastern wisdom and some western philosophy. And then way back there had been those strange, other-worldly moments I'd felt in my early childhood accompanying my Czech grandmother to Catholic mass.
In those days, the mass was performed in Latin by elaborately-robed priests who kept their backs turned to you. There was rich, gilded ornamentation lavished in the huge space with it's towering vaulted ceilings, huge oil paintings and tapestries. Smoke clouds of burning incense and eerie chanting. It was almost spooky, and I was (as intended) transported into a strange, alien dimension. But all the hoopla only led me to believe that religion was something awesome and unattainable, and without any preparation or repetition, the Catholic faith could gain no purchase in my little boy's heart. Even as a small child, I couldn't trust a life-discipline based on guilt and mortification that weren't of my own creation. Besides, something didn't sit right about it. Why would I pray in a Roman church to the image of a guy being executed by Romans?

...A Vonnegut, circa 1975.

Reading had given me something of a set of beliefs by the time I reached puberty. My library was pilfered from my college-aged brother and sister, and was rich in philosophical prose. From my brother I copped Kafka, Sartre, and Mark Twain. He could keep those Russians – they were just too intimidatingly thick. From my sister I "borrowed" John Steinbeck, whose ghost I would later stalk (from King City to Monterrey); Henry Miller, who wrote about sex! And my teenage literary hero and default guru, Kurt Vonnegut, whose funny and pointedly nonsensical morality plays made perfect sense in my tiny nation of one. God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut. Years later, I'd go to see Vonnegut on stage with Art Buchwald and Lewis Lapham, discussing the betrayals of the second Bush administration. He was beautifully wise and cranky, and full of love. Within just a couple months, both he and Buchwald would shuffle off this mortal coil, and Lapham would retire from the editorship of Harper's, which for me was also akin to a small death in the family.

I mixed all this heady literature up with the latest Marvel Comics, particularly The Mighty Thor, and The Sub Mariner, completely failing to equate the psychic sufferings of the Existentialists with my favorite quasi-mythic comic book idols. Marvel Comics were existential, and I, as a mere visitor to this planet myself, could identify with all those displaced anti-protagonists completely.
Adding to it all at just the right moment, my high school teacher assigned us the option of reading a book called Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl. I read it. All my strident inner-dependence and resistance to embrace an absurd reality whose beauty could only be grasped in brief, unpredictable moments, suddenly dissolved in my young psyche in just such a moment. I was just here. It didn't have to make any sense. I was a visitor whose chief occupation was making the most of a poorly-planned vacation on a beautiful, but messed-up planet. I only had to do. To be. So it goes.

"This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but do not build your dwelling there."
'Isa, (Jesus in Islam), from an inscription at the mosque in Fatepuhr Sikri, India

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