Post-Catholic Yogi

Via on Jun 5, 2011

by Matthew Remski

(an earlier version of this post originally appeared on the yoga 2.0 blog)

__________

I became Catholic again, for a single day.

It was spring: there were new buds and a tender sun. I was lonely for youth and family, and especially singing. It was Sunday morning. I biked to Thomas Aquinas Chapel at the University of Toronto with dew on my fenders. I had made first communion there, 33 years gone by. I didn’t know I was about to make second communion that morning.

The choir members are in their early 20s. Babies sing along, or fuss. Little girls shine like pennies in Sunday dresses. Boys pull on sleeves and ask where the priest lives. The hymnbook smells like 1922. I run my hand along a groove in the pew and the wax of an earlier time curls up under my fingernail while the sun pours through rippling leaded glass. An ecstasy grows: of childhood memory,the softest kind, pictures and bodily sensations that echo in a primal womb. I don’t find this space anywhere else. A quiet rapture in the warmth of worn stone and the ambient swell of collective breath. I open, finally, once again, to the openness of children, who watch, and listen, and let the spectacle of life flow in.

As churches go, it’s a good church – social action, thinking people, cultural diversity, folks with hopeful projects. An old Victorian rectory that feels like a union hall cluttered with strollers, a grand piano beside the altar, Jesuits who read Tagore. The chapel is a well-cooked masala of catholic communalism, incense, and old percolators with nasty coffee made palatable by lots of donuts.

It had me that morning. The damn church had me so melted that I could forgive the psychotic Old Testament reading and the goofy homily that tried to whitewash it. I shook hands with an ancient man beside me, and played with the toy truck of my 4-year-old seat-mate on the other side. I took communion (first wafer in 25 years?), shivering at Jesus’ line: This is my body. Yes: this is my body: this bread, these people, this human condition. I couldn’t sing at communion because yearning was a star in my throat.

But what happened after communion sealed the deal. A woman took the podium to give housekeeping announcements for the parish. Mondays: a mentorship programme. Tuesdays: blanket drive for the homeless. Wednesdays: AA meeting. Thursdays: bereavement support group. Friday: teen dance. Saturday: Tiny Shrouds Society.

I turned to the old man. “Tiny Shrouds?”

He had watery eyes of crystal. Underweight, and a quiver in his right hand. He whispered “A few of the gals get together and knit little shrouds for the babies that die every week in the maternity wards.”

That did it: I lost it. Was this the church I’d left so many years ago in a storm of disillusionment and cynicism? A place with such implicit kindness, such organized empathy? And what had I replaced it with? A solitary, counter-cultural path. Sure – I’d developed my breath, my internal observer, powers of inquiry. But now I should probably get in line for the Tuesday blanket, because yoga had made me homeless. Where were the studio food drives? Who was knitting the shrouds? Where was the yoga studio that sat in the middle of this dirty and vibrant life and facilitated all of its movements?

But this is harsh. Yoga is an adolescent in our culture, driving forward on the heady fumes of disillusionment, wanting more than the known patterns, more than what we’re programmed to expect. It wants self-expression and constant redefinition. Young and dumb and full of possibility, yoga’s also looking in the mirror, wondering how it looks. Yoga’s just getting started here, and we do wish it well.

You can’t ask a teenager to suddenly manifest a social service network that the churches have been mothering for generations. The churches have paid their mortgages through centuries of focused intention and issue-driven tithing. (And land-stealing, feudalism, colonial oppression, and church-state power collusion… but don’t get me started.) We can’t expect yogis to run soup kitchens when we’re still making our rent. And as long as there are churches that cover the market in binding people to this love that transcends dogma because it acts, studios will offer a much thinner soup: classes, self-help tools, self-discovery adventures. It may be another generation before the patina of real community starts to glow.

I wonder. Will our yoga studios ever run with children and the tears of alcoholics? Will we tithe ourselves? Will we take all of this self-work and turn it inside out, and show our communities that we have as much food as wisdom, as much politics as peace, as much home as om?

Will we be ready to take over these well-worn catholic buildings when the last clerics fall in disgrace? When the last shreds of moral hypocrisy and intellectual bankruptcy rupture the last congregations, will we rejuvenate their networks with a more functional vision of human relationship and ecology? Can we create leadership based on introspection? Will we buy up dilapidated churches for pennies on the dollar during the next crash and put them in collective trust? If we did, could we finally shake up this alienating commercial model through which we’ve been propagating our yoga?

Will we be up to the task?

But enough about the big picture – let’s get back to me. The morning brought up so much more than the disparity between how yoga and catholic cultures are able to serve baseline human needs. It made me look at the mystery of who I think I am, and how free I feel to meld my various worlds and layers of personal history.

I’m sure I can’t be catholic for more than a day every few years: this rare emotional regression can never withstand the ethical outrage which even now simmers in my gut. For after all, the religious corporation is still what it is: an authoritarian and uncommunicative bureaucracy of conservatism and fear that resists progressive change at every turn, dressed up in a theology as emotionally punitive as it is intellectually absurd. But what a paradoxical life this is! I fell in love that morning with the milk of human kindness, which somehow continues to flow from an abattoir. And how humbling the thought that senseless dogmas and power structures cannot destroy the will to love.

Clearly, I’ve got to bring what I value from this gloriously broken thing into my studio, into my practice. Yoga practitioners can’t let the state-theological complex corner the market on community service. Churches are crashing and social welfare is shredding: we’ll have to do it ourselves.

The morning was moving and strange, and left me disarmed. Now I can see that my feelings were splintered, amplified and scrambled by my own internal conflicts about identity and allegiance, and the scars of conversion. Do I still belong to this group? When I rejected it, did it reject me? How can I feel such warmth and such isolation at the same time? Isn’t this what we ask ourselves about our very families?

A radiant confusion was deepened and perhaps soured by an immature attitude: to think I switched spiritualities at 16, and left all the rest behind. To think that belief is like citizenship that admits me to one country but bars me from others. To think that a guru can give me a new name and erase the shit and love of my past. To think that because that middle-aged celibate priest doesn’t understand the relationships between the body and ecology, between intimacy and integrity, he is my enemy. After all, he seems to know how to host human beings with more grace and manners than I seem to possess.

I never really converted, I suppose – to Buddhism, yoga, or anything. Perhaps maturity shows that conversion is a shell-game that hides your real continuity. Maturity shows that the catholic incense of my past will waft through my yoga studio for years: how could it be otherwise? Maturity organizes things according to usefulness, instead of identity. Useful: pleasure, community, service, jocularity, inter-generational mentoring, learning, networking, canoeing. Not so useful: priestly hierarchy, metaphysics, vowed celibacy, red robes and silly hats, disembodied ritual that no-one really feels.

I have to take the useful wherever it comes. Maybe I’ll knit tiny shrouds after asana class.

I don’t have to complicate what needs to be done with questions of who I am. I’m sure I’ll never know.

___________

photo by scott

Matthew Remski is an authoryoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a writing and community-building project.

yoga 2.0: shamanic echoesis now available for kindle and other e-readers.

About yoga 2.0 lab

Matthew Remski is an Ayurvedic practitioner and Yoga Teacher Trainer in Toronto. His latest book, Threads of Yoga, is gathering international acclaim. He's teaching this online course starting 1/7/14. It's currently full, but there is a reduced-tuition option for auditing. The 12 weekly lessons will be available online for six months following the course. Participants receive a 130-page manual of notes.

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37 Responses to “Post-Catholic Yogi”

  1. So, you, too, huh? I'm not going to start writing about this right now because I'd still be here three hours from now, and I've got tons of Yoga Editorie type things to do that would never get done otherwise (Top Ten List and such.)

    But I will say this. I was the holiest of little holy altar boys back when everything was all still in Latin. Hell, I was even the president of the altar boys in 7th grade. I ditched it all as soon as I could think for myself, which was at about 14, and all religion along with it–until, that is, I married into a Jewish family, raised three Jewish kids, gave that up too after the kids were grown, retired, found Yoga, etc. Well you get the idea. Let's talk about it in Toronto…

    And I'll say this. I urge everyone to read your piece above very slowly, savoring the nuances of your language, because the writing is wonderful enough to deserve it.

    I was faced with this same sort of dilemma just the other day as watched a news report about a conference in the Vatican. It turns out that the Catholic Church has the most extensive array of AIDS treatment centers in the world, a massive commitment to the disadvantaged in the most poverty-stricken countries in the world. Jesus would be proud. But at the same time, in these same clinics and hospitals, condoms and endorsement of condoms is strictly forbidden!

    And I'll say one more thing. When people criticize Christians or other religious people, who, to us seem to believe in a lot of irrational things, I always ask myself, what are these people actually doing for the world, to what extent are they living the love that is also inherent in their beliefs? Often I find that they're doing a lot more than I and my a-religious friends are.

    And I think to myself, if irrational beliefs lead to loving, caring, actions for the truly troubled among us, then perhaps they're not so irrational after all. Perhaps they're just ultra-vivid metaphors, so vivid it doesn't matter if they're literally true or not, because who cares if they drive such selfless action as housing the homeless and knitting shawls for departed babies?

    Bob

    • I have to add on to this train of though too, as I am also, what many of us like to call a recovering Catholic. Yep – I was a choirgirl – 9 years of CCD (still can't remember what it stands for) – Mass every Sunday until I left for college – future yogini. I was just doing the yoga of church. I went through the anger of feeling deceived in my late teens, until it finally dissipated, shifting into a fondness and slight melancholy at the certainty and security that I had left behind.

      So what remains? That same sweet fondness and a complex mesh of other feelings. I still have a deep sense of being at home when I enter a church anywhere in the world. I still can recite the Profession of Faith by heart as a party trick, but have big problems with some of the ideas expressed in it. I recognize that the Catholic Church is a profoundly flawed institution and makes huge mistakes, and I feel anger over its frequent abuse of power. I go into raptures over the artwork funded and produced over the centuries by this flawed institution, from Gothic Architecture to Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and thousands of others. And I still revere the Jesuit Priests I knew as a child, who encouraged thought, questioning, and espoused a yogic way of being in the world – charitably, peacefully, and kindly.

      It's all so interesting, isn't it?

      • matthew says:

        Choirgirl, meet choirboy. Let's politely shake hands, and blush.

        It is a very interesting life. I had a big crush on the Jesuits too. Especially Teilhard de Chardin. He had an artist lover in Shanghai named Malvina Hoffman, who lived in a dilapidated Buddhist temple. She sculpted busts of the neaderthal skulls he brought back from the Yangtze delta. What a romance!

    • matthew says:

      Hi Bob — thanks for the kind words and input. You highlight a central point: the structures we form to promote self-knowledge take time to come around to service.

      I wonder about the irrational-beliefs-leading-to-service. Sometimes it seems to me that the karma yoga of catholicism persists so strongly because that's what it does best, and it probably relieves the pressure of unsatisfying theology and bureaucratic disgrace. Maybe people pour themselves into service because it's the only part of the message that makes sense?

    • Amen to that. And what a beautiful beautiful piece of writing, Matt. Hilary

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  3. Lisa M. Jonick says:

    I am 45 and going through a similar dilemma. I was raised Catholic and have tried to make the eastern religions my own. It never worked for me. As much as I love Thich Nhat Hanh, I am a Scottish Catholic girl deep down. I just started reading Marcus J. Borg. You should check him out. He is brilliant! He views Christianity as "A WAY' much like Buddhism and explains himself with tremendous depth and intelligence. Loved the article, a little rough on the Catholics, but I feel your pain. I am posting a link to Marcus Borg, seriously check him out. I think it will resonate with you. http://www.marcusjborg.com/

    • Lisa M. Jonick says:

      Oh, for the record I can't do the Catholic church. Not until they have women clergy, gay marriage, believe in birth control and acknowledge their horrid role in covering up molesting priests. When I yearn for the feeling you are talking about and what to be part of a community I attend a very progressive Episcopal church. I just started going and it feels really good.
      One other thing that brought me here was the yearning to share some sort of faith tradition with my children. We were ringing the bell at home, but I wanted more. I searched everywhere for some sort of Sangha that includes children regularly and came up with nothing. Just a thought.
      When I started reading Marcus Borg I thought it would be really sad if the Christian faith tradition disappeared because of religious fundamentalist who insist on reading the bible as fact rather than metaphor.

  4. Crescence Krueger says:

    Beautiful, Matthew. From one who still smells the incense of her childhood and also remains in the mystery.

    • matthew says:

      i have a gas stovetop and after cooking the paten above the burner gets real hot, and if you drop frankincense pellets on it it will billow — old school. Yours, M.

  5. toddtheyogi says:

    i feel so much of this Matthew. thank you, once again for giving me a view through your lens.
    your piece brought out of stream of consciousness of my own in reply to your own observations…
    i rejected many of the immature readings of the Catholic narrative when i was fairly young, too. i then fully rejected the path around the same age you did.
    i spent quite a bit of time as a spiritual nomad. i explored eastern and western philosophical systems. Took agnosticism and atheism out for a spin or 2. i then found yoga and started to explore the similarities between systems more then their differences. Paramahansa Yogananda and Sri Yukteshwar provided some interesting insights. Buddhism was also intellectually attractive and i found some peace and compassion in its silence and simplicity… but my heart… my heart.
    then there was Tolstoy's "The Kingdom of God is within you"… ugghhh. To feel his passion that Christ's message was "non-violence towards evil". this required a long step back in order for me to see the enormity of my Christian Blindspot. How could I have missed that?! The Golden Rule is one thing… this insight is quite another, i thought.
    in parallel with this, my dedication to my yoga practice deepened and so did my exposure to Hinduism and Buddhism.
    But, the newer archetypes never sunk in. my meditation practice often seem forced when i use Hindu archetypes, or at least intellectually fuelled, since i feel that i don't have their stories / essence deeply engrained into my own psyche. i don't feel Krishna's wisdom and love, Shiva's depth and compassion, in a basic fundamental visceral way… Ganesh – for some reason, does work helping to reveal my own part in my obstacle making, though…
    on the other hand, the love and compassion of Christ – the connection in meditation is immediate and often visceral… the effect of which is an immediate fire (agni / kundalini / shakti) be a better person, now!
    i don't see myself ever returning to the Church because of its social policies and intolerant practices… which leaves me with the gap you discuss but also questions around how to raise my kids in my yogic community. a community which, as you mention, is quite young itself and still looking for its identities (i don't believe it will ever be monolithic – and i hope that it never is, either). but there is something about the process and ritual of bringing the family together in a community setting and discussing divine topics and age old questions that has gone missing. i look forward to all the opportunities to discuss these things with my kids, and i do feel it's better that the answers are now MUCH more open ended than the ones provided to me ever were.
    finally, i wanted to mention one last shift i had around this topic, over the past year. i was exposed to a mystic Franciscan monk, what a gift that was to me… "The Naked Now" (http://www.thenakednowbook.com/), was by far the most beautiful rendition i have read of how mature (and non-dual and yogic) the Christian path used to be… before the scientific revolution required a factual/literal reading of a metaphorical text… one of my favourite parts is where Rohr explains how the Sacred Tetragrammaton YHVH (now spelled Yahweh) is literally considered unspeakable… you might say to try and pronounce it would be "in vain"… though "the unspeakability has long been recognized, we now know it goes even deeper: formally the word was not spoken at all, but breathed! Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation. The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God."(pp.25) — everything old is new again.
    the doors must be pretty similar, the breath is the key to both. :)
    todd

    • Elise Cantrell says:

      Well said!!! As a devoted Catholic and devoted yogini I can't wait to read "The Naked Now"! Thanks for suggesting!

  6. Hi, Nadine. The amazing thing about yoga 2.0 articles is that they often inspire comments as deep and interesting as the article itself. Such is the case with yours here, Nadine. I hope you'll write more about these topics in your own Elephant articles.

    For those not familiar with Nadine's wonderful writing on Elephant, you can catch up on her Elephant page: http://www.elephantjournal.com/author/nadine-mcne

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  7. matthew says:

    DominUs, Bob. 100 lines, please. On the blackboard. Jesus is waiting, but I have all day.

  8. matthew says:

    Hey Empress, thanks for a great perspective from the majority world.

    The demonic possession argument against meditation is interesting. It shows that corporate/colonial religions must try to control their adherent's internal lives. Of course, this is impossible, except through coercive threats. The devil is superfluous to their point: what they can't let you have is authentic, integral, individuality: which is what people find if they put some time into meditation.

  9. I enjoyed this article and the wonderful writing. It evoked my own story too. I have a lot to think and write about. What I liked the most about this article is that it invites not only discussion but reflection–and action. There is truly a multi-layered piece. Thank you.

    • matthew says:

      Thanks Patricia. Blessings, M.

      • Hi, Michael. Patricia is one of my very favorite Yoga writers, and it makes me very happy to connect you two. She'll be back on Elephant eventually. She's been busy working on some other very exciting book projects (one of them her creative writing thesis).

  10. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  11. matthew says:

    Thanks Carol… What a story. That ineffable something? The memory of "tribe", I think.

  12. misa derhy says:

    Hi Matthew,
    I love your article showing so well the shift in the society. Now, my father rejected catholicisme, and growing up under comuniste system did not really helped any religion practice. I was radicaly anti-church girl and i married jewish boy and I have tree wonderful kids…celebrating shabat, taking Jesus as yogi and loving Ganesha. When I came in India four years back, my biggest challange was the religions just EVERYWHERE, and oh yes, GODS. And starting with yoga, I get very irritated with any mention of God…I could not even pronounce it! But here we go, 4 years later I believe that yoga practice transformed me, and brought in my life Unconditional Love, which, I truly believe, make space for meeting God…we left india 2 days ago for new adventure in Ireland, but I m bringing Love = God with me…so there is many ways, but we meet in some point , right?
    I loved also your comment about karma yoga in the church, and to do good, we don t need institutions or religions or yoga, even if the structure often help. We just have to start.
    Thanks you for such interesting article making me re-feel my journey!

  13. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  14. Well written post. To find the service in yoga look no further than India. The Ramakrishna Maths (or as we know them here, Vedanta Centers) serve the poor and struggling in much the same way the Catholic churches have in the west. I met with Swamis who had built hospitals, orphanages and schools. True spirituality eventually demands seva. Our spirits will not be satisfied with less.

    • matthew says:

      Hi Susan — thanks for the note. Do you know of a good reference for the history of yoga-related institutional charity in India? I say "institutional" to distinguish from traditional almsgiving… warmly… m

  15. Elise Cantrell says:

    I'm a practicing Catholic and a practicing yogi for many years! Somehow the two fit together like the pieces of a puzzle for me! Why restrict myself to just one practice, when I can enjoy the beauty and spirituality of both!

  16. [...] To avoid rent? No. To raise money for all of the social infrastructure that yoga yearns to have. (This is what I wrote about last week.) “Dedicated to connecting and creating a community of peace, love and bananas in the urban [...]

  17. Brie says:

    Wow. I really enjoyed this article. So profound, reminds me of my youth and love of my religion and then hatred, bitterness and switch later on. This helped me to re-identify with the good of my past. Thank you. So beautifully written.

  18. prettyhumanbeings says:

    Wow. I did not anticipate the day when I feel so encouraged and motivated about my struggles with the yoga community by my (in my case) Christian past. This piece offers such an honest and clear vision of where we come from and where we are going. It helps me return to my roots with compassion and openness, and cultivate my vision with grace and hope.
    Carol Horton recommended this article to me. We spoke yesterday about how the seva focus that is currently so hot in yoga communities is not as much a product of ancient yoga as it is a product of our religious culture and the social structures that have arisen from that religious culture. Thanks for guiding me to a place of gratitude about my social consciousness. For the consciousness to live right beside the critique feels like a healthy place to me.

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  21. matthew says:

    Thank you ilona. The conversion question is fascinating. I think many folks who come to yoga with religious software will undergo a conversion experience and practice religiously — how could they not? In my own life I realized that I recreated power imbalances wherever i went as long as I carried the paradigm…

  22. toddtheyogi says:

    time to move The Spell of the Sensuous to the front of my reading list… it's already on my shelf, but was behind a few other books… :)

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