Catholicism: A Story of Identity

There was a point in my life when I thought I wanted to be a Buddhist. Disillusioned with the strict dogma and old-fashioned views of Catholicism, I began to look elsewhere for my religious fulfillment. I had heard through multiple friends about the benefits of meditation, and once I started to meditate I began to learn more and more about the rich and beautiful Buddhist tradition and the spiritual foundations of meditation. After that, I was hooked. Where Buddhism seemed so hip, cool, worldly, and, I’m ashamed to say, exotic, Catholicism seemed so… conservative. Even downright Republican, and as a card-carrying liberal Democrat, God forbid someone ever assume that about me!

But the deeper I got into Buddhism, the more and more I felt like a fraud, a cultural appropriator who was there more for the novelty and uniqueness than any spiritual or emotional transformation. I mean seriously, the story of disillusioned Westerner turning to Eastern philosophy to fill “The Void” is such a tired cliché that it made me cringe to think I was becoming that person.

A brilliant Buddhist monk I admire, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, once wrote that you don’t have to be a Buddhist to benefit from meditation, and I kept reminding myself of that every time I went to a meditation class and the discussion turned to dharma, samsara, reincarnation, or emptiness. These were fascinating Buddhist concepts that I learned so much about, but in a distanced, more anthropological way. I could learn about it and appreciate it, but I could never identify with it. I didn’t grow up in it, I wasn’t part of a community that practiced it, and it just wasn’t a part of anything that made up my day-to-day identity. I started to think about the things I did grow up with, that resonated with me because I lived it—like Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, the Eucharist, saints, rosaries—and started to realize that erasing twenty-plus years of Catholicism was going to be a lot harder than I had originally thought.

Honestly, I started to miss it. I missed the mass, the saints, the Trinity, the prayers. I missed the community, I missed the rituals. I began to feel like a piece of my identity was gone, and I wanted it back. But I wanted it back with some caveats: all the positive, Christ-affirming love and joy of Catholicism without all the political and social baggage that came with it. I wanted the loving-kindness and present-moment philosophy of Buddhism with the ritual and familiarity of Catholicism. I wanted the best of both worlds, but wasn’t sure if this was feasible. I started to worry that I would be stuck in religious purgatory forever: never fully Buddhist, never fully Catholic, just alternating between two worlds, neither of which a true home. Until one day…

It was in my Vipassana meditation class that I first learned about Christian contemplatives. The girlfriend of our meditation teacher was Catholic, and she came to give a brief presentation about the rich meditation tradition in the Catholic faith. What?!?! In all my years of catechism and Catholic education, I had never heard of this before: Christian contemplative. I couldn’t wait to rush home and google this enigmatic term that I felt was going to change my life. In the years that followed, it not only changed my life, it brought me back fully to the faith I was born into. I learned about Lectio Divina and famous Christian contemplatives like St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, and St. Ignatius de Loyola. I learned that what I had been searching for in Buddhism had been in Catholicism all along. I just didn’t know how to recognize it.

I know I will always have some disagreements and misgivings about some of the Church’s teachings. But true Catholicism, and Christianity as a whole, was never about the issues that dominate the culture war. It was always about loving and serving God and others. Famous Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When you are a truly happy Christian, you are also a Buddhist. And vice versa.” As a truly happy Christian now, I guess I can have the best of both worlds after all.

Gabriela Maya Bernadett is originally from Oakland, CA. She graduated from Yale University in 2008 with a degree in the History of Science/History of Medicine and is currently working at the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ. She is an aspiring writer.