This is the fourth part of the story of my conversion to Catholic Christianity together with my wife Judith and our three sons.
My father believed that thinking people did not become Christians, and that Christians "indoctrinated" children when they were too young to defend themselves. Since I was prejudiced against Christianity, Japanese Zen Buddhism, although it was quite foreign, looked attractive to me. What I learned from the Zen teacher and the Zen meditation however, was to find a deeper meaning in a tradition that is very old and that is handed down from teacher to disciple. This experience prepared me to look at Christianity in a new way, as an old tradition that has been carefully passed on, and that has a deeper meaning.
I might not have looked carefully at Christianity, but in 1967 it became impossible for me to continue to sit zazen. I was physically unable to sit for long periods on the meditation cushion, because of a childhood injury. In that year the San Francisco Zen Center bought a big piece of land in some mountains. It was a very peaceful place with no electricity, far away from the noise and activity of the city. But we sat in zazen many hours each day, and I began to tremble. Unable just to sit, the only thing that matters in Soto Zen, I left. I did not know what I would do.
The story went around the Zen Center that I was going to become a Christian minister. Just before Easter in 1968, a childhood friend of Judith's came to visit. Her name was Sybil, and she had found an Episcopal church that had a youthful choir and a beautiful liturgy. She invited us to go to church with her on Easter Even, that is the night before Easter -- Catholics call it the Easter Vigil.
The big church was almost empty. It was in a run-down neighborhood, and the Episcopalians had all moved away. The choir director had attracted many young people to sing, making the choir at Easter Even bigger than the congregation. The singing and the ceremony were very beautiful. I especially liked the Litany of the Saints, when we followed the choir around the outside of the church. At the time of communion, the priest noticed that Judith and I did not come forward, and he came to us. It was completely unexpected, because priests never do this.
Communion in the Christian churches recalls the last meal that Jesus had with his followers on the night before he died. He died on a cross, as most people know, if only from seeing pictures. The Christian understanding of Jesus' death is that he offered himself, of his own free will, to God as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. This is a very strong idea, that people react to, either liking it or not liking it, and it explains what Jesus did at the Last Supper. He broke bread, but instead of praying the usual blessing over it, he said, "This is my body." He said the cup of wine was his blood, and he told his followers to eat and drink in this way to remember him.
I did not know much about it in 1968, but I knew that I was not a Christian at all, and that I was not allowed to have communion. When the priest stood in front of Judith and me offering us bread, and saying, "the Body of Christ," I had a quick decision to make: I could take it, or I could refuse it. I thought that refusing Jesus would be worse than breaking the rules. I took it. Judith took it too.
I did not know where to learn about Christianity. It never occurred to me to read a book, because I was looking for a teacher like the priest at Sokoji, who embodied a living tradition. There are such teachers, but I did not know where to find them. The closest I got to a teacher was the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where I entered a master's degree program in theology in 1969.
Judith and I were married on January 3, 1969. I was no longer sitting zazen, but I was not a Christian either. Judith wanted the old Zen teacher to marry us, and we planned a Buddhist wedding. On the day of our wedding, the old priest was sick, and a young Japanese priest married us, who with his family had been my neighbors across the street. Judith and I used two candles to light one big candle, and we blew our separate candles out. Our wedding reception was in the new hall next to the old Unitarian Church.
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Send comments or questions to Dwite
1.In all the years since 1968, I have never seen a priest take communion to a stranger who did not come forward. Of course they take communion to someone who is unable to come forward. As best I know, the priest who came to us in 1968, later left the active ministry of the Episcopal Church.
2. In Western Christianity, that meal is called the Last Supper, and in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it is called the Mystical Supper.
3. It was not because some Jews wanted to kill him.
4. Christian scholars have discussed the question of how bread can be the Body of Christ, and how wine can be the Blood of Christ, for a very long time, and the churches have different ideas. They all have Communion however.
5. It was not social pressure. I was not afraid of offending the priest by refusing. I have offended many priests.