By Mike McMahon
Several years ago, following my divorce, my daughter Annie and I moved into a rundown house in one of Omaha's older neighborhoods. I was broken emotionally, financially, and spiritually—and deeply depressed. The condition of the house seemed to match my own. Even so, like a wounded animal that crawls into a cave, I felt grateful for this basic shelter, which a friend was letting me stay in for just the cost of utilities.
That first Autumn in the house, as I tried to get Annie and I involved in the neighborhood, I struggled with my shame over my circumstances without having the resources to do much about it. As Christmas approached, I was moved by the images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the manger. The fact of their poverty, the beauty of their lives and of the image of the manger - all of this comforted me a great deal. I hadn't been involved in the Catholic Church since high school. For the previous twelve years, I had been practicing Buddhism in the Soto Zen tradition. I had also read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh's books and was drawn to his way of practice. His statement, "Go back to your spiritual tradition and find the jewels buried there," was compelling to me.
I am a songwriter. That Christmas a song poured out of me. I called it, "Jesus' Room." The first verse went like this :
The cows were tromping everywhere, in the middle of Jesus' room.
The sheep were shedding all their hair in the middle of Jesus' room.
The manger was in disrepair and Joseph full of gloom:
"This is the poorest place in town and this is Jesus' room."
And Mary said, "We don 't have a silver bowl, a cup, a crib, a spoon.
But all we need is love to furnish Jesus' room."
It seemed that the seeds of my Christian faith were rising up from the depths of my being to nourish and support me. I played the song at a neighborhood Christmas party. Afterwards a neighbor asked me to sing the song at her church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
I loved the mass at Sacred Heart—a joyful celebration featuring beautiful music by one of the best choirs in town, liturgical dance, and many other creative flourishes. We held hands and swayed as we sang a simple, lyrical version of the "Our Father" written by the pastor. The "sign of peace," usually a simple greeting to the person sitting next to you, lasted about fifteen minutes as parishioners moved about the church, embracing and enthusiastically wishing one another peace. The experience called up a ferocious longing in me.
Annie and I have gone back every week since. That first year was interesting and challenging. Sometimes I would freeze upon hearing some of the old articles of faith which no longer made sense to me: "Jesus is the only begotten Son of God," and wonder, what am I doing here? Other experiences were affirming and healing. Like the first time I heard Paul's letter to the Corinthians on love: "Love excuses everything, believes everything, endures all things ... When I was a child I thought and reasoned like a child, but when I grew up [gave up childish things." Standing there next to Annie, trying to learn how to take care of myself, how to be a good father - these words moved me deeply. Or listening to an old standard from my grade school days, "Holy God We Praise Thy Name," being sung with a gospel feel by the choir, their faces beaming, I remember a deep joy and the thought, "This is my tribe - I've returned'"
Eventually I relaxed and allowed myself to be nourished by the "jewels" of Christianity without being tossed away by my disagreement with church doctrine. I've come to believe that the heart of the teachings, both Buddhist and Catholic, is learning to respond to life in a loving way, cultivating a sense of intimacy with all existence the rest is just architecture. I am guided by Thay's call for us to create a formless practice - one which seeks to overcome cultural and conceptual barriers between people.
Since then I've become deeply involved in the Sacred Heart community life. I help teach bible study classes to kids before mass each week. I'm also involved in the program, which supports people who wish to join the church, and with writing and performing liturgical music. I have continued with my Buddhist practice, meditating, having mindful meals, and getting together with a Sangha once a week to practice together.
We have a unique tradition at Sacred Heart. Prior to the start of mass each week, a member of the congregation will share an opening prayer that they have created. I am one of the people who takes a turn providing this prayer. I often draw on a combination of the Bible and Thay's writings for my inspiration. The word, "mindful" appears often in my prayer, and I frequently pray for us to grow in our ability to live as a community. Translating the principals of mindfulness into a language that my Christian sisters and brothers will want to hear is challenging and instructive for me. It helps me to see both Buddhism and Christianity in a new way.
I read once that significant developments in human culture often occur as the result of the coming together of two seemingly incompatible streams of thought and experience. My efforts to marry my Buddhist and Christian heritages produces beautiful fruit for me, and I hope contributes to the well being of both my Christian and Buddhist communities.
Mike McMahon, Source of Joyful Harmony, practices with the Honey Locust Sangha in Omaha/Lincoln, Nebraska.