One of my fondest memories from the decade (1978 to 1987) when I was trying to be a good practicing Catholic again, for the sake of my sobriety, was the Sunday morning at St. Francis de Sales Cathedral in Oakland (later destroyed by the earthquake that collapsed a freeway in Oakland) when I received the Eucharist from the hands of Charles, a lay minister who was also one of my good friends in A.A. Charles was a Polish Catholic and had survived being in Auschwitz. He had kept the tattooed number on his arm, as did, for example, the nice lady who ran a delicatessen at Third and Mission, a block away from where I worked in San Francisco. Keeping that number was a question of . . . not exactly pride, but perhaps solidarity. Charles had a small real-estate business. One of his specialties was handling decommissioned synagogues, because the Jewish community knew they could trust him to never sell their building to anyone who might desecrate it by future activities.
What made that Sunday morning special was knowing that Charles had received the Eucharist from the hands of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz. Kolbe died because, during one of the Nazi’s revenge massacres, he volunteered to take the place of a man who had a family.
Thursday morning I was ambushed by the live broadcast of President Obama presenting the posthumous Medal of Honor to the family of Fr. Emil Kapaun, a chaplain who died in a Chinese prisoner of war camp in Korea in the early fifties. The President told the story of Kapaun’s heroism and read the stories by the soldiers whose lives Kapaun had saved. And, damn it, I cried. I knew I was hearing the story of a man who was Awake, who was therefore not in the least afraid of death, who therefore could do what would ordinarily seem or even be impossible. I also learned that the Catholic Church is in the process of canonizing Fr. Kapaun; many of the requisite stories of miracles occurring in his name have been told.
I value the concept of the “Communion of Saints,” of the Blessedness of the Initiates, because the existence of saints is a matter of objective observation, whether one can explain the phenomenon or not. Further, that phenomenon is universal, not something owned by the Catholic or any other church. Why can I be so emotional over stories of saints? I remember a story about one of the great German philosophers of the last century. He was helping decorate a church for the anniversary of a Jesuit relative. In the church, every time he passed in front of the altar where the unused consecrated hosts are kept, he bowed to it, as is still Catholic praxis. A friend asked him, “Why are you bowing? I thought you were an atheist.” He replied, “I am, but a rationalist like you would not understand.”
I think that anyone who has been consciously in the presence of the Divine, since that’s what the Awakening amounts to, knows that we will live forever, for in that moment forever has already happened. Every mature religion I know about has taught that we will live forever, but none of them have offered a technical, detailed explanation of how that will work—probably because that explanation would be so paradoxical that we could not understand it. Infinite divinity must always be inherently so paradoxical that we humans cannot understand Them—as long as we are, or think we are, finite beings.
Every key insight of the many religions is true:
Change how you think, and you will be in the presence of God.
Sh’ma yisroel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
There is no God but God.
All power is from the Goddess.
The Tao that can be named is not the true and eternal Tao.
Suffering will cease when attachment ceases.
Thou are That: Atman is Brahman.
They are each true because they are all different. Each points along a different angle toward the central, infinite mystery.
Then are all religions the same? No, they are not. Are all religions different? No, they are not.
Trying to argue about their degree of similarity does not explain their relationship. For one thing, each one is talking about something entirely different from what each of the others is talking about. If two religions were in fact talking about exactly the same things, then they would be one religion, not two. Again, that is Pauli’s Exclusion Principle. That seems intuitively obvious to me. I am sorry if it does not to you. I will try to explain all that differently, later.
For an infinite divinity, there is no difference between same and different or between One and Many. Are the angels the same as God? No, they are not. Are the angels different from God? No, they are not. Is there only one God? Yes. Are there many Gods and Goddesses? Yes. The idea that the Really Big Difference between religions is whether they are monotheistic or polytheistic is nonsense.
I know that many people are put off by and resistant to the concept that a divinity is necessarily infinite or that there is any divinity at all. I sympathize with that attitude. Such repugnance and resistance almost always result from the fact that the church they grew up with has become so corrupt, cruel, and contemptible that for them it has poisoned every concept associated with religion. All too many people who think they are Christian merely give Jesus a bad reputation. The antinomianism of the Craft is a Resistance force fighting against religious fascism. The simpleminded belief in a vengeful god who punishes arbitrarily defined sins with eternal torture is wrong, utterly indefensible, and these days leads to crimes against humanity. That belief must be confronted, denounced, and refuted, not tolerated.
In A.A., no one who believes in that sort of god can ever get sober. Instead, we are encouraged to somehow find and accept a concept of a Higher Power who cares about us and will do the impossible for us, and to then surrender to that Power in order to get out of the way and let the impossible happen. I think it was brilliant of the Prophet, Blessed Be his name, to realize that faith and freedom begin with that surrender. Too many people think that we must somehow by our own power do all the impossible things demanded by our church before a god will love us and bless us. No, the path is to realize, know because we have felt it, that the Divine already loves us and will do the impossible in every aspect of our lives if we just let go of our pride, our foolish identity and integrity, and let Them do it. A saint does not become saintly by doing impossibly good things and thus becoming happy. The behaviors are not the cause of the spiritual condition. Rather, the Awakening, the surrender, the ecstasy, the knowing, comes first and then all those impossible tasks become not only possible but effortless. If you want that happiness, that freedom, that joy, pray for it, hope for it, wait for it.
So, my friends, closing the loop, that is the open secret of saints like Emil Kapaun and Maximilian Kolbe and all those other real people throughout history who have leavened the lump of humanity. I feel encouraged that there is suddenly a Pope who was inspired at the moment of his election to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi, that ecstatic lunatic hippie communist who preached to birds and animals. That gives me hope that the Roman Catholic Church, the oldest extant organization in the world, may again become a force for good in our world, instead of being, as it has been lately, merely neutral. You cynics, please remember that the Romans were sadistic psychopaths, worse than the Nazis. Do not romanticize them. The Christians, even at their worst, have always been an improvement over that truly evil empire.