Let All Mortal Flesh: A Zen priest attends an Episcopalian Mass

All Saints Chapel, West Cornwall, CT
This past Sunday I attended an Episcopalian mass celebrated in a tiny chapel in West Cornwall, Connecticut.

Eighteen of us gathered there, which I understand to be on the larger side for this little community. The church they usually meet in is under repairs and so we were at a little stone chapel that is the heart place of a retreat center now administered by Trinity Church in Manhattan.

all saints order of serviceThe service itself was Prayerbook Rite II with all that means. For me as a progressive filled with awkward masculine by preference language and as a Buddhist with full on dualistic God out there and you and me, down here theology.

And there were other things happening, as well. There were the people there. I can’t read hearts with any clarity, but it felt the full range of who we are as we come to church was present. Young people maybe there on their own, maybe just to make family happy. Older people, some quite elderly, where the actions of the pews came from decades of practice. Maybe done out of rote, but it looked more like well traveled paths to sacred presence. And a fair number in between, some probably happy to have a service that ends early allowing them to get on with things. Others, I felt, it seemed, filled with other things. Genuinely present. Hope. Longing. Sadness. Joy.

The parade of our human condition in some sacred moment.

All saints flowersA handful of the women there could sing. I mean sing. And they carried the service forward. That was so beautiful.

And, then there was the celebrant. The Reverend Mary Gates is an Episcopal priest, a psychotherapist in private practice, and a Dharma holder in my Zen lineage. A Dharma holder is a person who has been given the first step in the process of dharma transmission. That is she not only has been recognized as seeing into the heart of the matter from a Zen perspective, but has been acknowledged as capable of guiding others on that path.

The truth is that there was little in the service that might raise the eyebrows of any Episcopalian. The silences lingered a bit longer than usual, perhaps. Maybe a throw away line in the homily regarding the shape of incarnation that was resonant with a Zen understanding, but really, even that would likely be recognized by any Eastern Orthodox as within the shared mystery.

All saints lessonAnd, me, rationalist, Buddhist, and of course cradle Christian with all the complexities of that relationship, there I was.

My experience of that moment was the inbreaking of Heaven, the proclamation of the Pure Land right there in that little stone chapel. The words, well, of course they’re important. However in that moment their meaning was not to be found in a dictionary, but rather as the wings of our hearts longing – all of us, including me.

And then the service worked its way through the acts of a mass to the recalling of Jesus and his disciples gathered in that ancient meal. And finally the consecrated bread and wine were offered to all who were present. Me, I’ve been to many Episcopal services over the years. Episcopalians are without a doubt my favorite Christians. But, I never take communion. As lovely as that tradition is, I always felt just enough of a separation that partaking in that most intimate part of the service never felt appropriate. Not respectful. Not right.

Mary Gates at massThis time was different. Maybe in some degree it was my relationship with the priest. But that hardly would be enough. Something else happened in that little stone chapel in rural Connecticut.

The whole universe was present. All the angels of Western faith and all the devas of the East were present and circling around that little altar that somehow became the navel of the cosmos. And without thinking about it, without worry about theology or proper decorum, without any concern but a longing to come ever closer to the moment of creation, I stepped into that small circle.

Self falls away. Other falls away. In the silence that is left heart sings to heart. Heart reaches to heart. No Buddhist. No Christian. And everything, absolutely every blessing thing is related.

And I received communion.

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