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Zen and Christianity: or Spreading the Holiday Cheer

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I do hope your Christmas has had a little touch of Eternity in among the rush and pitter patter and all. It always seems such a mixing of this world and the next -- but that after all is the idea! – Evelyn Underhill

We often don’t remind ourselves what Christmas means. That is, we are busy with the family frenzy, helping ourselves and others with heaping plates and babbling conversations with distant relatives. Hardly do we have a moment to consider the mystery behind this Christian tradition. Let alone have some peace of mind. But it starts with “good will” towards our “fellow men,” as G.K. Chesterton reminds us,

“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”

The famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, wrote: “Christ always seeks the straw of the most desolate cribs to make his Bethlehem.” So there is something to be said, despite all the gifts and commercialism this season, about poverty.

In the age of postmodern faith, we remix our traditions like the gifts under the tree. And my own upbringing was no different. I was raised as a Catholic, but in my teenage years I discovered and fell in love with the Buddhist tradition of Zen. Ironically, I came to appreciate my Christian heritage out of my newly adopted Zen practice. Years on and off the meditation cushion gradually taught me to appreciate what the Christian religious mind was all about. What I found common between both was the gift of a silent heart. Silence, meditation, and prayer. These became my gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Evelyn Underhill, author of Mysticism, dedicated a lifetime to the study of the deepest religious experience of all. That is, the mystical experience. Here she reminds us what Christmas is all about from the mystic perspective:

The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because his manifestation in the world must be through us. Every Christian is, as it were, part of the dust-laden air which shall radiate the glowing epiphany of God, catch and reflect his golden Light. Ye are the light of the world - but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the one Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful.

How can we be useful? Well, we can give gifts this season. Be helpful. Feed people. We are called in all our little ways to give to others. Somehow, we share in this profound mystery, “Ye are the light of the world,” and yet we are, paradoxically, “little people.” We can share this light by our actions. Like Zen has taught me: be simple. But the philosophy of Zen goes further. Simplicity in Zen is more like clarity. Openness. It lead D.T. Suzuki to make a statement resoundingly similar:

"Absolute faith is placed in a man's inner being. For whatever authority there is in Zen, all comes from within."

This holiday season, I find myself reflecting deeply on the mystical meaning of Christmas. In the bricoleur blending of Zen and Catholicism, I find myself using the little moments of the day to re-mind myself and come back to the present. Front and center. The sensual delights, smells, and even sweaters are all perfect ways to break the mundanity of everyday life and experience today in a numinous way.

If you feel overwhelmed by Underhill's mysticism, then remember to start simple. The mystery can happen in little ways. That's always how it begins. Author Colin Wilson proposes a very pragmatic way to understand the beginnings of mysticism:

I call it 'holiday consciousness' . . . because I often experienced this sense of optimism and wide-awakeness when setting out on a journey or a holiday. It was always the feeling that the world is self-evidently complex and beautiful, and that life is so obviously good that man's boredom and defeat is an absurdity . . .

Start with the breath, especially if you've eaten too many potatoes. The big mysteries begin in little ways.

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas.

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