When I was still a student in high school, I participated on a summer trip for students. We spent about 6 weeks traveling from Athens to London, with stops in Italy, Austria, Germany, France, and Brussels. This was really an eye-opening experience for me. Not only was it my first experience abroad, but it was also my first real exposure to some of the most important religious and cultural monuments of the western world.
Mr. Garrison took about 6 or 7 of us from Denver, but we traveled with other school groups from Utah and Michigan.
I think I was 16 at the time, and while this was an important and powerful experience for me educationally and culturally, socially it was much more difficult. There were some very strange social dynamics within my group from Denver, and it was even more difficult when factoring in the students from Utah and Michigan.
The students from Michigan were from an all girls Catholic school (a couple of them were totally stunning). Most of the students from Utah were Mormon, but there was a token stoner, a girl ex-communicated from the Mormon church, and a girl from a very conservative, evangelic Baptist church.
So, during this trip we visited all the major monuments in each city and country we visited – the Vatican, the Acropolis, Dachau, Sacre Coeur, the Pompidou Centre, etc. I also really discovered art, with my first experiences with painters like Pablo Picasso and Jean Dubuffet. But being 16, I also wanted to connect with one of the girls on the trip.
There was a girl from Denver I spent a lot of time with during the first half of the trip, but she played me like a yo-yo. And then during the second half, I connected with the Baptist girl from Salt Lake City, Roberta.
After the trip, Roberta and kept in touch. We’d write each other letters weekly and talk on the phone once or twice a month. We kept this up all through the fall term of school, so when the winter holiday break rolled around, I went out to Salt Lake City to see her.
I think this visit proved to have as big an impact on my life as the trip to Europe, maybe even more so.
Roberta’s family was extremely religious, and extremely evangelical. I was raised secular humanist, and was completely blindsided by what I found with her family.
Her father was a Vietnam vet, and clearly found healing from that experience in his religion. Her sister and her husband were both missionaries. Her husband frequently wore a t-shirt with the Coca Cola logo on it, but instead of the Coke caption read, Jesus Christ the Real Thing.
The whole time I was with them in Salt Lake City, I was peppered with questions about my faith. I had no idea how to answer. I came home confused, and set out to understand what I was missing.
Back in Denver, I initiated my own education. I enrolled in confirmation classes at the Episcopal church where I was baptized. I tried to read The Bible, but also the Koran and books about Taoism and Buddhism. I visited the Hare Krishna temple near my home.
In the end, I denied confirmation as I decided I wasn’t ready to call myself Christian. Philosophically, I found more interest in the occult, in the Kabbalah and mystery religions. By my freshmen year in college, I walked around with a book by Manly P. Hall called The Secret Teachings of All Ages.
When I went away to college, I went to Colorado Springs, a city home to both a large Wicca coven and the headquarters for the Focus on the Family religious/political movement. For most of my first year at school, I considered being a Religious Studies major.
I resonated more with the Wicca activities, and found myself increasingly interested in an industrial, neo-pagan art movement that took root in both Denver and Colorado Springs (which included some incredible trance dances in the middle of salvage yards and other industrial wastelands!). Ultimately, all this took me to Bali, I think, as I needed new models for art and religions – things I found in the unique form of Hinduism found on the island, and the remarkable way this blends with creativity and art.
Strangely, this whole history has come back to me in recent weeks. Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed a regular meditation practice – based on a sort of mindfulness or Buddhist philosophy – and even more recently have discovered the work of Thomas Merton.
Merton was incredible, the way he could both be so committed to his faith and yet also critical of religious institutions. And I resonate with his attempts mix the ideas and experiences of Zen and Buddhism with Catholic prayer and beliefs.
Let us remember that modern consciousness deals more and more with signs rather than things, let alone with persons. The reason for this is that signs are necessary to simplify the overcrowding of the consciousness with objects. The plain facts of modern life make this unavoidable. But it is also very crippling and divisive./But it is wrong to assume that these great needs demand the hypertrophy of self-consciousness and the elephantiasis of self-will, without which modern man tends to doubt his own reality. On the contrary, I might suggest a fourth need of modern man which is precisely liberation from the inordinate self-consciousness, his monumental self-awareness, his obsession with self-affirmation, so that he may enjoy the freedom from concern that goes with being simply what he is and accepting things as they are in order to work with them as he can.
Zen and the Birds of Appetite, T. Merton
So it comes full circle.