A Catholic Mass But No Mass of Catholics

PhillyCathedralFirst off, I’m leading an on-line retreat through Tricycle magazine this month. This is my first try at something like this. There will be four installments and the first one (or maybe two) is free. So take a look and see what you think.

Yesterday I attended my first ever Catholic Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Logan Square in Philadelphia. Too bad St. Peter and St. Paul, from all accounts I’ve heard, probably weren’t very fond of each other. Peter, of course, was the rock upon which Jesus was gonna build his church. But then that upstart Paul who never even knew Jesus when he was alive came along and got way more popular with his revised version of the Lord’s message. Much grumbling ensued. Perhaps they get along in Philly now, 2000 years later.

It’s a really beautiful church and they put on a lovely show. I was surprised how few people were there, though. Of course it’s such an enormous space that there were probably more people than it seemed.

I was struck by how similar the Catholic Mass is to the standard morning Zen service. I’m sure there that Japanese Zen has been somewhat influenced by Catholicism, especially during the Meiji Restoration, when the Japanese were importing all kinds of things from the West and reformatting much of their own culture in Western terms.

But the rituals we do at a Zen service predate that influence. So it would be only certain ceremonial nuances that have been influenced by Catholicism. It’s not that the Zen morning service was an attempt to mimic a Catholic Mass.

The Mass at St. Peter and Paul is, as far as I can tell, a pretty standard Mass. They still use a big pipe organ and not a rock band or even a sprightly folk combo with a banjo. It was all fairly conservative and traditional.

Much of the ritual is similar to what goes on in a Zen temple. You kneel when you enter the church and again when you get to your pew to take your seat. This is similar to the way we bow when entering the zendo and bow again to our cushions before sitting down to begin zazen.

Even the idea of confession of sins and asking God’s forgiveness for them has Zen analogues. On the night of the full moon each month, many Zen temples perform a ceremony in which we ritually confess our “ancient twisted karma” and ask for the mystical influence of the Buddhas and ancestors as well as the concrete help of our fellow sangha members to help us do what is right and avoid what is not right. This isn’t part of the usual daily (or weekly) Zen service. But nonetheless it’s similar to what goes on in Catholic Mass.

In Zen we chant our hymns to the accompaniment of drums and bells rather than sing them to the accompaniment of a pipe organ. But the effect is much the same. It creates a feeling of communion with the other members of the congregation and instills a sense of importance to the proceedings.

Here is a video about Zen services I just found. This service is done in a style I’ve observed and led at Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico. I believe it’s derived from the way they do services at Sojiji Temple in Japan. The service form I learned at Tassajara follows the style done at Eiheiji Temple. There are minor differences. But overall it’s pretty close. There’s a photo of Maezumi Roshi in this video, so it’s from that lineage.

Here is a not all that great video made by an American guy lurking around during a service at Eiheiji. He is kind of clueless as to what’s going on and can’t stop roving around getting random views, so it’s not terribly informative. Unfortunately this is the best video I’ve been able to find on YouTube of an Eiheiji style service. I spent way too much time looking for others. If anyone knows of any, please send them to me.

I’ve often written about my own struggles with religious ritual. I didn’t grow up in a religious family. But I did see how religious ritual was used to dominate and control people. I couldn’t see any real value to it other than just to make people dull and stupid, to make them eager followers of whatever the guy in the purple dress up front wanted them to do. I was not a fan.

Over time, my view has changed. I now feel that ritual may be a necessary human activity. We want rituals. We need community.

Still, it has to be handled very carefully. I think the Zen morning service strikes a nice middle ground, providing just enough ritual with little in the way of heavy indoctrination or efforts to control the congregation. Not that it can’t be bent to do this. But I feel the nature of what we chant makes that a little harder. You’re often chanting about how each person must find the way for themselves, for example. It’s hard to come along after that and tell people what to believe and who to vote for.

Anyway, I liked my first Mass and may go again.

But for now, I’m getting back to my Dogen book. I haven’t felt this confident that I was on the right track with a book in a long time. Well, at least not since I was writing There Is No God. But this one may be even right-er than that!

But, like they do at St. Peter and Paul’s, I need to beg for you to put something in the donation basket as it passes by. This deeply into a book, I really have no other means of support than your kind donations. The last checks I received for previous books have long ago been sent to my landlord. That’s all gone and there are not going to be any more of those checks this year. So I thank you for your support!

*   *   *

Here’s my upcoming touring schedule:

Aug. 2 9:30 AM Dogen Sangha Los Angeles 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230

Sept. 5-7 Houston Zen Center (I will probably do events in Austin  around the same time)

Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening

Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland — Lecture Event

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany

Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany

Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab

Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands

Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands  at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00  (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)

Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1,  Utrecht)

Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU

Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 9: Noon — 5pm  Manchester, UK

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20 Responses

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  1. Dan
    Dan July 7, 2014 at 9:32 am |

    In Zen we chant our hymns to the accompaniment of drums and bells rather than sing them to the accompaniment of a pipe organ.

    Although in Jiyu Kennett’s lineage they use drums, bells, and a pipe organ! I couldn’t find a video but here’s some audio of them.

    1. mb
      mb July 7, 2014 at 12:43 pm |

      And that’s most likely because Jiyu Kennett was actually a church organist in the UK before she got into Zen. So I’m sure it was a natural decision on her part to incorporate organ into her adopted um…”religious practices” (for a lack of a better phrase to describe the ritualistic practices within the Zen rubric)…

  2. buzzard30
    buzzard30 July 7, 2014 at 11:27 am |

    Roshi Kennet was sure that the High Church of England Mass was the way to go! Like Gregorian chant for Zennies.

  3. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 7, 2014 at 3:28 pm |

    I wonder was the Mass done in Latin?

    Back in the mid-1980’s there used to be a small Catholic church (eh, its still there) in Wichita where they did the Mass in Latin (they don’t since a small monastery of Franciscan Brothers left who did the Latin thing -the monastery part next to the church became a homeless shelter I later volunteered at). I’d (not being Catholic meself) go with my Catholic (punk band buddy) Ken for the noon Mass sometimes. It fascinated me at the time.

  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 7, 2014 at 5:58 pm |

    The part about “aiming at goalless practice”– guess you’re saying that you’re only speaking nonsense there as a teaser to get us to sign up for the next installment of the “retreat”?


  5. Leah
    Leah July 7, 2014 at 9:26 pm |

    This is interesting. I had sort of a reverse experience.

    I wasn’t ever a card-carrying Catholic, but some of my friends growing up were and so was my step-dad and his family, though he never went since he was ex-communicated for divorce pre-Vatican 2.0. So I went to mass more times than I can count as a kid and teenager, though always willingly to tag along and check it out. I liked it.

    When I started learning about Zen and Buddhism. I thought of the similarity with the incense, praying the rosary (which seems like meditation to me though I’ve never done it), and the confessional which seemed like dokusan, sort of (I didn’t know there was an actual confession in Zen). Yes, the kneeling. Did you mention the priests chanting? I don’t think they do it much in Latin any more, though I remember that.

    I went to other types of Christian churches since then, before learning about Buddhism, but the thing I like about my experience with Catholicism is that (as I experienced it, anyway), you can kind of do you own thing. Go in the church and kneel to pray/meditate for hours if you want (when no service is held). Go to mass and just commune with god/universe/whatever and not get pressured to do a coffee clatch with the church ladies or shake the pastors hand or go up front and say you’re good buds with Jesus and all that.

    And I like the rituals. For me, it sort of put me in a different, calmer frame of mind, not unlike a zendo with the bowing and mats and ringing of the bell and so on (they ring a bell at mass, too, IIRC. I think the altar boys do that–it’s been awhile).

    And don’t priests meditate? Aren’t there Catholic monastics? Obviously I’m not an expert on this or even knowledgeable (should be, having minored in history in college and focused in a few classes on religion/reformation and all that). Can’t help but think of Herman Hesse’s _Narcissus and Goldmund_, and Narcissus (the priest) on a really long solo meditation toward the end.

    Interesting to think about and compare.

  6. Harlan
    Harlan July 7, 2014 at 10:18 pm |

    Online retreat? LOL.. Dude that is Jundo’s turf. Didn’t you come down pretty hard on this idea at one time? Something about not being able to smell your teacher’s breath or BO or some other odor. It was so long ago.. I can’t remember exactly.

    Nevermind, it’s all good.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 8, 2014 at 9:09 am |

    Thanks, Leah, for your reflections (and a good read). Thanks, Harlan, for grounding us. Thanks, Brad, for attempting to pass along to like souls the useless practice.

    I myself feel, much as did this man:


    Takes a lot, but leaves me with that excited look.

  8. A beginner in Texas
    A beginner in Texas July 8, 2014 at 12:03 pm |

    In his book “Real Magic” Isaac Bonewits observed multiple similarities in the construction of theurgy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theurgy) which varied outwardly in form but followed a similar outline across several different religions.

    My guess is that humans found a series of steps that helped to induce a sense of purpose for their spiritual gatherings at some point in pre-history.

    From those roots we may have borrowed the same basic outline, changing the languages spoken, the gods we give devotion to and other less consequential forms but retaining, at root, the same rough outline.

    In another sense a different context for gatherings uses its own set of steps that are repeated today, the unfolding of a drama upon the Green stage hundreds of years ago happens upon the modern stage and even upon the big screen today.

    Might it be that in order to join together multiple people into a unified body, be it for enlightenment or entertainment, requires a basic formula that we are hard-wired to plug into?

  9. minkfoot
    minkfoot July 8, 2014 at 12:57 pm |

    Although I love traditional Catholic Church music, there are ancient branches of Christendom with flashier theatrics and even better music. All of the Eastern Orthodox churches are pretty impressive in the singing (the Ethiopians do drumming and dancing during their masses, too), but my favorite is Russian. Perhaps I am biased, since that’s my family’s religious heritage, but there’s lots of samples on YouTube, and you can listen for yourselves. The independent Syro-Chaldean (if there are any left after the Iraq War) and Armenian are pretty good, too. Ever hear of the St. Thomas Christians?
    In Christianity, in terms of music and other components, the world is larger than many Westerners suspect.

  10. Wibble
    Wibble July 8, 2014 at 2:35 pm |

    Read those old Orthodox ‘desert fathers’ and you could almost be reading a Zen book.

  11. Wibble
    Wibble July 8, 2014 at 2:37 pm |

    Here’s a desert fathers story…
    “A brother in Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which abba
    Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to
    him, saying, “Come, for everyone is waiting for you”. So he got up and went.
    He took a leaking jug and filled it with water and carried it with him. The
    others came out to meet him and said, ” what is this, father?” The old man
    said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I
    am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they heard that, they said no
    more to the brother but forgave him.”

  12. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 8, 2014 at 4:05 pm |

    You’re right, Wibble. They are like some Sufi tales, too. Way back when I gave a sermon at a Swedenborgian (see Emanuel Swedenborg for a good time call…) Xtian church in the tiny town of Pretty Prairie, Kansas (actually a universally recognized Swedenborgian enclave) based on the Desert Abbas and Ammas. The collection I used was an earlier version of this:


    The tradition started with St. Anthony, who some believe may have been tripping balls on some desert cacti… Here’s an excerpt from his wiki page:

    According to Athanasius, the devil fought St. Anthony by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and the phantoms of women, which he overcame by the power of prayer, providing a theme for Christian art. After that, he moved to a tomb, where he resided and closed the door on himself, depending on some local villagers who brought him food. When the devil perceived his ascetic life and his intense worship, he was envious and beat him mercilessly, leaving him unconscious. When his friends from the local village came to visit him and found him in this condition, they carried him to a church.

    After he recovered, he made a second effort and went back into the desert to a farther mountain by the Nile called Pispir, now Der el Memun, opposite Crocodilopolis. There he lived strictly enclosed in an old abandoned Roman fort for some twenty years.[3] According to Athanasius, the devil again resumed his war against Saint Anthony, only this time the phantoms were in the form of wild beasts, wolves, lions, snakes and scorpions. They appeared as if they were about to attack him or cut him into pieces. But the saint would laugh at them scornfully and say, “If any of you have any authority over me, only one would have been sufficient to fight me.” At his saying this, they disappeared as though in smoke. This is attributed as a victory granted by God. While in the fort he only communicated with the outside world by a crevice through which food would be passed and he would say a few words. Saint Anthony would prepare a quantity of bread that would sustain him for six months. He did not allow anyone to enter his cell; whoever came to him stood outside and listened to his advice.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot July 9, 2014 at 5:10 am |

      Under what circumstances were you called upon to deliver a sermon to Swedenborgians in Kansas?

      1. Mumbles
        Mumbles July 9, 2014 at 6:19 pm |

        I was visiting a friend in Kansas who also was a pastor with the United Church of Christ and he noticed that I brought along a copy of USES, a book of Swedenborgian ways to, uh, not waste your life but rather make yourself useful or something (its been a while, but I do remember the title).

        He asked me about it and astonished at what I said asked if I knew about the Swedenborg community about 20 miles south of where he lived. Excited by this, we went to the church I mentioned at Pretty Prairie, KS, and I met their pastor, Eric Zacharius, who turned out to be quite the intellectual, and a pretty fair poet.

        At this man’s request I came around the next week and sermonized (I had a gig as a part-time pastor w/the UCC) about the Desert Fathers and Mothers with the congregation, a(nother) subject I was at that time obsessed with besides Swedenborg, and, well, everything else …

        One humorous aside: I recall sitting near a young boy and his folks after the service and he (the boy) was asking me questions. At one point he asked if I’d read Swedenborg’s Heaven & Hell. I said why yes, I had read that one. Snorting a bit he said: Bet you didn’t understand it though…

        They were a lively, smart bunch of folks with an amazing esoteric library in the church’s basement.

      2. minkfoot
        minkfoot July 9, 2014 at 6:58 pm |

        Thank you.

        When a certain Zen group in the Boston area was still nascent and looking for places to hold retreats, I mentioned knowing of a place owned by the Swedenborgians near Plymouth Harbor. They claimed to have rented to 200 different religious groups. Quite the library there, too.

        Alas, the denomination is having a hard time, and they had to sell off the property.

  13. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel July 9, 2014 at 12:35 am |

    It does seem that ritual is absolutely essential to Humanity. Indeed, some go so far as to think that it is in part the lack of rituals in our modern lives that generate a good deal of the confusion we’re in.

    Rituals aren’t for keeping people in line or for social control, although they can be used for it. They serve as milestones along the path.

  14. The Idiot
    The Idiot July 9, 2014 at 4:32 am |

    +1 for Ritual Milestones… encoded experience.

  15. Mumbles
    Mumbles July 9, 2014 at 4:57 am |

    “They serve as milestones along the path.”

    Or as a millstone around the neck.

  16. thaag77
    thaag77 July 23, 2014 at 1:08 pm |

    I really apreciate your online stuff at trycicle. Hope you keep doing that for a while.. great!

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