Thursday, June 30, 2011

Post-Catholic Yogi

By Matthew Remski
Originally Posted on the yoga 2.0 blog
I became Catholic again, for a single day.

It was spring: there were new buds and a tender sun. I was lonely for youth and family, and especially singing. It was Sunday morning. I biked to Thomas Aquinas Chapel at the University of Toronto with dew on my fenders. I had made first communion there, 33 years gone by. I didn’t know I was about to make second communion that morning.

The choir members are in their early 20s. Babies sing along, or fuss. Little girls shine like pennies in Sunday dresses. Boys pull on sleeves and ask where the priest lives. The hymnbook smells like 1922. I run my hand along a groove in the pew and the wax of an earlier time curls up under my fingernail while the sun pours through rippling leaded glass. An ecstasy grows: of childhood memory,the softest kind, pictures and bodily sensations that echo in a primal womb. I don’t find this space anywhere else. A quiet rapture in the warmth of worn stone and the ambient swell of collective breath. I open, finally, once again, to the openness of children, who watch, and listen, and let the spectacle of life flow in.

As churches go, it’s a good church – social action, thinking people, cultural diversity, folks with hopeful projects. An old Victorian rectory that feels like a union hall cluttered with strollers, a grand piano beside the altar, Jesuits who read Tagore. The chapel is a well-cooked masala of catholic communalism, incense, and old percolators with nasty coffee made palatable by lots of donuts.

It had me that morning. The damn church had me so melted that I could forgive the psychotic Old Testament reading and the goofy homily that tried to whitewash it. I shook hands with an ancient man beside me, and played with the toy truck of my 4-year-old seat-mate on the other side. I took communion (first wafer in 25 years?), shivering at Jesus’ line: This is my body. Yes: this is my body: this bread, these people, this human condition. I couldn’t sing at communion because yearning was a star in my throat.

But what happened after communion sealed the deal. A woman took the podium to give housekeeping announcements for the parish. Mondays: a mentorship programme. Tuesdays: blanket drive for the homeless. Wednesdays: AA meeting. Thursdays: bereavement support group. Friday: teen dance. Saturday: Tiny Shrouds Society.

I turned to the old man. “Tiny Shrouds?”

He had watery eyes of crystal. Underweight, and a quiver in his right hand. He whispered “A few of the gals get together and knit little shrouds for the babies that die every week in the maternity wards.”

That did it: I lost it. Was this the church I’d left so many years ago in a storm of disillusionment and cynicism? A place with such implicit kindness, such organized empathy? And what had I replaced it with? A solitary, counter-cultural path. Sure – I’d developed my breath, my internal observer, powers of inquiry. But now I should probably get in line for the Tuesday blanket, because yoga had made me homeless. Where were the studio food drives? Who was knitting the shrouds? Where was the yoga studio that sat in the middle of this dirty and vibrant life and facilitated all of its movements?

But this is harsh. Yoga is an adolescent in our culture, driving forward on the heady fumes of disillusionment, wanting more than the known patterns, more than what we’re programmed to expect. It wants self-expression and constant redefinition. Young and dumb and full of possibility, yoga’s also looking in the mirror, wondering how it looks. Yoga’s just getting started here, and we do wish it well.

You can’t ask a teenager to suddenly manifest a social service network that the churches have been mothering for generations. The churches have paid their mortgages through centuries of focused intention and issue-driven tithing. (And land-stealing, feudalism, colonial oppression, and church-state power collusion… but don’t get me started.) We can’t expect yogis to run soup kitchens when we’re still making our rent. And as long as there are churches that cover the market in binding people to this love that transcends dogma because it acts, studios will offer a much thinner soup: classes, self-help tools, self-discovery adventures. It may be another generation before the patina of real community starts to glow.

I wonder. Will our yoga studios ever run with children and the tears of alcoholics? Will we tithe ourselves? Will we take all of this self-work and turn it inside out, and show our communities that we have as much food as wisdom, as much politics as peace, as much home as om?

Will we be ready to take over these well-worn catholic buildings when the last clerics fall in disgrace? When the last shreds of moral hypocrisy and intellectual bankruptcy rupture the last congregations, will we rejuvenate their networks with a more functional vision of human relationship and ecology? Can we create leadership based on introspection? Will we buy up dilapidated churches for pennies on the dollar during the next crash and put them in collective trust? If we did, could we finally shake up this alienating commercial model through which we’ve been propagating our yoga?

Will we be up to the task?

But enough about the big picture – let’s get back to me. The morning brought up so much more than the disparity between how yoga and catholic cultures are able to serve baseline human needs. It made me look at the mystery of who I think I am, and how free I feel to meld my various worlds and layers of personal history.

I’m sure I can’t be catholic for more than a day every few years: this rare emotional regression can never withstand the ethical outrage which even now simmers in my gut. For after all, the religious corporation is still what it is: an authoritarian and uncommunicative bureaucracy of conservatism and fear that resists progressive change at every turn, dressed up in a theology as emotionally punitive as it is intellectually absurd. But what a paradoxical life this is! I fell in love that morning with the milk of human kindness, which somehow continues to flow from an abattoir. And how humbling the thought that senseless dogmas and power structures cannot destroy the will to love.

Clearly, I’ve got to bring what I value from this gloriously broken thing into my studio, into my practice. Yoga practitioners can’t let the state-theological complex corner the market on community service. Churches are crashing and social welfare is shredding: we’ll have to do it ourselves.

The morning was moving and strange, and left me disarmed. Now I can see that my feelings were splintered, amplified and scrambled by my own internal conflicts about identity and allegiance, and the scars of conversion. Do I still belong to this group? When I rejected it, did it reject me? How can I feel such warmth and such isolation at the same time? Isn’t this what we ask ourselves about our very families?

A radiant confusion was deepened and perhaps soured by an immature attitude: to think I switched spiritualities at 16, and left all the rest behind. To think that belief is like citizenship that admits me to one country but bars me from others. To think that a guru can give me a new name and erase the shit and love of my past. To think that because that middle-aged celibate priest doesn’t understand the relationships between the body and ecology, between intimacy and integrity, he is my enemy. After all, he seems to know how to host human beings with more grace and manners than I seem to possess.

I never really converted, I suppose – to Buddhism, yoga, or anything. Perhaps maturity shows that conversion is a shell-game that hides your real continuity. Maturity shows that the catholic incense of my past will waft through my yoga studio for years: how could it be otherwise? Maturity organizes things according to usefulness, instead of identity. Useful: pleasure, community, service, jocularity, inter-generational mentoring, learning, networking, canoeing. Not so useful: priestly hierarchy, metaphysics, vowed celibacy, red robes and silly hats, disembodied ritual that no-one really feels.

I have to take the useful wherever it comes. Maybe I’ll knit tiny shrouds after asana class.

I don’t have to complicate what needs to be done with questions of who I am. I’m sure I’ll never know.

Matthew Remski is an authoryoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a writing and community-building project.

yoga 2.0: shamanic echoesis now available for kindle and other e-readers. 


  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I have gone on an interesting spiritual path, spending 5 years in a Christian church, as a believer. Before that I was dabbling in yoga, Buddhism, and zen meditation. Now I'm back where I was then, and finding and learning more. I feel that the 5 years as a Christian were not an emotional regression, but I'm glad for the different perspective. I noticed, too, that I appreciate all the work that churches often to do to support people in need. My family makes a point to tithe every month for the food bank, or just a family we know that needs help. I like the idea of children running through a yoga studio, and yogis knitting shrouds. : )

  2. When you're attracted to a religion for the goods it provides, instead of the truths it proclaims, you make it a little easier for team Atheism to win the argument and demonstrate that god is make believe.


    An Atheist

  3. Hi Jess and anonymous, thanks for joining the conversation! Jess, so glad you enjoyed Matthew's article. I've always thought that maintaining a healthy dose of holy envy for the beauty in other traditions can often help illuminate our own faith and practice.

    Anonymous (if that IS your real name!), thanks for reading, but let's try to keep things more constructive with these comments. You took a beautiful article and read your own cynical assumptions onto it. Matthew at no point in this article makes any claims about his own belief in God or gods, and there are myriad different understandings of the sacred woven through Catholicism, yogic practice, and Buddhism - not all of which even endorse theism, mind you - with which I would wager you yourself are probably unfamiliar, and to which you can only speculate about Matthew's relationship. What I'm trying to say is, it takes some gall to assume you know why somebody believes what you think they believe, especially when you don't know them and don't understand the beliefs you're ascribing to them.

    If you want to talk about how both religious and secular progressives can come together to work for justice and understanding, great. There are already some folks from "Team Atheist" blazing those trails, and doing a damn fine job of it. But you can kindly check this whole mentality of "winning the argument" against religion at the door.

    (A Theist)

  4. "But you can kindly check this whole mentality of "winning the argument" against religion at the door. "

    Or religion can just continue to lose the argument, which is what is happening right now in America.

    Good luck with all the church closings,

    An Atheist

  5. Troll alert!

    It must be a great comfort for An Atheist to know that he or she is winning the argument with all of the dignity, style, and grace that comes from anonymously trolling with inflammatory comments on a website full of people legitimately trying to make a difference in how we talk about religion in this country.


    Keep up the great work,!

    - Jeff, CA

  6. Atheist guy seems to think that being snarky, terse, and self-righteous is the best way to make an argument. Thanks for making the rest of us non-believers look like tools!

  7. Good job trying to understand someone who has a different opinion than you. Oh wait, you didn't do that. You just dismissed my argument out of hand.

    I was saying that when people belong to a religion because it makes them feel good, or provides an important social service, or because it creates a social network (something that political engagement, environmental advocacy, etc. equally provide), you make it clear that you're not interested in truth, but only in those benefits from religion.

    Thanks for the personal attack though - very Christ-like (I guess I shouldn't suppose you're a Christian, but it is a safe bet statistically in this country).

    Your Atheist Friend

  8. Thanks for keeping this discussion going, folks!

    Now, our Atheist Friend, I think your point was well taken, if (and this is a generous reading) not particularly applicable to the forum in which you decided to share it. You were either making a broad, abstract observation about the relationship between the services and benefits provided by religions obscuring a religion's metaphysical truth claims, OR you were commenting specifically about how the author of this particular article (and perhaps our first respondent as well), is guilty of performing this obscuration himself.

    If you were speaking in the hypothetical, I don't think anybody would dispute your claim that following a religion because of its personal, emotional, and social benefits can obscure the focus from that religion's metaphysical truth claims. But an interest in those benefits and a legitimate interest in and concern for a religion's truth claims are by no means mutually exclusive, and I think they are oftentimes actually mutually reinforcing, as the beneficial practices of religious communities often result from attempts to model the larger theological claims of their faith.

    But as I read your first post, you did not seem to be speaking in the hypothetical at all, but seemed to be implying that Matthew, and maybe Jess, were privileging these personal, emotional, and social benefits to the detriment of a focus on the truth claims of the religion(s) he/they practice. And as I pointed out in my initial response, without any claims from Matthew or Jess about whether or how they experience or understand God, and even considering their shared interest in the social expressions of religious communities, that seemed like on overly bold claim on your part.

    Again, nobody would argue with you that your claim is true in a hypothetical sense, but given the context, your claim certainly sounded like a criticism of the author that would be unfair given the absence of information about the author's relationship with the truth claims of any of the religions with which he has a familiarity.

    Listen. We can absolutely talk about these things constructively. Here at the site we are HUGE fans of folks like Chris Stedman who approach religion and religious people with genuine care and an interest in open dialogue and exchange. It was you who came onto this message board claiming that religious people and atheists are on different teams, and you again who claimed to be winning an argument in which I would wager most of the people who read and post to this website are not even particularly interested.

    We are here to answer the call to make our own traditions more accountable in practice to the values that they claim, in their better moments, to hold. We welcome any opportunity to engage constructively with people who identify with any or no form of religious expression. If you feel like you have constructive commentary that would add to the discussion, please PLEASE feel free to contribute. But I think all of us would be better served focusing, together, on the real work to which this site is dedicated and not quibbling over whose "team" is winning.