One of the things I most enjoy about talking with my Living Our Beliefs podcast guests is learning about both their current practice and their journey to this moment. How did they arrive at this place and what is the method of exploration used? Two recent guests, Mookie Manalili and Carlton E. Smith, each spoke of their various experiences and a process of intentional reflection. Mookie has been a life-long Catholic but has lived in various places, each with its own Catholic culture – from the pink-habited nuns of his childhood in the Philippines to the Hispanic influence in Los Angeles and now the more structured Irish community in Boston. The memories and experiences of earlier communities remain, providing other approaches to Catholicism while remaining part of the one Catholic Church.
In August 2022 Mookie made a pilgrimage on the famed Camino de Santiago through northern Spain. This was an intentional journey focused on the process not the end. Walking was a physically demanding way to travel, altering Mookie’s spiritual state of mind. Time slowed down and his attention shifted from the academic mind to the body and soul. This potential shift had been part of the attraction. Taking a break after several years of COVID pandemic restrictions, along with the psychological burden of supporting his psychotherapy clients, were added incentives.
On the pilgrimage, Mookie began each day reading scripture and writing a journal, before heading out on the path in silence with his fellow travelers. After many hours walking, interspersed with meal breaks, the day ended with rest and sometimes exploration of a town. Spending days in such a simple and grounded process, away from laptops and social media, was restorative even if the two weeks seemed shorter than he would have liked. “There was something really powerful about being part of the spirituality found in the mundaneness.”
Although the walking brought Mookie’s attention to his physical experience, the challenges of the journey deepened his understanding of gospel stories. The meaning of Matthew 25:35-36 –
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.”
– became real for him when he had blisters, was hungry, or needed somewhere to stay. Receiving help from strangers in those moments of need brought the common humanity of the pilgrimage community alive. This was a powerful spiritual lesson that emerged naturally along the way.
Similar to Mookie’s living among disparate Catholic communities, Carlton has traversed Christian denominations, from the middle-of-the-road United Methodist of his childhood in northern Mississippi, to a conservative Pentecostalist following college graduation, and on to his current liberal Unitarian Universalist community. Each community’s theology and social outlook has been a particular experience. The United Methodist was African American and retained the post-Civil War-era focus on building communities, along with the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. The Pentecostal church offered familiarity, given Carlton’s many family members who are part of that denomination. The great music and strong youth engagement were positive elements, but as a gay man he found the antiquated social attitudes towards gays, especially during the AIDS crisis, hurtful and exclusionary. Later, when he visited a Unitarian Universalist church, he discovered principles that he could believe in.
“I came across the principles of Unitarian Universalism, which had to do with acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth and in affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And from that point, I said: Well, this is a tradition that I could belong to.”
This more open approach offered a path that Carlton could use for continued spiritual development. It prioritized individual spiritual growth over insistence on a rigid creed, which had become restrictive in his earlier churches.
One result of this long journey for Carlton was writing a book, Try My Jesus: Daily Reflections to Free Your Mind, Deepen Your Faith, and Invite Universal Love into Your Life. It is a year-long daily reader using more than 1,600 quotes from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – the four Evangelists who were contemporaries of Jesus. He then adds his own reframing of the quotes and a prompt for the reader. These daily readings, Carlton believes, offer opportunities to reflect on Jesus’ teachings and how you are applying them as you take responsibility for your spiritual life. Carlton’s guiding messages are to lead a life centered in love and compassion, and that you can be fully yourself and follow the teachings of Jesus. You needn’t choose between them. This statement is especially relevant, he believes, to those on the margins of society and subject to discrimination and hate.
Learning from these two journeys and processes of contemplation and reflection, I am conscious of my own Jewish journey. From my non-observant interfaith upbringing, I entered Jewish congregational life in a very liberal Reform synagogue in my late 30s. I then moved to egalitarian conservative synagogues, three congregations in three different cities – Seattle, Berlin Germany, and Boston. It has been a long journey, filled with many changes in knowledge, practice and focus of learning. As with Mookie and Carlton, I have a framework for learning and reflection – in my own case the annual cycle of Torah readings, along with ongoing Hebrew study and text study.
Click here to listen to Mookie’s Bonus episode (#45).
Click here to listen to Carlton’s Bonus episode (#46).
Thoughts? Send comments and questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or write a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you! Méli