It took only 10 minutes for me to find Todaji Temple once I saw the map on the side of the building. I was surprised to see it open in the storm. I payed for a ticket at a small booth occupied by a middle aged Japanese man huddled on a stool. He spoke only a few words of English – “Your ticket please, thank you.”
“Arigatou.” I replied, bowing my head while I thanked him.
The steps to the temple were thick and tall. I climbed them carefully in the rain. I walked through the ancient wooden doors of the dimly lit temple. Three huge statues embodied most of the building along with a singular wooden altar stretching the full length of the space. I shared the temple with a small Japanese woman. She was kneeling in front of one of the giant Buddhas, praying intensely.
There was an ancient sacredness within Todaji Temple. It engulfed me the moment I stepped inside. The smell of over 1400 years of incense, sweetened by the dampness of the typhoon, caressed my skin as it made its way into my pores. It settled on my tongue as I inhaled, allowing me to taste the divinity of generations past. I could hear the whispers of the ancestors as they prayed forward their desires for peace, harmony, and love. Todaji Temple sheltered me not only from the raging storm outside, but from the fear and doubt of my own heart. It made me feel somehow ‘found’ after the panic and despair of being lost in a strange city in the middle of a typhoon.
This is what I wanted from Jesus. This is why I went to confession. This is why I was trying so hard to make a connection with the priest sitting in front of me. I wanted to be surrounded by the holy sacredness I felt in Todaji Temple. I wanted to be held in generations of prayer. I wanted to feel as intimately connected to God – to the divinity of the space I occupied – to nature – to my body – to my life, my family, my work – to my everyday life – as I did in that moment in Japan.
I looked at the priest and wondered – How can there be so much fear in the heart of a man who has dedicated himself to God? It engulfed him as he continued to clench his hands around his knee while looking at the floor.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my Spiritual life the Catholic church would consider sinning.” I admitted, getting to the heart of a true confession “I’ve prayed to the old pagan gods, I became a Druid, I’ve spent time with women who call themselves Witches, and I studied Shamanism. I celebrate Yule and the Summer Solstice. I do most of my praying outside while dancing around fires. But, to be honest, none of it feels like sinning.”
The priest’s gaze shifted as I spoke the last sentence. He looked directly at me for the first time since I sat down.
“I think spirituality has less to do with what church you go to and more to do with why you’re going there in the first place.” I said. “I’ve spent my life looking for a loving connection to God. I’ve travelled half way around the world and back to find it. I don’t want what I find to be full of fear or shrouded by a Devil. I want it to be meaningful and inspiring. I want it to bring me peace.”
The priest softened his posture and nodded his head as he considered my dialogue. I appreciated his willingness to engage with me – to try to find something redeemable in a self-proclaimed Druidic Witch. It was a stretch for him, but he was brave and admirable in his priestly robes, and he allowed the confession to continue without trying to stop me or correct my thoughts.
“I want to find a connection with Jesus that doesn’t require a contemplation of the Devil or a denial of the rest of my Spiritual identity…”
My voice trailed off as I pondered what I’d just said. I could hear the wistfulness in my voice as I spoke. The underlying sadness of a spiritual life led in the absence of this man’s God, the first God I’d ever known, permeated the air between us.
It was the crux of the crack in my soul – the dividing principle that kept me in perpetual Spiritual limbo. I’ve prayed as a pagan to so many other gods, feeling the full divinity of those experiences. Why was it so hard to find the same connection with Jesus? The little Catholic girl in me cowered at my thoughts while the eclectic spiritual adult demanded answers.
“I don’t feel evil.” I said, looking directly at the priest. “I’m not evil.” I shifted my gaze to the window again, allowing my statement to fill the room. “I’m just a woman who wants to spend some time with Jesus.”
I knew he was still afraid of me. Yet, he did his best to overcome his fear so as to offer me comfort and engage in my dialogue. “Perhaps you would be a good bridge,” he said, “between Christians and Pagans. If what you say is true, if your story is simply one of finding a path to God, perhaps it is not the path of a bad person. I think there are bridges of understanding you could build between people.” He drew my attention back to his face as he spoke. “If you are dedicated to finding love and finding a loving connection to God, I would have to agree by saying I also do not think you are evil.”
A sigh escaped me and I thanked him. I grew up believing it was every good Catholic’s first order of business to find the evil parts of her Soul. The parts the Devil got ahold of, or would if she stepped out of line, and admonish herself through prayer until all that evil was gone. It was refreshing to hear a priest speak to the peaceful side of communion without abashing the human experience surrounding it. It gave me hope for the morning mass I wished to attend. It made me feel that perhaps I could go back to church – back to Jesus.
“I came here mostly to confess what and who I am to you, and to ask your permission to attend church tomorrow.” I said, allowing my voice to silence my doubt. My pagan instincts knew that, for whatever reason, Jesus wanted me to go back to church. I resolved to do so with an open mind and an open heart.
“Yes, you can.” he replied as he steered the conversation toward the conclusion of my confession.
I ended with a few Hail Mary’s and left the church wondering what mass would feel like after a 30 year hiatus.