Catholic by Blood, Buddhist by Fire by Matt Gesicki

I was baptized Catholic by blood, Buddhist by fire.

In the summer of 2015—immediately following my time with Life Together—I traveled to China to participate in the Woodenfish Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program, a month-long immersive Buddhist studies/monastic living program for Western students led by a Taiwanese Buddhist nun. After a month of a shaved head, white robes, and meditation and tai chi daily, we concluded our sojourn with a silent retreat at a nunnery on Mount Wutai, one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains. After an ascent of 108 full-body prostrations in a climb to one of Wutai’s plateaus, bowing into stones gritted with incense from the fires of offerings, I participated in the ritual of taking refuge—the Buddhist equivalent to baptism. Among the fires of the shrines and the murmured sutras of old pilgrims, I took refuge in the Three Jewels of the Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community).

This practice of taking refuge—rooted in the ancient Indian custom of a servant taking refuge in a master—means surrendering to the sovereignty of teachings whose totality is ultimately beyond our ken. Thus, to me, taking refuge is not so estranged from the vulnerable, submissive postures of prayer, which, through the contemplative traditions of Life Together and The Crossing, I learned to embrace more bodily. In the liminal space between the body language of prayer and the body language of meditation, I sense a spirit of continuity—a spirit in whose silence and presence dwells deep healing.

Today, I balance my religious identity on the hyphen between Catholic roots and Buddhist wings. It is a perilous, anxious balance at times, but the balancing act enables me better to support the work of multifaith dialogue and engagement at my workplace. As Student Engagement Coordinator for the Office of Global Spiritual Life at NYU, I supervise three inter- and multifaith student organizations: Bridges (Muslim-Jewish dialogue), MuCh (Muslim-Christian dialogue), and the Multifaith Advisory Council, a group of 11 student leaders whose religious traditions range from Catholic to Muslim to Protestant to Jewish to Sikh. They organize multifaith efforts for social justice and facilitate Faith Zone, NYU’s religious literacy training. In environments where such impassioned and inquisitive young minds of faith collide, both synergy and conflict tend to ensue. As the primary staff source of accountability and support for these students, my commitment to a practice of mindful speech and mindful action—which living in intentional community and practicing NVC absolutely developed in me—is critical.

Currently I am at the midpoint in a Master of Divinity program at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, studying psychology and religion. Traditionally this path leads M.Div. students to pursue professions as chaplains in hospitals, hospices, or prisons, or to enter parish ministry with specialized skills in pastoral care and counseling. This summer I will complete a unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) as a full-time chaplain intern with a hospice system here in New York. I am not seeking ordained ministry, but aside from this I cannot know conclusively at this moment where my path will extend beyond the M.Div. I know that New York—this city of chaos and excess, of arts and activism, of history and possibility—is where I belong. I know that supporting students in the work of dialogue and encounter between religious traditions is part of my call. I know that I am not my deepest self without meditation.