08/14/2013 10:17 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

The Buddhist Priest and I: Practice for Next Generation

We ask a lot of questions, don't settle for too easy answers. Catherine Toldi and I share friendship and deep roots. She's a high-energy person, works hard, spends valuable time in spiritual retreats, and is a Zen priest in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi. For the past 30 years she's worked as a professional faciliator and trainer in Santa Cruz, Calif.

She's fully aware that people tend to make mistakes, push each other's buttons, and get stuck in painful conflicts. This, of course, is incredibly close to my own experience as an Episcopal priest and writer. We're both aware there's no guarantee that we'll always respond with generosity or wisdom when we're under duress and sharply provoked. We're human. So we're not perfect. What can we do? Catherine suggests activating a willingness to grow and learn together "right in the middle of the mess."

This makes great sense to me. I'm aware that religion and spirituality can easily get mixed up with personal ambition and unrestrained egos. Or can become enmeshed in parodies of controversy that signal (in Catherine's words) "Something's wrong. This shouldn't be happening. It must be somebody's fault. These people are such a mess!"

What can any of us do when confronted by such reality? Catherine wisely suggests: "I need to relax the grip of who I think you are -- yesterday's dreams -- and take the risk to meet the actual you."

I've experienced this dilemma in my own life. Catherine stresses that working through tough issues involves our inescapably making mistakes over and over again. In other words, perfection is not an honest or realistic expectation. I like Catherine's suggestion that maybe we can come to the realization we've co-created the mess. Maybe it's our very intimacy -- however painful -- that can open us to a path of liberation.

Of course, when religion or spirituality are mired by faults and failures and shortcomings, this is the precise moment for them to wake up and become true to their professed nature.

At 60, Catherine keeps growing. Prayer is very real for her. So is taking care of her health, generating fresh ideas, listening to people instead of simply talking to them. In the Summer 2013 issue of "Buddhadharma; The Practitioner's Quarterly" Catherine writes a piece that somehow sums up her thoughts and feelings:

In my most desperate moments, what's ultimately brought me back is the recognition that I'm practicing for the next generation. This priceless gift of the buddhadharma comes to us through the effort of those who have gone before, from all the times when our ancestors, new and old, let themselves be polished against each other -- in work, in struggle, in laughter, in tears.

Thank you, Catherine, for your brave struggle, your fine example, your innate sense of humor, your willingness to live with passion.