Fr. Gregory Mayers, C.Ss.R. is identified as the Emeritus Teacher of the East-West Meditation program at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, California. He is a Redemptorist priest and a fully authorized Zen teacher within the Sanbo Zen tradition.
“I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana,” he tells me. “I was raised in Baton Rouge. Southern Louisiana is very Catholic country. So I just grew up in this marinated Catholic environment.”
“When did you know you wanted to be a priest?” I ask.
“Probably six months before ordination.”
“And how did you find out about Zen?”
“Completely by accident.” He had been on retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon. “And the abbot there was Bernard McVeigh. Abbot Bernard. And he would come and see me every day in my retreat. And somewhere along the line, he invited me to a talk about Zen with a handful of the monks there were practicing Zen twice a day. And Bernard invited me to come and sit in Zen with them, which I had no interest in whatsoever. It was fine with me if they wanted to do it, but I’m just trying to love Jesus. Well, eventually I accepted his invitation, and I asked him what to do. And he said, ‘Well, you sit like this, and you just count your breath.’ That was it. So I went and sat, and, as anybody who jumps into zazen knows, the only reward is that you get through it.” We both laugh. “About the only thing you can say is, ‘Wow! I made that! I did that.’”
After his first attempt, he didn’t think it was something he would go back to. But a little later, he did a six week retreat with the Trappists – “Bernard wanted me to be a Trappist” – and during the course of it, he joined the monks who regularly sat zazen. There were six of them, out of a community of forty. In the end, Greg remained a Redemptorist, but one with a new spiritual practice. “I thought the Trappist life was really sane. It was wonderful. I really liked it. But that wasn’t my vocation. I couldn’t say ‘yes’ to it. And while I was there, of course, there was much more regular sitting, a regular experience of sitting in zazen. And somewhere along the line, Robert Aitken came to the monastery to give a talk. And I remember being in a small group with him, and I have no idea what he was talking about. I don’t remember. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But I do remember very clearly looking at him and saying, ‘I don’t know what that man has, but I want it.’ And that’s really when I think jumped into Zen.”
“I’m curious how you made sense of it,” I say. “You’d been trained in that carefully crafted Ignatian type of spirituality and their discernment process. And now somebody tells you to sit still and count your breaths. How did you make sense of that as a spiritual exercise?”
“That’s a very good question. And it plagued me for a long time. Here I was, sitting in zazen, counting my breath, and I was plagued with this question that came somewhere down the line, ‘How can it be that sitting here doing nothing is any kind of spiritual practice? How can I, a good Catholic priest, sit here and just do nothing and call that a spiritual practice?’ It really did plague me. And I might have asked Bernard. I don’t remember if I asked or not. I never got an answer to the question. And over the course of about a year, it just faded away. It just was a non-issue.”
“So if someone you were working with today put that question to you, how would you respond? ‘How is this a spiritual activity? How is this making me a better person? A better Catholic?’”
He pauses, purses his lips, then says, smiling, “I don’t know.” Again, we’re both laughing. “If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.”
“I guess that’s what it comes down to,” I say.
“It really does. I don’t know. I have no idea. It’s all a mystery to me.”
Catholicism and Zen: 122, 123, 124, 125, 126, 131, 134, 135-46