Roger Brennan is a priest in the Scarboro Mission Society who – until COVID restrictions were imposed – sat regularly with Patrick Gallagher’s Oak Tree in the Garden Sangha.
“I grew up in a typical Catholic ambiance. Went to Catholic schools; had nuns for teachers. So we got a lot of stories of the saints and even as a very young person, I was intrigued by these. And although I wouldn’t have known to describe it in this way at that time, I would say the mystics particularly intrigued me, that people could have these experiences. Growing up, I can remember that there was this curiosity, but when I went to Jesuit high school, I never really took to Jesuit spirituality, the Ignatian exercises. We certainly got them,” he says with a chuckle. “But it never clicked with me. It was just not my spirituality. Then in the novitiate we studied this book by a priest named Adolphe Tanqueray. It was quite a thick book; it was considered a classic in mystical theology at that time. It gave a very, very detailed analysis of the road to perfection, and I kind of realized I was not on that road and figured I was never going to get on that road. It was not a very appealing road. It seemed to be something for people who were somehow extraordinary. It wasn’t me at any rate. And that kind of allowed me to let go of that type of spirituality. It was something I couldn’t do and didn’t particularly want to do. So I just said my prayers and received the sacraments, and that was sort of it.”
His first posting was to the Philippines, then in the mid-’70s, his superiors called him back to Canada to do a course of study on scripture. He enrolled at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa. One spring day he was in the library. “Ottawa can be beautiful in the spring, and it was one of those days when you would really like to be anywhere but in a library, and I would have given anything to be anywhere else but in that stack room. And I was just flipping through the books looking for the one I wanted and came across this thing a little bigger than a pamphlet on Eastern religions. And because it had nothing to do with scripture, I picked it up and just started flipping through it, looking at the index, looking to see what was in there. I can’t even remember if it was about Buddhism in general or Zen. I suspect it might have been on Zen. And I started reading it. Well, then I forgot about the book I was looking for. I took the book and sat down and read through it. And it reawakened in me all the interest I had had years before with the saints and the mystics and that sort of thing. It looked at that reality or that possibility from a completely different perspective. It was no longer something for extraordinary people in certain circumstances. This was saying, ‘You can experience the transcendent. Anybody can. You don’t have to be a special kind of person.’
“So that really tweaked me; however, I still had to get my paper finished. So I put it back. Got the scripture book, finished my paper, decided not to continue, and got permission to go back to the Philippines. In the meantime, I was talking with some of Our Lady’s Missionary sisters that I worked with, and I was telling them I was going back to the Philippines. And they said, ‘Oh, isn’t that great. One of our sisters who’s been in Japan for years and has been studying Zen has been assigned not just to the Philippines but to Hinunangan,’ which is the town that I was working in.”
The sister was Elaine MacInnes, and, in Hinunangan, she introduced Roger to formal Zen practice. Shortly after this, she moved to Manila, where he occasionally went to attend sesshin. After this initial training, however, he did not have direct access to a Zen teacher for long periods of time and had to practice on his own – although he made use of sabbaticals to do brief stays with Koun Yamada in Japan and Willigis Jäger in Germany – until he retired to Toronto in 2009 and resumed practice with Sister Elaine.
I spent an evening with the Oak Tree in the Garden sangha and was intrigued by the ease with which the participants used the word “God.” It is not a concept associated with Buddhism and I wondered how they reconciled a belief in God with Zen practice. It’s a difficult issue to deal with, but Roger took it on.
“We just celebrated Trinity Sunday, and how do you explain that? The Trinity. We have all these words, and all these explanations, and all this theology, but we have to finally come to the fact that we don’t know what we’re talking about.” There is gentle laughter and murmurs of agreement from the others. “We don’t. I often like to say in groups when I’m talking to them – sometimes from a Zen perspective or whatever – but I say to them, ‘God is nothing.’ And then I’ll write it on the board. ‘God is no thing.’ Things are creations. Things come from God. But Zen is trying to get rid of all the concepts so that when you have the experience it’s pure. Things are creations. God is not a creation. God is beyond creation. So God is nothing. I have no problem with that nothing. The problem is with the concepts. We carry around in our little heads all these concepts. The more theology you study, the more of them you’ve got. I think the important thing to remember is that God is not a thing.”
Catholicism and Zen: 187-90