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Mar 26
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Christ on the Cushion

A story about growing up in one religious tradition, and later adopting another

by Joe Nutini

When I was a child, my parents sent me to Catholic schools. This was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because I received a wonderful, college preparatory education that did indeed prepare me to go to college. I loved college.  I also loved Christ. Like seriously. I was in love with Christ. From the time, I was quite young, I felt the energy of Christ deep within my heart. It was instantaneous. It didn’t require any understanding of doctrine, bible etc. It was just there.

I became a social worker. My education and the love that was in my heart because of knowing the energy of Christ (and perhaps even angels and other “heavenly” beings) led me to that path. Buddhism increased my awareness of Christ. It brought me back to Christ’s energy and love. It also brought me back to myself, to my own heart and to forgiveness.

That’s where I am right now. To get there, though, was quite the journey. The curse of being in the Catholic school was that as I got older, conservative and literalist doctrine began to enter my soul as a poison. I will add this caveat before I continue. I understand that for some people, conservative and literalist doctrine and biblical interpretation is what “Saves” them. That wasn’t my experience. Though I respect that it is for some.

When I was quite young, I also remembered feeling like I should have been born a boy. I literally thought that my body would look like my father’s and not my mother’s. Somewhere in early childhood, I also learned not to say that I felt like a boy. I just knew it was a “Sin” according to the powers that be. Just like I knew that two men kissing was supposed to be “sinful.” I kept it to myself. A secret. Mom and Dad told me I was a girl, so I decided to be one.

As time went on, I became a pro at religion class. I always had an A in that class. I was fascinated by it because I had intrinsically known spirit since the time I was young. I wanted people to explain things to me. I wanted to try to understand what was happening. Sometimes, I would argue or debate with the teacher. I didn’t believe all the stories. I didn’t believe that Adam and Eve were the only humans and they populated the earth. I didn’t necessarily believe that Jesus had to die on a cross. It just didn’t really fit for me. And so, I wanted to learn more. To see what I was missing.

I received confirmation when I “came of age” as a teenager. I believed in Christ and what I felt was a certain spirituality to the universe. I also didn’t want to go to hell, if I’m being honest. Back then I wasn’t sure if there was a hell or not, but the adults kept saying there was. I wanted to do the right thing by this energy that was with me through all the troubles that I felt. I wanted to make Christ happy. I did what the church told me to do. It was a beautiful ceremony and we had a party.

At this time, I also became aware of my queer (at that time we said bisexual) feelings. I had been in puberty early, and it felt like torture. I didn’t understand why my body was betraying my spirit and mind. I kept it to myself. I prayed for these feelings to go away. It was a sin. The more I did this, the further and further away Christ felt. That energy, that love, that guiding force in my life started to slip away. In hindsight, I realized I had been betraying myself. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I didn’t know better.

When I was a senior in high school, my best friend and I wrote a feature edition of our school paper on LGBTQ youth. The religion teachers let us give a survey out on sexuality and gender identity. Right before we were going to print, I was called to the “brothers’” offices. They basically said that, “this issue doesn’t exist here.” They meant that there were no LGBTQ people. I told them that wasn’t true. That I was bisexual. It just fell out of my mouth. It was the most freeing thing in the world. I felt my heart fill with that energy and love again, for a moment. I was told that I was confused, wrong, and that if I engaged in “homosexual acts” I could be excommunicated from the church.

It felt like poison. Every fiber of my being rejected their words. I decided to no longer be Catholic.

In college, I began reading about every religion and spiritual belief that I could find. That included new age spirituality and Buddhism. I wanted to find out what was going on. I couldn’t believe that the God they taught me about in school was the same God who created me. Absolutely not. I figured that maybe I was wrong. That there was no Christ energy or holy spirit. So, I studied, I attended various religious and spiritual services and I began meditation.

During those years, I was a mess until I began transitioning. Even after coming out as queer, I still felt so distant from that love I had known as a child and young teen. It felt miles away. Something that was unattainable. When I came out, it felt slightly closer. When I transitioned, my life changed. I meditated and chanted in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I attended healing arts school where this was solidified. I was invited into some Native American spaces to learn their teachings.

Yet something was still missing. I could feel that I was in touch with the love of the universe again. And yet, that Christ energy was missing. It felt like an emptiness. So, I began exploring Christianity once more. I spoke with literalists who debated with me, stating that I didn’t understand the Scripture or the Bible. So, I studied it with them, pointing out linguistic differences from my studies in college, debating meaning and syntax. I hung out with Unity and Unitarian Universalists who helped me understand and heal from some of my experiences. I met people from the United Church of Christ who explained their understanding of Christ. I met liberation theologians who, like the UUs and UCC folks, made the most sense to me intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

And then I found Shambhala Buddhism. I read the book, Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa, the person who brought this form of Buddhism to the United States. He was literally saying everything that I had thought and felt for many years. I viewed a talk about “Jesus as Bodhisattva,” a concept that I had read about before but didn’t quite understand.

So, I decided to take Shambhala classes. I distinctly remember sitting in the first class. We meditated for hours. I couldn’t shake this feeling that it was I who had been blocking myself from fully feeling the world. I had internalized these poisonous messages that I had heard for a good portion of my life.

I breathed in, and when I breathed out, I found Christ again. It was a distinct feeling, so hard to describe. Like putting the last piece into a puzzle and being on fire at the same time. The intensity of it lasted for a moment then dissipated. A chunk of the poison left me, and in its place was this gentle love. A love that came from both within me and outside of me.

Today, I continue to work on undoing those teachings that kept me so far away from this Universal love, the love of Christ, and the love or Buddha nature within. I personally believe these are complexly intertwined, and simultaneously always available to me. I am still learning, debating, meditating, praying, and learning. I often wonder if these things happened for a reason–a journey to build empathy, love and relationship with others.

My name is Joe Nutini. My preferred gender pronouns are he/him or they/them. I identify as ethnically Assyrian, Persian and Italian, and racially as white Middle Eastern. I also identify as transmasculine, FTM, Queer and Poly. My career choice is social work. My primary areas of focus in social work are youth, trauma, LGBTQ people, and combining spirituality with social services. I’m also an interfaith minister, reiki practitioner, and writer.  I am currently a member of a Shambhala Buddhist Center. This is where I find my grounding spiritually. I also consider myself to be a follower of Christ’s teachings, as I consider him to be what Buddhists call a Bodhisattva. I wrote a book called Loving Beyond Reason which is available on Amazon as a Kindle book. I am hoping to have this published in paper copy soon. I’m also currently engaged to my partner, Nikki. 

A version of this piece was previously published on the Southwestern conference United Church of Christ’s blog: http://www.southwestconferenceblog.org

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6 responses to “ Christ on the Cushion ”
  1. Thank you for your comments everyone.

  2. Barbara West
    Apr 1, 2017

    Thank you Joe! I appreciate your story. As I work to integrate Shambhala Buddhism and 12-step work, I find my relationship with God developing in a wonderful way. (So grateful to Kevin Griffin for his teachings and for the Heart of Recovery meetings at Shambhala land centers…) At this point on the path, I am taking a break from Shambhala group programs and instead returning every summer to the Christian church camp that is my family legacy. I appreciate your delineation of your own ethnicity in your bio. It does seem so important to explore our personal familial inheritances, with all the gifts and challenges they include. Yes, as Sue Monk Kidd says in “The Secret Life of Bees,” “It is our wounds that connect us.” So whether I see my difficulties as “God’s will,” “karma,” or just “dharma unfolding” (or, as Pema says, the present moment is the perfect teacher), I can keep working toward acceptance, using every tool available to me! Thank you again for sharing your story with us.

  3. Thank you for sharing. I was also raised Catholic and felt very close to the guardian angel St. Michael who I called upon regularly to protect me. I loved Jesus very much and wanted to be a nun. I was very angry that a father would sacrifice his child to save the world and what the hell was wrong with the world since he made it. Wasn’t it supposed to be good?? Every easter was hellish, and I wanted to take his place on the cross; the martyr complex became a way of life and after 2 failed marriages I found Shambhala Buddhism and discovered Basic Goodness. Alleluia!!!!!!!!!! It feels good to be alive and know I have the power to change and make a difference. It’s never too late. Thank you for being brave to be who you are. You inspire me.

  4. Diana Shane
    Mar 31, 2017

    Very moved by your words, Joe…thank you for your bravery in writing and sharing it…I have similar views to yours in terms of Christ and Buddha…I also went on a search at an early age to find the deepest truth and mystical Christianity was the first deep dive I took. Then later in my life, I too discovered Shambhala and realized that it went the deepest, at least for me. May gentleness and wisdom continue to unfold for all of us.

  5. Manuel Medeiros
    Mar 27, 2017

    Thank you Joe for sharing this. I too was raised Catholic, was very close to entering the Christian Brothers Novitiate, suffered a “crisis of faith,” and auspiciously discovered Buddhism. A few years back, I took a “leave of absence” from Shambhala to re-explore Christian mysticism. It was a very rich journey that I am very grateful to have made. In the end, though, I found my home back in Shambhala. I am humbled by your courage, and I wish you well on your continued journey.

  6. Lenny Wang
    Mar 27, 2017

    Thank you so much for sharing

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