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Utilizing All the Moving Parts and Stirring a Rich Spiritual Soul  

February 4, 2022

Have you ever stopped to consider the similarities between Orthodox Christianity and Buddhism? I’ve never had the urge to always put them in distinct categories, as far as apples are from oranges. Then I came across Steve Kelly. In less than an hour, he will have you looking at things through a fresh lens.

Essentially, he said, it all springs from two types of prayer, cataphatic. In both religious traditions, he said, “they emphasize what we don’t know about God who, in essence, is unknowable.”

 Unknowable. That solitary term may bring charges of blasphemy within some evangelical Christian circles. I can see myself being shamed for not recognizing God’s abundant grace and feeling secure that Christ comes alongside me to deal with the complexities of daily life. And yet, Kelly got my full attention as I woke up and smelled the coffee.

Kelly, 57, who lives and works in Boulder, Co., speaks from experience. He was born into a military family in Okinawa and baptized Methodist. “We moved a lot; I was nominally Christian.” The seeds of his fascination with Buddhism, he remembered, were sown in high school. “I took a religious studies class, he said; the class was assigned to read the 1974 classic, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” by Robert Persig. The fictionalized autobiography posits a meditation on metaphysics and abstract subsets of time, space, being and knowing.

Using his Protestant roots as a springboard, he hopscotched into Buddhism. Somewhere along the way, he even began a formal study of Judaism before dropping it. Kelly was eventually baptized and chrismated into the Antiochian branch of the Orthodox Church.

Kelly was a part of the San Francisco Zen Center, “probably the biggest institution for Zen Buddhism in American, I studied in the city and lived in Big Sur for a number of years…They worship the Buddha just like we worship God,” he emphasized. According to facts provided online, Buddhism counts more than 535 million followers worldwide. Thailand, with 64 million in its ranks, counts the largest population of Buddhists; the U.S. has 3.5 million.

While a priest, Kelly worked as a hospital chaplain where he frequently chanted with patients. The tradition, he said, “goes into the nature of the mind. The enlightenment is the same joy you find at the bedside of someone who’s dying. It’s not a happy joy.” Nor was it uncommon for Kelly to struggle with his own feelings following those visits. “I went to my teacher,” he said. “He could feel it. After the tears, I’d say, `now what?’ And his teacher always came back with the right words of comfort for his student. “Keep going,” he encouraged him.

As our time together wound down, Kelly dishes up bite-size wisdom to go on a constellation of related topics: “Politics has turned into religion. It’s increasingly polarizing…We have a culture that’s profoundly secular…Don’t push anything away, but don’t hang on, don’t grasp…Christ is the great healer, because we’re all broken in some way…Love is the touchstone. Knowledge will fade, but love will go on forever…St. Paul says you have empty hands to be used Orthodoxy says we have everything. We’re the turkey dinner and we’re the turkey sandwich.”

I have a good feeling that Kelly brings all his experiences curated within the human bandwidth to bear that culminated in his journey to Orthodoxy. It was our time, his time–a time such as this.

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