Last summer, a few hours off a plane from Europe, I found myself in a stall in the women's room of a Unitarian church outside Boston, legs braced against the door to keep my memoir balanced on my lap, with 20 minutes to write my first sermon, on a paper towel. (For the record, I am a writer, but definitely not a minister.) "Okay," I muttered, struggling to keep the book from sliding into the bowl. "I think sermons have lessons." As I leafed wildly through the pages in search of something that could pass for a lesson, I felt the joyful terror that signals faith.
When I'd e-mailed Unitarian congregations to offer my services to their book and study groups, the plan seemed brilliant. Unitarians read; I was peddling my book. Unitarians embrace global issues and religious traditions; said book was about becoming Thailand's first black Buddhist nun. Unitarians value but rarely achieve diversity; I was one of a handful of blacks raised Unitarian. For a small fee, a few bottles of water, and the opportunity to sell books, I could be available at a church near you.
Before this, I'd assumed that readers would buy my memoir for the writing. Meeting Faith was my attempt to make sense of the moment, 20 years ago, when I, a textbook liberal with no interest in spirituality, flunked out of college, shaved my head, and moved to the Thai forest—ostensibly to study nuns but actually to see if temporarily becoming one could fix my life. People would shell out $25 to applaud my metaphors and swoon at my similes.
Upon publication, however, I found myself in a face-off with readers hungry for the same thing I'd been seeking back then: strategies for living. Audiences demanded to know my current spiritual practice. I was asked to comment on Buddhist policies and American politics. Worse, everyone expected me to be enlightened! After my initial shock, I stepped tentatively back into the sandals of my narrator, the 22-year-old overachiever who'd learned the importance of embracing the lessons learned from risk and failure, the girl who'd gone from never having meditated to sitting 72 hours straight, dumping fear and pain and anger on the forest floor. During readings I “performed” that girl, confidently dispensing hugs and advice. In order to make her more authentic, I started meditating again, at times so peaceful I forgot to obsess over my book's Amazon.com rating. “I'm not a Buddhist,” I marveled to friends, “but apparently I play one on tour!”
And after my initial disappointment that readers came not for metaphors but for answers, I realized what I was being offered. I was in the temple all over again—with no idea how to do what was being asked of me but determined to do it nonetheless. I started saying yes to every challenge. Could I get onstage with one of the most important figures in American Buddhism and lead a teaching for several hundred meditators? Could I give the dharma talk at a Zen temple for the price of a grilled cheese and a ride to the airport? Could I visit eight classrooms from the Bronx to Coney Island in a day and reach students facing abusive families, teen pregnancies, prison? Could I keep my cool when the greeter at the Unitarian church clapped her hands and crowed, “Everyone is really looking forward to your sermon“?
Well, in the last case, no. But as I huddled in the stall, I took my cue from Judaism, a religion of actions. "Go through the motions," I whispered, "and faith will surely follow." And when I stood before the Unitarians and told the truth about breaking down, running away, and eventually stumbling into the temple and choosing this scary, uncertain, impossible path called life, faith showed up. And chose life again.