Mary-Allen Macneil and Jack Weisberg

Recorded February 26, 2020 Archived February 26, 2020 39:30 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: mby019697


Mary-Allen Macneil (75) talks with her friend Jack Weisberg (74) about her spiritual journey, being raised as a devout Catholic, coming to doubt her education and the search for spirituality that led her to Zen.

Subject Log / Time Code

MAM reflects on her communion at 6-years-old and her first memories of spirituality.
MAM recalls growing up in a small town in Southern California and being excluded because of her gender at church.
MAM recalls when in a history class in college she realized that her Catholic education had not exposed her to many of the things she could have learned, and why she left the Church in her 20s.
MAM talks about searching for her spirituality again her 30s.
MAM reflects on having satisfied her intellectual concerns in terms of spirituality and religious traditions, and wanting to find a way to be a non-ordained spiritual person.
MAM explains the difference between Tibetan Buddhism and Zen.
MAM describes her relationship with the idea of death and the ways she has engaged with it in her work and spirituality.
MAM reflects on the way her suffering gets transformed to connection, what she teaches in her classes, and what "ancient suffering" is.


  • Mary-Allen Macneil
  • Jack Weisberg

Recording Location



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00:07 I'm mary-allen MacNeil and I'm 75 years old. Today is Wednesday, February 26th, 2020 and we're in Fresno California and my interview partner is my dear friend Jack Weisberg.

00:26 My name is Jack Whitesburg. I am 74 years of age. Today's date is Wednesday, February 26th, 2020 at Fresno, California. The name of my interview partner Partners. My very dear friend. Mary-allen MacNeil and she's my friend.

00:46 So I'm privileged to be here to ask you some questions. Mary-allen. I'll look we probably talked about these days many times over the years but one of the things that I I remember saying to you and thinking a lot that I've known you for God probably 45-50 years now and you are the one you are the person that I think that has changed the most of anyone that I have known that I've seen such changes in the way in which you hold yourself in the way you hold your world and I always found that pretty pretty wonderful and I've always felt that I think I told you that in the past cuz I said that's really most people don't change that much overtime, but you have so part of what you know, and I think about that.

01:36 I think that you have you know, I've always been interested in the spiritual journey and you've taken different paths ways in that in that interest. So I told him I thought it would be interesting to go back to your earliest memories of when you can remember that you started having an interest in in in in a spiritual life, and however, you would Define spiritual life.

02:04 Well, I think my earliest really definitely memory about this is when I had my first communion and I was six years old and I remember it as if I remember saying to myself on that day, this is the happiest day of my life.

02:24 Of course by then, I had some catechism. I've been it's been explained to me the meaning of communion. I don't think I really understood it.

02:35 You know in any kind of theological way until much much later, but it was somehow something really important for me in my personal in my personal life at that time. Maybe it was because I got to admit I didn't have to stay back in the Pew while the grown-ups went and older kids went to communion now, I could join them and be part of that. So maybe it was something like that. So

03:05 Is there anything you remember about that experience that was more than just the ordinary experience of being with your 6 years old. You said my friends and you know, what kind of regular stuff that kids do at 6 was there anything about the experience that you felt was different than your ordinary six-year-old life. One of the things you said it stands out to me is such a big memory and it never ever left me and I always I always referred back to that and but I can I can tell you also that communion is it's actually a kind of essential experience cuz there is a very particular taste and texture of the of the communion host on your tongue.

03:54 And it's a it's not like anything else and it has a kind of a deliciousness that and it melts and it has a kind of deliciousness that is kind of Unforgettable. So, I mean just really nothing like that, you know, so it's it is interesting to me that something that is actually a profound spiritual event. A Sacrament is also actually about a physical body experience and there is some beauty or other Beauty around communion first communion, you know girls wear a long white dress and I had and we had a circle of of

04:39 Rosebud's in our hair and things like that but so is special there's a specialness about that event to so this different. It's not like going sitting in Frandor, you know playing outside or learning how to write in longhand or something is different to communal event with other friends are with your yeah. I was with my class the kids in my class. So yeah, it's something that you do traditionally when you're 7 years old because the Catholic Church discovered in the 19 century that they used to say if you get them by there 7 you have them for life. I was six I'm supposedly the ideas that you can distinguish good from you by then. You have the power of reason at at the age of 7 and reason is extremely important in Catholic theology.

05:39 Reason is considered the highest faculty of human being the ability to reason to intellect.

05:47 You know, I've always known you be such a very serious person about anything that you do and I would suspect that unit 6 you were probably a little more serious than your classmates is that there are no doubt about that, you know, you possess some notes, you know about 50 pages of notes for 4 Pages at the correction five pages actually single spaced a few things in there that I saw that I didn't know about. So I'm going to ask you if the things that they're just a couple of things but one thing to the question if we very religious child you said very but there was also an event that planted a seed of descent when I was about nine years old and I was very curious about that. Well, we lived in the in the country in Southern California and we went to a small Church in the in a little town close by Azusa and when I was about nine years old one time we were

06:46 I think it's probably around Easter time sometime when the church was very crowded and the priest came out from the Sacristy which is where the priest gets dressed and said the children can come up into the Sacristy and onto the Altar and that I was very excited about that. And so I you know, very happily went, you know, when out from the Pew down the aisle up to the into the into the Sacristy and so they were maybe about, you know, six or seven kids boys and girls in the in the Sacristy and the priest looked around and he said no girls

07:28 And I said you said children because even then I knew the category of children includes girls, right? So I was already a philosopher then but but you know, so he said no girls again and I was I was so hurt by that and I was terribly embarrassed also because I had to come out of the Sacristy and walk down the aisle where everybody could see me and I mean, I would like my heart was broken. It was absolutely broken and also and then there is a part of me that was absolutely enraged and I knew he was wrong.

08:06 I knew he was wrong and I knew even

08:11 You know, not just because he was kind of on a superficial level wrong that you know, he said children and you should have said boys if that's what he meant, but it was like, you know, there's no reason that girls should be excluded just doesn't make sense to me so is 9 and that was in the 50s. Were there any other we the only girl that has gone up there or I don't remember that but I don't I don't remember that cuz I mean, you know, I was you know, pretty self-centered and I took it very personally he looked at me. He looked at me and said no girls so

08:51 I think there was probably you know, another girl or two, but I'm not sure about that. I think from what I know that we'll get into it a little bit later that this is not this is a really primal thing absolutely in the Catholic church and then in your life, so one of the things maybe now's a good time to introduce the title to what we observe talked about this some just talked with little bit. How does a good a good thoughtful Catholic girl end up being a a Zen Buddhist priest and this or starts? Maybe this is a good time to introduce that because I think that's kind of the journey that they were going to, you know, traveling this very brief time we have to talk. So then the next thing that I thought we could talk about it is talk a little bit about how your education that you undertook weather from say starting High School. How did your education affect your spiritual Quest? This is missing.

09:51 Education so that that's certainly had an impact. I think on on how people of Our Generation dealt with spirituality for both good and help.

10:04 You know probably the next kind of Stand Out event for me was when I was a junior in college and I had transferred from a a Catholic College to a few know a secular private college and I was in history class and it was talking about the reformation and I have learned about the Reformation from the standpoint of the of the Catholic church so that the teacher was talking about the Reformation in a quite a different way and something that was socially and theologically very important and valuable and I raise my hand and I I gave the Catholic point of view and he said to me where did you go to high school? And I said I said the Catholic girls boarding school that I've been too and he said see me after class. Well, either thing is I was very embarrassed by that and then I also feel intellectually betrayed.

11:02 I felt intellectually betrayed by the by the conventional Catholic Education that I had and I felt that there was so much more to know that I had been wrongly not exposed to and I was angry so that was that was kind of, you know, the next order that was a serious intellectual blow and a sense of betrayal.

11:29 So

11:31 It in a question comes up why given what you've described which I think is very powerful when you're 9 years old. And then this thing I did I know you continue to be a really a very observant Catholic. How did you reconcile even at this early stage how to reconcile this? Well, this was at that point. I didn't I wouldn't reconcile it, but I didn't have the

11:58 Maturity, I guess to be able to free myself from the the enormous power of the church and its teachings because the because at that time the church taught that it was the one true faith and it was the only way to you know to go to heaven so that I mean I just I can conceive of something of anything else. So at some point I went and talked to a priest about it and he said just you know, just continue to go to the sacraments and don't worry about it. Now. I might think that that was pretty wise but then I felt like I can't continue to have these doubts and I can't continue to be sexually active it and things like that if if I and and continue to participate because I had learned a very black-and-white you have to you know, you have to be in a state.

12:58 Grace meaning you have to confess your sins and received Absolution before you could receive communion and I knew that I was I couldn't receive Absolution I cuz I didn't cuz I needed to continue to doubt and I needed to know and I would I couldn't and I knew that I would continue to be sexual and so it would it would have been to be hypocritical to continue to participate and so I innocence I jumped out of the of the church in my early twenties and it was very was quite frightening to me, but I was also rebellious as we all were in that in that time and there were plenty of other people doing the same thing. So,

13:41 You know, so there was kind of that was a those years in my twenties were kind of a in a way of a blank spot, but I always had a yearning to be you know to find some something and I still couldn't imagine anything other than being a Catholic but I couldn't be a Catholic. So I was in a kind of in a bind in those years. So it at some point you needed to let you know. I know that it's some point in your life changed. You got married yet children you completed your you're a formal education and it's some point did you return and become more active in the Catholic Church?

14:30 You know, there were there were some I started searching again in my 30s and part of it was because I

14:37 You know, my marriage was troubled and and as I say, I'd always had this year in and I did some reading I read a book by Lex Hixon that was about the mystical experience in in a variety of religious contexts so that you could have it in other religious context which was you know, unknown to me and I I looked around it a couple of other kinds of religious venues like the unitarians and I went you know with you two positive living for a while. I just didn't find quite the right thing. The other thing that do that made a lot of a big impression on me was the series by eventer views of Joseph Campbell the mythologist by by Bill Moyers in the in the

15:38 That was in later a little later in the 80s. So I guess early eighties and

15:46 Joseph Campbell says suggested, you know, he had this wonderfully wide view of an of an interest in all kinds of expression religious expression, but one of the things he said if you really looking for depth you should search for in your own tradition and that stayed with me even though I wasn't going back yet, but then in my late thirties when I got breast cancer, I realized I really needed something and so I decided to

16:21 Try again and see if if Catholicism, you know could offer anything to me and fortunately in Fresno there was a wonderful Pastor father Sergio Negra at the Newman Center, which is University student Catholic Center. He was both an intellectual and a great humanist and he accepted me as and then by then divorced female and allowed, you know,

16:51 Allowed me to serve communion to others roll called Eucharistic Minister that was incredibly meaningful to me and very and Vary healing from the you know, that the traumatic misogyny of my childhood also he was he was a great intellect and I was able to study with him study Theology and and also scripture with him at the set of all at the same time. I was taking other classes at Fresno State in in all different religions. So I was beginning to get an idea that I owe this what I've learned is just a vocabulary. It's just a vocabulary for something. What is that? What is this something that the vocabulary is trying to express and and can

17:51 I take what I've learned about other religions Hinduism Islam Judaism.

18:00 And send a little bit of Buddhism. Can I where can I apply that and what connection does it have to

18:09 The theological vocabulary of Christianity

18:13 So that was it's there started to be a bigger opening for investigation than I had ever really understood before but at the same time it allowed me to participate as a Catholic as one of my friends says as a devoutly dissenting Catholic, the other thing that happened was that a close friend of mine got was getting her master's degree at Santa Clara University Masters in spirituality, and she did her Masters project on on feminists feminine spirituality.

18:50 And invited seven women to participate with her in a series of an of Investigations of what that what that meant that was innocent in the 90s and that was very very valuable to me because it it kind of grounded my understanding and participation in my life as a woman in my life as a secular non ordained non celibate mother.

19:26 You know former wife.

19:30 Midwife you know all these things if it it helped me find my place as the person that I was within the within the tradition but in the end it wasn't enough it was good. It was very good. And as you know, we founded this the program called Lydia's house, which was is still going 26 years later for end in 02 investigation of feminine and feminist spirituality.

20:01 But I at some point I really needed to move on because I realize that I'm there was something that I was looking for. I had satisfied my intellectual doubts my intellectual worries. I guess you could say but I was I wanted I wanted to learn a way to live deeply spiritual life as an ordinary human being not as an ordained person but is it just is the person that I was and also I wanted to explore non-cognitive a non theological approach to the to the Divine and so I started looking for something that a friend of mine High School classmate of mine who had been a student of chogyam trungpa drunk by the Tibetan master said, oh you should go to this retreat with my friend Pema chodron.

20:53 Pema chodron and turns out to be a very famous Tibetan teacher, but I didn't know that at the time but I just said okay and I went to it and in the Bay Area.

21:06 My early 50s and I was I was really struck by not only the quietude of meditation but also have a down-to-earth. She was you know, there wasn't anything special about her as a person. She was just a real person and she talked about real things that it did a normal person encounters it just the emotional and existential challenges of being a human being and so I thought this is something I need to find out about

21:40 And so I looked for a meditation teacher in in our area and they really I didn't find one until I finally found my

21:56 You know route zen teacher in North Fork of all places and I I I used to kind of joke and say God made it easy for me by only giving me one choice, so

22:11 So I started meditating with her and that was in about 1998 wasn't Tibetan Buddhism is not difference in Sandwich eventually became involved in its it's very different all expressions of Buddhism are very culturally bound. And so the off that's why they looked so different and that's why his then looks so different from Tibetan Buddhism in Tibetan Buddhism is much more, you know a joke, you know in joke is about Catholics like Tibetan Buddhism and Jews like or Protestants like Zen because Tibetan Buddhism has it has a lot of ritual and it's it's very beautiful and very compelling and kind of kind of sensually and then as can be very can seem very us.

23:11 But at the root. They are the same route, which is the the the practice of meditation and the teachings of the Buddha and the practice.

23:29 Of bringing the mind of meditation to everything that you do.

23:34 Oh, so it's just the luck of the draw that you went into zen vs. Tibetan.

23:39 I guess it was I guess so or maybe not I mean maybe it's you know, you know, that's a tough word. Cuz a lot of people don't understand it. But you know, I think one time you asked me what was it that kept you seeking and I've always felt that it's like there's a spark in me and if I just follow that and and it's in an intuitive following and that you can't

24:08 There's kind of like a sense of recognition of this is what I should do next. So it was like that. Oh, it was just like, okay. This is it. This is what I'm supposed to be doing. And I mean, I can't say why that is but I can I do I have seen that in other people to is is there's something that carries you and

24:34 It's unfailing. So, you know, it seems strange doesn't it was mysterious, but it's very real for me.

24:44 Bosch I think come one thing we all miss and there are certain life is a mystery that kind of deep mystery. I mean I do think for what I know of the more formal ancient religions like Catholicism, there's there's a mystery I mean really the blood in the body really know that's that's pretty that that's magical. I know that's really magical no one talks like that and it certainly I don't you know, it seems like there's and from what I've learned I learned from you as well as others is very intellectual right and no not really. I mean the thing as its intellectual because when you read about it, that's what it seems like it when you practice it's anything but

25:34 I used to say, you know that the thing about the Catholicism that I still cherish is the the notion of Sacrament. When when the God's prayer God is immediately present in the form of Grace. So there's still the the God and the human person are unified in that moment of Sacrament. But so I used to say that you know that the cast of Catholicism is all about Grace and then is all Grace all the time because there's no separation ever in anything. So in fact, our human life is the Divine Life, I mean there is not there's no difference. So so so are our our task as a human people who is to become fully human and to explore with that really is and it's in it's in doing that we that we actually realize

26:33 You know what the

26:35 What does

26:38 What Grace really is and what the Divine really is? And it's raining in San San ongoing investigation. It's not like kind of like you get it and I'll get to plateau and then you're groovy meaning for the rest of your life and it's continuous because as circumstance can Kansas continue to develop and you

27:04 You continue to meet them?

27:08 Within an increasingly hole and open heart and that's not intellectual at all. That's

27:19 Very immediate. It's a really kind of presents. It is a presence and

27:27 If you can describe it and that's what makes it sound in electoral but it's but it's the description as they say it's like describing ice cream, but you don't know what

27:38 Ice cream really is until you taste it. But you know, one of the things in the recent will know relatively recently, you've given gauge a new form practice where you begin to do work in the study of death and dying and it done seminars now on on being with people around that issue and maybe how did you come to that as an evolution from from your work? Well, of course, everything is personal Indian, right? So, I mean I started out with my own fear of death, which I encountered when I was quite young, you know, when I was in my thirties and forties with having breast cancer.

28:21 And so I mean I was

28:25 Really terrified of deaths and but after my father died in 2004, and I've been I've been meditating for about six years by that time and I found that I was much more enabled to be present to him and in the process of his dying then I was for my mother who died when I was 26, and I was absolutely helpless and Clueless.

28:56 I think there's no doubt about that. I that I had I felt, you know a certain sense of a sort of call to be.

29:07 To turn towards death rather than to turn away from it because for one things then is is all about turning towards that which is most difficult in life. The things that are most frightening.

29:20 Internally and the things that are that are frightening externally, so I had begun to do that, you know do to

29:30 Have the ability to

29:33 To do that and I

29:36 Formed an intention to not shy away from my from my father's dying and having done that it was

29:52 Strangely and

29:55 You know, I'm sort of ironic lyrics uplifting to have done that and to see him dead and to see the smile on his face from the moment of his death and no I didn't see him take his last breath right afterwards. And so am I immediately knew I need to be involved with this. I need to find out about this. And so I soon as I retired in 2007. I

30:27 I took training as a as a volunteer in hospice. And then when I was ordained in 2008, then I became a hospice volunteer Hospice chaplain.

30:40 As I wanted to get next to it. I wanted to get next to the people that were experiencing it and see.

30:50 What it was like, what did you say?

30:54 Well for one thing.

30:57 It cuts through dying cuts through all of the bullshit about pretense of being somebody and it just

31:10 All of that falls away and and you can people just are real and really confronting, you know of what they most fear. And so

31:22 I didn't the role of chaplain allows you to get very close to people very fast. And that's what I'm really most interested in in. Anyways people. I'm really interested in who they are. And what makes them tick and I guess I always have been but increasingly so and if there's something that I can offer them

31:44 That in some way is

31:48 Meetings are fear consoling them or accompanying them.

31:53 Because maybe I want that for myself. I want to be able to offer it to other people.

32:01 So it comes out really my my desire to be with other people is because I've identified my longing not to be alone in that process myself.

32:16 So that's also a fundamental sort of secret about Buddhist practice. Is that knowing your own deep suffering actually is the moment of the rising of compassion in that compassion is boundless and extends to everyone so it must be when you had breast cancer.

32:42 Dallas sometime the time ago where that was more fatal than it is now probably when you had to face that that possibility will you be very alone in that it is that is that affected what you're doing now that what your experience was back back with you had to interrupt I think so I think so. I mean I have so much to say about this, but but but again, I guess I want to I want to stress that

33:14 Cruising I gained an ability to be present to the kind of existential suffering that I that I had throughout my life being alone not knowing what to do not having a trustworthy guidance and butt and finding the presents the kind of presence of the awakened mind to my own suffering and being able to sit with that.

33:47 I I also began to understand the suffering of it other people and to be able to just be quiet and present.

33:56 To that end in other people and that is the transformative quality of Buddhist practice. Is that suffering can be transformed into connection?

34:13 So is that like what you bring to your classes offered that opportunity to other people to cultivate in themselves? And that's what I teach my my zen students and I cuz I I combined spiritual Direction with Zen teaching and teach them help them accompany them make it safe for them to explore their own deep suffering and two.

34:47 I'm have the ability to calmly abide with it.

34:53 And then to act

34:56 In from that

34:59 Perspective of, biting to choose a course of wise action

35:05 So, you know, do you know kind of make it very short basic Buddhist teaching his face face your suffering and act ethically.

35:20 And so

35:24 Just keep going and be of benefit to others.

35:27 Open heart.

35:35 Set anything else you want to ask me. Jack will actually fit we have since we have five minutes, you know, there was something that I saw I hear that I did that was curious about.

35:56 Can't there's there's one thing that struck me in the material that you gave me till to look through in. That was some.

36:05 I I have a very full life and I love it. It's kind of miracle. I think that I have found a way of transformation of my own suffering and offering that way to others by having friends by being present to their suffering.

36:21 And I couldn't have done that had I not face my own deep suffering my ancient suffering and my ongoing suffering.

36:30 It's a little bit what you talked about, but the thing that struck me when I read this is ancient suffering cuz that's a little bit in a deep suffering historical historical event. I guy and just you know, that's ancient suffering. What what's that? You know, there's this notion of beginningless karma. So, you know now with modern psychology we kind of meat have some ideas about childhood experiences that are there wounding and you know,

37:03 Cuz neuroses and so forth and when I look back at my mother and my mother's you know, Behavior towards me and the things that were problematic for me. Ultimately I have I have to think about her upbringing also and the difficulties that she had her father was a suicide when she was six and then so what happened in his upbringing and what happened to my grandmother's upbringing so there's this is kind of beginning less quality to that. That's it just you know, and it's so it's nobody's fault in a way and but now I know about it, so I have the opportunity to you know to be to find a way to be with that that's suffering that kind of karmic suffering in a way that maybe I don't have to pass it on as much as

37:54 Has been in the past and that goes for every kind of, you know, kind of behavior cuz they're all these little karmic threads for every single thing that happens and everything that we do so

38:06 Yeah.

38:10 Well, I think ancient suffering. Well, I thank you for sharing that that is as you know from my own history. That's a Bryant.

38:18 So I just want to ask you a question. How does it feel to be to have this conversation as a Jewish atheist? And I went to a Catholic Buddhist.

38:31 I think I'm I'm just feel privileged to be here.

38:35 Cascada just so much to to learn this how much did know about you know, I know a lot about you but this is really really beautiful. I really feel very privileged.

38:47 To be here to experience this with you. I feel privileged that you would be here with me talking about this check cuz our friendship is so long-standing and so valuable to me deep. Yeah.

39:03 I love you. Love you.