Published May 27. 2014 4:00AM
Waterford — When Áine McCarthy was 14 and going through the confirmation process at Niantic Community Church, she remembers having doubts.
"I was unsure what it meant," McCarthy said of confirmation, a rite in which one affirms Christian belief and is admitted as a full member of the church.
As an infant, McCarthy had been baptized as a Roman Catholic, but after her parents went searching for a place of worship more focused on social justice, she said, the family ended up at Niantic Community, a federated congregation of the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ.
Despite her misgivings about confirmation, McCarthy said Niantic Community Church helped to influence and shape her life.
"I did have some doubts, but the church never worried about that. They always encouraged me," she said.
Now 26, McCarthy was recently ordained as a Buddhist lay minister at the Upaya Zen Center in Sante Fe, N.M., where she also works.
"The motto of Niantic Community is 'Each member a minister,' and as I grew up there, I felt my own capacity to serve cultivated and called forth as I was encouraged to participate, from a young age, in many different ministries within worship services: scripture reading, playing music, liturgical dance, leading and supporting ritual, and even speaking and preaching in my own words," said McCarthy. "I received more than a lifetime's worth of teachings and loving kindness from many different members of this spirited congregation, and the ministers who served over the years."
Growing up in Waterford and graduating from Waterford High School in 2006, McCarthy said she knew from an early age that ministry would likely be her life's work. She graduated with a degree in religious studies from Wesleyan University in Middletown in 2010, but even before that, she'd developed a curiosity about Buddhism after being introduced to the practice of mindfulness at a church-sponsored summer camp.
While most faiths include prayer and meditation, the concept of mindfulness - focusing all of one's attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgment - has roots in Buddhism. It was always a draw for McCarthy, who said it also requires consideration of the wisdom and ethics of a situation.
By the time she left Waterford High, she knew she was interested in going to a seminary, but she wasn't exactly sure when or where.
"I knew I was interested in chaplaincy or ministry, but I wasn't sure what form it would be. I wanted to explore, and I was curious about Buddhism," she said.
"There's an overlap with Christianity," she continued, explaining that a focus for both Buddhists and Christians is being a force of kindness.
As a Wesleyan student, McCarthy spent four months in her junior year studying in Bodhgaya, India, and living in a monastery there. Part of her experience included a 10-day, temporary ordination as a Buddhist nun, which she experienced with a group from Burma who were making a pilgrimage.
Although it lasted less than two weeks, McCarthy said the experience - shaving her head, giving up her wardrobe, music and dancing and eating only breakfast and lunch each day - "deromanticized" her view of monastic life.
But she still felt a call for a career that's atypical.
In 2011, she traveled to Italy and Spain and walked 480 miles along the pilgrimage route of El Camino de Santiago.
The journey, which she chronicled in a blog (www.pandapilgrims.tumblr.com) offered an opportunity for self-reflection and resulted in McCarthy's decision to enter the chaplaincy program at Upaya.
She likened the ancient pilgrimage route to a labyrinth - a structure of interconnecting passages often used for meditation and spiritual reflection.
By the time she finished her long walk, she'd made her decision.
"There's a Latin phrase," she said. "'Solvitur ambulando,' and it means 'It is solved by walking.'"
McCarthy spent two years studying at the Upaya Zen Center. As part of her training and continuing work, she volunteers with female prisoners at the Sante Fe County Jail. One of the things she's done there is help to create a labyrinth in the recreation yard.
The first labyrinth McCarthy ever walked was as part of her confirmation at Niantic Community Church. She said meditation mazes have been special to her ever since.
"Labyrinths are a common thread in my life," she said, explaining that soon after she proposed creating one at Wesleyan in honor of a classmate who was slain there, she learned another group already had one planned.
While McCarthy's ministering is not her full-time work yet, her goal is to one day be employed as a prison chaplain.
"I really just disagree with the way the prison system functions, and I see it as a racist institution," she said. "The more I learn about it, the more I can't turn away from it."
She's also planning to begin a series of workshops for youngsters in Sante Fe in June, focused on mindfulness.
Through meditation and mindfulness, McCarthy said she's better able to cope with today's world.
When a situation is troubling, she said, meditation is a tool to "receive it, handle it, feel sadness and face the reality of it. It's not disconnecting. It's a way of having some resiliency."
The oldest of three siblings, with a brother, Torren, and sister, Kiera, Áine is now home visiting her parents, Terrence McCarthy and Laureen Pierandi, and recently performed a vow renewal service for her maternal grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary.
Her extended family doesn't always understand her faith and religious practices, she said, but they wholeheartedly accept her and what she's doing.
"They are proud and supportive," she said.
And she will forever be grateful to the clergy at Niantic Community Church who helped to shape her life.
A week before she was set to go through the rite of confirmation, McCarthy said the now retired Rev. Robert Moore coached her through a crisis, letting her know that confirming her baptism as a Christian wouldn't bar her from seeking truth outside of the church.
"This open view of Christianity meant a lot to me then, and has made it so that I feel no need to leave the church of my parents; Christianity and Niantic Community Church are still a meaningful part of my life and the life of my family, and have been the fertile ground of my growth, providing me with strong roots," she said.