I’ve been learning a lot about religion lately. I’ve been pondering questions and ideas and philosophies about what to believe and how to live my life. I was raised a Catholic and my father is Greek Orthodox. I married a Muslim. I spent a week in a Buddhist centre in the Scottish Highlands. I’m currently preparing to give a lecture on Hinduism in my meditation class. And this week, I’ll be learning about Judaism from a couple of other students.
Faith is something that gives people hope and direction. It enables them to look to the bigger picture when crawling through dark and difficult times. It offers them comfort when they face illness and death, be it of a loved one or of themselves.
Nowadays, many people have moved away from religion and towards what they call spirituality. Spirituality is a belief in the spirit or the soul. New Agers talk about energy and chakras, synchronicity and meditation. Without a specific religion to practise, it is important for spiritual people to have a discipline and a network of people with a similar mindset to their own. But what a spiritual person does is not so dissimilar from what a religious person does. Prayer is a form of meditation, after all. A way to connect with God or nature or the oneness of the Universe.
I’m constantly searching and questioning and wondering. Some people might accuse me of being lost or easily led or of turning my back on the religion I was baptised into. I disagree. I find other cultures and their beliefs fascinating. I love to learn new things, to consider different ideas, and to understand where everybody is coming from. I think there is value and beauty in all faiths. We are, every one of us, a human being, whether we wear a burqa or drink the blood of Christ or circumcise our children.
In my early twenties, I read the Quran, completed Ramadan twice, and spent a month in Morocco, where I spoke to many Muslim men and women, attended a Mosque, witnessed the slaughtering of lambs for the festival of Eid al-Adha, and even wore a headscarf. It appealed to me that the focus of Muslim life points far away from that of body image, which many Westerners obsess about. However, that reason alone is not reason enough to dive into a religion.
Hinduism teaches about karma and reincarnation. This religion is about overcoming maya, the delusion of separateness; and accepting that this world, which we believe to be reality, is in fact an illusion. Every time we suffer or feel depressed or alone, every time we have a problem with money or with a co-worker, we must realise that this is all a dream, a test. Nothing is as important as it seems. What a relief.
Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism. Buddhists don’t believe in a God and they don’t worship a particular prophet. They believe that God is everywhere. God is within all of us. They don’t believe in souls either. They believe in energy and, when we die, our vibration simply joins the vibration of the Universe. The end goal of a Buddhist is to achieve enlightenment, which like Hinduism, is to lift the veil of maya, and become one with the world. I also welcome this concept of feeling at one with everyone and everything. When I have a negative thought about someone, I should just remind myself that I am them and they are me. Not so easy to get the head around that one.
Last weekend, I paid a visit to Glenstal Abbey, a beautiful Benedictine monastery in Limerick. I participated in a Chant Day, attended mass and Vespers in the evening. I even had an interesting chat with a lovely priest. I put my questions to him about different religions and spirituality and the idea that God is a part of us all. He answered in a non-judgemental fashion and presented me with quotes from The Bible.
He told me the story of the thief who was nailed to a cross beside Jesus Christ. He turned to Jesus and said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The priest elaborated: “This man had sinned all his life but, at the last minute, he asked to be pardoned. Don’t forget to ask.” This reflects the New Agers’ thinking on the power of intention and of “putting it out there to the Universe”. If you don’t ask, you won’t receive.
The priest also told me about the importance of gratitude. And of helping others. And of positivity. And when I spoke about us all being part of the same family, he answered: “You are not just one piece of the whole, you are irreplaceable. God loves you very much.” Always nice to hear.
The following morning, as I waited for the gift shop to open, I decided to attend 10 am mass. The ceremony was beautiful. I felt like I was at the theatre. The monks gave readings and chanted and sang to the tunes pounded out on the organ. They bowed and swung smoking incense in every direction and held the priest’s robes as they moved across the altar. I felt happy to be able to participate in this celebration of faith and togetherness.
I don’t have any more answers now than when I started writing this blog post. In fact, I probably have more questions. But I’m curious and open-minded and full of faith. Faith in God. In love. And in the bigger picture. Faith is “belief that is not based on proof” (dictionary.reference.com). I don’t have proof. But I know that I believe in something higher, something more important, something more real than this body, this pain, this life. I also believe that we can learn so much from all traditions. My eyes and ears are open. And, more importantly, so is my heart.