A dear friend travels every chance she gets and her home is adorned with wonderfully evocative paintings, carvings, and sculptures inspired by different faiths. But she thinks she shouldn’t be drawn to such artwork. She appreciated its beauty when she practiced the religion of her childhood, now that she is an agnostic she is drawn to it even more. She wonders if her intense interest is strange.
I don’t think it’s strange at all.
We humans are wired to feel reverence. Many of us feel an extra current running through sacred art, music, dance, and ritual. We sense an inexpressible oneness through meditation, prayer, and communion with nature. Some understand it within a particular religion, some feel it across a spectrum. And some simply chalk it up to an overactive pineal gland. To me, reverence is part of who we are as a species. I am continually fascinated as I explore the way we express it across faiths, cultures, and time periods.
Sometimes I’m even paid to do so. A few years ago I wrote a weekly religion column for The Plain Dealer. Each piece included a description of a worship service and an interview with a member of that particular church, synagogue, mosque, temple, fellowship, or other gathering.
I used a decidedly unjournalistic tactic. As I participated in the service, I waited to fall in love with it. Maybe love isn’t the right word. Maybe fall in awe. Then I wrote about whatever twanged my heart.
I consider myself pretty grounded in my own beliefs. And I come equipped with a skepticism meter, the kind that lifts my eyebrows at televangelists promising salvation by donation and lifts them just as high at products like energy vortex water guaranteed to activate your chakras.
But the love approach worked for me. One week I’d be standing with a crowd of worshippers in a century-old church, so moved by a gospel choir that I could no longer think about the music but only feel it. The next week I’d be sitting crossed-legged in an ornate Hindu temple as ancient prayers were chanted, sensing the deep pull of wisdom carried across thousands of years.
A reverent approach made it easier to write the articles but rarely spared me from making bumbling mistakes. I thought I could take part in each service unobtrusively. Instead I managed to be glaringly obvious, sometimes offensive. I dressed conservatively for a Mormon temple only to attract quite a few quizzical looks. Only then did I notice that I was the only woman wearing a sweater and pants. Every other female over the age of two was wearing a skirt. I wore a skirt to the next assignment, a Coptic Orthodox church. As I sat absorbing the old world beauty of that sanctuary, a woman with hauntingly dark eyes looked at me pointedly and often. I tried to figure out what about my person was in violation. Headcovering, check. No visible cleavage, check. Then I realized that others had slipped off their shoes once they stepped into the pews, honoring the holy ground of their church. Only my blasphemous clogs remained on. My feet failed me again at a Hindu temple. I’d gotten there early and spent nearly three hours cross-legged on the floor. I noticed that other people sat very carefully but I couldn’t quite discern what rules they were using so I tucked my feet under my knees. After the first two hours my knees couldn’t take it and I stretched my legs out for a respite. I was later told that the soles of my feet were aimed at Lord Ganesha, a major slur.
I approach with reverence even if I often end up as the fool (falling well short of a holy fool). It doesn’t matter because I also found something I didn’t expect: a remarkable oneness across faiths. Every person I interviewed about religion expressed the sort of tolerance and open-hearted interest in other religions that, not long ago, would have been considered heretical. I also witnessed sharing of traditions and methods that may not have been overtly ecumenical but seemed to be a steady movement toward acknowledging the core of all faith. Love. In fact that’s what many people said to me. “It’s all about love.”
Someday I may do some traveling with my friend to see the world of faith through art, as she does. I expect to see beautiful expressions of reverence. I also expect to find love as the defining characteristic of all faiths.
The Love Religion
The inner space inside
that we call the heart
has become many different
living scenes and stories.
A pasture for sleek gazelles,
a monastery for Christian monks,
a temple with Shiva dancing,
a kaaba for pilgrimage.
The tablets of Moses are there,
the Qur’an, the Vedas,
the sutras, and the gospels.
Love is the religion in me.
Whichever way love’s camel goes,
that way becomes my faith,
the source of beauty, and a light
of sacredness over everything.Ibn Arabi Sufi philosopher (1165 –1240)