On days when things seem to be going more wrong than right, and the burdens seem heavier than usual, I surrender and turn to prayer. This has kept me sane, afloat, and hopeful all the years that I battled the raging storms within me and fought to survive one disaster after the other. Faith gives me strength, but prayer calms me in a way no human relationship or conversation ever can. Those of you reading this who share the same path will know all too well what I refer to.
Religion, spirituality, and faith are often interchanged indiscriminately, and this is a grave mistake. There are certain concepts that many people fail to distinguish from one another, and it isn’t just a matter of semantics or linguistics, they simply never learned or cared to learn the difference, because it wasn’t something they grew up with.
Religion refers to the institutions, structures, norms that govern lives. It centres around the organised community worship and ceremonies. For Islam it is the life in and around the mosque and the Koran. For Hinduism this is life around the mandirs, the holy books, the fasting days, dietary restrictions, and a host of other things. For Catholics, the religious life revolves around the church, mass, rosary, and the sacraments that mark each stage of a Catholic’s life e.g. baptism, confirmation, marriage, etc.
I grew up in a very religious family, wherein we never skipped mass on Sundays, always attended the Easter Triduum, and Christmas was never about the tree and the gifts, but the midnight mass. We prayed the Angelus every evening at 18:00 on the dot, and the rosary after dinner (my parents prayed the rosary twice a day). The nightly family rosary was always on bended knees in front of the crucifix or home altar which I eventually came to resent. I found absolutely no joy in this repetitive prayer and felt that it did nothing to deepen my faith or relationship with God.
Over the years, due to my close affiliation with the Jesuits both academically and spiritually, I became very critical about Catholicism and questioned the institution more and more. The exposure to other religions during my years in India and Thailand didn’t make me want to change religions or completely walk away from the Catholic Church, but instead, I found myself exploring each of the religions to deepen my own spirituality. The Buddhist meditation techniques, for example, were very similar to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius but more liberating. I loved the sense of community and service in Sikhism, and the absence of idolatry in Baha’i.
Spirituality, on the other hand, has nothing to do with an organised religion and everything to do with individual practice and deepening of faith. You don’t have to carry label of Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, etc. to be a spiritual person. You develop your faith simply by believing in a higher power, and don’t necessarily have to give I a name or theological branding. I refer to my higher power as God, and have regular conversations with Him (am far too Catholic and old school to be gender neutral here, and there are times I wish I could’ve switched over to Hinduism for this). I am not afraid to pray in a quiet corner the middle of a mall or on the banks of a river.
Religion dictates the rules of behaviour and belief, defines and to some extent controls how a community is to project itself and act in society. Duty is the alpha and omega of every religion, and this is carried into the core of family life. Why do we go to mass as a family every Sunday? Duty. Why do we have family gatherings at Christmas? Duty.
Spirituality is neither defined not confined by duty or a set of rules. It is as individual as it gets, and hence the most intimate relationship you will ever have. Whatever you think, feel, fear, rejoice in your heart, mind, and soul, it is between you and the spirit, the higher power that guides you. It is the essence of your faith that gives you a sense of purpose in life. Not duty, but purpose.
As I mentioned above, due to my strict and conservative religious upbringing, the rosary was mandatory in my life, but the resentment grew to such an extent that I came to see it as a set of chains, rather than a source of comfort. Once I left home and moved to another country, I stopped praying the rosary on my own, and began my private conversations with God and Mary on my own terms, which made so much more sense. Until two weeks ago.
I am going through a major upheaval in my life at the moment, a lot of changes happening simultaneously which are overwhelming at best. It’s not just the psychological effects of social distancing, but a general sadness and frustration. It was during one of the nights that I found myself alone with the cats and felt a desperate need to pray. I can’t explain it, but I got up and began searching for my rosary, only to remember that my favourite one is inside a sealed urn with my mother’s ashes! I hadn’t bothered to find a replacement after she died for the reasons explained above. Then I remembered my Jesuit mentor in Manila gave me box of rosaries one year to distribute among friends. They were all handmade by the victims of a typhoon in Davao, and the homeless villagers used the fallen trees to carve the beads. I dug deep into my drawers and found the last three remaining rosaries!
The peace and joy of reconciliation with my rosary was a very intimate moment, and it really won’t make sense to a lot of people, but the difference between then and now is that I returned on my terms. There is no sense of duty hovering over me, and the only thing guiding me is my faith.