The good news

Dearest readers,

I have some exciting news. A version of the journey I’ve been sharing on this blog will be coming out in book form! I’ve just recently signed a contract with Columbia University Press. I could not be more humbled and grateful that the publisher is willing to take a chance on a first-time book author like me.

I don’t know the timing of publication, but I will post updates here. In the meantime, I would like to express my deepest, most deep heartfelt thanks to everyone who has read and participated in this strange and beautiful experience. To all those who have shared, nudged, and been present as this blog unfolded: I am indebted beyond words.

If you are inclined, I would love to learn more about you. Even if you’ve been commenting along the way, it would be nice to have your responses to some or all of the questions below. If you prefer sharing your thoughts privately, please send them to me via email at Nicolaouc@gmail.com.

Questions for you:

If you were to fill out a religious affiliation survey today, what affiliation would you choose and why? Has this affiliation changed?

Do you attend any type of religious services? If so, what and how regularly?

Do you have any thoughts about the future of religious affiliation that you’d like to share? What do you think the religious landscape of our cities and communities will look like in 50 years?

 

A giant, heartfelt thank you to all!

Corinna

To call on all

To commit to no one faith, but call on all: what would this look like on day-to-day practical terms?

With no official place of worship to call home, my spiritual practices will be mostly self-guided. I can dedicate time each day to meditation and prayer, even if just a few minutes here and there. I will try to utter words of thanks more often, especially first thing in the morning and before eating. This should be easier to remember when I witness something unique like a rainbow or if I travel someplace new or see something I’ve never seen before.

Annual holidays can provide some structure to my ad-hoc multi-faith endeavors. I can imagine participating—in my own way—in the Jewish high holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. When the days shorten and the weather gets chilly, I’ll know to review the previous year. I’ll conduct an honest accounting of my behavior, my relationships, how I opted to spend my time. I will make amends, challenge myself to do better, and then release the guilt.

As winter trudges forth, I can take some extra time to think about Jesus. I want to remember his example, the care he showed others, the unconditional love he demonstrated. When the days get short, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me to reflect on his death. Such reflections are likely to put me in a somber frame of mind as they will bring up thoughts of my own mortality, but I can look forward to the hopefulness of Easter. This, combined with the triumph of Passover, should rescue me from despair. In the end, life and freedom prevail.

I don’t believe I’ll ever live through another Ramadan without being transported back to my own experience. As I write today, it is several days into the next year’s Ramadan and even though I am not officially fasting, I can feel the loneliness of my remembered hunger and thirst so acutely it brings tears to my eyes. I can’t help but think of everyone around the world abstaining during daylight hours—so much so that it’s as if I am participating on some level, emotionally if not physically. I feel solidarity with the intent of the fast and with the people for whom going without is not a choice, an affinity that I hope will expand when my multi-faith calendar swings back around to Eid Al-Adha. From now on, when I see this date on my At-A-Glance planner, I’ll think about that day at the Dallas convention center and remember that the world’s most populous belief systems share common roots, bound to one another in our collective imagination.

But for how long can I practice my solo patchwork religion before my devotion begins to ebb and the finer points fade from memory? Maybe I’ll have a good reason to allow my faith to flag, like my schedule gets super busy. With no community, no accountability, I can see that a day may arrive when I fail to take the time. The connections I’ve fostered with my religious endeavors are far-reaching, but they are theoretical. I don’t have to come face-to-face with another living soul to practice my faith. Wouldn’t some actual companionship on this path do me some good, especially as I get older? Some Nones have committed to a place of worship, perhaps even attend regularly, but continue to pledge no allegiance to a particular religion. These Nones appear to have found a balance that doesn’t force loyalties but meets practical needs.

A friend asked recently what I thought my future held, faithfully speaking. I joked that I could continue to make the rounds to various places of worship, A-to-Z, over and over again, circling back so many times that people begin to recognize me, perhaps even welcome me—not as a potential convert, but for the None I choose to be. It’s a daydream that makes me happy. By showing up at the doorsteps of the different houses of worship, hat in hand, I draw the boundaries of my spiritual identity ever larger; it’s not just a single dwelling, but an entire town, a community both more real and bigger than I ever could have hoped. Perhaps some congregations would come to appreciate me as a little tie that helps connect them to a grander network of worshippers. But how realistic is this vision, really? Could it possibly provide the intimate connections and structure I’ll crave, especially as I age? As I tip toe into my golden years, and all the existential issues become more pressing, will my slap-dash independence continue to accommodate me? If not, what then?

Hour of None

Early Christians had a custom of dividing up the day into four blocks of about three hours, each with its own mood and prayers to say. It was actually a practice that historians say was adopted from Judaism as a way to structure and honor the passage of time. I was surprised to see the third portion of the day referred to as the “Hour of None.”

The None in this instance was derived from the word “nine,” referring to the ninth hour of the day, which generally fell at about three in the afternoon and led into evening. But what I found most interesting was how this particular chunk of time was characterized. It was considered the portion of the day when businesses closed for the night and people returned home to bathe and eat. It offered both a break from work and a transition before the last prayers; it played the role of sort of spiritual exhalation. I wondered about the synchronicity of the names—if, culturally speaking, we aren’t in our own “Hour of None.” Perhaps we’ve entered something of a pause, a retreat from the normal course of things, an opportunity to reflect and prepare for what comes next.

If we have arrived at such a time, this “time off,” then I have the opportunity to consider what to bundle up and smuggle with me into whatever phase awaits. From Judaism I’ll take monotheism, which I’ve come to appreciate as the birthplace of the radical notion that all beings on this planet—human and otherwise—originate from the same source and are, therefore, intrinsically connected. I want to remember the intent of Sabbath—a designated time to surrender productivity and allow myself to relish the freedom of simply being. I must not forget to take a moment or two each day to focus my thoughts once again on how miraculous it is to be alive, perhaps letting a simple but amazing sight—a cloud formation or a fragrant bloom or a loved one’s smile—trigger the thought. I would like to keep the Jewish custom of keeping the word “dayenu” on the tip of my tongue, letting it tumble out in those moments when I am suddenly overwhelmed with appreciation or, perhaps more importantly, urging myself to say it when I feel slighted or cheated or preoccupied with someone who appears to have it better. Dayenu! I have everything I need—more than enough. I only need tap a deep well of gratitude.

I refuse to go forward without the story of Jesus tucked close to my heart. Here was a free-thinking rebel of his day who broke with tradition so he could best demonstrate his love and care for others. He lives on as a powerful example: all that is noble and good can exist in a person, the divine can be embodied, we are capable of greater heights of love—for ourselves and others. I can’t not think of the way he died, how exposed he was on that cross; how he literally shared his death with the world, demonstrating that strength is possible even in our most vulnerable moments—maybe especially at those times. Even in my darkest hours, I can rest assured that I am loved because I am not exempt from that most personal message Jesus sent to every single person: I love you. But I must strive with all my might to complete the assignment he left humanity. He was quite clear that we are to experience joy and to love others, two things that one might assume are easy but are perhaps the greatest challenges any of us face.

From Buddhism, I’ll borrow the daily practice of sensing “the oneness” to which monotheism points. It shows me how to go beyond recognizing my interconnectedness as an intellectual concept to feeling the truth of it with every fiber of my being. I want to occupy that space of knowing for as often and long as possible, and when I forget I want to find my way back, because great comfort is found there. I can cultivate this sense of wellbeing and then I can turn around and share it, projecting it out into the world where it will manifest in ways too mysterious for my mind to comprehend.

If Buddhism helps me nurture a sense of belonging by focusing inward, then Islam encourages me to fix my gaze outward and translate this unity into a sense of duty. It urges me to assume a position—on knees, forehead to the ground—conducive to embracing my own vulnerability so that I am better able to empathize with people in need. Ultimately, it would have me transform empathy into action, finding concrete ways to help society’s weakest members. Then, as further challenge, it nudges me to expand the collective to which I identify. It wants me to push beyond the obvious affinities such as nationality, race, socio-economic status, gender, or religious affiliation to ever-widening circles of humanity. Perhaps, at last, I can arrive to place where I feel beholden to every living creature and the earth itself.

What am I?

After my trip to D.C., I was officially finished with my religious explorations. From the initial visit to the Catholic monastery on an island off Washington State to jummah prayers at the Pentagon Chapel, it had taken roughly four years. I had sung, chanted, meditated, and prostrated along with thousands of others. At times, I had felt painfully nervous or confused or left out. Other moments brought unexpected calm, clarity, and connection. I had interacted with people whose lives were utterly unlike my own. I had formed genuine bonds with a few. I was different from the young woman who had started this endeavor—and not just because I crossed the threshold of age 40 while chipping away at it.

I had put in all this information and now it was my soul’s turn to do its mysterious calculations and spit out an answer. Shouldn’t it work like that? What was I?

My spiritual house had been spiraling around in this strange cyclone for years. Now, presumably, the winds were dying down and it was time for it to land…but where? I kept asking myself: what do you believe? As I was cooking dinner or walking the dogs or waking up first thing in the morning: what do you believe? Then I would take another approach. Just pick one, I would tell myself. Perhaps it wasn’t important what I selected. The goal was to settle in one spot, grow roots, develop, and evolve. I just had to commit to something.

The problem, as I began to see it, was that in selecting one version of one belief system, I was rejecting all the others—or at least that’s how it felt. In my imagination, I would make my choice. I would picture signing some official declaration of faith. Trumpets would sound. I now had license to declare myself a practicing such-and-such. But this scenario always made my stomach turn. My mind would wander to the options I wasn’t picking and I would feel queasy at those potential paths I had refused.

On some fundamental level settling down felt wrong. It occurred to me that perhaps my problem was emblematic of the criticisms regularly hurled at today’s younger generations. Our disengagement is a sign of some critical flaw manifesting in humankind. An aversion to hard work leaves us craving quick fixes. We want all the answers in our palm for no more effort than the light touch of an index finger.  We don’t have the patience for deep thinking. We’re too blasé and easily bored to struggle—especially with the intangible. I weighed these as possible causes of my indecision, but none seemed an appropriate explanation. In fact, it felt like the opposite. I suspected the problem might be too much interest, too much caring.

Nor was my reluctance to pick tied to a newly-discovered distaste for religion. On the contrary, I had found pockets of profound insight tucked within each faith. How was I to choose? In becoming a Christian, I could not be a Jew. In Judaism, I was not Muslim. In being Muslim, I gave up Buddhism. I had reached this strange crossroads where not picking among the religions felt like the best way to honor the religions. My not choosing wasn’t coming from a place of denial but, rather, a place of acceptance. And, if I chose no affiliation, wasn’t I also—in a funny way—opting for all of them? It made me think of the symbol of the open circle, so important in mystical traditions like Kabbalah. Represented in everyday parlance as a zero, it implies absence—but, at the same time, it is also suggests receptivity.

The Pentagon Chapel

One of the Pentagon Chaplain’s deputies (my second escort of the day) came in and said it was time for both of us to head to the chapel. On our way across the hall, the Chaplain explained that we were joining a group of European visitors. These were government administrators from various countries who were attending a conference in D.C.; they had signed up for a visit to the Pentagon Chapel. Some of them were Muslim, so the official in charge of Islamic services would be joining to conduct a little question-and-answer session, which would lead directly into Jummah prayers for those who wished to stay.

At long last, and in fewer than 10 steps, I was standing inside the chapel. In some ways, it was an exceptionally ordinary space. The size of perhaps three private offices combined and opened into one big area, it retained elements true to its original use like industrial-looking carpet and a drop ceiling covered in generic-grade tiles. Five stained glass panels offered the only obvious sign of the room’s function. All of them had images that spoke to me of patriotism and strength: eagles, American flags, sun beams, stars. Four served in place of windows, but the fifth was at the front above where an altar might go. The only one with words, it read: United in Memory September 11, 2001.

I joined the 15 or so individuals already seated. The Chaplain and Muslim leader greeted each other jovially and then teamed up to answer questions about the chapel’s construction and uses; I studied the room. All the furniture was moveable to accommodate different needs. The Chaplain and I had entered from the hall, but I noticed a more formal entrance at the back, where a glass door led to something like a foyer and, beyond that, doors to the outside. This must provide easy access for guests invited to the chapel for special functions such as weddings or memorials; during certain hours, it also allowed visitors who just wanted to see the chapel to have a peek.

I looked at those words: United in Memory. I thought about the oft-used motto, “United We Stand.” The unity to which these phrases refer suddenly struck me as so narrow. They implied unity against an enemy such as another country or group of people. The common denominator among every religion I had explored was this: the mindset of an all-encompassing unity, all of creation connected. I wondered if humans were capable of forming much broader alliances—uniting, perhaps, against truly universal enemies such as poverty, hunger, illness, greed, hate, and shame.

After the question-and-answer session, it was time for Jummah. The Muslim leader invited me to participate. Within a few minutes, the chairs at the front of the room had been moved and carpets spread on the ground. The chapel was transformed into a little mosque. I fetched my headscarf from my bag. A couple of the men from the European contingent stayed, and more people joined. Most were middle-aged, middle-management types, but some stood out: a young guy in fatigues, an older man whose blue bib suggested cafeteria work, a young woman in hijab. The orientation had shifted: not only were we on the floor but we were no longer looking toward the front of the room. The other woman and I had our backs against the outer wall of stained-glass panels. The men were only a few feet in front of us. We were all facing the interior of the building.

For months I had imagined doing Jummah prayers here; now I was doing them. It was a dream come true. I thought about what a long and demanding road this project to explore religion had been. I thought how religion should help heal and unite but, often, is used to hurt and destroy. I thought about the individuals who had died here. I thought about people all around the world killed because of war. As I bent to place my forehead on the floor, my tears dropped on the carpet. I let them fall because it seemed appropriate to leave some tears here.

At the end, everyone was invited to say a few words to the group. When it was my time to speak, I thanked them for allowing me, a non-Muslim, to join today. “I lived in D.C. at the time of 9/11,” I told them. “Being here today felt….” A sob caught in my throat and I didn’t think I could finish. Quickly, I managed, “…really good. Thank you.”

As we stood to leave, the old man in the blue worker’s bib approached me. I thought he might say something. I recognized the look in his eyes: a mixture of sadness and joy that needs no translation. He raised his hand and, without a word, I knew what was being asked. He wanted connection, but was unsure how. I looked at the floor, giving him access to the top of head. He pressed his open palm to my crown. I suppose what he offered was a blessing or healing of sorts; a gesture of love and gratitude, equally. Unspoken, it said everything.

The Chaplain

Back at the Office of the Chaplain, as I waited, I was still thinking about what the priest had said. It struck me as radical: the idea that faith leaders would cater to the spiritual needs of people regardless of religious affiliation. Chaplains in the military are working with young people whose job description includes not just an ability to kill, but a willingness to die. In the task of war, the differences that exist within the group become secondary to the goal of defeating a common enemy. These factors create an atmosphere in which inter-faith cooperation seems to thrive—but it’s unity forged in the context of a greater disunity.

The Pentagon Chaplain announced that he was free to meet. I sat opposite him in his office. Out in the waiting area, his mood had seemed jovial and light. Now a storm cloud had rolled in. Even his posture looked to be curving in as if he were a kid about to be punished. He appeared unhappy enough that I considered telling him we didn’t have to do this. I hadn’t expected a private conversation. I was still amazed I made it through the front door. I had gotten so much, now all I really wanted was to see the chapel.

Neither of us spoke for a moment and then he apologized. He explained that writers made him nervous. Since the chapel’s official dedication, journalists had come in to do stories that, when printed, never failed to generate a firestorm of criticism. Always, representatives from the general public were outraged that Muslims were allowed to worship in that space. Or someone else was fuming because their particular  denomination didn’t appear to have its own seat at the table. Or another person thought the entire endeavor was a joke and a travesty.

I tried to assure him that I wasn’t THAT kind of writer. I wasn’t a reporter, and the story I was working on wasn’t exactly journalism—it was personal, more like memoir. At the very least, whatever I was writing was unlikely to appear online in some national news publication with an open-access comments section. I told him I sympathized: those comments can be brutal.

He said part of the problem was that people didn’t understand the logistics of how faith groups came to worship in the chapel. It wasn’t determined by him—or any other Pentagon official, for that matter. The groups are formed by Pentagon employees, and not just military personnel. Anyone who works in the building is eligible: secretaries, cashiers, janitors. Islamic prayers are held in the chapel not for the purpose of making a political or social statement, whatever it might be, but because the Pentagon has Muslim employees who have the same rights as every other employee. Groups that hold weekly prayer services also include Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Episcopal, Hindu, and Jewish. And those are just the ones that gather in the chapel. Other faith groups meet throughout the building. To be given permission to form, the members must agree to certain ground rules. They cannot speak ill of any other faith or faith group, even in private. They sign a contract agreeing to this. Once a year, all the groups are asked to come together to participate in a multi-faith service.

The Chaplain’s demeanor had changed completely—he was back to being relaxed and friendly. He seemed to be thinking out loud: yes, the problem was also one of perception. The chapel had been designed as a space to serve Pentagon employees and, technically, that’s how it operated but this did not account for its symbolic function. The violent events that took place to create the chapel had been a very traumatizing, public experience. The plane crashed into the building at that exact spot. For this reason, people have a sense that the space itself, and all that takes place within it, belongs to everyone.

All Saints

Inside the Pentagon, we finally arrived at the Office of the Chaplain directly across the hall from the Pentagon Chapel. My escort introduced me to the head chaplain, a friendly Protestant minister, whose job is to oversee the spiritual needs of Pentagon employees. Each branch of the military also has a head chaplain who leads a squadron of chaplains that provide spiritual guidance to troops in the field. One of the deputies from the Chaplain’s office agreed to take charge of me, so my original escort handed responsibility for me over and said he’d come back later. I thanked him and bade him farewell.

My new escort asked if I was ready. I didn’t know for what—but I said I was. We set off again, walking briskly up and down more hallways. As we went, he explained that today’s Catholic service would be especially large and would take place in an auditorium, not the chapel. I tried to hide my disappointment. I thought wouldn’t that be something to have made it this far and fail to even lay eyes on the Pentagon Chapel.

By the time we got to the auditorium, almost every seat was filled. The Pentagon is said to have roughly 30,000 employees; several hundred had come to honor the individuals throughout history who, according to the Catholic Church, represent the highest embodiment of the Christian faith. The front of the room was transformed into a make-shift altar: a priest in robes, candles, a table set with a chalice. This space was not really a church and the people present weren’t congregants in the traditional sense—presumably they were tithe-paying members elsewhere—yet it was as authentic a place of worship as any I had visited. I marveled at the distance I had come that elements of the ceremony could feel familiar to me: calls and responses, readings from the Bible, communion. I remember agonizing in the beginning over whether to partake in the sacrament. Today, I didn’t hesitate. I believed I could approach it with the understanding and intention it deserved. I had earned my stripes.

The service concluded and my escort introduced me to the priest. A fresh haircut made him look as bare as a new recruit. He agreed to speak with me and my escort gave him the job of returning me to the office; I was a baton in a chaplain relay.

We sat in the now-empty auditorium and he told me about his years ministering on the front lines in the Middle East. He explained that “ministering” in the military was not necessarily what it sounded like. His job wasn’t to preach his beliefs to soldiers, but to support their spiritual needs regardless of their religious identifications. Within every large group of soldiers, a spectrum of affiliations might be represented including Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Atheists—not to mention the variations within those categories. Given certain constraints—particularly those in war—only one chaplain may be available for all those soldiers. So the situation is likely to arise that a Christian chaplain will make sure that Jewish soldiers have the necessary accommodations to celebrate Passover or that Buddhists soldiers have time to meditate or that Muslim soldiers are given a chance to perform daily prayers or that an Atheist soldier be permitted to avoid it all. In one particularly memorable instance, the Catholic priest explained, he had even ministered to a soldier who identified as Wiccan.