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?

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My Medina

While Mecca gets most of the attention for being the birthplace of Islam, it’s actually the village of Medina about 200 miles away where Muhammad developed his ideas into a full-fledged faith. In Mecca, his message of sweeping social reforms was unwelcome by those whose fortunes depended on the practices he condemned. The wealthy leaders didn’t want to give up their lopsided money lending methods or free their slaves. They certainly had no intention of earmarking a percentage of their incomes for the needy. After more than a decade of failing to convince Mecca’s elite of its obligation to care for the most vulnerable members of society, Muhammad decided to relocate to Medina where he found a more receptive audience.

I can’t help but draw parallels between Muhammad’s Mecca and my perception of Dallas. Both are commercial centers with vast income disparities, but it’s not just that. Muhammad was motivated by the indifference of those around him who hoarded their resources and I suppose I get this same sense of disinterest when I observe people who appear not only comfortable with inequality, but who seem to relish it. All the expensive adornments speak volumes, and not just of the size of one’s bank account. Of course, even after relocating to Medina, Muhammad returned to Mecca to visit the precious things he’d left behind: the Kaaba and Zamzam spring and other important sites. Eventually, his relationship with the place got less rocky. I suppose the same could be said of me and Dallas. Despite my emotional baggage, I’ve been drawn back because of my grandma and others whom I love. Little by little, I’m making peace with the city itself.

Dallas may be my Mecca, but Austin is my Medina. When I’m there, everything is less complicated, more laidback. Dallas forces me to swim in the murky lake of my subconscious; Austin is a dip in a crystal blue swimming hole. I wanted to take advantage of my proximity to Austin to pay a quick visit before making my way to Washington, D.C., where I’d always imagined this story ending. I was thinking of it as a respite, like a pause at an oasis before continuing on a difficult journey. Austin is about the same distance from Dallas as Medina is from Mecca (200 miles). Thankfully, my trek via Southwest airlines was slightly less arduous than taking a camel.

Arriving in Austin signaled that my trip was drawing nearer to its conclusion, which forced me to acknowledge I hadn’t yet made proper accommodations to experience a version of Islam that tends to be controversial among traditional Muslims: Sufism. I had put the issue on the back burner at least in part because of Fatima’s warning. When I asked what she thought of Sufism, her reply was swift and definitive: “It is not real Islam.” She recommended I steer clear of it. It was similar to the reaction I got when I mentioned Kabbalah to some mainstream Jews.

So, for the time being, I did as she suggested. Besides, I had my hands full trying to understand regular Islam. Yet, in my reading, I was intrigued by Sufis. Every faith I had explored boasted similar mystical variations birthed by individuals who cared less for the rules of religion and more for the experience of feeling connected to the divine. In every case, the parent faith appeared to be locked in a love-hate relationship with its mysterious little offshoot, engaged in some centuries-long process of dismissal and little-by-little acceptance. When Fatima denied the validity of Sufism, I got the impression she had internalized embarrassment on behalf of the majority of Muslims who are ashamed of the grotesque branch that sprouted from their healthy trunk. But from my perspective, Sufism did not indicate an abnormality. Just the opposite: I found it confirmation that Muslims are no different from anyone else. Within any group of humanity, some will possess these impulses. If anything, Sufism spoke to our shared human nature.

 

Shiite

The Greek Orthodox service began. Like Catholicism, it is built around the Eucharist. The “Divine Liturgy” contains the steps that prepare the bread and wine for the people and the people for it. Outlined in my rulebook, these include: the Small Entrance, Epistle Reading, Gospel Reading, Sermon, Great Entrance, Priest Censing, and Blessing. As I tried to follow along, I couldn’t help but think how from the perspective of a worshipper this experience was indistinguishable from a Catholic program. Sure, the chapel and other accoutrement were fancier than at the simple small-town Catholic Church I had attended, but that was superficial.

It was the same with Sunnis and Shiites: from the point of view of a worshipper, the differences are negligible. In all my digging I had uncovered exactly two. Shiites are likely to rest their arms at their sides during a portion of the daily prayers when Sunnis are encouraged to hold both hands to their chests. In addition, Shiites are less inclined to use prayer rugs. They opt, instead, to pray directly on clean earth and, if praying inside, they may rest their foreheads on a stone during prostration to represent this earth. The differences are so subtle that Shiites can and do make themselves at home within predominantly Sunni congregations, a necessity especially in the United States where their numbers are so few.

Of my list of mosques in the Dallas area, only one was exclusively Shiite. It didn’t promote itself as such, but I was able to confirm it through online message boards. I found no website and the phone number kept going to a busy signal. All I had was an address, which indicated a neighborhood northwest of downtown. I set out one afternoon to find the place. I had done this before with another “mosque” on my list, only to be led to a tiny house indistinguishable from all the other tiny houses in a low-income neighborhood. It was either a mistake or this was taking “house of worship” to a whole new level.

I found the Shiite place in a strip mall across from a Loan Star Title Loans. Shiites generally think of their places of worship as “meetinghouses.” As such, they tend to lack the more formal elements of a mosque such as a minaret or a dome. I pulled into a parking space and tried to imagine what the builders of this structure had intended it to be. A dry cleaners? A tax preparation service? I doubt they could have imagined this use.

It wasn’t shy announcing its purpose. A big maroon awning printed with the words: Institute of Quran and Ahlubait. It took me awhile to figure out that last word; I finally realized it was a spelling variation of the more common “Ahl al-Bayt,” which translates as something like “people of the house,” meaning Muhammad’s family members. It’s a reference to the leaders Shiites esteem for being the Prophet’s blood relations.

I tried the door, but it was locked. All the blinds were closed. For now, the building was empty. I got back in the car, thinking what a surprise it was to find this mysterious little outpost of Islam in such a mundane setting. Here, in the middle of Texas, next to a taco joint and donut shop, a long-dead Arabian prophet and his family members are actively honored. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed in keeping with religion in general: that strange domain where divine mystery intersects with the human realm.

Blood ties

The main division within Islam continues to this day, as does the basic question: can a person possess an extraordinary relationship to the divine? Those who might answer “yes” are the Shiites (decedents of the group who wanted Muhammad’s cousin Ali as his successor), and they believe their leaders have been endowed with the living spirit of the Prophet given to them by blood ties that trace back to Muhammad. Like the Catholic Pope, Shiite imams are thought to be sinless and infallible.

Sunnis (who preferred Muhammad’s father-in-law as successor) are those who would disagree. Their leaders are considered religious and political executives. This position is similar to the one held by Eastern Orthodox Christians who define priests and bishops as ordinary people—occupying extraordinary positions. Congregants are still encouraged to kiss the hand of the priest or bishop, though in doing so one should keep in mind that it’s the office being honored.

But as I mentally trace the roots of these theological divisions, they seem to grow too flimsy to understand because doesn’t every faith somehow incorporate the idea that a person can have a special relationship to the divine? Christians agree that Jesus was an incarnation of the divine and every Muslim believes Muhammad brought Allah’s words to earth. So perhaps the issue is not a human’s ability to channel the divine, but whether this quality can exist beyond the originals?

Or perhaps the argument is all just a smoke screen for the very human inclination to possess power and control.

The Greek Church I remember from my childhood is gone. Several years ago, the congregation purchased land just north of downtown and built a new building. The property allowed for a bigger main chapel, as well supplemental structures for social gatherings and classrooms. It also let church leaders mold a fresh identity. They opted not to recreate the white stucco exterior that was so readily identifiable with Greece. Instead, they used brick in a style more broadly Byzantine: arches and columns and the squat domes that speak to the shared history of a huge region. The strategy seems to be working. Recent years have seen a spike in attendance, filled out by congregants from a wider spectrum of eastern orthodoxy.

The main sanctuary may be bigger, but it evokes the same feelings I remember from being a kid standing by myself in the old chapel. Similar red carpeting lines the aisles. Recognizable faces stare down from murals on the ceilings. Even empty and quiet, the room back then had seemed alive. Today, it is further animated with movement and sound as Grandma and I slip into a wood pew. The priests and their helpers are revving up around the altar, lighting the candles and stoking the incense. Grandma hands me a pamphlet on the rules and procedures of attending a service, tucked into the back of the pew along with bibles and hymnals and a laminated card of the communion prayers. It spells out the proper way one is to enter the main chapel: first, by “venerating” an icon and, second, by lighting a candle. It explains that venerating means kissing. Out in the foyer, I had watched others pressing their lips against the glass under which sat a painting of a saint. It says here: “It is not proper to kiss an icon in the face.” Thank goodness I didn’t attempt it; that’s exactly where I would have planted a wet one. Instead, I caught up with Grandma who was making a donation in exchange for two thin candles. She handed one to me. I lit it using the flame of another and then nestled it into the sand of the raised box by the door saying a prayer for my grandfather who was a staunch atheist.

Fatima’s country

Just as I was settling in to the routine of attending the mosque class on Sunday’s, Fatima suggested we switch it up. She wanted me to come to her apartment during the week for more one-on-one time. I continued to fasten my headscarf in the rearview mirror, only now I emerged into the busy parking lot of a student housing complex. I felt like Clark Kent making the transition to Superman. I walked the pathways to Fatima’s building in hijab. I wasn’t concerned about running into anyone I knew because I felt unrecognizable. I had never understood why Lois Lane couldn’t tell that her super hero boyfriend was the same guy as her reporter colleague, but it suddenly made sense. Identity is so much bigger than a face.

The personal details about Fatima I had gathered at the mosque were skeletal at best. She had come to the United States for her husband’s graduate studies. She had two little girls. I also knew the basics about her homeland: a colonial past; a ruthless leader, initially supported by the west, brought down in spectacularly grisly fashion; roving bands of militants fighting for control. Its story was similar to at least a dozen other countries in that part of the world.

Now, with time spent just the two of us, I put meat on those biographical bones. Despite my preconceived notions regarding the status of women where she was from, Fatima had managed to obtain an advanced degree living there. She had been a professional working woman before coming to the United States. Her husband’s degree in agricultural sciences was being funded by her country’s government—some aspect of which was obviously working well enough to finance such projects. But her family’s efforts to broaden their horizons came with sacrifice. Since arriving in the U.S. more than five years earlier, they hadn’t returned home once. Both of their little girls had been born here. Their grandmothers back home had never held them.

I had only ever met ex-patriots of countries like hers who fled and had no desire to return. Not Fatima. She longed to go back. She spoke of her homeland with a tenderness some might reserve for the dearest loved one. She showed me pictures on the internet of its most beautiful features. She fed me its popular dishes. She called it “my country.” “This is food we eat in my country.” She and her husband had visited another town in the United States that reminded her of it. “The temperature, the way the air smelled,” she said with a serene smile. “I closed my eyes and I was in my country.”

I wondered how she felt about the ruthless leader who had been killed—if his rule was as bad as the media here had made it seem. She hadn’t been back since his death. Her gaze lowered to the floor, her expression went pensive. She nodded, “It was bad,” she whispered. She told me about a cousin who was executed for carrying anti-government propaganda in his car. “I’m sorry,” I said. I meant for her family’s suffering, but also for whatever role my country may have played in creating the situation. “Thank you,” she replied. I searched her eyes but didn’t see any blame there.

 

Sacred spaces

Jackson, the young minister of the Buzz, and I talk for almost two hours, sometimes like inhabitants of different planets meeting for the first time and at others like old friends. He confides that he and the other Buzz leaders have agreed not to build or buy a building to officially house the church. He says, “You put all this money and energy into raising the funds and then…” He trails off. I nod, understanding exactly where he’s going with his thought: the struggle for permanence may hurt a congregation whose mission, in part, is stay abreast of current trends. I think back to Vibrant Belief and the amount of creative energy the church leaders must have poured into funding and planning their elaborate building. Did that effort displace their original motivation and message?

For now, the Buzz will continue to rent. Just in the few weeks since my visit to the Buzz, the worship services have moved to an auditorium with built-in seating that accommodates more people than the previous event center. The congregation was able to up and go like a tumbleweed. But if they owned a building, they wouldn’t be able to adapt so easily. They’d be the church on Main Street or at 5th and Elm; they’d be the church with a cavernous space or a square space or a small space or a round space. People think the building is the church. But it’s not: the church is the people inside. The relationships. The ideas. The voices combined in song.

In his talk on Nehemiah, Jackson explains that when Nehemiah comes to Jerusalem he takes a deliberate approach to the enormous task he’s assigned himself of repairing the city’s destroyed walls. In the middle of the night, when everyone else is sleeping, he rides around the perimeter and surveys the damage. He takes an unflinching look at the problem. He acknowledges how bad it is before taking steps to make it better.

As a former servant, Nehemiah may have been an unlikely person for the job, but he was engaged in an unlikely job. His efforts weren’t focused on the most obvious target: the temple, which had also been wrecked. His idea of sacred space was much broader. It encompassed the areas where everyday life took place. Today, it might include the grocery store, the post office, or the sidewalk. Perhaps, too, it is the cyberspaces we occupy: Facebook, websites, and blogs. Nehemiah seemed to understand how everything that surrounds and supports the inner life is worthy of attention and protection too.

The temple may not have been the only thing worth salvaging but, for many, it was still the most important. A physical location for worship or prayer—a designated place where people gather to commune with each other and acknowledge something greater—remains a powerful draw. It seems the effort to build and maintain these structures, as energy-depleting as it may be, continues to be worth it. Even if we are only on the outside, driving past on our way to the grocery store, they remind us of life’s less material aspects.

The buildings that house places of worship have spoken to me my whole life. Not one in particular, but each whispering as I passed, “Why don’t you come inside?”

God’s hands

After Jesus died, beliefs about what sort of being Jesus was were all over the map, even among the most devout. They said he was divine, but a little less so than God. Others insisted he was the human incarnation of God, equal to God because he was God. Some preferred to think of him as an exceptional man who understood and embodied the wisdom of God; if he was divine, it was only in the way that each of us has the potential to be because we are all expressions of the divine. When I read about this spectrum of opinion, I was surprised because I had imagined everyone was on the same page at the beginning and it was only more recently that thoughts splintered and diverged.

As early Christendom spread, this lack of consistency grew troublesome. Preachers were going out into the countryside teaching their own interpretations and some people were worshipping Jesus as a separate being from God, threatening the basic monotheism of Christianity.

Summoned by Emperor Constantine 325 years after Jesus’ death, the first official ecumenical council of Christendom convened in a city called Nicaea. The goal was to create a single “profession of faith” so that when the participants returned to their corners of the kingdom, they could explain Christianity using words identical to those used everywhere else. It was quality control. Christianity went corporate and the product needed consistency. The bishops voted on the wording, but even then it wasn’t unanimous.

The Nicene Creed of 325 stated that Jesus and God are one in the same; the revised Creed, created in the year 381, wrapped in the Holy Spirit as well. Today, some congregations regularly recite the creed in unison. I’ve said it myself on several occasions since I began my church-going adventures. It reads in part:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth…

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father…

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified…

The “Trinity” continues to be a topic of debate among modern Christians and some denominations opt not to use it—at least not explicitly.

Whether one embraces the concept or not, it seems to indicate an undeniable truth. In developing an understanding of God, some people might envision an entity that is more concrete, perhaps inhabiting a body, while others prefer something that’s bigger and more amorphous.

From the Trinity, I see that people have been treading these same paths to God for centuries: one, a human incarnation of the divine, and the other, nothing but spirit. It seems to me they’re all heading in the same direction.

Perhaps some people need a mixture of form and formlessness, or will use one or the other at different times in their lives. I’ve thought of God as an endless plane of vibrating energy of which we are all a part, but I’ve also pictured God with arms and legs and hands I can hold. Because sometimes I just want a hand to hold, even if just in my imagination.

Even within a congregation that emphasizes one version over the other, individuals will work it out for themselves because it’s such a personal thing. There are bound to be evangelicals who ride the Holy Spirit to God, just as I’m sure there are Pentecostals who can’t get there without Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, a few Unitarians—a denomination that does not officially use the Trinity–hold that bundle close to their hearts.