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

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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 gap

When he first began to spread his message, Muhammad’s focus was almost entirely social justice. He lived in a region where many prospered from trade while others struggled to meet basic needs. In Muhammad’s time, it was normal for the rich to provide loans to the poor. Equally common were unfair lending practices such as high interest rates and payment schedules that put debtors at a disadvantage. Borrowers who failed to keep up might suffer from another caveat to the agreement: being forced work for their lender on terms dictated by the more powerful party. The households of the wealthy would expand as the disadvantaged lost their freedom, trapped in an indefinite loop of servitude.

Women and children were especially susceptible to this cycle. Custom did not permit women to accumulate resources in their own names or inherit wealth. Even a widow was not the typical recipient of her dead husband’s money. A woman who found herself with no male head of house would have no means of supporting herself or her children. If forced to borrow money, she would almost certainly be unable to pay it back. A needy widow might have no other option but to attach herself to a wealthy household by whatever means possible, even as a slave. Children left with no parents were especially at risk of needing to trade freedom for survival.

Both Muhammad and his beloved first wife Khadija faced circumstances before they met that could have relegated them to lives of subservience. They managed not only to avoid the worst consequences associated with those stations, but to go on to lead happy, prosperous lives. Muhammad lost his parents at a young age, but was raised lovingly in his uncle’s household. Khadija had been widowed, but amazingly defied the status quo by obtaining her deceased husband’s wealth and his thriving trade business. But I think both Muhammad and Khadija lived with the “what if’s” of fates narrowly escaped.

Muhammad didn’t start speaking out for social reforms until after he married Khadija. With her love and support, he argued for changing lending practices and abolishing interest rates so that the poor could have easy access to resources. The wealthy elite hated his ideas, but Muhammad didn’t care. He believed women deserved the ability to accumulate wealth and receive inheritance. He insisted that the rich had a duty to care for the needy. While Muhammad’s message evolved and expanded, it was rooted in these issues that troubled him.

The problems that existed around Mecca during Muhammad’s life are not exclusive to that region or time. All over the globe and across generations, people struggle with the same things. The source of the disadvantage may vary—it might be race or education or illness or age. Women and children continue to make the list almost anywhere you go, though certain laws and government programs help.

After my parents broke up, I suppose my mom and I became a modern-day equivalent of Mecca’s widow and orphan. We landed at the bottom of the barrel resource-wise. Fortunately, we had my grandparents who lived in Dallas as a safety net. My mom’s parents lived in South Dallas, in a mostly African-American neighborhood. My dad’s parents lived north, in a much whiter and ritzier area. My mom and I were constantly driving back and forth between those two parts of town—between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Dallas is the first I was aware of the difference between wealth and poverty. Even today, after living in a handful of other cities with similar income disparities, I still think of Dallas as particularly polarized by income. I attribute this association, at least in part, with the low-income status I shared with my mom when we lived there. Ours was a modest means. But the other part of my association is certainly tied to the “Big D” culture of wearing one’s fortune. The rest of the country has since caught on—thanks to reality television, I fear—but Dallas was ahead of the curve: fancy handbags, head-to-toe designer labels, diamonds the size of ice cubes, cars that cost more than my mom would earn in a decade. Maybe the gap just seems so much wider when that extreme is flaunted.

The big ME

After the talk, it’s time for a bit of walking meditation. This is a different style of walking meditation than the more militaristic type I experienced at the Zen center. Today, our instructor explains, we should make our way slowly around the garden, each according to our own whim, pausing every few steps. She tells us to look around, and try to gaze upon everything as if we have never seen it before. “Each time,” she tells us, “create a never-heard story for how that vision came to be.” I’m not entirely certain what she means by this, but I get the gist: we should practice moving through the world like she appears to.

My classmates and I set off in all directions like dazed sleepwalkers. I begin my trek toward the coy pond, stopping along the way to take in the golden curves of the stupa and a flag with squiggly script. “What is this amazing new sight?” I ask myself. It’s not so hard, I find these items fascinating. I try objects that are more familiar: an open rose and, then, a stone from the path. “Wow, look at that,” I tell myself.

I try to feel all the wonder of seeing something like the Grand Canyon for the first time. A flower, a chunk of rock—these things truly are remarkable if you look at them like that. It’s good to remember. But what would happen if I tried this with mundane things from my everyday existence like a piece of junk mail or an empty skillet? For a moment, the spell is broken. I think how nuts this group would look to an outsider who saw us meandering the yard like overly-medicated patients of a funny farm. Then even that gets lenses through which nothing has a set explanation, and I slip back into my hallucinatory dream.

When the class reconvenes, it’s time for seated meditation. I get comfortable in a plastic deck chair. I lower my eyelids to half-mast and focus on the sensations playing all around: the breeze against my skin, the gurgle of water, the rustle of leaves. I don’t know if it’s sitting outside or if the teacher’s example has nudged me forward, but today I see more clearly the essential dichotomy of being human. Each of us has a “little me,” what we conceive of as a distinct self, hungry for us to believe that’s all we are. The contours of its identity strengthen when we are caught up in ideas; memories of the past, worries about the future: the highway of thoughts is its domain. When we step away from the thinking and plant our feet in the present moment, we become a part of something immeasurable: the “big me.”

Suddenly what I feel is more expansive than the view to the ocean out front. I see that I can choose to let the “little me” have the power, or I can challenge its authority. I breathe in a beautiful state of bliss. All around is space and I am a part of it. I am nowhere and everywhere. “Here it is!” a voice shouts. I feel like a runner who has been struggling for miles and then, miraculously, hits her stride. I could go and go and go. Has it always been this easy? I want to hold this feeling forever. What if I can’t hold it forever? A thunderbolt of panic rips through me. My chest constricts and my heart beats wildly. I had been falling with no end in sight and now the ground has risen up to smack me. It’s awful to have the bliss slapped out of me and, yet, a part of me is relieved.

Theravada

“You may sit here,” the monk said, pointing to a section of floor toward the back of the room. A photocopied prayer book lay at the spot. I sat directly on the carpet, which was so magnificently plush there was no need for a meditation mat.

I thought: so, this is a monastery of the Theravada tradition. The monks here do not seek to hold off attaining Nirvana for the sake of teaching others about that egoless state. Unlike the Mahayana tradition, these monks strive daily to dissolve their individual identities. This effort is their unique contribution to society. While not so prevalent in the U.S., this type of Buddhism is the most practiced in some Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Many young people, some just children, spend a portion of their lives working in monasteries and ascending the various monastic ranks. They receive education and Buddhist training. Most will leave eventually to rejoin mainstream society and have families, others will stay on. It’s a bit like the military in the United States, only theirs is a different method of obtaining peace.

Several younger monks, also in orange robes, filed in. They arranged themselves along with the older monk on the floor at the front of the room near a tall gilded statue of Buddha. Radiance from the setting sun flooded in from west-facing windows. I pressed my palms to the carpet, which was a rich crimson hue. Everything was glowing gold from the sun, the statue, the robes. The monks alternated between periods of quiet and chanting. From the snippets in English, I understood they were paying homage to the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Their deep tones vibrated the air and lingered. Light and sound saturated the room, spreading a buttery warmth. One of the young monks began to nod off, slumping forward by degrees. He would catch himself and sit tall, only to slowly melt again.

I had no idea I would be witnessing this sight—completely ordinary in the lives of these monks, but extraordinary in mine. I’ve operated under the impression that worship practices of the Theravada tradition are too private to have much effect on society at large. This experience gives me a new perspective. Like contemplatives or hermits of other traditions, they are working diligently to capture all that is bright and good and, through sheer force of concentration, send that energy out into the world. Sitting in the room with them, I was overcome with gratitude for their commitment to this taxing exercise meant to benefit us all. Even if most of us never see it, it is happening on our behalf every day.

Life for life

As she begins, Kay Warren tells us to find the guide to her sermon in the printed materials. I get mine, which is a four-paged supplement with sentences that have blanks where I can fill in the words from her presentation like a biblical Mad Libs.

The first sentence that needs my attention is this: “The altar represented the claims of a holy and righteous God which must be _________ before he can meet with man and bless him.” The missing word is “satisfied” but I need a moment to locate my pen so it stays blank. Further down: “Any deviation from perfection must be punished by the person or a _________.” I fill in “substitute.” Kay explains during the time of the tabernacle this substitute was an animal, provided as an offering. “Why did God require a blood sacrifice?” _________.  I write “because blood represents life.” The size and prominence of the bronze altar is no accident, it really was a hugely significant component of the tabernacle, perhaps even the most important element. Blood had to be shed for God in an attempt at restitution: the gift of life for the gift of life.

Now Kay’s talk turns to the act that birthed Christianity from Judaism. “Jesus was the __________.” I stare at the blank, knowing full well that “ultimate blood sacrifice” is the answer but unable to bring myself to write the words. Jesus was a human sacrifice. I’ve never thought of it like that, and the idea feels too big and powerful to reduce to a fill-in-the-blank response. His death didn’t occur on a bronze altar but his blood shed is interpreted by Christians as the last say in the “life for life” transaction, officially nullifying the need for further animal sacrifice and rendering all the other Jewish “rules” obsolete. To flesh-out the story, my study guide provides several quotes from the New Testament, like this one from Acts 13: “In this man Jesus, there is forgiveness for your sins! Everyone who trusts him is freed from all guilt and declared righteous—something the Jewish law could never do.” Whatever indebtedness to creation or God each of us senses was paid by Jesus and our job then is to believe in the power of this transaction. “Acceptance of Jesus as my substitute makes me ________ to God.” In tiny letters I write: “acceptable.”

At the end of the service Kay has an exercise for us. She asks us to find a small rectangle of paper that has been placed in each of our packets. This piece of paper has been made to look like an old-fashioned luggage tag, with a hole punched at the top and a string to tie to an imaginary suitcase handle. She tells us to write our sin at the bottom of the tag and, on our way out of the building, she wants us to rip the sin portion off and toss it in the red garbage bins placed by the doors for this purpose.

Audience members rise and begin to leave, but I stay seated and try to think of a good sin to write on my luggage tag. Finally, I scrawl, “Not feeling worthy.” This feels like the ultimate sin, something each of us struggles with on some level that causes any self-destructive behaviors that masquerade as the real sins. The Jews built into their system of worship an answer to this sense of unworthiness, an attempt to repay God for the gift of life. Christians accepted this basic premise but substituted Jesus as the compensation and sin as the debt.

The crowd streaming out has thinned by the time I join its ranks. The tall red bins are hard to miss. Each boasts a sign. “FORGIVEN,” they announce in big letters. I go to the nearest one and feed my paper to the slot at the top. I peek in at the mound of sins and watch mine flutter to the top.

Snapshot

For as many years as I orbited the synagogue on Main Street in Venice, I find it remarkable that I had never entered its sanctuary. I’ve passed by countless times on foot and by car and, as of the previous week, I celebrated Purim here, which took place in the basement, and participated in the Friday evening Sabbath-welcoming service, held in a small adjacent chamber. Having attended these preliminary events, I feel as if I’ve passed some small test and proven my mettle to gain access to the holy of holies. Today’s Sabbath service will be held in main worship hall.

In the foyer, I greet the rabbi.  He says, “Good morning,” with a smile. His eyes offer a less enthusiastic look that suggests: Oh, you again.  I pick up a flyer that details the history of the building and step through a second bank of doors. The most surprising aspect is how big and plain it is. In my imagination, it sparkled like an opulent Catholic cathedral, but in reality it looks like an auditorium for a particularly large high school with dozens of rows facing a stage. I find a spot in the middle towards the front and settle in to read my flyer, which explains that this building, the oldest synagogue in West Los Angeles still in operation, was constructed just after World War II. To save money, the design was borrowed from a military base theatre. It’s like these walls claimed this enormous space and then froze it in time.

The flyer explains that over the years Venice—“the Coney Island of the West”—became “a haven” for Jewish families and retirees and, at one point in the 50s and 60s, the boardwalk was lined with Jewish delis, kosher butchers, bakeries and tailors. I take a moment to imagine this version of the boardwalk—the suntanned limbs of bodybuilders replaced by fedoras and suits. Most of these Jews would have come through New York and made their way across the country by train or plane drawn by those age-old magnets: sunshine and Hollywood. Here was an unlikely, if natural, end point to the diaspora.

A man I recognize from Purim and the Friday service spots me and waves. At those events, he was outgoing and friendly and elaborated on certain aspects of what I was witnessing. I deeply appreciated his efforts to make me feel welcome.

Today, he takes the seat next to me and fills me in on a tidbit not included in the flyer. “See how there’s this middle section of seats,” he says, “and then smaller sections on the left and on the right?” I nod, noticing how an aisle on either side of where we’re sitting separates us from a narrower bank of seats. “That was a compromise. Originally, the middle section was for men and women who wanted to sit together and then for those who still wanted to sit with only their gender, the two sides.” Today, all three sections are coed.

He explains that when the synagogue was built, some congregants were starting to embrace the idea that not all the traditional rules were necessary. This more relaxed approach was formalized in the 1950s when the congregation joined the conservative movement. Members who wanted to remain orthodox broke away and started a synagogue located directly on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Since then, the rule-following spectrum has expanded further to include the more lenient reform movement. It’s a history that continues to play out; the seating arrangement in the auditorium offers a snapshot from this evolution.