Faith is something which our world polarizes for its own selfish purpose and gain, with dogmatic rule still at the head and the complete rejection of God becoming an ideology all of its own. Faith can feel like an incredible moment of joy with the best of everything at your fingertips and a song in your heart, as well as the feeling like the “odd child, the black sheep, the odd ball” who was not invited. Faith is not innate, not something a child would understand, if kept away from the ideas surrounding the belief, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof. It is so often an isolationist indoctrination passed down, just as we tell children the sky is blue, the moon is made of cheese, children who are raised religiously and dogmatically are told that God exists that He is.
My journey in understanding what faith is about starts like that of any other in the lap of my mother in childhood. I was raised as a Catholic by my Protestant mother and Catholic aunt, who was one of my main caregivers as my parents were workaholics, neglectful and
father atheists, both having been raised within Christianity, my Father, through the Catholic Church and my Mother Dutch Reformed or Calvinist better put. Their experiences had left them devoid of spirituality and had pushed them into a complete rejection of the church. Ironically they insisted I was raised religiously, and sent me to a very good Catholic School that was famous for discipline and better grades.
At 4 years old I was sent to a convent called St Martin and here we prayed 4 times a day, went to church 5 times a week and had religious education 5 days a week. The nuns were serious, stoic women – with sharp tongues, wit and thick Irish accents. As this school was private, corporal punishment was still in effect, as this was not abolished in private schools until the 1990. So as young as 4 we wold be punished with a sharp wooden ruler across the backs of our legs if our prayers were not loud enough, if our appearance was not right, basically anything which they decided was against their rules of conduct, was punishable with violence. This became my first indication of hypocrisy as a small child, wondering why God and his son Jesus would allow for us to be in pain, fear and anguish 18 hours a day.
My religion was fading with every year that passed, even with the joyful sides not comforting me anymore, such as Easters with my Grandmother, or the creating of the nativity scene at Christmas and how I loved those Christmas meals at my aunts I still celebrate my meals as she did. My conversations with God throughout my day to day existence never stopped, “He” became another neglectful parent, abandoning me when I needed him most. Searching for Him and not finding Him. Hoping to find the answers to why HE and faith kept escaping me.
After years floating around in agnosticism, my path took me to philosophy, which is what I decided to study as an adult student, in preparation to go onto degree level. Philosophy was like being awoken from a sleep of a thousand years and I did not realise I had fallen asleep. Within the first few lessons my brain hurt and my mind was being nourished with wisdom and knowledge. My studies in the philosophy of religion would be the enlightenment I had yearned for all this time.
The Teleological argument or otherwise known as the intelligent design argument or that there is something up there, which is an argument for the existence of God or, an intelligent creator based on the idea that the universe and especially our planet has been created. To illustrate this I shall use the watchmaker analogy from William Paley:
“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.”
This analogy took me out of the dogmatic ritualistic teachings but I still love the ritual of religion and led me to the idea of natural religion, evidence based in nature That at some point “this” where we are, was created. Moving on from this looking into the anthropomorphism of God and how “he” was viewed as a man, or at least referred to as such. The idea did not satisfy me and my beliefs, it seemed to Mickey Mouse to me, and it seemed to fulfil our need for a Father, a creator, something which would make sense in our own of how we come about, our existence, mirrored.
This led me on to one of the great thinkers of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud. Having studied Freud his thoughts on religion were very informative to me, echoing feelings which had gone round in my mind for two decades.
“Religion is a ‘universal obsessional ritual’ designed to avert imaginary misfortunes and control the unconscious impulses which lead us to feel we are causing them. The rituals attempt to control the outside world and our egoistic and aggressive wishes as well.”
These words allowed me to understand why “we” as a species interpret God the way we do, it made sense to me as it was clear this had been the motivation throughout history as well as a means to control groups of people which was another of Freud’s theories. My path was now a clear one, which after my own confirmation that God was in fact a Word, a Description , for an invisible force of creation, one which could not be fully understood, as I like to call him the Moreand Ever More, just as how we see faces in clouds, we had assigned the features which made God accessible.
Next stop on my quest was another great thinker, one that I felt akin to when first reading him, Friedrich Nietzsche. With his words “God is dead, we have killed him” – the feeling of relief swept over me, validating me, making me feel the shackles of shame, guilt and sin falling away from my skin as if they had been encasing me in a dry thick mud, cracking and emerging from the undergrowth, Nietzsche had freed me. With his views on morality and the idea of suffering; he allowed me to examine why suffering and religion needed one another, when there is a God who will forgive all your sins and answer your prayers this belief allows for suffering to be dismissed or even capitalised from. In the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche writes that man is: “a sickly animal: but suffering itself was not his problem, but the fact that there was no answer to the question he screamed, ‘Suffering for what?’ … The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering, was the curse which has so far blanketed mankind.”
I would eventually find my peace and faith with a another great thinker of the ages Benedict of Nursia and the word “CONVERSATIO” The most important word I learned at the monastery is a Latin word: conversatio. It refers to another one of the vows taken specifically by Benedictine monks and sisters: conversatio morum, literally “conversion of morals.” The phrase is often loosely translated as “conversion of life.” But I like the definition Brother Jeffery Steel once gave to me: conversat as a constant “turning toward,” a constant conversation with life.
I like the idea of turning because it connotes change, and there are certain aspects of my life I’ve been trying to change for a long time and needed to talk too and enter into conversation with. Like my quick temper. I find that I like the person I am at the monastery much better than the person I am in my everyday life, because when I’m at the monastery I’m calm. I’m patient. I don’t lose my temper, my cool. Once, just a few days after I returned home from the monastery, I argued with my beautiful life partner. It was a totally silly, unnecessary argument, and I emailed Brother Jeffery Steel and asked, “Why do I have these stupid arguments with my partner, who’s the person as close to me as God? Why can’t I live conversation ķin my day-to-day life with the people I’m closest to? And he answered, “You are living conversation. Your struggle. That’s the conversation.” And that gave me hope—hope that I don’t have to be a saint. I just have to be human.
“Keep death before you daily,” Benedict says in the Rule. It’s a potent reminder not to spend my life twisting in anger or caught up with what Thomas Merton called “useless care.” My stays at the monastery propel me every day to remember what is essential, what gives my life meaning. Merton referred to it as finding “the hidden ground of our being,” finding that place where we not only discover God, but where God can discover us.
I suppose I am just one of the many Benedict has spoken to through the ages for the past 1600 years to, who yearns for life and desires to see good days. “Run, then,” Benedict reminds me , “while you have the light of life, and pass on only the light of life, love , compassion ,mercy and kindness.