I did not have a religious or overtly spiritual upbringing, in fact the subject of God was conspicuous by its absence. I am grateful to my family for not forcing any beliefs on me, for deliberately letting me choose my own way, but it seems quite funny now looking back on my first encounters with religion, and my childly interpretations of them, not really having a clue what any of it meant inwardly.
I suppose my late development in a spiritual sense was partly down to the fact that I was not destined for a Christian path, and yet as I grew up in England and America, my exposure to spiritual teaching was naturally through Christianity.
A First Encounter with Christianity
My first encounter came via an afternoon film in the style of a soap opera. Its leading lady had a disappointing romance, and travelled a long way from home by herself. She came to a stone house with gates at the front, where a much older lady answered the door, wearing a cape and a long matching headscarf.
‘Why is the lady wearing a cape, Mummy?’
‘She’s a nun, they all wear those clothes. It’s not really a cape, it’s called a habit.’
I had thought habits were supposed to be bad, like sucking one’s thumb or biting one’s nails, but the nun seemed very rational and well presented.
‘What do nuns do?’
‘They’re all ladies and they live in a big house together with a garden where they grow things and sometimes keep bees. They sing songs and read books and do kind things for people. They don’t go out very much and they never get married.’
‘So they don’t have to learn how to drive a car? And they don’t have to have babies, or pay the bills?’
‘No, I suppose not.’
‘How old do you have to be to be a nun?’
‘I don’t know, maybe twenty.’
I was only five. It was too big a sum to take five years from twenty, but I knew it would still leave a very long time. I quite liked babies back then, because my brother was one, but I did not like pain or mess at all, and I knew the three could not be separated. Driving a car seemed precarious, and paying bills was definitely worse; it needed a calculator and the repeated invocation of Gordon Bennett. I was scolded most while my parents were driving or paying the bills – any amount of noise during either could cause a permanent disaster. I secretly decided I would be a nun instead – that would put paid to all sorts of complication. I would not even have to wonder what to wear. Although the plan was discarded within a week or so, it was a comfort for a time.
A Second Encounter with Christianity
The second encounter came four years later, courtesy of an aunt. Although she was stern and prickly, she always gave me five pounds for my birthday, which easily made up for any gruffness the rest of the year. Regardless of the season, she wore fine cardigans over matching box-pleated woollen skirts, hardy stockings and frumpy lace-up shoes. She seemed to have only one stalwart measurement around her whole body: shoulders, waist and hips all the same circumference. If my grammar was slovenly, she became deaf; sometimes after several repetitions at an increasing volume, I was forced to rephrase a sentence in the hope that it would finally warrant an answer.
Auntie brought me a miniature boxed set of prayers and Biblical quotations one day. They were in three parts – perhaps symbolically – each with a pale satiny cover. Nothing was said about them, or about God. They were neither wrapped nor adorned nor explained; there was no occasion for a gift, and only I received one. I am not sure whether Auntie even believed in God, or whether she simply thought it proper for a young lady to keep such publications in her library. Maybe she just thought I needed improvement more than the rest of the family. The whole event was strange, and therefore seemed significant.
When she left for the day, I chose one prayer to learn by heart – The Lord’s Prayer – which I repeated throughout the house with jubilant abandon. That was too much for my mother, and she asked me to put the books away. I read them quietly and covertly thereafter, so they formed a sort of tryst for a time, but while proper young ladies with seemly libraries might be delighted with the three-part God in satin jackets, I honestly did not have eyes for Him there. I considered it my own failing, but accepted it nonetheless. The boxed set decorated a shelf until it reached the table of a school fête, and finally left my charge.
A More Meaningful Understanding
It may sound ironic, but only since becoming a student of Sri Chinmoy fifteen years ago have I come to inwardly appreciate the essence of Christianity. Sri Chinmoy’s spiritual path is the path of the heart, a path of Yoga in its original sense, meaning “union with God”. In his own words:
There is no fundamental difference between one religion and another because each religion embodies the ultimate Truth.” [source]
With that feeling, I have begun to develop more and more affinity with other spiritual paths, whether or not they are considered religions, as their goals are the same as my own: union with God. I still would not claim to know a lot about Christianity, but I have gained a lot of inspiration from the teachings of Christ, and from reading about Christian saints. Sri Chinmoy has written many songs dedicated to Christ, as well as figures from other world religions, such as Lord Buddha and Lord Krishna.
My Favourite Christian Nuns
Saint Thérèse de Lisieux
Her autobiography The Story of a Soul is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. She was obviously born an extraordinary divine person with an uncompromising spiritual calling, and yet she tells her story with such simplicity and humility, it becomes relatable. Somehow I find it comforting that even a saint can have earthly struggles: not just physical ailments, but sometimes even just problems getting along with people when they are unkind.
Hildegard von Bingen
I have loved her music for a very long time. Somehow it has intense purity without austerity – it’s hauntingly beautiful, as though truly from another world. The insights she gained through her visions were outlandishly ahead of their time – not just spiritual insights, but scientific truths, especially related to medicine. I saw a film about her recently, simply called Vision. Again it showed her struggles and her fears, despite the fact that she was born with these incredible divine gifts, and with an uncompromising inner calling. I suppose I love this relatable quality most, as it hints that we mere mortals will not forever remain so very far away from divinity. In that case it is worth striving for, however long it takes.
UPDATE: Hildegard von Bingen is now Saint Hildegard von Bingen. She was canonised 5 days after this post was written! It took over 800 years, but better late than never.
- Read more stories related to Christianity here at sumangali.org »