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Accidental Spirituality

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.

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6 Responses to Accidental Spirituality

  1. Bhashini May 11, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    Your story about the boxed set of prayers given to you by your auntie reminds me of a similar episode in my early life.
    When I was just learning to read my granny gave me a little pink hard-covered book of prayers entitled “Let Your Heart Sing”. On the cover was a drawing of a little girl standing on a bridge, her heart lifted in song. I don’t remember opening the book very often but I used to look at the cover all the time and recite the title over and over. It really struck a chord with me.
    I’d like to add Bernadette of Lourdes. What I know about her is gleaned from the film “The Song of Bernadette”. Her simplicity in the face of a hostile and suspicious establishment is so touching. The last scene where she is visited by the divine Mother on her deathbed had me sobbing for a long time.
    Can I add Lorna Byrne as well? She embodies a similar simplicity and her books are among the most inspiring I’ve ever read.

    • Sumangali May 11, 2012 at 8:38 am #

      I love the image of you repeating “Let Your Heart Sing” – that’s almost like a prayer in itself, and quite prophetic in your case Bhashini!

      I haven’t seen “The Song of Bernadette” for over a decade, so I hardly remember anything about it, but I do remember being very moved. I love stories like hers – they seem much more real than the ones where everything’s perfect and there’s no struggle.

      Yes Lorna Byrne! I was about to start talking about her, and then I realised there are so many sources of inspiration in the realm of Christianity, I had better stick to nuns for now. I’ve read all her books, and I love them – again her simplicity, humility, the struggles and victories I find the most inspiring. Reading her I feel like I’m sitting down by a cosy fireside with a cup of tea. It’s like she’s right there talking, and I’m on the edge of my seat, saying “Tell me more!”.

  2. Hita Hirons May 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    I laughed when I read that you were reciting the Lords Prayer out loud all day and that it completely wound up your mother! You can’t really blame her, can you? My family were completely nonreligious as well, to the point that I actually thought that the man on the side of the Quakers Oats packet was God, which shows that I must have been asking and answering my own questions fairly early on. My family had no pat answers for those great questions that often come up fairly early; ‘what is death, what is after death, and how can we avoid death?’ My mother had trained as first a nurse and then a social worker and my father was a nuclear physicist, so their answers to most things were humanitarian and practical rather than philosophical. They sent me to Sunday school for a taster session in case I showed any interest, as they didn’t want to withhold anything from me, but after I told them how boring it was (the only thing that really struck a chord was colouring in line pictures of Jesus with his fishermen disciples) they never sent me again. When I asked them their personal opinions later on, they more or less said that they didn’t know and that I should find out for myself. When I was a teenager my father took up meditation to try to cure himself of cancer and after about a years practice he secretly told me that it was worth being ill to have made such a discovery within himself. He said that as a physicist he could not allow himself to accept a higher power without proof, but that his meditation constituted personal experience, and so personal proof. Which is all the proof you can ever have of spiritual things, isn’t it?

    Although I became the bane of my RE teacher’s lessons at high school with my horrible trick questions about all things Bible related, I actually was curious about the Christ himself and about the history of the Church, but as two very different subjects. We didn’t get comparative religion at all in RE; the sessions were all about Christianity except for one memorable lesson where she misinformed us about all sorts of other religions, including convincing us that Hindus didn’t eat cows because they thought human beings reincarnated as animals, and that they might be eating their own grandmothers, which needless to say is not the case!

    Anyway, my favourite Christian saints are Saint Therese of Lisieux, who you have already mentioned, for her gift of relating and her seemingly endless talent as a novice mistress, and Saint Francis of Assisi for his vision of God in all beings, senitient or non-sentient. The philosphies of these two saints is akin to Eastern religions or spirituality, being both visionary and practical; mystics, so to speak, not content to talk of God or serve God, but demanding a real relationship with the higher forces and prepared to challenge the Church to be true to their visions. Hildegard von Bingen, another favourite of mine as well, is just an amazing human being. Abbesses could either make their nuns lives heaven or hell, and her abby must have been a miraculous place to be, if you had to be shut inside for the rest of your life. The music, the food! Did you know she was also a great cook and created a famous cookbook?

    Interesting subject, Sumangali, thank you!

    • Sumangali May 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

      Oh Hita, that’s too adorable you thought the man on the Quaker Oats was God! If I had been the porridge-eating type at that age I might well have thought the same. I was more into Lucky Charms and Coco Pops – there would have been no mistaking either mascot for the Divine.

      Breakfast cereals aside, our spiritual upbringings sound uncannily similar – our non-religious backgrounds leaving room for us to find the spiritual path that fitted in the end. Your father’s experience is incredibly beautiful and humbling – that it was worth going through such an illness in order to experience the boon of meditation, knowing he probably would not have taken that opportunity otherwise. I feel even more fortunate to be able to experience it without such suffering – it’s so easy to take even the most valuable things for granted when they are part of everyday life. Yes, you’re right that personal experience is the only proof of such things. It reminds me of what Sri Chinmoy once said about God-realisation itself – I suppose the same applies to even the slightest spiritual revelation:

      “When you eat a mango, you know that you have eaten it. You have eaten a mango and the knowledge of it remains inside you. If others say, “No, you have not eaten a mango,” it does not bother you, for you know what you have done. As long as your hunger is satisfied, you do not need the approval or recognition of others. The delicious taste, the experience that you had, is proof enough for you. In the spiritual world also, when one has drunk the Nectar of realisation, one knows that one has really realised God.”
      – Sri Chinmoy [source]

      Thanks for sharing your favourite Christian saints – no, I did’t know Hildegard von Bingen was a great cook! Have you seen the film Vision? I was prepared for it being a bit bleak, it was the Dark Ages after all, so there was some harshness here and there, but overall I thought the portrayal was as beautiful as it was fascinating. It showed the contrast between her immense divine strength, and her human fragility in the face of ignorance – how the divine won at every step, but what a close call in some cases! Hildegard was really something. I think so often how easy it is to look at anyone with some higher divine capacity – whether God-realised Masters, Christian saints, or even our modern day Lorna Byrne – and to focus only on how wonderful it must be to have those insights. With every boon comes the burden of how best to use it, or even just the burden of knowing a grave Truth that you cannot un-know again. I think how lonely that must be sometimes…

      • Hita Hirons May 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

        No, I haven’t seen “Vision;” I shall give it a go. And in return I urge you to read “God’s Pauper” by Nikos Kazantsakis, about St. Francis of Assisi. It’s outrageous and the best description of a saint I have found anywhere in the literary world. Well, who knows? But that is my opinion, that it is truer than truth. No-one really knows what St. Francis was like, after all. I cried so many times while I was reading it, and it felt like I was being cleansed of all the saccharine renditions of saint’s lives I had seen. The life of a real saint is no joke; it’s awfully lonely, as you say. Nikos Kazantsakis’ Francis faces every kind of horrible situation and drags poor Brother Leo along with him. I have to say that Brother Leo, his long-suffering follower, is in some ways the real hero of the book, as he has to do everything that Francis does, but without the divine inspiration. Did you ever read it?

        • Sumangali May 8, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

          No, I’ve never heard of God’s Pauper, it sounds amazing! Thanks so much for the recommendation. Now I’ve finished writing (for now at least), I’m devouring books that I’ve put to one side for a long time. I’ve added it to my ‘to read’ list on Goodreads.com. I hope you can get a copy of Vision, then we can compare notes. And I meant to say, no I definitely don’t blame my mother for asking me to put the book of prayers and Biblical quotations away. I can only imagine how irritating it must have been to hear me reading anything aloud repeatedly. I certainly wouldn’t appreciate a nine-year-old heathen in my house, trotting out a sacred invocation like a list of football scores!

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