Living Religion Without A Book

I believe in the practice of prayer. In instances of unfathomable awe, of humble prostration before the incomprehensible, the abundant wealth of this universe demands to be recognized. I have long sought out temples to better shelter my practice. Working in the cracked leather planes of Tanzania, gilded and burnt with the hot breaths of a god-like sun. Fasting on the banks of a frosted blue lake on the highest peaks of Colorado, hearing my name whispered with the splinters of rain and ice through the yawning valleys. Holding my breath in the ocean’s silt, listening for a breath besides mine. I have been told that I often fall prey to my own agitation and distrust myself, that I have made the mistake, time and again, of sailing ahead in search of my own shadow. 

I remember my mother by the books she’s left behind. Everything else was swept away, by my father, by my nomadic sojourn through high school, and by the gaps in memory like moth-bitten cloth. Page by page, I am steadily encountering the words to fill those empty spaces, the answers to questions muted by her absence. And yet there is one dimension of my mother that slips through my fingers like sand, a refrain throughout my childhood, a proclaimed treasure of hers, of which I can’t quite gauge the value: Catholicism.

I was raised by a culturally Protestant father while my mother became an increasingly practicing Catholic toward the end of her life. I went to after-school Bible classes. I loved church for the ochre smell of spilt wax on cold pews. I was baptized, confessed, confirmed and wrote letters to God in a furry Hello Kitty notebook. As I grew older and the bitter cynicism of adolescence (to which I was particularly disposed) set in like a scalding liquor, I came to relinquish my beliefs in religion. And yet the closer I leaned toward atheism, the more entranced in the notion of spirituality I became. I studied nearly every religion throughout high school, from Judaism to Islam, Buddhism to Mormonism, Zoroastrianism to Neo-Paganism. My interest soon extended to the breadth of human beliefs in general; I took great interest in superstitions, mysticism, aliens, witchcraft, and the occult. I soon began to take notice of ritual behavior and diligent practices: prayer, meditation, obsessive fixations, compulsions, the observance of lucky numbers, colors, animals, and cultural icons.

But perhaps the most informative study of spiritual thought and practice was introduced to me upon my enrollment at Pomona College. I was suddenly uprooted from the socio-cultural environment within which I had been exposed to a limited range of religions, beliefs, and social mores, only to be transposed into a richly heterogeneous liberal arts college campus.

As some time passed and I was swept into the current of my first year, a strange paradox inherent to the culture here at Pomona came to my attention. Although the majority of my peers were as dissimilar from one another and eloquently opinionated in their beliefs, the biggest global religions seemed significantly underrepresented here on campus. In fact, most of the people that I became familiar with, to my knowledge, were either staunch atheists, agnostics, observant of logic and rationality, or the somewhat euphemistic label of secular humanists. That is not to say that I was not friends with religious and observant individuals, or that I was not aware of the multiple religious organizations, Bible groups, meetings, and events around campus. In fact, the spiritual groups around campus marketed themselves well; from what I understand they promote tolerance, are open and welcoming to all—even atheists—and are, for the most part, constituted of intelligent, kind students assembled in socially active, tight-knit communities.

Although such spaces for religious communities are present at the Claremont Colleges, what struck me as peculiar was that within such a rich hotbed of socio-cultural diversity, the majority of the students that I was familiar with did not actively observe any formal, organized religions.

It led me to speculate as to what the origin of this phenomenon might be. Had others, like myself, renounced their beliefs in organized faith as they grew older? Did college make practiced religion harder to integrate into our adult lives? Was our rigorous education provoking us to relinquish the time set aside for ritual and religious practice? As it turns out, the Barna Group, a statistical research organization that publishes studies on the intersection between faith and culture, found that 60 percent of 20-somethings dismissed their adolescent beliefs and practices in favor of a more secular lifestyle. The transitional period from high school to college, it would seem, often provokes individuals to question the dogmatic values that they held at home.

My inquiry into the matter spurred in me a number of questions and concerns. Had we somehow forfeited our spirituality and, as such, condemned ourselves to disillusioned realism and apathy? Had many of us alienated ourselves from warm, spiritual communities and valuable beliefs?

It is in seeking the answers to such questions that I have learned the most invaluable and moving lesson in spirituality that I have had thus far. Pomona is, in fact, one of the most spiritual communities that I have ever been a part of and this is why: The Claremont Colleges are a community of brilliant, engaged individuals with a dazzling spectrum of beliefs of every kind. The beauty of the liberal arts education is that it caters to inquisitive, strong-minded youth. From political activists to dedicated yogis, studious molecular biology majors to talented artists and graphic designers, Kappa Deltas, NAPIs, TIXCs, outdoor education aficionados, swimmers and surfers, singers, and writers, and even to a funny girl I know who swears by the color pink, we are among some of the most gifted and inspired people out there.

Ultimately, most of us believe in something. Many of us are avid hunters of knowledge, of awe, of illumination of some sort. And although for some of us this manifests itself in adherence to some established religion, for others spirituality comes in a distinctive, idiosyncratic form.

It is here that I have come to settle more comfortably in my own spiritual beliefs. And although I am still, fundamentally, an atheist at heart, I believe in transcendence, in awe at humankind and the natural world, and, always, in prayer.

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