Forever a stranger to religion

Anna Trevisan

A hash joint and my whimsical impulsivity, led me to church at 9 pm at Duomo San Lorenzo, somewhere on the Amalfi coast in Italy.

I joined what seemed like a catholic mass at the local cathedral.

High with no panties on, sitting on this church bench for over an hour I think to myself: this might just be my new thing. Whether it’s a church mass or a sex party, I go for the same reason and that is to observe human behavior. 

Everyone stares at me; acknowledging the odd sight of a bold dyke in a catholic church. I don’t mind it, I respectfully smile back. People’s stares don’t disturb me like they used to. I have never really belonged, is what I want to tell them. I am not scared of getting lost, I am not scared of being caught alone in foreign territory.

I snap photos of the intricate details on the walls.

I have done this before; nothing new here. I don’t belong in this church like I never belonged in my parents’ church, nor have I ever belonged in Greece, Brazil, or any other country I have ever lived in.

As a prime example of ‘things that do not belong’, I move unfazed across the cathedral yet fascinated by the meta-physical glue that joins these people together on a Wednesday night on this holy ground. Their shared conviviality reminds me of the 21 years I’ve spent following my parents along their spiritual journey. As I look around, it all seems the same to me. In-group thinking shapes how people dress, act and interact. To belong here, the norm must be followed.

United by the repetition of symbolic rituals, faith, and tradition, these people keep returning here again and again. Perhaps something about this keeps them alive inside.

A willingness to devote their faith drives them to follow a set of rules and theoretical principles. Some will give their life away to this idea of holiness without ever getting even close to touching the true notion of light. An idea that is closely knitted with attachment to habits, history, and identity, rather than an honest exploration of individual connection to the divine.

To seek God in a community has been a social practice worldwide since time immemorial. But when the quest for divinity is founded solely in historical statements and is sustained mainly by ceremonies of liturgic repetitions, the opportunity to establish an individual spiritual connection is missed. Community in this sense isn’t the detrimental factor but if it takes away from the value of individual spiritual exploration, it hinders one from experiencing the full spectrum of divine existence.

Religion creates a condition of righteousness in the quest for spiritual development that casts anyone who doesn’t behave according to the scriptures, away from God’s gaze.

Curiosity and a genuine committed desire to seek truth as perceived through the experiential framework of my own life have led me closer to God than 20 years of wearing a white veil in church, praying kneeled, and repeating bible verses, ever did.

Attempting to follow the rules of Christianity created a disconnect between me and the divine. It distanced me from the connection to my authentic self as well as from experiencing God by imposing rigid rules that distracted me from pursuing an honest relationship with the divine nature. It added clutter where I needed to peel off layers. It preached obeying instead of discovering, attaining knowledge instead of remembering Source.

The sound of chanting voices mixed with the dramatic melody oscillating from the pipe organ echo through the curved ceiling of the dome.

Is it God that they experience? Or a shared sense of grandeur brought forth by the church setting? Or perhaps the reassuring contentment of conformity?

I decide to leave when I begin to doubt their capacity to reach the divine. The smell of incense burning got too intense. The lights; flattering at first, seem to somehow cast rough shadows against the furniture, making the scene unpleasant to witness. All the attention I didn’t mind moments ago, starts to feel heavy on the back of my neck.

I leave church recognizing we’re not on amicable terms.

Judging these people’s relation to the spiritual realm reminded me of how I was judged by church people most of my life. Their judgment was a constant reminder of all the ways in which I would never belong in their community. It reminded me also of how my parents reinforced the idea of God, punishing whoever did not follow the path strictly, and consequently how much shame and guilt I held within for a long time, living in constant fear of God’s judgment.

Leaving that church made me realize I was projecting my past onto people who had nothing to do with how I was indoctrinated into Christianity from birth.

For a brief moment, I thought I knew about the true notion of light in ways that they could never, but the truth is I don’t. The only notion I have of anything is limited by the range of my perspective and lived experience. I cannot possibly inherently know about the degree of intimacy others have with the divine, and it is not my place nor duty to assess them.

My spirituality has taught me so much, yet that evening at the church mass, I failed to put the teachings I preach into practice.

I stand in my spirituality as it allows room for me to question my beliefs and evaluate my standpoint at any given time. This gives me the space to self-reflect on the discomfort I felt inside the church, and realize that part of my experience was tainted by my previous memories of being raised in a strict Christian household.

I take a few moments of introspection, checking in with the wisdom held in my heart, creating a distance between my self and the concept I have created about me, to then realize my fault.

We’re not that different after all. I too love my rituals and ceremonies. My spirituality has me returning to my meditation cushion, my lotus, and my solo rituals because in them I am empowered to explore, connect, ask, feel and discover. I have found meaning in my rituals so I keep practicing - probably like the church-goers from Duomo San Lorenzo.

Two things can be said; I do not hold the truth of what God is. I only bear questions and an honest spirit that leads me closer to my own finding out.

I do not belong in church. Thank God. I hope I remain forever a stranger to religion.

Photos by Anna Trevisan