Our neighbour requested for prayers to help bring back her husband’s good health. As she gracefully moved her hijab just enough for me to see the seriousness of her plight, I was struck with the image of determination and confidence in the action taken. Desperation was not outlined on her face and neither was sadness. Instinctively still, I touched her hand to comfort her, and knowing what it meant, she promptly affirmed my swift assessment. It is faith she said that equipped her with courage; tread the path of positivities, leaving no room for sadness. Needless to say, she meant faith in God, who she respectfully addressed quite differently as I and those in my religion would. Her faith in Him has become more pronounced each day I speak to her. At 36, hard-working, very much a family man, her husband is afflicted with lung cancer with no obvious cause for acquiring it. He is also a father of three very young sons, all years below the radar of puberty. As the wife entrusted us to help them in their suffering through our prayers, I was in turn grateful and elated for the respect and recognition she has shown for my religion, my faith; an acknowledgment sincere enough to touch their very lives. It moved me to know that in her spiritual beliefs we are favourably included despite some differences in sacred doctrine and religious practices; that even in prior normal days there was never a need for dogmatic assertions, from us or her, in order to prove who are within the loving embrace of God and who has the right religion. The converging forces of truly and simultaneously understanding religion and the physical man have united us in one faith.
We assured her of our prayers and we went further to offer a Holy Mass for her husband’s full recovery. In the past, I have sought the merits of this sacred rite for various personal and neighbourly intentions. However, I have never offered one for anybody outside of my religion. Not for even a second did this reality come to mind as we planned for this ultimate spiritual offering and supplication. I always believe that God is for everyone. When our parish priest saw the name of our sick neighbour during the scheduling of the mass, he fixated an eye line with me, without a smile I should add, as if to confirm, while he mentioned in one word, my neighbour’s spiritual background. I thought, “Oh-oh, this is the part where an orchestra plays an overture”. He quickly added, perhaps alerted by my emerging defensive look, that we are all children of God and my request for the Holy Mass on my neighbour’s behalf was most welcomed, as was the presence during the mass, of my sick neighbour or any of his family members, relatives and friends. He praised my intentions, though obviously not expecting the inconsistency just rendered. With this, and like music with different notes and movements, the initial staccato of doubts and uneasiness that played because of the difference in religion so obviously spelled out, turned into sentiments with the artistry of etudes. There was a distinct sense of fulfillment, relief and resolve for what I believe religion should stand for and how God should be portrayed.
I was reminded of a time I was told that mere entry to a church of another religion was a sin. I have of course dismissed this, countless summers ago, as a product of misinterpretation, of somebody lost in translation, ignorance and yes, perhaps, judgmental people. My mind went on and had “re-runs” of the sad and unfortunate moments I learned and read about, despite pure intentions by some, or most, during the age of Conquistadores and the Crusades.
Similarly, I couldn’t help but look back to a morass of a discussion I had with a co-worker who said, or rather pontificated, that Eternal Salvation is not possible without reading the Holy Bible. It made me regret for opting a much-needed 15-minute break in the comforts of the employees’ lounging room instead of sticking it out with spreadsheets, formulae, analysis, decisions and reports yet to be made. The statement, intended to be understood literally, prompted my thoughts to trickle fast like blocks in an old Nintendo game: The poor illiterates then! What about a tired mother who procreated and has a good number of them taking the time she could have devoted to the Bible? What will happen to the blind who has no access to the Braille system or who is in a predicament where no one can read for him? Would knowledge of avoiding sin and actions indicative of this suffice for a dying man? What happens to a good man who takes to heart God’s commandments, but does not read the Bible? Would God be so unforgiving? I vocalized these to my disappointment. She went on questioning the role of the Pope and the presence of leaders, and kings and what future holds for them. Pardon me, but as the discussion transformed into something like a political debate gone awry, I left with no formality, lest I actually sin. I saw others swing their heads left and right. I wondered how they took her stance, or mine. One thing was certain though-----it was a day minus 15 minutes, that I enjoyed working with figures, spreadsheets and financial analysis.
Fleetingly, but vividly, a part of my brain presented me with last summer’s picnic with friends and acquaintances. The conversation around the table of food was soothing to the digestive process, though it hopped from one topic to another, landing and stagnated for a quite while on a participant who declared that anybody who does not believe in Christ can not attain Eternal Salvation. The spontaneity surprised me; the fervency was transparent; grasping the moment to proselytize perhaps, déjà vu. I immediately checked her literal intentions. Indeed, it was so. I believe in Christ and what He represents, but I have to speak up, I thought, before I miss a chance and forever disfavour those who I know try their very best to live decently, responsibly and harmoniously with others, without even believing in God or knowing the details about Christ; there is something still lacking in them, I know; but who is perfect and what human should judge? Essentially, however, there is awareness in them of what is good, why it is important and how to practice it. I have to speak up, lest those who believe in Christ, but sin blatantly anyway, would find haven in such a statement, especially if they have been saturated with a rationalization that because only God can be perfect and no human is, their indiscretions can find excuse in a semblance of correctness or validity they condition themselves to believe. Lastly, but surely not the least, I have to speak up because Christ did not spread the Word in such a manner; because I know God loves us all and for this, He offers Salvation in different ways, which no creature of His can likely comprehend. So I asked with silence as a reply, “How does God treat his creature who lives like Christ without even knowing Him?” Man is not born evil and his soul is from God and the goodness in him can be fostered in so many ways. I went on, “Is it more literally correct to say that only God knows who will attain Eternal Salvation? There are guides towards this, but who’s to say that one is actually honest and sincere, or not, in practicing these? Righteous or not, can we really be absolutely certain with all our human definitive statements as to who attains Eternal Life?” The moment of discourse was ended by another who softly uttered that on the Last Day, what matters are the actions we’ve taken. Might I add that perhaps, just perhaps, what we did not take as well? Gospel according to St. Mark: 10, 26-27: “Who can be saved?” “Jesus said: “With men, it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
The Son of God did not go about intimidating people or sowing fear. His words were comforting; his approach, humble and understanding, and these attracted people, followers. He welcomed everybody. He presented the truth on how to live and be enlightened in a manner that did not stigmatize, segregate, antagonize or polarize.
There are some evangelizing people with pure intentions and they are admirable. At times however, they are overshadowed by others who have mixed intentions and are found to be self-serving; this flows into the tone of their speech and body language. To these individuals, the ripples on how they go about handling their religion may go beyond their immediate awareness and may seem utterly benign to them. Unfortunately, for discerning listeners, observers, no élan can cover such flaw and the entire effort becomes void of true enlightenment. Rather, it develops into a proselytizing endeavour that likely forms a vexation to the physical nature of man, leaving his soul wanting.
As our souls are delicate and sacred, so are the spiritual motivations and religious disciplines that feed and nurture them; it doesn’t matter what sacred background these come from. It is with legitimate spiritual knowledge, sincere and unselfish intentions, care, humility, comforting words and good examples that interpreters of all religions and of God should approach the complexities of the physicality of man in order to reach and touch his soul genuinely.