My journey across beliefs has shown me how many different roads were built to what seems to be the same God and how the defense of the road has always been more important than the destination.
My First Step in the Journey Across Beliefs
My journey across beliefs started when I was born and reared a Catholic in a largely Catholic country, the Philippines. In fact, my mother told me I was born when the Cathedral bells chimed for the morning mass on the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Hence my name as the Saint's name marked in the calendar has to be part of your given name or there is danger of you becoming a heathen. Being named the same as a small candy has been a mixed blessing but changes were to come.
Yes, I was born in the city where the Spaniards first established their 4 centuries of reign in the Philippines leaving us with pieces of their language, the mantle of their religion and a penchant for fiestas only equalled by the similarly managed Mexicans.
Because I grew up in the non-Islamic part of the Philippines, we only saw the Filipino Muslims as merchants going from house to house selling watches and carpets and what not.
Some of them became our family friends as our parents showed interest in their families they had left in the South and ask them for updates each time they wandered through. But that was not much of an exposure to Islamic culture which is so much a part of the Philippines. We were told to stay away from them during Ramadan as they could run amok given their long daily fast.
I have been in many Islamic countries during Ramadan and fasted, too, but I have never seen anyone run amok other than Sambo the elephant in Cambodia.
Growing Up with Kids of Different Religions
Later in my life, some of my Philippines friends told stories of how they grew up with Muslim kids, played together, went to school together and never knew there was a difference until the Madrasas came to their cities and the Islamic buddies started to go to different schools and learn to see differences they never knew. And they no longer played together.
We have Islamic friends telling us of their very positive experiences studying in Catholic universities where they were allowed to have their own retreats and worship. I wonder what went wrong?
However, this was not my direct experience as I did not grow up in the south where the Islamic communities live. I remembered my first visit down south and this was my first image of the strong presence of Islam in the Philippines when I saw the mosques surrounding Lake Lanao. What a foreign world it was for me, the remnant of our Malay past and a strong hint of troubles to come.
My First Surprise at the Difference
I remember my surprise when the kids in the subway in Toronto, the first western city I visited, did not know what nuns were when they saw veiled women in their habits. Catholics in Toronto seemed as rare a specie as Muslims in the Visayas and the odds were they were Irish or Italians, and we all know about them or so I was told.
And I came from a place where the Catholics were the majority and the power. I saw that the symbols I grew up with were seen differently. Young kids wearing the Cross, albeit without the image of Jesus, as fashion jewelry. Wow, icons were clashing all around me. All these made me start thinking of the differences that exist among us, even those who profess to believe in the same religion. In fact the closer the road, the uglier the relationship
Religious distinctions puzzled me
These distinctions continued to puzzle me especially when we work in Islamic countries. We've done our bit in Palestine, Gaza, Jordan, Pakistan, India, Maldives and Bangladesh and of course the Islamic populations in the Philippines. We have Islamic friends in Canada who have become more like families to us.
While many things were different, there were also many things that drew us together. Working in the Palestinian area, the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians seemed more like the Irish of the early 29th century where they remember everything and learn nothing.
Religious differences - What they mean to us
More than ever, with all the online resources available, we have a better chance at understanding other beliefs. Given the rampant misunderstanding leading to violence, there is an urgent need for us to learn more about the beliefs of others, the differences are often more surface.
Difference in Religion Fades
In the poorer countries, there were times in village consultations when because male consultants were not allowed in the communities where the women were, I had to go in and do the work for them.
Immediately, women just feel that affinity no matter what cultures we come from. Even with the language barrier, we still feel more one with each other. Somehow, the difference in religion fades as you get to know each other as humans. The men sniffed about like grumpy dogs while we relaxed and shared.
The more we reach out, the more we become one
While we believe strongly about the religious road we've been taught, with the exception of the crazies, the roads all seem to lead to roughly the same place: love and life and caring and compassion. And the more we reach out, the more we become one and the more we try to get out of the sideroads to visit other roads and see what go on there.
In my experience, the more we want to be different, the more we are much the same. But as young people see the weirdness of our battles to be different, they start to lose interest. What a tragedy. What a loss of culture.
Experience of Buddhism
Recently, our work has centered largely in the Buddhist cultures of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia. We celebrate with them Buddhist holidays and visit the temples.
Our local friends share their family celebrations during these holidays and we understand them more. We attend their engagement and wedding ceremonies. We begin to understand the Buddhist traditions and beliefs.
The Interlap in Beliefs
Hinduism's explosion of colours and noise and powder and gods and elephant trunks and eight-arm ladies. To find its parallel, you need to read revelation. We all seem so different but we're really not. Just different roads to the same end.
We've watched the back and forth of Hinduism and Buddhism in the head gear of the Khmer Kings. We watched the two almost become each other in Nepal till Buddha is the incarnation of Krishna and Ganesh merits an orange robe. Crossroads between great highways - but all going in the same direction.
Once in Nepal, when visiting a Buddhist temple with a Hindu friend, I was surprised at how much she knows the symbols there and she did the rituals as well. So, surprised, I asked, "How come you know all these? I thought your family is Hindu". She turned to me and said., "Yes, we are. But, we are Buddhists, too." I sort of understood.
Just today, attending an engagement ceremony in Cambodia, Hindu priests gave the blessing and prayers within a Buddhist engagement ritual. The role of the Hindu priests is recognized as an integral part of the Buddhist engagement rites.
The Christmas Story
Just today, in the Ministry office where my husband has his current assignment, some of the local consultants who are Buddhists started to ask about Christmas although for some years now, they have greeted us each time Christmas comes.
My husband regaled them with the story of how Christian families go to Church on Christmas Eve and share a special snack when they come home. The kids then put out a glass of milk and cookies for Santa before they go to bed and how the parents drink the milk and eat the cookies as they put the gifts around the Christmas tree or in the kids stockings on the mantel piece.
The Consultants are a bit puzzled by the Jesus guy, but roll in laughter as Santa's story unfolds with chimneys, Rudolph and radar sightings and all.
My journey will go on
And I will continue to see how our beliefs can bring us together
My life's journey will go on and I will look more and more for how our beliefs can bring us together, not crash jets into buildings and rage at Gods indifference.
I love to think of T.S. Eliot lines:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened...