About thirty years ago, my grandmother, the matriarch of my dad’s family, died. It was a vulnerable time for me as I had married just weeks earlier and our wedding necessitated me formally separating from the Catholic church. My wife was not Catholic and, as we were unwilling to promise to raise the kids as Catholics, the Church would not recognize the wedding. It was a wonderful funeral for a dynamo of a woman. But what caused my eyes to well up was hearing them play Ave Maria which besides being a favourite song, also connected to my grandmother’s name of Maria. I still recall how that music in that place at that time brought everything to the surface.
Back then, I had no clue I would spend my career entering religious spaces but that day’s lesson has stayed with me. Religions are frequently thought of in terms of set doctrines and required practices…but I think we underplay how religions are partly about aesthetics. I encounter a familiar feeling every time I enter a Sikh gurdwara and a very different one when I encounter a Wiccan coven. There is a different aura, a different mood, a different way to behave, to greet people, and to show respect. Below, I want to draw your attention to religions as aesthetics. Aesthetics are not superficial or unimportant but rather how religions as rich cultural-religious systems employ our senses to create the feeling of mystery or meaning or belonging and how this becomes to us the experience of sacredness.
The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon was right – there really is a sound to silence. I am referring to Zen meditation where the silence is a presence, a quiet so unlike our everyday lives, that it shapes the room. For me, there is a look of silence too. Specifically, a plain room with brown cushions and a décor that is both minimalist and yet beautiful. You can meditate anywhere but many seek a place of simplicity and beauty with maybe a few important objects. It’s about paring down to the essentials and your mind goes there more easily if the sights and sounds guide it there.
Hindu temples have a very different feel. A friend who is a devotee and a professor of Hinduism describes the tradition as both/and. Polytheists or monotheists? Hinduism has both (as well as animists, pantheists and monists if you care to look those terms up). The temples aesthetically also reflect both/and as they are alive with so many things. Food offerings? Check. Fire burning? Check. Milk being poured over a deity? Sanskrit mantras? Bells being sounded and, in some places, flashing lights? All checks. If you’re new to it, it may overwhelm or be a bit confusing but if you’re accustomed to it, that cacophony of movement and sound is Hinduism. It makes the multiplicity – the both/and – something you feel in your bones.
To take another example, when I visited Cairo this year, I was struck by the soundscape of Islam. As I walked through a pedestrian market, the Qur’an poured out of shop after shop. As it faded from one building I passed, it got louder from another I was approaching. And the call to prayer sounded everywhere when prayer time arrived. What is Islam without the sound of Arabic poetry? Historians will tell you the beauty of the Qur’an’s poetry won many key early converts. People on the street will tell you it still does today.
I began with the moment from my grandmother’s funeral but another key moment hit me more recently when, in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Jews gathered outside to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. It sent chills up my body as they panned out and I listened to this large crowd reciting the prayer marking death and loss.
What might sacredness look like to you? Is it the smell of the woods? The sound of a canoe paddle on a quiet morning lake, pierced only by the loon’s haunting call? Is it Gregorian chant, the mournful Islamic call to prayer, or maybe the joyful song of Shabbat? Does it smell like the langar meal or incense or the fresh green of the forest floor?
Last week, I took some university students on a 4 day version of our Discovery Week. I’m looking forward to the event in July. I like teaching the classes. But what people remember most is tasting the religions, inhaling their scent, and drinking in the sights and sounds.
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