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 our 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 systems employ our senses to create powerful feelings of mystery or meaning or belonging and how this becomes to us the experience of sacredness.

Zen meditation. Photo credit: Canva.com

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.

The music of the Qur’an filled the air in Khan El-Khalili market. Photo Credit: Encounter World Religions

I began this post with the moment from my grandmother’s funeral but another key moment hit me in more recent memory 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.

Caption: Jews in New York gathered to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, using sound and prayer to lend solemnity and help grieve the loss of life. Photo credit: Screenshot from social media (Mourner’s Kaddish @ Union Square Vigil For #TreeOfLifeSynagogue Massacre 10/27/18 by Sandi Bachom)

And You?

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 Rachmaninoff’s 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?

In May, I took some university students on a 4 day version of our Discovery Week. This Sunday, we will hold our annual Discovery Week in Toronto. I really like teaching the classes. But what people will remember most is tasting the religions, inhaling their scent, and drinking in the sights and sounds. Religion is not just for minds. It’s for bodies. I’m thrilled forty people will spend the week immersing themselves in the religions of the world.

Photo Credit: Canva.com


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    1. William Tompkins July 6, 2023 at 10:10 pm - Reply

      i hate religious dogma and the many wars it has caused, its control over peoples’ lives, the “we versus them” mentality is just sickening. I have a PhD in ethnology also (ethnomusicology), which requires an open, inquisitive mind, but I am also spiritual, but not religious. I tend to oppose only those religions that claim to be the only Way. Your article has given me a fresh perspective. Thank you

      • Brian Carwana August 6, 2023 at 2:25 pm - Reply

        Thanks William! That’s nice to hear!

    2. Laurie Vandenhurk July 7, 2023 at 12:07 am - Reply

      Wonderful! To use a Christian word, incarnational, although many Christians are stuck in the dogma-head space.

      I also loved the sound of Muslim prayers when we lived in Tanzania. I understand exactly what you mean by “the feel of religion.” So beautifully described. Thanks you.

      • Brian Carwana August 6, 2023 at 2:28 pm - Reply

        Thanks for this Laurie! I’m glad it resonated!

    3. Jay Moore July 8, 2023 at 4:00 pm - Reply

      Thanks for you thoughts about this, Brian. I agree. Religion is not academia. Beliefs are more than opinions. If beliefs and faiths were mental functions only, we wouldn’t see the vast majority of people holding on to the old religions of their families and cultures. The thinking, intellectual elements of religion are the conscious tip of a much larger iceberg of the unconscious, unseen below the water level, and that we access through the affective, emotional elements of our experience. Even cranky old atheists can have an experience with strong emotions that magnify the meaning of life and they may even label those experiences as transcendent.

    4. Helena July 9, 2023 at 5:09 am - Reply

      Well put! This is especially rings true for me because I just read “Life in Five Senses” by Gretchen Rubin. She “investigates the profound power of tuning in to the physical world” by paying attention to using her five senses. I was already thinking about how to incorporate the five senses in my kindergarten religious school class and your blog is timely!

      • Brian Carwana August 6, 2023 at 2:25 pm - Reply

        Really glad to hear that Helena! It’s been a realization for me in recent years.Really glad to hear that Helena! It’s been a realization for me in recent years.

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