"Are you religious?" Moshe asked. We were on our way to a souk which was an easy walking distance from our apartment. The morning was as splendid as the company and the quiet between sentences was light and sweet. I replied without hesitation, " Yes. I get more religious as I grow older."
Moshe is a genius of one-liners, among many, many other wonderful things. I am still meditating on that question even now. It must have been a decade and a half or so ago when he advised me: "BEWARE OF SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS." It took me years to grasp the wisdom of it. Recently I read Thomas Moore's "Meditations" from where I quote what I believe beautifully expounded on Moshe's advice: "Spiritual authority can easily lose one of the soul's greatest gifts - conscience. Righteousness can be a form of insanity in which conscience, protector of community, is swamped and undone by entitlement."
So here I was still thinking about his question, unforgotten despite the souk bustling seductively with all sorts of fresh produce, butchered livestock, fresh fish and sea foods, dry goods such as clothes and souvenirs, baked treats, yogurt cones, art and crafts hole-in-the-wall stores. Did I say there were scrumptious fresh figs and dried nuts? It was an open market for one-stop shopping and it was seething with vibrant colors, rustling textures, business noise and movement.
I was born in the only Christian country in the Far East to pious parents. My Father was a staunch Protestant. Protestantism was a minority at that time. My Mother was a devout Roman Catholic. The religion of my upbringing was a fulfillment of a prenuptial agreement. My Mother wanted us children baptized in the Catholic Church to avoid issues of religion when time came to marry in a predominantly Catholic country. (Not knowing that we would all be moving to a predominantly Protestant nation.) Although my parents were totally accepting of their religious differences and conducted our family life to accommodate both traditions in an egalitarian fashion, extended family and community were not as tolerant and sometimes proved to be an annoyance. My Father agreed provided that we the children would be allowed to practise whatever religion we decided we want to follow when we reach our age of reason. Growing up we were exposed to diverse religious philosophies and diverse ways of life and my Father constantly reminded us to learn and to take the best from each one. Missionary work, tithing, and philanthropy in all its exultant and humble permutations were central to our life and it was in these grounds of humanitarian effort that we encountered practitioners of other religions like Buddhism, Shintoism and Islam, and then later on, Judaism and Sikhism. Therefore our exposure was to the best of hearts of diverse peoples.
Mamang, my maternal Grand-Mother, was a rare one. She was not religious by any stretch of the conservative imagination. She goes to Church only once a year on the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. But the cornerstone of her beliefs and her mode of living was the Ethic of Reciprocity: "Emu gagawan keng kapara mung tao ing emu buring magawa keka" which is the Golden Rule translated from Pampango. She was a woman of means and grew up in the 1900s with brothers who were doctors and lawyers and parents who were smart business people. She herself studied to be a teacher. She observed the liturgical cycle with her cooking and celebrated patronal feasts or "fiestas" to the hilt with seasonal menus and gourmet sensibility. Her family owned agricultural lands, mango orchards, fish ponds, etc. etc. so you could just imagine the quality of her fresh ingredients. Despite her wealth, she was a hard-working woman who woke up every morning at 4 o'clock and our discipline in domestic arts started with her with the mind that, and I quote her, "If you are rich enough to have help, you will know how to train them properly; if you are poor, then you will not be fazed by household chores." She owned statuary that processed every year, St. John the Gospel Writer, who was dressed in glorious vestments during the Semana Santa when solemnity was marked by bloody flagellants who later wore Franciscan habits in processions, "Stabat Mater" on the violin, formal clothes despite the tropical heat, and non-meat scrumptious meals which made abstinence a delectable virtue. I didn't realize how Spanish her heritage was until I finally found her signature flavors, which I have been doggedly pursuing to duplicate, when I visited Barcelona. Our Catholicism of course was of the Spanish Colonial temperament as well since we were under their rule for 400 years until American missionaries came and educated us.
Lola Paz, my paternal Grand-Mother, whose parents converted from Catholicism and whose life was based on everything Biblical, was a religious Protestant. My Grand-Father was a poor Protestant minister. She was widowed when my Father was 16 and they were the poorest of the poor, my Father's invariable introductory line to his life when he waxed self-referentially. My Father's guiding philosophy was Augustinian: "PRAY AS IF EVERYTHING DEPENDED ON GOD; WORK AS IF EVERYTHING DEPENDED ON YOU." He was the breadwinner of a family of 7 children all of whom had baccalaureate degrees, except for one with a medical degree. All of us 4 children hold graduate degrees except for one who died at age 26; he graduated with a baccalaureate degree in Fine Arts from the same illustrious school we all graduated from, and then went into computers. My younger sister and brother completed their graduate degrees here in the States. Indeed, although piety undergirded our daily life, we were not permitted to use it as a crutch. My Father and Mother were big on the American ethic of hard work, education, success, and missionary work.
Come to think of it, I was literally born into a veritable melting cauldron of differences - how I do I then parlay these rich history into something tangibly significant? Do I have to...but of course YES! To much is given, much is expected. So...how am I religious?
Religion enables me to lavish in the glorious arches of Heaven that I know glow all around me if I but pause, stay still, and dwell on all that is abundantly available and contemporaneously accessible to me. What is religion but an organizing mechanism by which I make my self sensible to all things godly, to help me aspire to what is noble, and to give me the vis-a-tergo to do what I must. My invisible Faith can only be made manifest by the quality of the tangible end products of all that I do. The ineffable beauty of my God is made effable by what ensues from me. The manner in which I comport myself, how I occupy space and move within it, how I relate to those who inhabit my world, how I tread on the Earth and how I discipline myself in the wise use of its resources, how I accomplish my work, how I choose to respond especially when something unsavory happens to me or to another, most especially then - all these are emphatic declarations I make about my God.