If I hadn’t asked myself out on this date, I’m not sure I would have gone.
But I did. This week, an afternoon was spent visiting the major houses of worship in my neighbourhood, Parramatta in western Sydney, which may be the world’s most culturally diverse district.
St John’s Cathedral – one of the oldest Anglican structures in Australia, which our flat looks down over. St Patrick’s – the Catholics’ reply which burned down about a decade ago and has been modernistically rebuilt with its altar at its centre and all the parishioners’ pew facing each other.
The Parramatta Mosque – which starts with an unmarked glass door of an office building that’s mostly tenanted by migration agents and budget dentists. The Parramatta & District Synagogue – where Indian kids now predominate in the childcare centre that’s provided during weekdays as an additional service and income stream.
And, the Nan Tien Buddhist temple – where, like in many Asian settings I’ve observed, commerce prevails in the red and gold premises. Folks buying and selling scrolls, amulets and blessings.
Right away, you might be thinking of that last European holiday: “Oh great. Another church.”
Yet, somehow, we end up in these places. Often, we gaze up at murals of angels or across at smoke-layered statues of saints. We seem obliged to take on a serious expression – or at least I do. Honestly, we are clueless about what we’re looking at or about the discussions, resources, planning and mastery that went into building these places. Still, many of us feel some sense that we have to at least pop our heads in”.
Equally, when we’re driving along on a Sunday, maybe to the kids’ soccer match or afternoon barbecue at the mate’s, we drive by churches and other places of worship. We might see a full car park and, for some, the thought crosses: “Gee, that’s nice.” And, then we generally don’t slow down to go in. It’s comforting, perhaps, as we speed along in a metal box to know that someone else is keeping still on a wooden pew.
So, that’s what I was mulling as I walked and pedaled through our district on a clear and quiet winter afternoon.
Why is St Patrick’s side chapel basically filled on a Thursday at lunchtime, and how are some people still actively populating these places? Is the worn, almost industrial carpet of ‘incognito Islam’ on Marsden Street part of a place that’s truly sacred?
Or, do we have ‘God’ and ‘faith’ – represented by St John’s unique dual spires – as proxies for the sense of community that we feel lacking otherwise?
Or, is it simply because we have to have something to believe in on a seemingly meaningless planet? Is Jesus just a convenience?
Or, in our almost totally secular world, is religion just a strand of residual cultural DNA that the statistics would tell us is fading away?
Not a single answer was found or is pretended to by me. Truth be told, I actually don’t have the intellectual firepower to get to such singular insight, nor the expanses of time to meditate my way to them. After a lifetime of screens – TVs, computers, and mobiles – my morphed brain doesn’t have the attention span either.
What I thankfully and luckily still do have is my ‘conviction by curiousity and connection’.
In ‘acts of attentiveness’ that I actively seek out – whether it’s trip around local places of faith, or on silent retreat with Prah Mana, a Thai Buddhist monk in the Southern Highlands, or during evening vespers in a tiny stone chapel with my Franciscan Anglican brothers in the Upper Hunter – I find meaning without definitions.
It’s not just about geography or being around people wiser than me. It can come in what some Indigenous Australians call ‘dadirri’, which is really intently and non-judgmentally listening to someone whether it’s an Uber driver’s story of escape from Sudan, or a Kyiv barista’s story of his military service in eastern Ukraine.
When I push the pause button from the ‘business of busy’ and really focus my attention and concentration, I somehow counter-intuitively find myself transported to and placed in a broader, purpose-filled pattern. It’s like Star Trek teleportation; Spock and Captain Kirk can’t do anything in that moment but go to another place.
Herman Hesse wrote: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.”
By ‘going small’ I get to ‘go big’ and experience the essential that exists outside of my daily concerns and my formidable flaws. Allowing myself the time and space to allow myself to ‘radically reflect’ or ‘prayerfully ponder’, I allow love to flow out to my fellows and my fellows’ grace and beauty to flow in. For me, that’s the God-like in each of us.
(One of the simplest Buddhist meditations after concentration on the flow of the breath that I’ve learned from Prah Mana is to concentrate on the mantra “Love and Kindness” and to contemplate the smiling faces of one’s loved ones.)
And, believe me, I’m desperately divorced from the God-like at least 90 per cent of the time! Because I’m fussed about misplacing my car keys. Or, my ‘to do’ list is so long that I can’t actually recall why some things are on it. Or, I just get tired and start to feel sorry for myself. Or, I get selfish in one of dozens of well-formed ways. Like political cynicism, or patronisation, or lack of manners, or odious comparisons and envy, or scrolling and more scrolling and more scrolling, or [insert more bad habits here].
So, on this week’s walk and pedal, I was in motion, yes. What I was really doing was seeking the still and hoping for humility’s healing power. What I was really doing was trying to act with love when I am usually well short of doing so.
That, I believe, and even as I hear genuine horror stories about the Church, or that a Islamist terrorist was recruited at the local mosque, or that the temple is a front for Asian Pacific geopolitics, are what these places of faith are there to evoke and offer. That is my walk, if not leap, of faith.