Personal reflections on my evolving faith

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star)

I was born a Catholic. I was ardently raised as one by my parents and my school. As a young boy and up to my early 20s, one might even say I was a prayerful person in the Catholic manner, with its rituals and its prescribed prayers.

Compared to how I saw my classmates, I felt I was on the more scrupulous and conscientious side of things than most of them. I was never cavalier about how I treated people. I always thought of the repercussions and ramifications of actions I had done or had failed to do. I was also devoted to projects in school like the Christmas Package Drive where we solicited and brought goods and money from our parents and other benefactors to give to the poor so they could have a good Christmas.

At night, I reflected on the day just past before I went to sleep. I thought of things I had done that were good or hurtful to others. I said the Act of Contrition nightly. I had a yearning to know God and His ways. I wanted to understand Him and know my mission in life. I took seriously our Catholic teachers’ talks about finding one’s purpose in this existence and following this for the greater glory of God. In short, I was a good Catholic boy.

Being a student of the Jesuits was in many ways liberating. In high school, we were tackling moral questions like adults in theology class. I remember a Jesuit posing to us the idea of full knowledge and full consent in relation to so-called “mortal sins.” Could one possibly commit a so-called mortal sin with full knowledge and full consent? Can anyone in his right mind fathom the consequences of what eternal separation from God really is like and still commit mortal sin? What exactly did Jesus mean when He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”? Did Jesus realize that people in fact do not know or realize what they do? Are they being mortally sinful or just pridefully ignorant?

But such discussions happened many moons ago. I am now in the very early autumn of my life. And while in a big way, my journey on this road of faith was shaped by the Jesuits, in other big ways, it was affected by those who spoke loudly for the Church — the Pope, the Bishops, the high-profile Catholic icons who represented the official church. And the contrasting voices and manners I heard led me to understand my own faith in the way that I do now.

An influential Jesuit once told me that religion is like salt. One has to take it in moderation or things could go wrong. That made a lot of sense. I have largely resisted the pull of a lot of the faith renewal movements that have completely taken over the lives of many people I know. While it may work for them, the forever-striving-to-be-good, or wallowing in unworthiness is a turn-off. In place of an obsession with so-called Original Sin, I have learned to trust in my Original Blessing as a child of God. I have also realized that I am a person who questions things deeply before I give my heart, mind and soul to some eternal proposition that demands complete obedience and faithfulness in everyday life. I also trust in science and reason and I believe a true understanding of God is not anathema to them.

I have not always sat comfortably with how the Church has conducted itself amid charges of pedophilia and corruption, and its refusal to cooperate with authorities in dealing with its erring rank and file. I have also questioned its stance on gays, reproductive health, and its continued acquisition of wealth, which, in my mind should be shared with the poor.

The whole RH debate in the Philippines, the condom ban in Alabang and now the PCSO vehicles scandal has left my faith in the men who represent this great institution in tatters. I have been so disappointed in the way they have conducted themselves. I saw men of the cloth acting like politicians going for brownie points, and protecting their empires in place of charitable understanding and seeing good faith in their adversaries. I saw spin doctoring and even lying. I saw manipulation and hysterics in place of reasoning.

In truth, my loyalty and belief in the institution is hanging by a thread. Ironically, it seems to me the Church is being destroyed not so much by those who profess to hate it, but by those who profess to love it. The admonition about too much salt also seems to apply to those who profess to be the salt of the earth. Moderation and tolerance, not fanaticism or quick condemnation, are the more winning ways. Thank God there are many wonderful priests, nuns and laity who mirror the face of Christ humbly without fanfare, and keep the flame burning for many.

Some will question me when I say this, but a lot of wisdom one acquires through the years is learned by letting go of once immutable positions and beliefs. For the mind to evolve, one must be ready to outgrow it and be open to new things. And so it goes with faith. Faith is not trapped in musty centuries and old books of the past. God is there too but God continues to speak in the modern world and is not trapped in a time when the world was still seen to be flat, and non-Christians were still considered to be heathens. God is bigger than any religion, any era, any set of dogmas. Neither is God trapped in the literalism of words. God surpasses anything we can imagine and our understanding of Him must constantly evolve.

Where before I found solace in quiet churches and the compassionate, charitable voices and teachings of our church leaders, I now also find it outside in Zen meditation, long walks, and mindfulness in everyday life. In truth, God seems to speak so clearly and so uncomplicatedly when I meet Him/Her there.

In Zen, there is a saying that every blade of grass is as tall as a cathedral. I find no need for big religious productions and rituals where often self-serving homilies, religious dogma and positions get in the way. While I still go to Mass sometimes (mostly with Jesuits), I find I can now largely sustain my quest for the holy by just being as present as I can to ordinary things.
Heaven used to be a place where I was not and to get there I had to live a life prescribed by some holy people as good, and then, just maybe, I could get there when I die. Now, I find that heaven is not a specific geographical place. In my experience, it is everywhere we are if we just open our eyes. It’s pretty hard to miss, even if we do.

What remains true and uncomplicated for me are the simplest catechism tenets that I learned in grade school, and these are: a) God made everyone, b) God loves everybody unconditionally, and c) God is everywhere. From this I deduce that the God who made everyone also made gays and lesbians, sinners, and every marginalized person. And yes, God loves them as unconditionally as He/She does everyone else.

And what is unconditional love? It is the love that knows no boundaries, and has no caveats. You do not have to do anything to deserve it. You already are deserving because you are God’s progeny. So throw away your fear. You can recover from anything and start anew, fresh and untainted. And for that alone, one is ennobled and inspired to do the right, conscientious thing. The way to holiness is good action without fear to goad you.

I do not know how to label myself in terms of religion. I am more focused on my experience of spirituality. When asked by people about my religion, I cryptically answer with a quip I heard from a guest of Larry King which goes, “I belong to the one true church of which I am the only member.”

The space for this article is too short for everything I want to say on the matter. I also know I have just tackled one of the most controversial, divisive topics of all time (the other being politics). I hope it was not naïve and foolish of me to do so.

But I trust that in the most real way, all divisions including religious ones are illusionary. If I really open my eyes, I may see I have more things in common with the Pope, CBCP, the Alabang councilors, and all people whom I brand as “other” because of differences in opinions. But at the bottom of all things eternal, what do these mundane matters such as “dogma” mean? The world was once thought to be flat. Galileo used to be regarded as a heretic. Evolution was laughed at. Noli Me Tangere was on the list of banned books.

Such things become inconsequential. Anything that has an expiry date is not eternally true. The eternal Oneness we share as God’s creatures shines brighter and outshines all the “small stuff” that isolates us from each other.

Thank you for reading. Namaste. Gassho. Baba nam kevalam. Shalom. Peace and love. May the Lord be with you today and always.

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3 thoughts on “Personal reflections on my evolving faith”

  1. “I also know I have just tackled one of the most controversial, divisive topics of all time (the other being politics). I hope it was not naïve and foolish of me to do so” Tackled with deference, and wisdom. I dont believe it to be foolish or naïve. Very good Jim.

  2. Amazingly written. I struggled with spirituality and religion for many years because i’m a lesbian raised in a Christian home, and in a Catholic country like ours, a “Christian lesbian” is an oxymoron. Thus i’ve been dipping mainly into Atheism, Agnoticism, and New Age. I wish i could also find what you have found: an experience of spirituality and peace outside organized religion.

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