I feel my heart beat faster and my eyes widen when the word religion is used. I want to see inside of the person who used it—what are they thinking and feeling? When religion comes up in conversation, somewhere there exists a sacredness that cannot be stripped away. I have found that religion can involve, on both the individual and the communal level, different and changing practices, and different and changing belief sets, but it involves an intense force that, when experienced, cannot be brushed aside.
I first got a glimpse of this sacredness when I was ten. I was at the dinner table with my liberal Christian family, and we were bowing our heads in prayer, as we started and still start every family meal. Just before closing our eyes, I remember catching a glimpse at my older sister, who has always been an idol in my eyes, closing her eyes and taking a peaceful breath before she began the prayer. It was clear to me then that she was in a space different from me, and I did not understand it. I wondered if her prayer was a theatrical performance, and if I was the honest one by not pretending. But I also wondered if her prayer was real, and if I could ever experience what she did.
At thirteen, I first watched Jesus Camp, a documentary about a charismatic Christian summer camp for kids, with my best friend at the time. We saw the kids in the documentary speaking in tongues, shedding tears at the mention of Jesus, and shaking on the floor while the spirit was filling them. My friend marveled at the kids’ devotion and made a pact to be more devoted to her faith, saying, “I, too, should go to school and talk about my faith openly and not hide.” A couple years later, I watched the film with some of my high school peers, and my friends were unanimously disgusted by the political involvement and evangelizing that the kids do in the documentary. It was here that I felt at a complete loss to reconcile the kids’ acts with my peers’ comments. It was clear that the experience of the kids could not be stripped away: their devotion was real, and it came out not only in the church, but also in school and their politics and even the bowling alley. And yet they were causing such visceral negative reactions by my peers. And me? I was scared by their devotion, but a part of me longed to have it.
Even though a few of my friends in high school were vehemently and vocally critical of organized religion, it was in high school that I became less afraid of religion and more in awe. My closest friends in high school were four religious people. One was a practicing Sikh, another a Baha’i, and the others Muslim. I remember blatantly asking my Baha’i friend, “So you actually believe that, like, prayer can help somebody?” and her laughing modestly and saying determinedly, “Yes.” I did not get it, but when the five of us prayed together, I somehow knew that it was not a performance for them: it was real.
One of these friends passed away suddenly just before graduation, and it made me think about his religiosity in a deeper way. He wrote emails to Social Justice Club that said, “I hope you all come to the meeting to appreciate that Truth is lying right under us,” ending with, “Oh yeah, and one more thing: smile .” He had a hope that permeated his being, saying in his graduation speech, “The seeds of inspiration will have no possibility of surviving under this blanket of numbness that may come over us, penetrating our fertile hearts through various means, forcing us to succumb to a sense of mediocrity.” Was he crazy? Absolutely. He knew it, and he knew that I knew it. But his goofiness, his unabashed love for God, and his fervor for mankind made every place he stepped better. And although he would be the last to flaunt his religiosity, he never once was self-conscious about it. He was larger than life, and I saw his service to God in every moment I knew him. When he told me that his purpose in life was to serve God, I had no doubt because I could see him doing it every single day.
It was at his funeral that I experienced for the first time the sacred space that I had hesitantly craved for so long. Amidst the chanting and the prayer and the communal digging and the expressive grief, there was something I was swept away by. Nobody can rationalize that experience away from me. I also saw that his individual religiousness was part of a much bigger religious community, and I witnessed that religious community sweep away hundreds of people, including myself, who were at his funeral.
Since then, I have found my place in the Baha’i Faith. Fervor and intense devotion still scare me, even in the least problematic of contexts. But it is also beautiful. I love it when I am in prayer and even an act that might start as a performance gets transformed into something real, when “every bone in my body soundeth like a pipe with the music of [His] inspiration” (Baha’u’llah). I love it when I can carry that fervor into every day conversation, when I can be in the experience while going about my life.
It is this feeling that, to me, makes religion what it is. The sacred space, the holy experience, the intense fervor that cannot be shaken. I am happy to call it crazy. And I am the first to admit that it is scary to see what such a feeling can propel people and communities to do. But it is also beautiful to see what it can propel people and communities to do. It is why I am still best friends with the guy who told me not long after we met that he will continue to try to convert me as long as we are friends. I do not agree with him, and I even think he is wrong, but I cannot take his experience from him. Not only is it not possible for me to strip him of his experience, but I personally would hate to invalidate that experience, something so beautiful and real and alive—even if it scares me.