Thursday Thought: Passion and Faith Worlds Apart
Passion is universal humanity. Without it religion, history, romance and art would be useless.
– Honore de Balzac –
A writhing sea of bodies, spinning and chanting and raising their arms in passionate praise of the divine, surrounded me. Music thumped the air, the bass reverberating in my chest as if I was being played, not the nearby drums. The intensity of passion was palpable throughout the room as more people jammed in to join the seething mob. It could have been frightening if it was not so welcoming. I was one of just a few non-Indian, non-Hindu people in the room, a foreign non-believer welcomed with open arms, open passion, and open faith.
I was immediately swept away in a moment of déjà vu, brought to the other side of the world to a place the complete opposite – and yet strangely similar.
Five years ago, I was in a similar place on the opposite side of the world. In a tight, well-worn and well-loved Pentecostal church in Alton, Illinois, I stood in silence as the congregation flowed with passion. “Do I have a witness??” the preacher howled, back arched and sweat brimming on his brow. Wails of affirmation came from all around, bodies swaying to the music pumping from a small organ in the corner. Everyone was in their best clothes: fancy, well-pressed suits and grand, even audacious, Easter hats created a mosaic of style and color in this tough part of town. Again, I was one of just a few outsiders – non-African American, non-Pentecostal people in the room – an outsider, but welcomed with open arms, open passion, and open faith.
On the surface, there’s not much to connect Vrindavan, India, and Alton, Illinois. In many ways, they’re polar opposites: geographically, economically, ethnically. But, there are similarities. Both cities have important (and troubled) rivers at their hearts: the Yamuna for Vrindavan, and the Mississippi for Alton. They have deep histories in racism mixed with religion: the catalytic murder of abolitionist minister Elijah P. Lovejoy in Alton (not to mention it being the birthplace of James Earl Ray) and the racist legacy of Vrindavan resident and ISKCON founder Swami Prabhupada in Vrindavan. But, for me, they’ll always be connected through faith and passion.
Although trite, I’ll say it: I’m not a religious person, but I am spiritual. I personally don’t subscribe to any one faith, but have studied many, respect all deeply, and do believe in something greater than us, a divine entity that is within us and around us always. What struck me in both Vrindavan and Alton was the passion – true, deep, palpable – exuded by the believers around me. For all its beauty, religion often casts an air of melancholy with dogmatic rites and pervasive guilt tainting the joy and love faith is supposed to provide. In the sweaty, seething crowds of the faithful in Vrindavan and Alton, however, dogma and guilt were nowhere to be found; only passion, exploding from hearts and mouths and minds and bodies.
Note: For some additional thoughts on faith, check out my Thursday Thought from November 12, 2009: “David Rhodes Sparks on Belief”. Interestingly, that post includes an 1837 quote from Unitarian minister Charles A. Farley noting that even “a child of the Ganges, who worships the glorious river” is a member “of that vast temple which the broad skies cover and the broad earth sustains and whose doors are open to the illimitable heaven.”