When I was in college I took a class called “What is Religion?” Initially I brushed it off as a filler course, something I could snooze my way through. I wound up enthralled with the topics we discussed, and I can’t recall a class that impacted me more.
As the name indicates, we were attempting to define religion, and what we came up with was this: Religion is any means toward ultimate transformation. Given this definition, one can find religion via any number of routes, from the strictures of Roman Catholicism to the ecstasies of hallucinogens; even mind-blowing sex can be considered a kind of worship. What we bring our full attention to, what we immerse ourselves in, becomes our religion, our means of transcending stress and achieving bliss. A paleontologist might find his rapture digging for dinosaur bones; a painter becomes lost in her canvas; a rock star gets his glory on the stage. If you are deeply and actively interested in at least one thing, you can consider yourself religious (as long as this activity brings no harm to others—in defining religion I think we must make that distinction).
What I find most interesting here is the implication that transformation is necessary, that without religion we are unfinished, unsatisfied beings. When we are not engaged in our particular transcendent activity, where are we? What are we? Why do we not feel whole all the time, and why can’t we bring some of that passion into the rest of our lives?
Happiness, of course, is not sustainable. It touches us and moves on. Religion is more about awe, something we tend to lose as we grow into adults. Awe is surrender, total compliance—the apprehension of an overriding power. It is what I feel when I see a herd of horses run across a field or a single osprey dive for fish. Animals are my religion. When I behold them or think of them, my heart opens. I am wondering if this reverence can be summoned, if it can be worked like a muscle. To respect life in its entirety—that would be something.
So I have been trying. As often as I can remember, I slow down. This seems to be the key, the natural starting point. Walking, folding clothes, doing the dishes, I slow way down. I pick up a glass and consider its shape, or I fold a shirt with extra care, my fingers learning the fabric. I try to offer nothing more than admiration, and soon, like magic, I become calm. “Resist nothing,” Eckhart Tolle teaches. How peaceful this land is, this world stripped of me.
Maybe that’s the ultimate transformation, not so much a glorious ascent as a stepping aside. Maybe religion is nothing more than making way for wonder.