Nothing has changed so much and remained unchanged as the essentials of my experience with religion and the sacred in human experience. I look back and see the child I was half a century ago, today see the aging man and through the lenses of memory notice how constant has been my fascination with religious experience.
Back then God was the majestic, distant Caucasian bearded patriarch of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Today that image is more mythic in both senses of the word: not real and pointing to subconscious yearnings, thoughts lost in the mists of time that we all seem to carry within us.
I and my sisters religiously attended the church of my mother and my mother’s family. It was a small wooden church beside the mammoth Roman Catholic church on the town plaza but that tiny edifice remains to this day the central influence on what memory contributes to present-day religious experience, and my understanding of this very potent, ubiquitous response in myself and every human I’ve come to know.
In my early and mid-teens, the indigenous church which was Catholic in everything but a few details came within the sphere of influence of American Protestantism. The Iglesia Filipina Independiente became allied with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A and little by little lost many of its Catholic imagery, what to me was at the heart of devotional experience that was so important to me then, and remains in altered but recognizable form today, a continuing passion, the mystery that drives me to abysses of irrationality: for what is our life but largely irrational choices lurking beneath a patina of Enlightenment intellectuality and scientism?
In my last years at home, before graduating from a Catholic college and moving to Manila for graduate school, Vatican II began and changes came even more rapidly as my family’s church not only became more Protestant in looks but also adopted the changes from Rome that attempted to bring the Roman Church up to the present. The church lost Latin and for many years its gorgeous European liturgical music. My family’s church started using hymns from the Episcopal and English tradition and the order of mass too changed. Many of the masses were now said, not sung, and in English.
Since I left the country, a revitalizing nationalism has affected both the Philippine Catholic Church and the Philippine Independent Church, a change I encountered when I started going back to the home country. I met Aglipayan and Catholic priests who spoke of church not so much as places of old-style worship but as arenas for personal and societal change. It was invigorating.
Still I missed what I enjoyed the most when growing up in the church before the advent of Protestant and Vatican II emendations. Church to me was something private, what I experienced in the solitude of my inner life that I didn’t share with anyone: it was too intimate and I didn’t have the words to describe what that life was like. I didn’t need the words. There was no divide between the reasoning and the experiencing “me.”
The church of my childhood was primitive, as I think today of what primitive means. Primitive is related to primal, that which is close to the root of who we are. What I remember and what still fills me with something of a lost Paradise maybe are lost in the sense that we inevitably lose our childhood innocence, that same quality that made fairy tales and folk stories of monsters, spirits, ghosts, and beings with otherworldly powers seem real to a child.
I have the greatest respect for reason and the gifts that science has brought to our betterment as human beings are awesome. I wouldn’t want to go back to the Middle Ages, nor even to the halcyon-appearing days of the 1940s and 50s. My grown-up eyes are not jaundiced enough not to see the trials and hardships of those times. But a longing remains nonetheless for what is lost.
That longing, I hazard to think, is at the heart of religious experience. It is unrealistic, impractical and totally unreachable which is why mystery is at the core of religion. Only mystery is large enough to comprehend what is humanly impossible but it is precisely what is humanly impossible that is the domain of religious experience. In the face of the incomprehensible that confronts us we feel awe and in splinters of understanding experience our smallness and the power and, yes, majesty of what lies beyond the confines of our biggest, most potent action.
Religious experience is what lies beyond the horizon of what today we can achieve and comprehend. I believe with the force of religious conviction that this horizon does not limit us; it beckons us where dragons live and reign; it’s our future as a species and the future we can only imagine, a future we can point to with our art, our exploration into what is beautiful, noble and ultimately true in our deepest and inmost selves.
That little wooden church on my hometown plaza is a repository of memories I treasure still, as I treasure with increasing urgency what I’ve lost and will never have again. There candles flamed in the dark and melted to smear altar cloths, smoke made colors dim and change their hues, and statues without life moved to a rhythm I can only approach today in the silence of some sleepless night when the child in me returns, and the spirits walk about like gods of old.
Then am I not child or grownup anymore, but something eternally becoming, a ghost that transcends time and my short life is borne away into the ephemeral where God still lives and I too live in him.