My husband once went to listen to a talk by a Buddhist monk who was speaking at an inter-religious event. The monk told a hall full of people that they shouldn’t try to change their religion. Instead he recommended people to work within the religion in which they were brought up in order to find God.
I can see where he was coming from, because I know first hand how difficult it is to make a radical change in your religious views. I refuse to say that I changed my religion, because I was brought up in a Christian church and I have recently been received into a different Christian church.
All the same, I’ve had to make some drastic changes in my religious outlook. When I was a child, Catholics were talked about in the same way as the poor pagans in Africa. By the time I was a teenager, a few more thoughtful people in our church were beginning to say that there might be a few true believers within the Catholic church. When I announced that I wanted to marry a Catholic, I was warned about marrying into a different religion. In practice, however, my family were incredibly generous and accepting of my husband and his family.
All the same, it’s one thing to marry a Catholic and quite another to decide to become Catholic yourself. Most people won’t do what I did, because it’s too darn difficult. On the positive side, I had years of being married into a Catholic family who turned out to be, well, normal. They didn’t seem to worship images or even to worship Mary. Among my in-laws were several nuns and a priest, who visited us regularly in the early years of our marriage. On the other side of the balance, I still had my anti-Catholic attitudes. Every week I longed to go to Mass, but when I tried to actually go, it was incredibly difficult. I felt as if I was wading through a thick sludge of anti-Catholic prejudice.
I don’t know if God expects most of us to change religions. I prefer to think that, like the father in the parable of the lost son, he comes out to the fields to meet us where we are rather, than expecting us to come into his house before he’ll even talk to us. After all, his house might seem strange and foreign and frightening to people who’re not used to it.
However, I do think that we are all asked to stick our heads over the barriers which divide us. We are asked to talk to our neighbours without attaching conditions or demanding that they cross over into our territory before we begin a conversation. In short, we’re asked to love.
One of my closest friends changed religions when she was young. She is now eighty years old and her freedom to get about and do things has shrunk in many ways. However, she often tells me how grateful she is to God for giving her this period of her life. She is thankful each day for little things. No longer under pressure to achieve, she is content to just be and accept her life as it is.
This lady was brought up with a very harsh version of Catholicism and decided as a teenager to leave the church. She found it impossible to live without some sort of spirituality, and when she discovered Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, she realised that she had found her spiritual path. I was nervous about telling her that I had decided to become Catholic, because I didn’t know if old hurts would make her bitter. However, she wrote the following in her letter:
I hope that you find in this church everything which you have already sought. Religions for me are just different ways to HIM, who has no name, no form and no colour. In the deepest centre, in the mystical heart of every religion, we find the same thing. That is the wonder of mysticism. It should not lead to religious wars and conversions. In this place we are all brothers and sisters, and we sing and dance to praise HIM in our different ways and yet together.