I am not a religious person. It’s not that I oppose the concept, but I seem to have an obnoxiously logical brain, which often prevents me from belief in anything unseen. Thankfully, I have been gifted in my family and faith. The openness and stance of the Quaker faith is one that I hold dear and appreciate greatly, and my family has always allowed me space and opportunity to conjure and compose my own opinions from the clasp of my heart and the tick of my mind. I have found that the diversity I have been surrounded with in both life and meeting has granted me an unusual amount of acceptance. I like to believe this leaves my mind extended and accessible. For someone like me, someone whose logic naturally outweighs her faith, involvement in the Religious Society of Friends—and this involvement alone—has pulled from my core the precise braid of conviction, coherence, and palpability that I needed.
An open mind has not always been my strong suit. Even as a child, I found myself strongly opinionated on the subject. If I couldn’t see it, then there could be no basis for believing in it. Science and facts seemed to me much more reasoned and tangible than the cookie-cutter versions of religion outlined for me; they were over-simplified, as they are for many children. That is not to say that my imagination wasn’t strong; in fact, it was the strongest part of me. It was the simple fact that I concurrently maintained a tight rein on my figments. Regardless of how anyone conceptualized various denominations for me, I continued to see no difference between theology and fantasy. My saving grace lay in my ability to keep my mouth shut. I knew enough to see that my opinion was solely my own, and happened to be a controversial one.
After my grandmother died, my mother’s grief and apparently genetic talent for distraction drove her to plan a spontaneous family vacation. She flew around the house booking hotels, renting cars, and arranging her perfect vacation down to the last detail. My high level of self-involvement and constant preoccupation caused me to be oblivious to this, of course, leaving me pleasantly surprised when the announcement of our excursion reached me. I had recently turned six, and I felt that this age deemed me the most mature self I was ever going to be. How could I learn anything more? I was about to be surprised.
The trip my mother had planned was to Kenya. Two weeks away seemed to be the greatest amount of time she could pretend that everything was normal. We didn’t complain; I’m not one to turn down a vacation, regardless of motive. So we packed up, got our shots, and headed to the airport. The entire trip was magical: we rode camels, stayed in beautiful resorts, and saw amazing wildlife. Despite all of this, there was one unequivocal highest point of the trip.
I can recall this memory vividly (the phrase “I remember like it was yesterday” means nothing until I think of this moment). We had rented a towering black Jeep with eight leather seats, two comically large sunroofs, and a private tour guide. When I look back, I realize the shame I would feel now if I took the same trip. With impoverished people surrounding us, we rode like royalty, glistening with sunscreen and camera lenses, and marveling and gaping at the “culture” we were experiencing from behind our bubble of privilege. I am eternally grateful that my six-year-old mind either did not see or did not care about our conspicuousness.
On this particular day, our tour guide was driving us through the grasslands. Our guide’s name was Gilbert; he was instantaneously close with us, and he remained an unlikely family friend for years to come. Gilbert, much too excited to see if we were listening, rambled on. He fired fact after fact, waving and pointing with one hand and steering with the other. My father occupied the front seat, leaning dramatically out of the window with his massive Nikon, snapping memories like there was a shortage. My mother sat behind him, sitting upright and at attention, undeterred by the spacious seats to her left. Her head bobbed up and down with the uneven earth, looking from the window to the guidebook in her lap. Her auburn hair blew softly against her shoulders, and I remember wondering how she could be so subdued at a time like this. My brother, Steven, and I ruled the entire back row, leaving us childishly giddy at our new leather kingdom. The sunroof above us was open, and, due to its massiveness, we both stood on the seat and poked our heads out into the open air, staring in wonder at the infinite view that unfurled before us.
Waist-high stalks of wheat-gold grass rolled in perfect synchronization with each other and the wind as far as the eyes could see. It was impossible to drag my eyes away from the beautiful shimmering ocean of blades that seemed equally silken and sharp. Baobab trees rose up from the calm sea like islands, offering tall vantage points from which to stare across the liquid gold. I couldn’t help but imagine myself falling backward and letting the dreamy tide of pasture carry me along, running underneath me until I was far away and could live amongst the warm waving allies.
While lost in my daydream, Steven’s voice pulled me back. “It’s hot. Can we get food?” In my stupor, I hadn’t noticed that he had sat down and was now staring at my mother with pleading eyes. Being six years older than me, he was just entering the long stretch of being a teenager, and his patience was constantly at the last fiber of a worn rope. My heart jumped at the thought of having to leave this groundbreaking exhibition any sooner than absolutely necessary.
“Steven! Look!” I shouted involuntarily, trying to distract him from any need to leave. I thrust my hand into the air, pointing randomly at anything to draw his attention. My pointer finger landed on the sky. His head snapped in my direction, causing his floppy, brown locks to fall into his eyes. He swept his fingers across his forehead to clear his vision, and I watched his face, hoping my weak attempt was successful. He slowly rose again, pushing me aside so we could both fit through the sunroof once more. His mouth grew slack and his eyes widened in wonderment. My initial reaction was to be deeply relieved, but curiosity overcame this.
I turned my head to follow my own arm. What I saw made my heart swell and mouth drop. My lungs held their air hostage as if breathing would release the moment. Until now, the limitless sky had been blanketed with downy clouds, darkening at the edges like a comforter, leaving the world to sleep far below. Now, the edges of this cover had parted to let in the sun, as if to awaken the globe from its peaceful slumber. The rays of the sun were perfectly visible from the cloud line all the way to the ground, their long arms reaching down to caress the earth. They poured into every seam of nature around us, causing the surrounding golden sea to glisten and dance in the wonderful warmth.
It was as if I were inside a painting, as if what I was seeing could not have been real, as if I were completely alone, and yet completely intertwined with all of life. It was the most magnificent display I have ever beheld. The perpetual click of my father’s camera became inaudible; Gilbert’s stream of facts was lost in the furor of giggling grass, and my brother faded out of my peripheral vision. I was completely enraptured: caught, as if time had stopped; paralyzed, as if movement would cause me to awaken. I let the tendrils of warmth embrace me and brush my skin. My lungs filled to capacity with each breath, holding the sunshine within me before setting it free to run with the breeze.
No one spoke for a long time, or perhaps they did; if there was conversation, it was lost in my trance on the way to my ears. I was neither deep in thought, nor completely without it. My mind was mulling over the images behind my eyes. Organizing the newfound impressions was the first step to understanding, and wheels between my ears were furiously attacking this primary task. My fog didn’t clear until we were back in our beds that night. Everyone present knew the beauty of day, but I doubt it affected them as it had me. No words could do the incredible display of nature justice.
I remember the internal conversation I had with myself that night. The topic at hand was a complex one, perhaps one that was too advanced for a six-year-old to truly comprehend: God. My lack of belief had been so solid in my mind. But when I saw that enthralling landscape, everything was different. I hesitate to say that I was changed. I had not been changed. There was no voice of God; there was no hand—literal or figurative—that came down and touched my heart. But there was a new sense of openness toward the idea of religion, of faith.
I could no longer wholeheartedly deny the possibility of something bigger than humanity, something greater, regardless of my personal feelings on the matter. I had seen something indescribably moving, something that had given me a feeling I had never felt before. To this day, I cannot find a word that shoulders enough emotion and enough love to describe the feeling my heart overfilled with that day. There is no opinion that is immovable, no opinion that is flawless, and no opinion that is complete. Opinions are made to be deepened and explored, not to be left stationary. While my views were not reversed, they were extended, and therefore evolved into a deeper, more mature mindset.
It was not so much a discovery of a possibility but a distinction between two concepts that are recurrently thrust together: religion and spirituality. The attached dogma of any faith can be intimidating, and to many, no path separates the two. It is common to fear the rulings of the church and to doubt that personal judgements will be accepted. Perhaps the largest step to moving past this fear is concluding that spirituality offers not a set of beliefs but rather the freedom to trust in the existence of a connecting force between all lives, without the required braces that any organized religion brings. Acquainting the human psyche with this apprehension looms habitually as a long, daunting, and difficult process, yet my encounter with pure nature had blended my views with the substance to make years of progress in only a moment, however unconventional the education.
I am not a religious person. I am a person with a tremendous experience that allows me to see and appreciate the light in everyone and everything. I am not a religious person, but I am a person who was lucky enough to be shown the separation between the literalness of religion and the litheness of spirituality
5 thoughts on “I Am Not a Religious Person”
SUCH A PRIVILEGE TO EXPERIENCE THE GIFT OF GRACE..LUCKY YOU , GRANDMA COLLEEN LATSHA
What a beautifully written essay. Thank you.
What a wonderful description of a magical moment remembered in such detail! Thank you, Sarah, for using your talent in writing to share that experience.
Deborah Williams Christchurch Monthly Meeting, Aotearoa New Zealand
I am amazed that such insight has been expressed so eloquently by someone so young. At the same time, I am reminded that a Quaker upbringing encourages reflection and self development,which in turn can result in this level of self expression.
To me that is the essential spiritual experience and beautifully described to boot.
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