The priest raised the Eucharist and his eyes smiled, filled with Faith. It was an expression I had never seen in anyone else; it was as if he was witnessing the appearance of Jesus himself.
The crowd heard his voice and stood up, they started mumbling a prayer, all in unison, and a woman stretched her cupped hands and looked at the sky, and my mother closed her eyes, but I stood with my eyes wide open.
The ceremony came to an end, and a woman rushed to greet the priest. She was carrying her son, a boy of about four, and he smiled as the priest kissed his forehead. The woman cried as the holy water landed on her son’s hair, face, and chest.
Religion has always been a part of my life. My uncle became a priest when he was 20, and my grandma instilled Catholicism as the basis for happiness in life. I did my First Communion, and I prayed with her, rosary in hand, every time I went to visit. But as I grew older, religion became a secondary need for me, and now that my grandma and my uncle are gone, I feel less of a need to memorize the prayers to be said in unison under the roof of a church.
This week I went back to my home country, and I had to attend different masses to honor the life of my recently deceased uncle. And as I heard what the priests said about life, death, happiness, and sanctity, I realized I was split in two regarding religion.
On one hand, it is now impossible for me to receive the communion, to methodically say a prayer and close my eyes like my mother does. I will never have the Faith the priest talked about, I will never fulfill what the church defines as sanctity, and I will never smile or cry or look at the sky with the loyalty of those around me at church. I felt left out when the institution was speaking, and a part of me secretly longed to be the woman crying over holy water, the priest passionately staring at the Eucharist, and my mother praying with her eyes peacefully closed.
But on the other hand, I understand what religion abstractly does. When I listened to the priest speaking, and the people listening, I immediately remembered reading Saint Manuel, the Good, martyr. Throughout the novel Don Manuel, an atheist priest, lives a miserable life but chooses to preach the words of Catholicism to his town, because he knows they need the safety that religion provides. He dies miserable of spirit, living a life that he didn’t believe in, and dying without any hope of moving on to Heaven or Hell. But during his life long struggle, he manages to instill happiness in the hearts of all the citizens in the Valley of Valverde; assuring them their misery on Earth will be transformed into richness in Heaven. Reading this novel gave me an insight into the purpose of religion for many people, a purpose I am not familiar with. Religion gives those who unfortunately are living a life full of violence, misery, poverty, and despair, a sense of companionship; it assures them that the negativity in their lives is there for a purpose, a purpose that extends and transcends beyond their mortality, and a purpose that will become clear once they move on from life, and proceed to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Those who need to cling to the unity that religion provides also need the Eucharist, the holy water, the prayers, the rituals, and the institution as earthly forms of their heavenly satisfaction, their heavenly comfort. Religion is their Heaven on earth, and it is their priority, their safety belt in the car ride of life.
I understand the principles religion advocates: love, family, respect, honesty, humility, generosity, among others, and I fully believe and attempt to live under them. Unfortunately, religion has now become synonymous with oppression, war, and violence. People now use religion to argue, and they throw at each other the institutionalism of their church to fight each other. I wish religion cut across stigmas like “I believe” or “I don’t”, and existed beyond killing in the name of God, and beyond offending and oppressing others solely because their eyes smile for another deity than your own. I wished that it didn’t matter who she or he believes in, whom I believe in, because what should truly matter, is whether or not I know how to love, to respect, to tell the truth, to be kind, and above all, to understand the beauty of diversity in the minds of those that surround us. Because at the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter what church I go to, or what prayer I whisper before I go to bed, as long as I am pursuing a healthy and virtuous life.