The room was dimly lit with an orange-carpet-candle ambiance. We were all sitting together mostly cross-legged on the floor, 30 strangers in silence meditating on the moment around us. It was a cool Parisian evening so there was that beauty to consider—the shadows cast by the setting sun on the twisted branches discreetly were overtaking the evening along with a wispy incoming fog. There was the upcoming dinner, which, although I could not readily smell it, the mere thought of a freshly cooked meal was enough to make any 20-something bachelor salivate. Finally, and most importantly, there was the focus of our meeting in the front of the room. A photographic life-size cutout of Sri Ramakrishna dominated our immediate view. He was covered in an orange veiling and bathed in warm flourescent light. Roses and flowers of many kinds filled the front area, and to his left and right were photographs of the two great prophets of Sri Ramakrishna, lastly, covered by a permeating incense that filled the room. We were in a sacred place.
It’s amazing the things your mind considers when confronted by such an experience because the eventual result seems to lead to thinking about nothing. But after a while, I understood that was the objective, relaxing, but in a concious way. In that process, I realized how quickly my mind was wired. Move, move, move, and stop moving so I can rest to move some more. In my estimation, most people in the Western world could benefit greatly from this fundamental tenet of Hinduism: plan time to stop. Sometimes Christians do this too; the Gospels teach Jesus would often climb the surrounding hills early in the morning to pray.
These days, it is easier then ever to be skeptical and even cynical towards religion. Magic brooms, blood and body, sacred fires, and holy stones all lend an aura of mystique and concealed explanation to the mysterious and unexplainable. Some of the elaborate things I saw done in that beautiful sacred orange room had absolutely no meaning to me. Special bells were rang without apparent reason midsong, food was offered to jaya Sri Ramakrishna as blessing to his name, holy water was sprinkled on the faces of fervent believers. I think of growing up in the Christian church with all of our traditions, often equally ritualistic. We ceremonially dunk people in pools of water, offer candles to patron saints, passionately raise our hands, and sometimes speak in invented languages if we’re of a particular standpoint. All of this to an invented god extrapolated from a favored culture and passed down from one generation to the next hermetically sealed inside of a holy book, ultimately set aside from the forum of question and debate. I find it all quite ridiculous.
Playing a devil’s advocate here is too easy, however. What doctrine of the atheistic worldview guides me to live with a bent towards loving my neighbor, much less just living in peace with him/her? We can talk about the selfish gene and egotistic altruism, but at the end of the day I feel as if I’m left scheming and calculating on those around me to get the next leg up. Or imagine how it must sound to console a loved one saying, “Don’t worry, your mother isn’t in a better place, she just doesn’t exist anymore?” Atheism may provide a real solution to the relentless dogma of religion, but it does not provide a poignant framework for living through the messy elements of life, the poverty, the abuse, the depression, the sickness, all the unwanted negatives that humanity never seems to escape. In liberating us from god, atheism leaves us with his opposite—nothing.
At any rate, after 45 minutes of unmoving silence I simply got bored of observing everyone in that incredibly royal orange room and started looking inside myself. Nothing else was going on anyway. I found my hopes, a few of my dreams, my disappointments and mistakes, all the same stuff everyone else has more or less. There was anger and laughter living side by side, memories and ideas, projects and passions. There was life. That Parisian weekend I learned that faith is fluid. It’s always developing, wrapped up in the people around us and packaged in places we usually aren’t looking. Faith and blessings are not in a building or a priest or sacred flowers or a cross. They are in the actions you take when you turn to a brother and say, “I believe in you,” or when you face an enemy and respond with forgiveness. Those kinds of actions take more faith than believing in a cultural deity ever will.
—Many thanks to Salvator Jean Erb for providing me with my peculiarly touching orange room experience at the Hindu ashram in Paris last month.