Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) regularly reminds his students to not abandon their original spiritual tradition in favour of his mindfulness practice. Upon first hearing this I questioned the validity of the statement. Why would I still need my born-into religion of Roman Catholicism when I’ve found something that works for me? Recently I’ve really come to appreciate the wisdom of Thay’s teachings.

At one time the many problems I had with the Church prevented me from relating to it at all. Churchgoing experiences as a youth seemed to be nothing but negative—I’d either slouch down in the pew to catch some shuteye or sit in a mind-wandering daze wishing I were anywhere but there. This year, however, was different.

Applying an eclectic spiritualist view of Christianity, I went into the Christmas mass of 2007 with a completely different mindset. I decided to strip the religion down to the basics: Jesus, love, compassion and suffering. I was moved to tears by the beautiful congregation of churchgoers coming together to pay respect for this man’s life of love—an experience far different from the mind-wandering boredom of yesteryear. Even though I wasn’t agreeing on every aspect of their faith, I found that I could at least genuinely share my love for Jesus with them.

Jesus was an exemplar of love. From his life we can learn to love unconditionally and compassionately connect to others. From him we can learn to turn the other cheek. His way was nonviolence. He knew where violence always leads, to more violence. He believed so strongly in showing us the way of love that he died a martyr. He suffered greatly during his time on Earth to show us the way out of darkness and to let love radiate without concern for results. He was a model of love and suffering. For that I deeply admire the man. The gifts he brought of love, compassion and suffering are common to most, if not all, religions. On these I can agree and connect with all Christians. So I asked myself, if I agree with Christians on the gifts Jesus brought, why not agree with Christians on worshipping Jesus for being one who helped bring us these gifts. Living in a polarized world such as ours, I try to seek out any commonalities that exist among people as a way to connect rather than perpetuate the separateness that too often comes from our differences.

My unfamiliarity with the church must have been strikingly obvious to the other parishioners sitting near me, as one offered me her lit peace candle and another helped me find the proper pages in the hymn book. In these simple exchanges I felt a bond that I hadn’t felt before in a Christian church. It seemed the experience was all very new. Having rejected my innate Catholic spirit in the past, I felt I was rejecting the spiritual identity of all Catholics. Now, despite still having differences of opinion, it felt like we were able to bond on a deeper level through our shared love for Jesus by connecting through our spiritual identities rather than on an earthly level.

People will always have differences of thought, belief and customs—it’s part of being human. What makes up our spiritual identity is our similarity, our oneness. If the world’s many religions are viewed as different mountains, we are all connected by the same mountain range. In our own different ways we’re all facing up, towards the divine, at different points along the range. We have the choice to appreciate the range for what it is, or vainly worship our mountain at the exclusion of all others. Appreciating our commonalities points us towards our oneness. Being one we are strong. Gratitude lies at the base of our existence. If we’re not thankful for the range itself, we won’t have a single mountain to stand on.

image: Kevin Bottero (Creative Commons BY-SA)