Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Conversation With An Evangelist Nearly A Decade Ago

Lately I've been thinking about some of the things that have set me on the spiritual path I'm now on. The incident I'm about to describe happened when I was eighteen and had considered myself a Pagan for about three and a half years; even so, I sometimes think that it affected my current views on spirituality every bit as much as the realization that I could no longer in good conscience consider myself a Roman Catholic.

Back when I was eighteen, Ontario students generally had five years of high school, not four. The fifth year was known as "OAC" and it was actually optional; it was for the students who decided they'd go to university, rather than go to college (yes, there is a difference in Canada) or enter the military, learn a skilled trade or go straight into the workforce. In my first semester of my OAC year, I took an English course; we were to do an independent study project that we were supposed to work on throughout the term. Mine happened to be about religious tolerance; I suppose it's fairly self-evident why I chose that topic, but I didn't just focus on Christianity vs. Neopaganism. I also did research on other religions and the conclusions that I drew through my research have actually stayed with me all these years later; I realized that in the end, most of us are looking for the same thing anyway, and our different religions are simply different expressions of our quests for enlightenment. The details can cause a hell of a lot of trouble, of course, but that's the general idea—as I understand it, anyway.

All that aside, I did a lot of research over the few months I had to develop this large project. One afternoon in mid-October, I was down at the public library; I'd just completed a long research session and checked out about ten books that I hoped would be helpful. As I sat outdoors, waiting for my mother to come pick me up (I didn't really drive on my own until I was 21), I idly leafed through a few pages in a book about various Christian denominations. I saw this guy, probably about 22-ish, in a mid-length brown coat heading into the library, carrying a book that I presumed he was returning; he bounded up the step in front of the library door with a loud "Hallelu-YAH!" Slightly amused, I turned back to my book—which happened to be open to a chapter on evangelism. The man came out of the library again a few minutes later and walked up to me, asking me, "Are you born again?"

"I beg your pardon?" (Yes, I really was that formal when I was a teenager. And yes, I have lightened up a bit.)

"Are you born again?" he asked a second time.

"I'm not quite sure what you mean—I'm Catholic," I said. I knew I was setting myself up for a lecture, but I couldn't help myself. Fortunately, I was wrong; the two of us had a fairly interesting conversation, though I did think he was taking things a little far sometimes (particularly with his great dislike of Hallowe'en and a one-man protest he told me he conducted every year outside a "Haunted House" for kids). I didn't get the sense that he was particularly dangerous or creepy, but I did decide to be discreet about my Paganism, hence my statement that I was Catholic. Sometimes the good old "smile and nod" approach really is the best way to deal with a situation.

We talked religion for probably about ten minutes before my mother arrived, and I was actually a little disappointed when it was time for me to go. But just before I left, he said something that, despite the bitterness I still felt against my former spiritual path, made (and still makes) a tremendous amount of sense to me. He told me, "God is more than just religion. He's more than ceremonies and even more than His word in the Bible. Don't be afraid to run, jump, or sing in His name. You can even turn cartwheels if you feel like it. He is the essence of joy and love."

I think it's pretty obvious that I (inwardly) disagreed with him about a lot of things that he said that day, but I couldn't possibly disagree with that. And even though a lot of my spiritual opinions and beliefs have changed—sometimes very dramatically—over the past decade, this is one thing that's remained constant. There's more to spirituality, even one that's centred around a deity, than just texts and rituals and dogma. Without that spark of love and joy, it's not quite right. It's something that you go through by rote, sometimes impressed by the general look and feel of things, but not something that really reaches out and touches you and inspires you to be a better person.

In the end, that really is why I believe it's possible for me to be both a Pagan and a Christian. I've no doubt the man I talked to that day nearly ten years ago now would be incredibly scandalized and even angry that his comment helped to set me on the spiritual path I now follow; nonetheless, I do feel somewhat grateful to him for that particular revelation, and I hope that since then, he too has managed some kind of spiritual growth.

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