Trust, faith, belief, and religion

What does belief mean?  What does faith mean?  I am pretty sure that these are not the same as being religious in the conventional sense of the word, but I’m also sure there are large swaths of overlap.

These questions floated around the room this weekend as I looked out my office window at my tree and noticed the faint swelling at the ends of the still-black branches that tells me they are moving towards spring.  I know that swelling will grow, eventually bursting into bright green bloom, in a riotous assertion of new life that will surprise me, as it does every single year.  Why was I thinking about faith, about belief, about religion, as I looked at the tree branches?  I don’t know but somehow it seems to make sense.

I’ve often had moments of deep emotion, as inarticulate as it is undeniable, a sensation that feels like my spirit acknowledging something external that is its equal in power and mystery.  Very often these moments come over me when I’m observing the natural world, as I did through my window, or when I’m outside in it, for example sitting in my favorite cemetery or running in the pre-dawn darkness.  The feeling, as I’ve described it before, is the sense equivalent of the sound of birds’ wings flapping or of lines beating against masts in the wind.

These experiences of startling awareness also form constellations around each of my children: they’ve occurred at each of their births, in their shadowy, nightlight-lit bedrooms, and at other, random moments throughout my life as their mother.

Sometimes this sensation does float over me in a classically religious setting.  I’ve felt it at church, particularly when riding the swells of a congregation speaking in unison.  I had an experience in the crypt at the Assisi Cathedral that I’ve never forgotten, when something buried deep inside my chest stirred.  That day something was agitated inside of me that I am still struggling to understand, and it was connected, I’m sure, to my location deep inside one of the places most imbued with tangible spirituality I’ve ever been.

Moments like those make me wonder about the Venn Diagram that exists between religious fidelity and spirituality more broadly defined.  I know it’s the same feeling, for me, regardless of the setting.  I have spent years trying to put these encounters with something beyond rational thought into words.  It’s brushing up against the eternal.  It’s feeling the chill of what lies beyond this world waft by me, reminding me that each moment is essentially fragile, hugely tenuous.  It’s a piercing awareness of how tiny I am in the universe, which is somehow both immensely reassuring and hugely terrifying at the same time.

What I wondered, as I stared at my tree, is how this – this thing, these encounters, this emotion, this feeling, this bigger-than-me shadow – relates to religious faith.  The fact that it (how insufficient “it” is to describe what I’m talking about, but I don’t know what else to say) has visited me in church suggests maybe it has something to do with it.  The truth is, though, I’m not sure.  I suspect that faith, belief, and trust all spring from the same root, and together form a braid of things I desperately want more of in my life.  While for some people religion may be a synonym for what I describe, I’m also certain that many people who are not traditionally religious know of what I speak.

As I stared at my tree, wondering how long I’d have to watch, without blinking, before I could actually observe the swelling of the buds, I realized it doesn’t really matter.  What I want is the trust, the faith, the belief in something bigger than me, in a benevolent universe, in a design so vast.  What I call it is irrelevant.


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13 Comments

  1. jj
    Posted March 5, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    I would go with these feelings just as you go with other instincts you write about.

    Wise people have told me over the years two things I have come to believe are true: that faith is a gift, truly a gift, and that doubt is a form of faith.

    By these measures I must be very faith-filled as I doubt and question all the time.:)

    But that means something – I’m engaged, at least, and spirituality is a part of my life, even if I can’t neatly express how.

    If this gift is coming into your life, let it, even though it will bring complications, inconsistencies and frustrations.

    admin Reply:

    This reminds me of one of my very favorite quotes, by Anne Lamott: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”

  2. Posted March 5, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    I have never been a regular church-goer, but I understand and relate to what you’re saying. When Maikael and I were in Turkey we went to the supposed childhood home of Mary, which is a huge pilgrimage site. Although it’s nothing more than a dirt-floored hovel, when we walked in we both felt as if the air got suddenly thick. There was an unsettling, electric feeling in the air, this feeling that we were in a magical place, that we were, for a moment, part of something very big.

  3. Eileen
    Posted March 5, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    I have discovered your writing and your blog at precisely the time in my life when I am questioning, wondering and pondering so many of these same issues; a time when I am trying to rouse my soul from a long hibernation. Serendipity?

    Your thoughtful words are inspiring me to express many long dormant feelings, and start writing again. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Posted March 5, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Funny thing, serendipity. As I read your post, I was thinking something along the lines of what Eileen has written above. Thanks, also, for a beautiful, thought-provoking post.

  5. Posted March 5, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    You amaze me, Lindsey. God is coming through you.

    I’m lying in bed with a crummy cold, reading a great poetry collection: Love Poems from God – 12 Sacred Voices from the East and West. It’s become a spiritual practice for me. I think you might love reading them.

    Here’s a little enticement, from St. Francis of Assisi. With love from me:

    WRING OUT MY CLOTHES

    Such love does
    the sky now pour,
    that whenever I stand in a field,

    I have to wring out the light
    When I get
    home.

  6. Posted March 5, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I struggle with these questions often. I consider myself deeply spiritual though organized religion has often made me question my beliefs rather than strengthen them. I have a deep belief system in kindness and love, more along Buddhism, in some ways. I love going into churches, cathedrals, experiencing the quiet, the design, the architecture. They’re designed to elicit awe and in my case, they have.

    I agree with you about labels, they’re less important than the feelings attached to them.

  7. Posted March 5, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Just wonderful. Thank you.

  8. Posted March 5, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Religion as people “do” it sometimes gets in the way, I think. Sometimes I have to block that out in order to really experience my faith. Even if it is grounded in the same things as religion. It’s quite circular and confusing huh? 🙂

  9. Carey
    Posted March 5, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I think of religion as more of a fixed belief system…spirituality, to me, is more fluid, more like what you describe and what I feel in my own life. I agree it is often closely tied to our experience of the natural world–think of Thoreau, Whitman, the naturalist poets, Mary Oliver. It is also, as you articulate so beautifully in your blog, the very powerful moments of beauty, grace and resonance in our daily lives…and our ability to recognize and appreciate them. Thanks, Lindsey.

  10. Margaret
    Posted March 5, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Your writing just makes me cry. You have such a gift for finding the theme of your thoughts and so beautifully sharing them with the world. Thanks again Lindsey!

  11. Posted March 6, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Just saying hi.

  12. Posted March 7, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post (and gorgeous, as always) as I’ve felt a pull towards spirituality lately as well, and have been pondering where it comes from and what exactly IT is. It comes at a time when I am more and more repelled by what others say in the name of organized religion, but also surrounded by more and more people calling themselves agnostic or athiest. I find that both things send me running in another direction, towards the center of something, but I don’t know what. I do know when one dismisses all religion there is a part of me that cries out, but what about that thing, that indescribable feeling that you’ve captured so perfectly here.

    Thank you, as always, for giving words to things I am struggling to articulate. Your writing is a true gift to others.

  13. Posted March 25, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this beautiful piece; I just shared it on my own blog – many thanks, peace and blessings.