Visiting Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition in Brisbane this week left me feeling oddly confused and emotional. It stirred up long buried memories of a childhood spent having a distorted interpretation of Catholicism rammed down my throat. There were many rituals expected of me, including worship. This was spent kneeling around my parent’s (mother & step-father) bed ‘saying’ the rosary (for those not in the know, that is about 90 mins of prayer). My mother, who suffered from a mental illness that manifested as religious mania, tried to save her soul by saving mine. Confused? Me too at the time.
Her Old Testament mindset and utter contempt for me remains indelibly stamped on my mind through one particular memory I have as a three or four-year-old child. As she laid into me with an old-style resin brush it snapped in half, which further enraged her. So she used her hands to finish the job while, through angry gritted teeth, calling me ‘The Devil’s Child’. I was unsurprisingly terrified.
‘The Devil Child’ would become her name of choice for me, particularly powerful as she yelled or mouthed it through gritted teeth. My crime? I’m not entirely sure, but it was clear I wasn’t planned and later became the liability with her new partner and his family, and she never let me forget it. Her contempt for me was expressed through beatings, verbal abuse, food punishment and privileges, all in the name of God. And the blame directed at me for, well, everything, continued until I finally left home at 15. But I came to an early conclusion that if ‘God’ was good, why the violence? It’s no surprise that I didn’t embrace the concept of religion after I left.
However, I did grow up in Mullumbimby, a small Australian town near Byron Bay, where we had our fair share of 1970’s ‘alternates’ and so I found myself having many discussions around spirituality. As you can imagine, some of these conversations were held in the smoky living rooms of their homes to the perfume of smelly bongs and ended in waffling for hours. Yes, even as a 12–15-year-old. But other times were genuinely fascinating and my cohorts offered me an alternate perspective that helped soften my view of ‘faith’.
So, what is Spirituality?
While I am not religious, I do consider myself a spiritual person. I have always tried to live by the mantra of be good, do good. What I have learned about spirituality versus religion or faith, is that it is an all-compassing perspective of the world and consideration of those around (which no one said was easy) that is not limited by doctrine but an expectation of global kindness. To me spirituality is understanding that there is a greater meaning to life that is not necessarily answerable to a deity. It’s not transcendent or sacred but, does offer a deep sense of connectedness.
Put simply, in my view, spirituality is self-regulatory. Being accountable to yourself and those around you. It’s the “what you put in is what you get out” principle.
Back at the Sistine Chapel exhibition, my mind was racing. Through the recorded guide I listened to many of the stories behind each work of art. The fire and brimstone fear that was used, the violence to deter people from making the ‘wrong’ choices that I have always interpreted as a way of controlling behaviours and beliefs. I’m not here to offend. I know there are a great many people who have a healthy religious practice, and I deeply understand and respect that its their right and prerogative. But I’m also guessing their education in religion wasn’t as tainted as mine.
I have to add that I hold many religious people in very high esteem indeed. You must have heard of the beautiful religious families who have lost loved ones through violent or careless ways but manage to hold their heads high and in the bosom of their faith or religion. I respect that. A lot. I’m not sure my spirituality though, would get me there.
Just quietly, I feel we all need something to hang our hats on, whether that’s faith, religion, or spirituality, or a mixture of the three. It is the central thing that enables us to keep a hold on to the spinning planet. For me it’s a connection to nature and creativity that gives me a sense of purpose.
Maybe my dear old Mum was being prophetic when she used to ‘accuse’ me of becoming or being a Buddhist. Was that a sin? Was it meant as an insult? Well, Mum, I have dabbled in Buddhism since, and while I find it makes a whole lot more sense to me than the contorted Catholicism of my childhood, my allegiance is to myself and my planet. If that is Buddhism, then bring it.
Wishing you a wonderful, peaceful and joyous holiday season, whatever your guide.