Literature follows me everywhere. In unexpected moments, slivers of text push into me like splinters and prick me with words which are not mine–words which find their context in a space separate from my own, yet are reanimated in my present. Influential literature is never static. Words and ideas are absorbed, morphed, and given new life by each reader, filtering through minds with diverse experiences and unique perspectives.
Last Sunday, as I sat within the art-covered walls of Toledo’s cathedral, listening to the priest’s spirited exaltations reverberate through the room, I was pricked by a sliver from a text I had read months ago. It was a few lines from Miguel de Unamuno’s, “Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida” (The Tragic Sense of Life), suddenly imbued with new meaning in this extravagantly religious space. Roughly translated into English, his words (which are, fittingly, a reference to two other thinkers) are these: ‘It is a well-known Pascal saying: start by drinking blessed water and you will end up believing. It was this same line of thought which Juan Jacobo Moser, the pietist, followed in stating that no atheist or naturalist has the right to consider the christian religion to be baseless while not having completed the test of fulfilling its prescriptions and commandments.’
As I watched a room of strangers join together in exclamations of communal spirituality, their sacred songs magnified by the cathedral’s deliberate architectural design, I felt truth in Unamuno’s speculations. To dismiss religion as an irrational, groundless practice is to wrongfully reject the possibility that believing in a transcendent world can have tangible and objectively observable effects. Although I personally shy away from organized religion–when spirituality becomes dogmatic is when I hit a wall–attending a church service in a space as conducive to meditation as Toledo’s cathedral is an undeniably powerful experience. Despite my qualms with the actual content of the ceremony, I was not immune to the dynamic yet unified energy that permeated the room as a hundred distinct voices crescendoed in prayer and then bowed their heads in unison, relishing in the meditative stillness that accompanies silence after song.
I left the service feeling both a sense of calm and a sense of accute awareness, a sensation which I found comparable to only two other experiences: the moment when you come out of a deep meditation, senses heightened and body not yet grounded, and the moment when you exit a concert after two hours of being enveloped by people and sound, the stillness of 2 a.m. mixing with that high of energy that’s still spilling into your veins.
For me to leave a church service with that same feeling, considering that I in no way identify as religious, cemented my appreciation for the space that religion attempts to create–a space where communities can join in rejoicement, self-reflection, grief, and rememberance. For those of us who don’t adhere to religion, it is often difficult to find.