Days 8 and 9: Religion in the City

So we headed back to Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey

We paid the stomach-wrenching admission and toured the inside. Not to be a downer, but this is the passage that came to mind.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matt. 23:27)

Westminster Abbey is literally overflowing with dead men’s bones. Granted, the bones used to belong to some notable folk – St. Edward the Confessor, Charles Darwin, David Livingstone, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Henry James, Charles Dickens, and others – but they are still bones, void of life.

As a Christian who finds the sacraments to be an opportunity for deep, meaningful worship of my God and Father, I was deeply disturbed by the state of the Abbey’s interior. It is absolutely packed with tourists, streaming around the Lord’s table like it’s another dead relic. I also am a sinner, but I was distressed by the insensitivity of those strolling through this holy space.

It was an allegory for Christianity in the West. We have all these monuments to a former devotion, but they’re nothing to us now. Just another curious relic.

In addition, the floor of the Abbey is composed of graves and memorials. I was always taught to avoid walking on someone’s grave out of respect. I asked an attendant if the tombs we were all walking across were actually full of people. His answer was the equivalent of shrugging his shoulders and saying, “I dunno. Probably.”

Feeling thoroughly fleeced, we rested from the pandemonium outside of the main sanctuary.

Westminster Abbey

I even look distressed…

The two shops adjacent to the sanctuary didn’t help my impression. Isn’t there some passage about Jesus driving money-changers out of a sacred space…?

That was yesterday. Today, Tuesday, we visited some other striking places of worship in Southall, a western district of London. Our professor advised us that we would feel like we were in India when we hopped of our train. I was not disappointed.

Southall

David Watson, who works with St. John’s, a Church of England in Southall, acted as our guide. Our first visit was to a Hindu temple, Shree Ram Mandir (“shree” is a title of respect, it could mean “holy”; Ram is the Hindu creator god; Mandir is simply a name for a Hindu temple).

Shree Ram Mandir

The gravestones to the left are in the front yard of the original St. John’s church, originally constructed in the mid-19th century.

In a debriefing later, several of us admitted to feeling a heaviness or a weight, as if the air were heavy, while sitting barefoot, cross-legged on the floor in the temple, surrounded by statues of the various Hindu gods. Devotees were making their way around the exterior of the room, where the statues were located, laying various fruit, flowers, and even money at the feet of these marble idols. I noticed some worshipers would bow before the statues, placing their head on the ground before them, while others would bend down and touch the feet of the statue and stand in silent prayer. We did not feel this same heaviness in the two other places of worship we visited, a mosque and a Sikh gurdwara. I observed that Hinduism is the oldest out of the three religions. It would seem that ancient spiritual forces were very much at work in the temple.

The elderly “priest”placidly smiled at us as he extolled the virtues of Hinduism and its various gods. He assured us that our Christianity was fine with them, as they make no distinction between religions: all lead us to the same place. His theology was vague at best. I don’t think even he knew what he believed. He was born into this dark faith, like an infant born blind. As with us all.

Our next visit was to Central Jamia Masjid Mosque (“masjid” is Arabic for mosque).

masjid

 

The imam had only just recently been released from the hospital after suffering from a heart attack. Regardless, he was still happy to give a tour of his facilities to a group of Christian Americans. He gladly accepted the women of our group into the mosque, though they did not exactly meet the dress code requirements. He was kind to us, and we appreciated his kindness.

We were soon seated before him cross-legged on the carpet (which had been designed to point towards Saudi Arabia) of the main worship space, a posture which was common to all three places of worship (along with taking off our shoes and washing our hands). He calmly went over a summary of Islam with us and welcomed questions. Only a few worshipers were seated throughout the room, probably because most of the Muslims in the area were still observing the fast of Ramadan.

Finally, and most extravagantly, we visited Gurudwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, a Sikh temple.

Gurdwara

 

Beforehand, we all admitted to each other that we next to nothing about Sikhism. We were not sure what to expect, which may have been the best way to approach the experience.

Upon entering, we participated in the familiar preliminaries of washing our hands and removing our shoes, but we were introduced to a third, new formality: wearing an orange bandanna on our heads (the girls wore a scarf). It soon became apparent that Sikhism was a reform movement in Hinduism, abolishing the caste system and instituting egalitarianism. The vast sanctuary space was void of any idols or images; there was only a single altar at the front where devotees would bow and make their oblations, while women nearby constantly chanted the scriptures in a sing-song melody. We then went to another room, where our guide, in a full turban (and a full beard!) went over the basics of Sikhism. Before leaving, we were given a free meal, a mode of hospitality offered not only to us, but available seven days a week to the community.

With all these religions, we noticed a common theme: the devotee does what is necessary to get something from God (the Hindu priest said, “health, wealth, and happiness” about 10 times, referring to it as something to be sought from the various gods). The Hindus give offerings, the Muslims follow the Five Pillars, the Sikhs follow the sage advice of their gurus.

But God wants more than this. He wants a relationship with the people, only made possible through Jesus Christ.

Meeting together afterwards, we passionately prayed for the salvation of God for these people, the spread of the gospel. Truly an amazing day.

God’s peace to you all,

Daniel

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