I’m usually shy about taking (much less posting) pictures of strangers, but I love the look of adoration in this woman’s eyes as she hangs a dollar-pinned scapular on a statue of St. Anthony. That look, I originally noted, “says everything you need to know about the spirituality of Italian-American festivals,” and it also says a lot about religion in general. Religion is the act of holding out hope in the face of both doubt and the impossible, repeating the rituals of those who have walked before you, joining with others who share your devotion, and daring to stand by your beliefs regardless of who is watching. That combination of hope, practice, fellowship, and testimony lies at the heart of all religions and is a human impulse to be cherished: the good within us seeking the good outside.
“It’s easy,” I wrote last August, “to scoff at someone else’s beliefs, seeing another’s spirituality as nothing more than superstition: my favorite wry definition of the word ‘cult,’ in fact, is ‘The house of worship down the street from yours.'” Whether we see ourselves as “religious,” we all have things we individually adore, and we all (presumably) have had moments of sharing that adoration with other, like-minded folks. The emotions of excitement, camaraderie, and pride sports fans feel at a game are expressions of a secular religion, sport serving as a spectacle around which fervent fans from both sides gather to hail the virtues of athletic excellence, teamwork, and personal sacrifice. Whether you are inspired by athletes, musicians, artists, actors, or writers, you too have presumably experienced moments of transcendence when you’ve gathered with like-minded devotees to share simple wonder, the performance of a perfect poem, stunning symphony, or beautiful ballet being enough to transport you for an ecstatic moment in time.
You might not call these “religion” but simply “amazement.” But what else is religion but the shared experience of awe?