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EPoints: Pilgrimage Through India Reveals Faith's Essence


1947-2014 (Archived)
HUNTSVILLE, AL -- During July I traveled in Bangladesh and India with six ministers from Birmingham as part of an Institute for Clergy Excellence program to explore how people from different cultures and faiths connect with the divine.

Our group included two Baptists, a Presbyterian, a Roman Catholic priest, an Episcopalian priest, a Jewish rabbi and me, a United Church of Christ pastor.

In Bangladesh we were hosted by the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Joseph Moreno, who arranged for us to talk with Protestant missionaries, Muslims, Sufi Muslims and Father Homrich, an 82-year-old priest who has been ministering for 55 years in the jungles.

In Varanasi, India, a Hindu priest introduced us to the prayers of his faith and the offering of light to Mother Ganga, the Ganges River. We learned how Hindu rituals reflect the cycles of nature.

We visited the site of the Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath, and learned how Buddhism began about 2,500 years ago as an attempt to reform Hindu practices. We explored Tibetan Buddhism in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains at the Monastery of the Dalai Lama, which is decorated with prayer flags, mantras carved and painted into rock, and prayer wheels.

At Amritsar, near the border with Pakistan, we visited the beautiful Golden Temple of the Sikhs. We listened to the songs and poetry of the Sikh Gurus and witnessed the ritual of the closing of the book, the Sikh scriptures.

Robert Hurst / Special to The Huntsville Times

Sister Gertrude, at right, was the first nun to join Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity in her work of ministering to the dying in Kolkata, India. With her is Sister Tenlin. Sister Gertrude told a group of visiting ministers, "Mother led me many places I did not want to go, but I am glad I went."

Despite the great diversity of cultural and spiritual practices we observed, I noticed that every tradition uses prayer beads in some form. Whether it was the U.S. ambassador holding a rosary at Mass in the Nunciature Chapel, Sufis in Bangladesh, Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity in Kolkata, Hindu monks at the Rama Krishna Monastery, Tibetan monks high in the Himalayas chanting mantras, or a humble Sikh singing the hymns and poetry of the Sixth Guru, all use prayer beads.

The beads provide a symbol of spiritual mindfulness, a call to seek God's presence. Prayer beads encourage short, repetitious prayers or mantras. Repetition in prayer can lead to a consciousness in which we lose ourselves in the act of prayer. Long wordy prayers keep us inside our own heads rather than transcending our own thoughts to connect with the silence of God's presence. Practices for connecting with the divine in all of these diverse faiths seem to point to intention, repetition, spiritual mindfulness.

Despite cultural and spiritual diversity, I was impressed that those we talked with shared religious experiences similar to my own.

We asked our Sikh guide, "How do you connect with the divine? Have you ever had moments when you have found yourself in God's presence?"

"Oh yes," he replied. "When I have been in trouble, I have prayed, and God has been there with me."

That experience is common for many people, regardless of their faith tradition.

At a dinner with Ambassador Muhammad Zamir, the chief information officer in the government of Bangladesh, Zamir, who is Muslim, talked about the need for interfaith dialogue. We asked how the experience of God is felt in Islam. His poetic description of his own prayer life was so similar to the Christian and Jewish experience of faith as to be indistinguishable.

The Catholic archbishop remarked, "That is the same experience that I have in prayer."

Despite the many differences I observed on this spiritual journey through the Indian sub-continent, I am still impressed by the similarities among people and their faith.

The Hindu saint of the 19th century, Rama Krishna said, "There are different cows of many different colors, but they all give milk."

Bryan Bacon / The Huntsville Times
The Rev. Dr. Bob Hurst

There are many faiths reflecting many different cultures, but they all seek to connect human beings with the divine.