Yesterday, I watched with shock a video of a religious ritual called ‘Made Madasnana’ practised in some Hindu temples in Karnataka, South India. The ritual involves pilgrims rolling on over the plantain leaves that contain the remains of food partaken by Brahmins! This is followed by a bath in the river. While there have been noises that this is a casteist practice, I saw that Brahmins too practiced this ritual. My question is how does this please God? How does this take them closer to being joyful.

Other religions, including Christianity, have various rituals that involve pain and sacrifice in an attempt to get closer to God or receive certain favours from Him. The monks of old wore hairshirts and regularly flagellated themselves. I’ve known of people who walk on their knees up slopes and steps to Churches. To me, hurting oneself, is in no way a means to a relationship with God.

I remember when I studied in a Catholic college and had to attend a three day religious retreat every year. Although we had to sleep on the floor in classrooms and eat some awful food, we enjoyed spending three whole days with our friends. More importantly, two whole nights to laugh and fool around. One night the nun in charge of us was disturbed by the volume of chatter and laughter. She strode into our room and ordered : “Girls, think of death and go to sleep!”  This, naturally, resulted in more giggles as we pretended to sleep. Thinking back, I wonder why she wanted us to associate our experience with something morose. I may not remember what the preachers said, but I certain have wonderfully memories of laughter. Good clean laughter, to me, is a religious experience.

To me, religion is not to be associated with rituals or a set of rules to be followed. Rather it is a joyful response to the love of an all-loving and all-forgiving God. And naturally, such joy only spills over in caring and being there for others. We are all called to be joy-bearers.

I love these words from Elias Penn-Smith : Identify God’s emissaries by the light in their eyes, by the lilt in their song, by the glow of their skin and the joy within; not with the face of a dried-up peach, and a voice that would teach of doom and sin. 

More recently, Pope Francis seemed to define a Christian as being a person of joy :

“Joy, which is like the sign of a Christian. A Christian without joy is either not a Christian or he is sick. There’s no other type! He is not doing well health-wise! A healthy Christian is a joyful Christian. I once said that there are Christians with faces like pickled peppers [sour faces – ed] … Always with these [long] faces! Some souls are also like this, this is bad! These are not Christians. A Christian without joy is not Christian. Joy is like the seal of a Christian. Even in pain, tribulations, even in persecutions”.

My uncle who is a Catholic priest once shared this story in his sermon. He told me the source was The Lord Is My Shepherd, But…Confessions of The Natural Way by Barbara Jurgenson.

She tells the story of Petronius waiting in a slow moving line before he got his turn at the Judgment. He sees an angel coming along with delicious hot-buttered rolls, holding out a tray to each person. Petronius is hungry, but he suddenly realizes he must not take a roll. All his life he did his best to avoid being carried away by pleasure. He had deliberately ignored pleasurable things in order to concentrate his attention more fully on serving God. Similarly he passes by a bed of fragrant red flowers and a cute kitten beckons him to pet it. He feels he is being tested.

Then, Petronius hears God saying, “Well done, my son, I’m glad you came here. There’s just one thing…” Then Petronius noticed that God had something on his lap – a small yellow and white kitten. On the table next to God’s throne he noticed a vase of the fragrant flowers he had forced himself to ignore. And a plate with a half-eaten roll.

The moral of the story according to Jurgensen: People will have to give an account to God on the day of judgment for all the good things they failed to enjoy!

Whatever be our religous beliefs, I do believe that we are called to live them out with joy. Do you agree?


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