The Beauty in Ashes

It’s easy to learn about other cultures; information is everywhere. It’s not so easy to understand them. It’s not so easy to prevent yourself from forming judgements based on your own perception of what is normal or what isn’t. It can be so difficult to truly appreciate something that is foreign to us. It’s so easy to miss the beauty and awe of something when it is outside of our own cultural bubble.

Thirteen years of Catholic schooling hasn’t allowed me to experience the beauty of other Religious cultures. Catholic school is very much a bubble; keep the Catholic Christian thoughts in and everything else out. The most I ever heard of other religions would be in relation to studying other countries within a history course. If we were learning about Asian countries, we would be told they practice such-and-such a religion. We were never told how they practice or what they practice or why. Just that they did. We wouldn’t question why they did it or believed it or what they thought about it. We would just accept it. “It happens. It doesn’t affect me. Moving on…” That wasn’t learning at all.

Over the past few weeks, I have been so amazed by what I was missing all this time. I had been aware of other religions, I knew they existed. But I was never challenged to ask questions or to seek to understand anything outside my own faith.
I was aware that something beautiful existed but I never had the tools to appreciate or understand it.

Looking at a naked man with long, matted hair, and skin coated in ash, your first reaction might not be, “Wow. That is truly beautiful and awe inspiring.” And when you grow and learn as part of a culture that looks at nudity in a negative light, it makes perfect sense to think that way. You only start to notice the true beauty of such a culture when you can look past your own cultural taboos and boundaries.
At first, while watching the documentary Naked In Ashes, I honestly thought, “These men look homeless. This is strange. How do people, even people of the same culture, not think these men (and women) are crazy?!”
Once the initial culture shock subsides, it becomes easier to look past the physical appearance that is so foreign and strange.

In American culture appearance is EVERYTHING.

Think for a moment about the people, icons, and figures we look up to.

Celebrities? Models? Actors and actresses?

Do we follow these people because they live good lives? Because they’re great exemplars of how we should live our own lives? I doubt anyone would say yes to that.
Simply: they look good. We are trained to believe that if you don’t fit the mold, you’re not beautiful; you are weird.
Why?

I think a lot of it has to do with understanding the unknown, and sometimes we are just too lazy and self-centered to take the time to learn about and try to understand something that doesn’t directly impact our daily lives. It really is a sad truth. We will take things from other cultures and assimilate them in to our own, make them beautiful and acceptable in our own eyes, but then we deny the beautiful culture they came from.

For some, there is a great distinction between religions and their practitioners. Obviously Hindus believe very differently than Christians. But are our reasons for belief really so dissimilar? I don’t think so. We believe that there is something greater than ourselves. God, a god, or a deity. We believe that there are some who are more in touch with our god, they can mediate the sacred. Priests, monks, nuns, shadhus, babas, and gurus. Our basic beliefs are just framed differently by our secular culture.

All my life I grew up surrounded by Catholic teachings, beliefs, and traditions. That’s not necessary a bad thing. I consider myself a Catholic, I value my faith, Mass is an important part of my life (even now in college.) My upbringing in a Catholic family and a Catholic community has shaped my perception of the world and my relationships. It can be difficult to look past your own beliefs and understand the beliefs of others that seem so drastically different. In reality they’re not so different. If we can look past our biases and challenge ourselves to understand something out of our comfort zone, we can find the real beauty of the sacred as seen through other eyes.

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