The Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College held the second installment of the Nexus Interfaith Dialogue series on Monday, November 15th. The Methodist College, located on the border of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, is hosting the four-part series focused on experiences of worship. Monday’s three panelists identify as Greek Orthodox, Wiccan, and Buddhist.
Catherine Anninos was raised as a Roman Catholic. She converted to Greek Orthodoxy shortly after her marriage, and has been worshipping in that tradition for twenty-five years. Anninos feels a strong emotional connection with the history and tradition of Greek Orthodoxy. Although she was raised Roman Catholic, her grandmother was Orthodox. Anninos finds great joy in worshipping in the same way as her grandmother and in sharing the same worship rituals with her own children.
Through sensory experiences during worship, Anninos often feels a sense of transcendence, a connection with the divine. She hears the powerful voice of the Father, or priest, read the Gospel in both English and ancient Greek. She sees icons. She feels the warmth of the church, the wax of the candles, and the sturdy wood of the pew. She makes the sign of the cross, a gesture that keeps her physically involved in worship and shows her reverence for the Trinity. Through traditional worship, Anninos feels connected with history. Through sensory experiences, she feels the power and presence of God.
Anninos is humble in her faith, trying to fit in although she is not of Greek heritage, and striving to be a good Christian although she knows that she makes mistakes. Greek Orthodox worship helps her to connect with Greek culture and with God.
Like Anninos, O’Malley Brandt was raised as a Roman Catholic. She found Wicca as a teenager and, for nearly fifteen years, has been a High Priestess. For Brandt, Catholic ritual felt like rote repetition, but she found Wiccan worship full of meaning. She also feels a strong connection and sense of belonging and community with other Wiccans, while she felt like an outsider in the Roman Catholic faith.
Like most religions, Wicca is not homogenous. There are two rules in Wicca: Harm none and do what you will and Whatever you do comes back to you threefold. The first rule stresses the freedom and flexibility of the religion and establishes it as a religion of peace. The divine, God, or the Goddess may go by any name or perception. Ritual may take any form. The second rule of Wicca is like the concept of karma. If you do good, good things will come back to you. If you act maliciously, bad fortune will come to you.
For Brandt, Wiccan ritual is transcendent. Celebrations and rituals change with every observance, and intent is more important that form. Brandt seeks to find a connection with the divine and with the internal energy in every person and thing. She believes that five elements resonate in everything: earth, air, fire, water, and spirit. She seeks a higher level of consciousness, in which she is aware of this elemental connection and divine energy that permeates everything. When Brandt reaches this transcendent state, she loses awareness of time, place, and people. She feels only her connection with the universal energy.
Gloria Stevenson-Clark described her religious experiences as a Nichiren Buddhist. Nichiren Buddhism is marked by a belief that everyone is capable of achieving enlightenment in their current lifetime, a focus on a sacred text called the Lotus Sutra, an evangelical desire to share the religion’s teachings, and an aspiration for social justice.
Stevenson-Clark’s worship practices include chanting twice daily. Every morning and every evening, she chants: Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō, meaning I devote myself to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra. The sound and vibration of saying and hearing the chant is a powerful sensory experience for Stevenson-Clark. The mantra empowers her. She strives to improve herself and the world around her, to open lives to the Buddha’s teachings, and to bring out the highest value of human emotion. For Stevenson-Clark, it is not intent, but instead action, which matters. Her faith informs her actions; for this reason, she is involved in a number of activist and human rights causes. Stevenson-Clark’s religion focuses on a self-mastering and self-improvement that allows her to act with patience, understanding, and love.
The third Nexus Interfaith Dialogue will take place on February 7th at Virginia Wesleyan College.