One evening this August, I watched a woman throw a coconut into a river as a prayer. It was the splash that first drew my attention. She then emptied out a bagful of other fruits and flowers into the water. I had been jogging along the Potomac in downtown D.C. when I stopped to take in the scene and pray for a bit. It was just the two of us in that moment, so I asked in a friendly way, “Is that a coconut?” Yes it was, she said. “So, you do this every night?” No, she said, just once a month, then she scurried back to her modern apartment having fulfilled the ancient rites.
I have since discovered that Hindus offer coconuts to Varuna, the sea-god, as this article spells some of it out, rendering many of the world’s rivers sacred in their eyes. Washington apparently isn’t the only bearer of holy waters, as this London photographer captures evidence of many Hindu and Christian trinkets, the leftover offerings now lodged in Thames river mud.
That same evening, in the next thirty minutes of dedicated people-watching, a veritable carnival passed me by along the waterfront sidewalk: a black man in Adidas gear and his pet mastiff, an Asian woman doing calisthenics, a jogging Latino couple, a white same-sex couple, an elderly couple, an Ethiopian mother and her two daughters, a homeless man on a bike, and an old maid who tried to gab with everyone seated on park benches who were already having their own conversations. Then, lo and behold, a woman passed me by praying what looked like a rosary. The beads were very large, so I wasn’t sure, but I asked simply, “Is that a rosary?” She smiled and said it was and kept going.
I returned to the same spot a week later, and there she was again like clockwork, home from work, out on her rosary walk.
Christ once posed a very strong question: “When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8). That’s not to conflate all religions so quickly. Faith is a word reserved for Christ, not Varuna or Krishna or any god in general. It is to believe that he alone saves, and yet he desires all men to arrive at this faith. Though his question may be a bit rhetorical, meant to spur listeners towards a greater faith, the answer is yes, for he himself is busy at work in the world, bringing it about.
I’ve been surprised to find faith in unlikely places.
Years back I was in Huntington Beach on the weekend of the US Open of Surfing. Unlike most sporting events, it had a very local and low-key atmosphere, no tickets or lines or anything of the sort. You simply wandered down the beach, and there in the sand stood some of the best surfers in the world – John John Florence, Gabriel Medina, Kelly Slater. You could walk the pier and watch from right above them as they bobbed, waited, caught waves, smiled…
Then, out there under the hot sun and the humanist vibes and (let’s say) lightly clad people, I was surprised to find faith. I went with my siblings to get a free hotdog at the Vans tent, the shoe company from Orange County who sponsors the Open, along with their slew of other annual events from skating and snowboarding to the Warped Tour punk rock gathering. They’ve come a long way from making shoes for local skater kids in L.A., but their founder and CEO, Steve Van Dorn, is still humble enough to work the grill at every event and give out free dogs to any and all takers. Having reached the front of the line, I noticed a gold medallion around his neck, so I asked, “What’s on the medal?” It is St. Jude, he said with a smile. It was a strong devotion his father had, and when the company filed for bankruptcy in the mid 80s, he attributes their recovery to the saint’s intercession. I thought, a saint interceding for a skater shoe company, it seems God isn’t scandalized at the idea of blessing such ventures.
Faith is among us, often unnoticed. Even among more famous figures, Catholic upbringing abounds. It recently dawned on me that late-night shows have been completely crowded out by Catholics: Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, and (yes) even Carson Daly, formerly of MTV.
My college roommate recently saw Brett Favre at Sunday Mass. The list of athletes who are Catholic is actually really impressive, not only classics like Vince Lombardi and Joe DiMaggio, but today: Lionel Messi, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady, Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Jordan Spieth, Usain Bolt, etc.
My uncle recently posted about receiving a rosary CD as a gift – not the most exciting item one would hope for – until he discovered it was recited by famed Los Angeles Dodgers’ announcer, Vin Scully. And he even said it was even prayable!
Among the list of American Catholics alone, many have spoken openly about their faith but haven’t received much coverage. The press may be to blame, but so is its readership, i.e. we humans. We tend to prefer the scandalous over the steady. It’s why we harp on Mel Gibson’s bigotry but not Mark Wahlberg’s trips to daily Mass at St. Patrick’s (spotted by another friend source). It’s why websites follow tales of Bill Murray crashing college parties to wash dishes in the kitchen, but not so much his remarks on missing the Latin Mass or visits to see his sister Nancy, herself a Dominican sister, who performs a one-woman play on the life of Catherine of Siena.
Many stars, it’s true, also have a very imperfect record with the Church, from Sinatra to Hemingway to Springsteen, from Billie Holiday to Babe Ruth. Yet rocky though they be, it’s impossible to erase faith as a defining factor, to shake it off entirely. The last two even received Last Rites from a priest, on that same fated island named Manhattan. Holiday was reconciled while under house arrest in her Metropolitan Hospital room for possession of narcotics, though the police guard allowed a priest to enter at her request. Ruth, after decades not of the rosary but of womanizing, fell ill and was anointed at the hands of a Dominican priest of our province, Fr. Hilary Kaufman, O.P. He was simply the assigned chaplain at Memorial Sloan Kettering during the Great Bambino’s last great struggle. No special treatment, just a priest.
The point, I think, is simple: in a world where skeptical and scientistic opinions abound, religion is still relevant. It’s relevance is not measured by headlines but within the heart of each man and woman, who wakes up each day and walks the ways of this world. It is still within our hearts, that classical virtue called religion – that inclination to honor and implore a higher power – still quietly carried in many hearts, whatever one’s career may be, whatever degree of fame from zero to hero. And whatever the expression, whether one casts coconuts or prays privately, it stems from real, concrete needs. Yes, there is a real difference between true and false worship, the first being those practices which worship a loving, providential God, who so happens to be Christ we have come to discover. But the root all religion is the same individual human heart we share with its core desires. “Religion is either the reasonable quest for the satisfaction of all the original desires of the heart, or it is a dangerous, divisive, harmful waste of time” (Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, God At The Ritz, 154). Yes, it is often blamed to be simply a societal construct, and organized tool for wars and division. These are inescapable cultural patterns we fall into, but so is belief. So is that humble attitude which wants to offer something to God, a creature’s inner posture before its creator.
This past week I was returning from ministry by the metro, and I passed a woman walking her dog. I was in my Dominican habit this time, which she noticed with raised eyebrows. I asked, “What’s the dog’s name?” Thor, came her reply. “Alright,” I added, “the god of thunder.” She volleyed back, “Puppy of thunder. There’s only one God,” and all with knowing nod! How good it is to make the acquaintance of another strict monotheist wandering our streets.
Religion is still relevant. It only takes eyes to see. Or a few words to strike up a conversation.