As we sashay into a new year, it is considered de rigeur to reflect on our collective past and get all misty-eyed at what we, as individuals, should have done and how we should have felt. But at AVESSA, we scoff at the withered, inane conventional wisdom that forces us to reflect on our past as a basis for a happier future. Let’s admit this right away: the past has been nut-crushing; move on.
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Nonetheless, mindlessly moving forward without a guide or set of tools to navigate the future is also a mistake. It is essential to recognize as we enter our third year of a pandemic that most of us have experienced grief, loneliness, and insecurity. We usually associate grief with the loss of a loved one, but in this case, we have all lost time and a great deal of it. How many plans were laid to waste because of the pandemic and its stuttering recovery? All of us paused to the detriment of our private and professional lives. Would we have met the perfect person within the last 24 months? Would we have been promoted or created a successful new business? Those dream-filled opportunities were swept away, and instead, we were forced to wait in fear and frustration. How could we not be grieving? It is my opinion that now we need to look inside ourselves and sift through our emotions, the real ones not the grinning facade we show to the world. In times of emotional distress, many of us, at least I do, turn to faith. Contemporary faith does not necessarily equate to a specific religion or even a structured set of tenets to guide our actions and emotions. Although faith certainly is a part of the world’s organized religions, it can also be based on an internal belief that we are connected to something larger than ourselves. This “something” can range from Monotheism, Pantheism to Shintoism or to the mysterious cosmos swirling around our planet. Without constraining my thoughts, I have been internally pontificating about how faith may be needed more than ever as the world rediscovers how to function again. Many of us could benefit from more spiritual guidance as we stumble our way back into holding conversations with beings other than our pets or faceless crazies on the interweb. I was raised as a baroque Catholic and will never apologize for my deep love of imagery, dark rich velvet colors, and tradition. In fact, my father’s aunt, who raised him, was a devout member of Opus Dei, a Catholic faction within the formal church. Señorita Maria Antonia Librada de Todos Los Santos Delgadillo y Herrera (long names run in my family) had the appearance of a sweet, kindly spinster with China-doll features, a pale complexion with rosy cheeks and twinkling hazel eyes. Hah. In fact, my great aunt was a fierce and ruthless advocate of envisioning everyday life as an opportunity to deliver on the path to sanctity. Señorita Antonia dressed in somber shades of black and grey enveloped in gossamer veils as if a Diego Velasquez Infanta came to life. Growing up and observing her, I realized she used casual everyday routine as well as fashion to re-affirm her religious allegiances and, by extension, asserted her religious differences with others. In an earlier edition, AVESSA wrote about how humans use tangible and intangible clues to align ourselves into fractionalized tribes, “Dramatic Turn of Events” AVESSA, October 2021. At that time, we discussed post-pandemic politics, but the same logic holds true for faith. Faith is a very delicate subject to talk about, with discussions quickly leading to unbridled emotion and passion. It is important to be patient and listen with an open mind to these debates. As the goopy, procrastinating Hamlet once advised, but of course never acted upon, “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice; Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.” So, in that spirit, please note that I am not endorsing my great-aunt’s point of view or even Catholicism. Quite the contrary, my experiences have shown that faith comes in distinct hues and that all of us, in one way or another, follow the path of the Penitent. So, who are the Penitent? It is a phrase that attempts to describe and make sense of our society in terms of faith and fashion. Although it is deeply important to remember that descriptions should never be treated as “labels”, which can then end up being more harmful than useful. “Labels” imply a static and inflexible reality, when in truth, people’s characteristics can and do change with experience or self- reflection.The Penitent could be described as a group of five faith-based tribes that I believe exist among us: Apostates, Deviants, Cultists, Adherents, and Spiritualists. As we explore these tribes, we need to consider not only their definition but also how the use of faith can support or inhibit us as we navigate the future.
The deviant use faith as a scam, another way to selfishly benefit from others. The Deviant can also be described as affinity frauds; these are despicable men and women that target people through a common bond which is most often religion. They wrap themselves in clothes that exude power like Chanel Suits or Hermes scarves so they can hide their most devious attributes. The Deviant can become inordinately powerful because they eagerly equate themselves to a higher power. They obscure facts and details to ensure their credentials become synonymous with whatever religion or belief they target. But why do we allow this to happen to us? One foundational reason that the Deviant is allowed to flourish is that many religious entities, such as Christianity in the USA, feel as if they are under tremendous siege from incessant waves of new information arriving digitally and the changing culture surrounding them. Many religious people feel that they make up a significant percentage of their community and yet they do not feel as if they can exert the power that they should have. Throughout history, we find endless examples of religions or people of faith believing that power was owed to them, but that it was also capriciously and unfairly denied. These frustrated people feel helpless and allow a foothold for the Deviants to enter and gain control. The Deviant are typically a type of charismatic bully who claims is on the side of the faithful. We can observe through multiple examples that the Deviant are intuitive bullies who can correctly read the mood of audiences and individuals. Oftentimes, they thrive on chaos and will actively create false crisis situations to benefit themselves. Jim Jones, preacher and faith healer who led the Peoples Temple, ominously declared to his devoted flock, “If we can’t live in peace, then let’s die in peace.” He eventually led 909 men, women, and children to die through suicide.To ensure their control, these leaders often incorporate formal indoctrination that reinforces their domination and their dogma. In the past, we have seen Charismatic Deviants enforce hideous dress codes, unique language, and isolation from family as a method to achieve power.The Deviant also uses their personal proclivities to shape their group. Sexual fantasies, for example, might translate into sexual abuse or sexual exploitation. Or, the charismatic leader might be more interested in wealth and ostentatious displays, as was the case with Rajneesh, who owned 93 Rolls-Royces, and whose followers, all dressed in red, would throw flowers at him as he drove down the road of their commune. Sadly, the Deviant has been found using their grotesque charisma to twist all manners of religion or spiritual movements. As you delve into using spirituality to support you in the future, never forget your individuality and allow these people to gain the control they desire.
The cultist is immediately perceived as negative, but we must recall that the word comes from the Latin “cultus,” which is a form of the verb “colere,” meaning “to worship or give reference to a deity.” Most religions began as cult movements before expanding to the larger denominations that we now know. Just ask Emperor Constantine of Rome, who legalized Christianity after three hundred years of on and off persecution. It was not until the late 20th century that a narrower, derogatory understanding of cult dominated when it began to refer to a group whose beliefs and practices were considered bizarre or extreme. It has only recently been associated with mind control, brainwashing, and undue manipulation of followers. Methods of coercive persuasion undoubtedly exist, but the notion of a foolproof method for destroying free will and reducing people to robots is now rejected by most experts as opposed to acknowledging that the Cultist involves an element of “voluntary self-surrender.” Cultism is the ultimate expression of conformity; think of the hordes flashily wearing “Double G” prints or an oversized t-shirt with the word “Balenciaga” in capital letters on a white background. I definitely had my periods of conformity and fear of being different. I was absurdly young when I started as a freshman, and at 16 years of age, I had very little experience to base my behavior. I was a Mexican preppy with a stilted, overly proper American accent which was as foreign as a transexual purple Venusian would be to the thousands of white, upper-middle-class Northwestern University students. That first cold September day when I arrived greeted me with its crisp icy wind swirling fallen leaves and its flat gray skies smelling of moist earth. The upperclassman who picked me up at the airport gaped in disbelief as I gingerly stepped into the arrival terminal wearing my brilliantly white, buttoned-down shirt starched within an inch of its life, a blue V-neck sweater, a pair of brilliantly colored madras pants, and of course loafers, without a sign of socks. I can only assume he was expecting someone older with chanclas, a luxurious Zapata mustache all covered in a rustic poncho dusted with dirt from the cactus-filled desert. I recall him stuttering out my name with his flat nasal midwestern accent, then at my nod, blurting out “Christ… don’t you have a jacket?!?” I did not. As I finally arrived on campus, a shockwave of confusion hit me. Although I was dressed similarly to most of the students, it was clear that their casual superior attitudes and vulgarity-laden speech was not what I was taught, nor was it what I expected. I thought I would see and experience an explosion of diverse communities all happily living and supporting each other using Northwestern as the common link to thread everyone into a community. Instead, conformity was the goal with any differences quickly gazed upon with judgement, displeasure, and isolation. So, in defense and sheer exhaustion, I conformed. I followed campus leaders in defining my ethics, very loose morals, and judgmental attitudes. I became a follower and let others do my thinking for me dressed in the exact same fashions and colors. This was a time in my life when I was not willing to be fiercely unique, and I was scared. It can be frightening to be alone, so of course, I followed the warm, well-lit path to acceptance. With time, I gained experience and learned how to be my own person. I evolved. The Cultist have an understandable reason to be who they are, but danger lurks when they veer towards a fierce application of their worldview and an unforgiving judgement of others.
The apostate is a fascinating group with their emphatic disdain for formal religion or even of faith itself. Think of a modern ascetic dressed in Helmut Lang’s SS22 gender-neutral designs cogitating on when science will eventually reveal all the mysteries of the physical universe without the ridiculous idea of some unseen, unprovable God. The Apostate uses atheism as a base belief system, and at first glance, has definitive merit. The Apostate has consistently valued scientific discovery more than their religious counterparts and has been less likely to stand in the way of scientific progress that has so often been blocked for religious reasons. In their hearts, they look to create a society that is more rational which in theory should be more welcoming to all manners of ideas and discussion. As a teenager, I rebelled against my most-catholic upbringing and secretively considered being an Apostate. I remember when the idea first came into ice-clear clarity, I was lounging in a café on the edge of the Plaza de Armas, which was hemmed in by two massive stone cathedrals sitting somberly and full of pride in the main square. I was basking in an atmosphere of quiet anonymity even though I was raised a couple of short kilometers away. I shifted a bit uneasily in my sun-drenched seat under the turquoise blue desert sky. Growing up in Mexico, being Catholic is an unspoken reality of life. We were compelled by our culture, family, and relationships to believe unquestioningly in our religion. To doubt our form of faith was to also call into question the very foundations of our Mexican society. Sitting in that café, I recalled that as a child, I asked my great aunt, la Señorita Antonia, why it was so hot and dry without any rain in our city. Her response was the answer of someone who never once doubted the mystical nor questioned it. I could tell my severe, disapproving great-aunt didn’t know and didn’t care to understand why it rained. God willed it, and that was it. But this simple question from a curious child would be the catalyst to my journey towards my own answers. I started with concerns about our society, religion, and my place in the world. I also started to read extensively and exposed myself to vastly different points of view. I read everything from religious texts, science, history to fantasy and science fiction. Through that exploration, my views evolved in a direction that carried me farther and farther from the Catholicism I was raised with. It was like crossing a bridge. My book-driven research satiated my intellectual queries in a way that religious instruction never did. So, I genuinely respect the scientific method, but unfortunately, I also found that there are drawbacks. The goals for the Apostate should be to act less authoritarian, less dogmatic, less prejudiced, and more tolerant of others. After all, the scientific method is an empirical approach to acquiring knowledge, which should welcome all manner of ideas. But let’s not kid ourselves: the high goals of the Apostate also contend with members that are just as pig-headed as their religious counterparts. Fundamentally the Apostate focuses on a single categorical statement that expresses their belief in nonbelief. Which when you think about it, this attitude is inherently unscientific in nature. They don’t believe in a spiritual power even though they have no evidence for or against it, they simply don’t believe. Period. It’s a declaration that ignores the traditional approach of scientific inquiry. One of the Apostate’s most potent tools to prove that science is the key to understanding life is quantum mechanics. It is science’s most precise, powerful theory of reality. It has predicted countless experiments, spawned countless applications. The trouble is, physicists and philosophers disagree over what it means, that is, what it says about how the world works. Consequently, to avoid messy arguments over doctrine, many physicists adhere to the adage of “shut up and calculate.” Ironically, this idea encourages physicists to stop trying to make sense of quantum mechanics and continue to apply the theory based solely on faith. Faith that science has answered the questions of why we exist and what is our purpose, without proof.
The adherent. Why do we follow formal and conventional religions? An easy answer is that the belief in a higher being or power – in whichever form you believe he/she/they take(s) – is real. Humans desire to believe in a higher power, and many of us actively communicate with it and perceive evidence of its involvement in the world. Why people follow organized religions is a question that has plagued great thinkers for many centuries. Karl Marx, for example, called religion the “opium of the people.” Sigmund Freud felt that God was an illusion, and worshippers were reverting to the childhood needs of security and forgiveness. The Adherent care not for these great thinkers; they instead use formalized religion as a way to remove past guilt or remorse in other to move confidently forward. Asking yourself, “Did I deserve this?” can lead to terrible, negative emotions and endless self-flagellation. When I felt this desperation, I also looked back to formalized religion to find a philosophy that would enable me to process feelings of guilt and despair. When I think of Adherents, the stylized conservatism of Dolce and Gabbana comes to mind. Dolce and Gabbana promote their love of history and traditional with their use of dark, rich textures and over-the-top symbols such as post cards, crosses and glitter. La Señorita Antonia would have felt extremely satisfied wearing one of D&G’s saint-laden dresses, eh, as long as she could wear a veil as well. Nonetheless, the Adherent behave in variety of ways from strict application of religious policy to moving beyond mindless adherence to doctrine and trying to discover more about the world around them. This variety of behavior has led to significant differences between formal religious teachings and what Adherents actually think. The Adherent must accept or deny multiple aspects of their formal religion, especially when they look to exclude people based on their sexuality, gender, or even race. It has been a struggle for most organized religions that rely on doctrines that are hundreds or thousands of years old and do not reflect how society has radically changed in the last 50 years. A Pew Research Center survey, released in late 2021, found 29% of U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2016, with millennials leading that shift. A growing number of people said they are also praying less often. About 32% of those polled by Pew Research last year said they seldom or never pray. That’s up from 18% of those surveyed by the group in 2007. Adherents face this cosmic question. Do I follow religious dogma? Or do I slowly veer away from the comfort that tradition provides?
The spiritualist. In my opinion, spirituality is aligned with selfless love. Spiritual people claim that they care about everything and everyone, including all races, genders, animals, and the planet. The Dalai Lama once wittily stated, “While the West was busy exploring outer space, the East was busy exploring inner space.” The Dali Lama is a person that has gained great respect for his teachings, but I don’t think he intended that spirituality should be focused only on understanding yourself. Quite the opposite, spiritual people have become associated with various virtues: compassion, empathy, and open-heartedness. In my observations, The Spiritualists constantly examine how they interact with others as well as the world. There are many paths to spirituality which include meditation, self-reflection and even psychotherapy. I cannot claim to have exhausted the full range of meanings to spirituality nor the paths that people take to achieve this state. But I do know that spirituality does not exclude being an Apostate, Adherent, or any other version of the Penitent, except the Deviant since it is extremely hard to have compassion with your target for abuse. Nonetheless, many people may object to the idea that a person can simultaneously follow an organized religion and be compassionate to others. Look, the world is not black and white. Just because you follow a traditional religion or are an atheist does not mean that you cannot also be compassionate and understand that your organized religion does not yet have a doctrine to encompass everyone else. I recall a time when I had lost my faith, but through my mother, I met a lovely man, a Catholic priest, who inspired me to look beyond the doctrine and traditions to see the best version of myself. My meeting occurred when I had finally moved my mother to London to be with me. I wanted my mother near me because she was fantastic. All mothers are marvelous, I agree, and we all have our unique reasons for lauding the women who gave us light. My reasons were based on the fact that she prevented me from sliding into being a caricature of a privileged creep. My mother was impeccably polite and raised to treat everyone with a polished urbanity that endeared her from mosquito encrusted gardeners to fallen doyennes who remembered more glorious times while lashing out like wounded wildebeests. I remember a warm late summer afternoon when my mother looked at me with care and said with a forthright tone, “Querido, I am going to catholic mass every Sunday at St. Mary of the Angels and you will accompany me, if not to pray, then at least to act like a caballero and escort me.” My mother was an expert in insisting that we cultivate a civility that was inherent in our upbringing. I could hardly say no. It was there that I met Father John Fernsby-Smith, an old Etonian and Oxfordian doctor in religious studies. It is difficult for me to describe his tone and the utter conviction of his words. Father John was not a zealot or mindless robot droning scripture. You could actually feel the force of his kind and expansive faith. I was deeply moved. This was a man that was sincere in opening his mind and caring for anyone whether they were Anglican, Muslim, or faithless of religion altogether. Please don’t imagine him to be this gentle, quiet soul. Father John was the epitome of his class and education. He was powerful and pragmatic in tone, with an open sarcastic twist to his words. He had no time for hypocrites. If you were reveling in drinking baby-seal blood while paying for love by the hour with men dressed in furry costumes? Father John would say, “At least have the balls to admit it!!”. He sincerely did not judge you for your foibles, he wanted you to be you. Granted, Father John would also urge you to adhere to some set of humane ethics, not necessarily Catholic norms but any that aligned to a more just and kind code of conduct. Father John did not hold with the libertine and degenerate conduct of his fellow prelates, who quickly and formulaically forgave all congregants. No, Father John wanted his faithful to feel true remorse and have faith that God would be there to support us. I regained a portion of my faith the day I met Father John and I have continued to remember and respect Father John’s advice and his spirituality.
The pandemic has not only fuelled people’s interest in spirituality, but the necessary move to online services has also made it easier for people to explore these feelings. I think that in pre-pandemic times there was an anxiety in meeting new people and immediately discussing your inner faith. But if you’re online and you’re in the comfort of your own home, you can just hop in and hop out at your leisure and just explore how you feel about faith… one step at a time. Religion and faith can still be looked upon as an immature response to difficult times but research has identified positive and negative forms of religious coping — as well as evidence that how people experience and express their faith has implications for their well-being and health. On the positive side, faith can help us reframe events through a hopeful lens. Faith can help us transcend stressful times by enabling us to see a tragedy as an opportunity to grow closer to a higher power or to improve our lives. We can use faith as a bridge to link us to something larger than ourselves. Religious rituals and rites of passage can also help people navigate through tumultuous and momentous times. Rituals can sustain people through life’s most difficult transitions. I think it is extremely important that people use their beliefs in a way that makes them feel empowered and hopeful. Faith can be remarkably helpful in terms of managing stress during times like these. Unfortunately, religious beliefs may also undermine healing during stressful times.
These negative religious expressions include feeling punished by God or feeling angry toward a higher being. Trauma and tragedy can challenge conceptions of religion as all-loving and protective. As a result, some people struggle in their relationship with religion and experience feelings of anger and abandonment. “Religious deferral” can be another negative aspect of using faith. One example of this deferral is church leaders who say God will protect their congregations as they hold church services in defiance of physical distancing guidelines aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. People can have difficulty squaring their behavior with their moral and spiritual values. For example, healthcare providers who are on the front lines of treating coronavirus patients may describe the anguish they feel as they are being forced to decide how to allocate limited life-sustaining resources, decisions that put them in the uncomfortable role of playing God. Nonetheless, I believe that spirituality can add even more benefits beyond the basic tenets of formal religion. There are so many spiritual practices that are now used by everyone. Yoga comes from Hinduism and mindful meditation from Buddhism, yet Penitents from all belief systems now take part in these traditions. Faith has been helping people get through hard times for thousands of years; it’s tested and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Just read the psalms, and you will see that it is all about people turning to a higher power during troubled times.


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