Only once in my life have I come close to what you might call a religious conversion. I was fifteen years old, and for some reason my high school, usually an austere and dreary all-boys’ grammar, invited a Christian rock band to take up a week-long residency.
Looking back, I can only assume the bass player was the headmaster’s nephew, or something.
The lead singer looked and sounded a bit like Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. I think she may even have worn leather trousers. I was besotted, and so was my best friend, Marco. We squabbled over which of us she was smiling at during their politely raucous assembly performances, and quizzed her on musical influences, in the gruffest voices we could muster, while queuing for the tuck-shop.
I never really felt I was missing out, happy in my fence-sitting godlessness.
During their final show, following an impassioned anthem that I’m almost certain was called He’s Inside Me, she asked us all to close our eyes and invite Jesus into our lives.
Something happened as I sat there on my plastic chair with my eyes screwed shut. Somewhere at my very core, a definite tingle. This grew, as I visualised a life as roadie-apostle and lover, into a throbbing palpitation I may have misinterpreted as mystical.
A week later I’d forgotten all about my Bible-bashing siren, on account of the new girl at the bus-stop, and that was the end of that.
God had never been part of my childhood. My sister and I were never christened, unlike nearly all of our peers. This was the seventies, on London’s drabber outskirts, and the Church of England was the default denomination. Our parents, not otherwise subversive, decided that we could make up our minds about religion, the afterlife and all that in our own time, so I never did.
I decided I was agnostic as soon as I learned the word. (It was the same with enigmatic and bohemian). I knew that other kids had gone to Sunday School, that the Catholics among them got to eat sacramental wafers and light candles on a regular basis, and those who wore turbans were something called Sikhs, which sounded kind of exotic, but I never really felt I was missing out, happy in my fence-sitting godlessness.
Until, during post-uni years of dogged slackerdom, I became a hippy. Whereupon I developed a spiritual appetite, a keen taste for the cosmic. The holy munchies, maybe.
And so, at the age of twenty-five, I took the tried and tested road of the Indian odyssey. Seven months on a shoe-string, no, a sandal-strap budget. And though my quest was as much for cheap and potent hashish as enlightenment, I received, as many have before and since (Mr Micallef included), a healthy dose of the metaphysical on that strange and wondrous sub-continent.
I hung out with Hindu sadhus, wept to the sound of morning prayers to Allah, watched Buddhist monks surrender painstakingly crafted sand mandalas to the winds. But through it all, I felt like what I was: an outsider, a tourist, a parvenu flibbertigibbet in beads.
While on the mandatory meditation retreat in the Himalayas, I met a 50-something Italian Buddhist who blew me away with his iridescent aura and youthful vitality. How did he do it?
“Two things,” he confided, beaming handsomely. “Never get married, and drink urine.”
I’ve never married.
As I grow older, I find myself envying the sense of belonging that the religious must feel.
More than twenty years have passed since my soul-searching trip around India, and I’ve settled into a life of complacent spiritual uncertainty. Like many, I have a faith in science without really understanding it. Regarding religion, I still agree with late counter-culture guru, Robert Anton Wilson (a mainstay on my bookshelves during the hippy years), that “Belief is the death of intelligence”.
But, as I grow older, I find myself envying the sense of belonging that the religious must feel. To share a sense of knowing why you’re here and where you might be going, if you keep your nose clean, seems a sweet deal.
I love the passover feasts our Israeli friend puts on every year, despite the motza balls. Those stories, and rituals, all that togetherness and shared meaning - eating terrible food is a small price to pay. At least once I came away from a passover wishing I was Jewish, just before the stomach cramps kicked in.
I don’t have a god, or even a faith, but I cling to the spiritual, and the notion of a higher meaning, something more than the comical horrorshow of human history. I find it, when I look hard enough, not only in the fuzzy sense I have of the dead I’ve known and loved being with me, or the grateful wonder I feel at, say, a sunrise or the smell of my children’s foreheads, but in science.
I might not have a strong grasp of particle physics, but I’m pretty sure that by now it’s proven what we hippies knew all along - that everything is, like, one, man, you dig?
Talk about a sense of belonging; that’s some kind of divine.
Image courtesy of Flickr/Magalie L'Abbé.
Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 8.30pm from 18 January 2017. Watch all the episodes online after they air on SBS On Demand.