There’s no doubt that religious tolerance is a great need we have in our world today. And while I could make a few philosophical points, or even preach about the human aptitude to love and accept others, I will not do that. In fact, I believe we are far from being philosophical, or even accepting of another’s religion; and that’s because, before we do any of that, we need to be children whose faith can move mountains.
I was born in communist Albania, at the peak of religion denial and of spiritual poverty. These are big words that I use now, but as a child, I knew not of religion or of the human need to believe. I only knew that there was something, deeper than myself that constantly called me, and every time I responded to that call, I found peace in darkness.
My knowledge of God was nonexistent. What I remember are bits and pieces of conversations in hushed voices that adults would have, and somehow, the concept of “God” became real in me. I knew not to ask about God, for anyone who mentioned Him was in danger, taken away, imprisoned; put to death whose face held an irrefutable truth. Death was never abstract. It was real without anyone ever explaining to me what it was. And so, with this understanding of God being dangerous, yet somehow good, I believed ever since I can remember. In fact, I have no memories without God. He was always present and constant, good and dangerous.
I was 6 or 7 when I first I created a visual idea of God. I had noticed that my grandparents kept a book hidden in a locked drawer-chest, and they always hid the key underneath its cover. (I always paid attention when grownups hid anything! It meant that I could find candy, and any other thing that was in short supply.) One day, when I was alone, I searched for the key and opened the drawer where the book was. I took the book and opened it. Right between the cover and the first page, there was a picture (icon, I later learned) with two men dressed in an unusual way. I realized they were not God, but somehow, I felt they knew Him, and just by looking at them, I was closer to Him. They wore bright-colored long robes, hats, and what looked like a crown, made of sunlight. I touched the image gently knowing it meant something. I opened the next page filled with excitement. I had just learned how to read, so I was going to be able to read the book. But the language made no sense. (Later, I learned it was Old Albanian.) I understood only a few words, not the entire meaning. “GOD” was the only clear word. I could read “God.” That was enough for me.
For some time, I created a ritual of finding the book and reading “God.” I couldn’t wait to be alone and look for the key—which a few times wasn’t were I’d usually find it, leaving me in deep disappointment. I had this thirst for God, to feel God, to be with God. Every time I noticed adults speak in a low voice, I knew they were probably mentioning Him. My hearing sharpened, and my senses were alert. God couldn’t escape me, no matter how much they tried to keep Him from me.
After a while, I found out that a few of my friends were also searching for God in their own homes. I was perhaps 9 or 10, the first time I learned a prayer. I knew of the sign of the cross—I can write another story about that—but I knew not what words were associated with it. So, when a friend of mine told me that she had heard her grandmother pray, I was ecstatic with joy. She told me to say: Bismilah Rahman e Rahim. For some reason, the words didn’t match what I thought they should be, but, that’s all I had. I did the sign of the cross and said Bismilah Rahman e Rahim. My friend did the same.
I somehow knew that her God and mine had to be different, but it didn’t matter. God called us to be with Him. And so, we went to Him, children, with our hearts wide open. We were Christian and Muslim children who simply yearned for God. He recognized us. He knew us.
I was 15 when I first learned the Lord’s Prayer. I was happy, yet I felt that I had lost something special. I realize that religion and faith are two different domains. In faith we are children, but in religion, we are divided, we are justified. We don’t seek anymore. But, finding God is a process of faith, and faith is always needy—just like a child. There will never be satisfaction, no matter the righteousness we may find through religious devotion, no matter the knowledge we acquire through the study of tradition and literature. Children are the only ones who believe without judgement, and I say, let us all find the child we once were. We won’t learn to appreciate others’ faith, unless we become children and accept the path people choose to follow, be it by tradition or by choice.
Today, in my hometown, Pascha (Easter) is celebrated by all, Christians and Muslims alike. They walk through the city streets with lit candles, bringing home the resurrection of Christ—like my friend and I brought the first Bismilah prayer to our lips, and the sign of the cross to our hearts. My hometown is filled with people who never forgot the meaning of being a child. They believe and celebrate by sharing their hearts, not their doctrines.
Aida Bode is an Albanian poet and writer, and an Orthodox Christian. She holds an MA in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. See her website, Words to Breathe, for her extensive publishing history.