Making a case for religion with Zena Hitz

Religion has always been a sensitive subject, and religious conversations fraught with difficulties especially if the participants are sensitive and afraid to cause offence. It’s one of the many reasons why I so enjoyed my conversation with Zena Hitz.

Zena Hitz is a Tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, where she teaches across the liberal arts. She is the author of Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (2020) and A Philosopher Looks At the Religious Life. She may have grown up with no particular religious inclination, as an adult, Zena found herself drawn to the strength and fortitude that faith can create within its followers. In order to further her learnings and experience on the subject, Zena spent several years living in a Christian religious community.

She was a guest on my podcast and we dove deep into the subject of religion, power of faith, religious hatred, asceticism, and so much more. Apart from being a very intelligent and kind human being, despite her own conviction on the subjects, Zena maintained an open mind throughout our conversation.

During our conversation, she beautifully shared the transformative potential of religion, inviting us to reconsider our approach to spirituality, God, and religious discourse, challenging conventional views and encouraging a deeper engagement with faith.

You can listen to the conversation or you can read the Q&A shared below-

The Genesis of "A Philosopher Looks at Religious Life"

Q: Was there any specific impact you were hoping to have on a reader?

Zena: I suppose, you know, in the U. S., this isn’t a superficial impact. It’s not a deep impact. In the U. S., everyone looks to the East for spirituality.

It has a Christian tradition. There are people that just go to church, but that’s seen as being about right and wrong and morality. It’s not seen about as spirituality as, as a way of transforming the way that you live, that goes all the way down or as a way of confronting the most profound facts about life.

So spirituality in the US and I think also in Europe, we look to Buddhism, we look to Hinduism, we don’t look to Christianity. And I wanted people to know in the most simple way, that there was a Christian spiritual tradition that was very rich, very deep, very old.

I wanted non religious people to know and I also wanted Christians to understand that they had a spiritual tradition. That there’s a way of looking at Christianity where it’s not, we have a very politicised religion in the U. S. and it’s very much, if you’re a Christian, you vote Republican, sort of a thing.

Or, you know, maybe you’re a Christian and you decide, no, voting Republican is not the right thing. You should vote Democrat, but it’s always about voting. It’s never about the really deep things. So I wanted Christians to know that this tradition belonged to them. There was a way that spirituality was something that’s at the core of Christianity, and it’s a more profound and more transformative way of looking at religion than just through morality. It’s not without morality, but it’s deeper. It’s different. I wanted to communicate a bit of what’s what I think spirituality is in Christianity.

Bridging the Divide

Q. A philosopher looks at religious life, why did you write this book? What led to its conception? Why did you want to share it with the world?

Zena: I’m afraid that’s not the most exciting story. So, I’ll start with what happened which was that an editor from Cambridge university contacted me because they have a series, called A Philosopher Looks At Some Topics. So there’s a philosopher looks at sport, and a philosopher looks at work. A philosopher looks at human beings. A philosopher looks at digital technology.

So she thought I should do one on the religious life. Now, the more interesting part of the story is why she asked me to do that. And I said, yes, because it seemed like a good idea. I always enjoy the challenge of trying to reach across social boundaries and, you know, where I live in the U.S., there’s religious people and there’s non-religious people and they don’t talk to each other.

I really wanted the opportunity to communicate across the boundary, but the reason why she asked me was that I wrote another book, a few years ago and it came out in 2020, and it was about the value of study and learning and leisure in a good life. So how these things are not for just elites, they’re for everyone but I started by telling how I had come to this insight which was central not only to the book, but also to the way I lived my life.

I’d come to that by living for three years in a religious community in eastern Ontario. So I’m Roman Catholic. So it was a Roman Catholic community, very monastic style, not traditional in other ways, so it was mixed men and women and priests, everyone was committed to celibacy, but that’s a bit unusual for a Catholic community, and normally they’re separated by gender.

There are other things that were unusual or experimental about it. Anyway, this experience, which was three years of my life in my late thirties, it just changed everything about the way I live my life. And I wanted to share the insights that I had gotten by doing that, but I also wanted to try to explain what that it was like and what that meant, even to people that aren’t religious.

Faith as a Source of Empowerment

Q: We are definitely having a revolution of sorts, especially with the recent events. Things that were never said before are now being said openly.

There is this element of fear in the air all the time because of what’s happening. It’s so unpredictable. One of the reasons why I loved your book is because it intrigues, it will create intrigue without saying anything like, this is how it should be done. I love that.

Zena: It’s part of the heritage of, I think again, something about the U. S. You know, we send abroad our, McDonalds and our Taylor Swift but one of the things that I think, it’s, you know, liberalism with a small L, where what that means is you invite people, you persuade people, you don’t tell them what to do, you don’t interfere with their authority over their own lives. You know, everyone has authority over their own life.

And so, you know, you invite, you encourage, you persuade, you talk, but you give people their space and that’s something I’ve been really trying to do. I’m really grateful you said that, because that’s something I’ve really tried to do as a writer is to invite my reader to follow their own reflections.

Maybe they’ll come to see things my way and maybe they won’t. I would never have responded to a book that wasn’t inviting like that, right? So if someone had written, you know, I’m a convert myself, I come from a non religious background, and if someone had told me, like, this is why you need to become Roman Catholic, A, B, C, I would have been like, get away from me.Who are you to tell me what to do? I’m American.

Krati: Yeah, I have these moments where I’m planning to do something, but then somebody else comes across and tells me to do it, I’m like, now I’m not gonna do it. I feel like the inner child is very much alive.

Zena: It’s truthfully the worst way to get someone to do something is to tell them to do it. The best hope you have, it’s to communicate what you are grateful for in your own life sincerely, and then maybe people will like it and maybe they won’t and I think that’s something I don’t hear enough of in the writing, the things I read, just like, this is what I have. That’s good. And let me explain it. Let me talk to you about it and then that’s an invitation, but it’s not an order. It’s not a program. It’s not a plan. It’s just two people talking to one another about what they have that’s good.

Q. I want to know from you how you found religion to be an instrument of good and growth because I think that is where the focus should be and not on labels and specific rituals and specific practices. 

Zena: I’ll tell you what I think it meant for me in the most basic way and I don’t know if it’s quite what came across in the book, but I think this is really, most basically true for me as a younger person.

So I’ve always had a personality. I’ve always seemed like someone who was my own person, was unique and distinctive in certain ways but the truth is that on the inside, I was always very fearful and always looking for cues from other people as to what I should think, what I should feel, what I should like, what I should do, what I shouldn’t do.

And that went all the way down to what kind of restaurant I would eat at, what kind of clothes I would wear, what, you know, what kind of jewellery I would wear, how I would think, how I would vote, and what I thought was right and wrong. I know I didn’t seem like that, but I was like that.

And for me, having a faith, it gave me the strength, a kind of inner strength to step back from what other people thought, step back from what was going to be hard to say or hard to do or might look strange or what have you. It’s made it much more easy to do it. Faith in the everyday is me doing things that felt terrifying because of how strange I knew they would look to other people and the most dramatic example, of course, is, you know, I had this fancy career as an academic, which I walked away from to go live in this rural community in Canada that even Catholics hadn’t really heard of.

It wasn’t like a very well known place. You know, it wasn’t a prestige religious vocation if there is such a thing. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, you know, to go to my teachers and my parents and my friends and say, I’m going to do this thing and it’s going to be very different and it’s not going to be anything that you understand and it might hurt your feelings and you might think it’s a terrible thing to do, but I’m going to do it anyway. That, I think, is an extremely important thing for people to be able to do, whether as individuals or as families or as communities. You need some inner source of strength so that you have something that doesn’t, that can’t be taken away from you.

I think that might be the core sort of psychological need for religion or for spirituality, is that you need something that can’t be taken away from you. No matter what people think of you. No matter what catastrophe, if you get very ill, if you suffer some major loss, if you lose your job, you lose your family, whatever happens to you, there’s something that nothing can take away.

I think that something like that is really. It’s transformative. You’re still the same person that you’ve always been. I’m the same, I have the same problems I’ve always had. I have the same mental illnesses and same quirks and same personality, same vices, same strengths I’ve always had, but I’m different because I have that core, inner core.

Krati: I believe that fear and faith cannot co exist. Because anytime I would read my scriptures, this thought would get repeated. If you have faith in me, God would be saying. Then there shouldn’t be fear. Either I can be in you or there can be a lot of fear.

Zena: There’s a beautiful, beautiful quote that I think about a lot. There’s actually also a song, but it’s from Judaism. It’s from Rabbi Nachman of Breslau and he says that the whole world is a very narrow bridge. And I think about these bridges in the Himalayas, like these little suspension bridges, you know, but the only important thing is not to be afraid, at all.

So that image, I just have that with me quite often. You’re on a very narrow bridge. You can only go one step at a time. There’s huge terrifying prospects and you’re fine. Just don’t be afraid.

Spirituality vs religiosity

Q: There are people who would say, I’m spiritual, I’m not religious. What do you think about that idea?

Zena: Well, I don’t want to be very critical because I think it comes, at least in the American context, it comes from the 12 step programs, which are recovery programs for addicts and alcoholics.

The principles are Roman Catholic. They’re Christian principles, but they knew that not everyone would want to accept that and when you’re very broken from alcoholism or addiction, you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re being kept away from the help that you need.

So they devised this program and they called it a spiritual program, not a religious program. And what they meant was, if you don’t have to have a specific commitment, you have to figure out for yourself what you’re committed to, but here’s the basic structure of it, which is, I can tell you something about it.

I’ve been in these programs a little bit. You surrender. You realise that you don’t have control. You admit, you face yourself, you face your faults and then you turn towards others. I mean, those are the basic elements of spiritual and non religious. I think the danger of it is, it becomes about managing your feelings or your psychological condition.

It becomes psychological and I think you can see that danger very strongly in a lot of these more self help modes of religion. Religion supposed to help you. There’s nothing wrong with trying to be helped, but you don’t want to just manage your mind the way that you manage your health or your skin or your figure or your hair.

You want to be connected to something outside of you and religion, for me, it connects me with something outside of me that is a personal in my religion, a personal God. And that personal God has a history with humanity. It’s a history with humanity of which I am a part.

And that’s very rich. It’s a way of praying, a way of talking to God, a way of relating to others. It’s a form of community. There’s words, there’s images, there’s languages, there’s rituals, and they’re all aiming at union with God, with the being of being, you know, with the most fundamental thing there is.

I think that that brings in the whole person. You’re not just a manager of your inner states, like, Oh, I don’t feel peaceful enough, you know, it’s not about feeling peaceful enough. It’s about being in touch with God, the person who made the world and who sent his son to redeem us and establish a church and ways of relating.

So, I don’t know. I’m a big fan of full religion with a past, with traditions, with a community. There’s all kinds of things that really matter about that, but I also don’t want to be too strict about it because there are people who’ve really been helped, by being handled more gently.

And so that’s for them to work out. It’s not for me to say.

Krati: Yeah, I agree with you. I feel like it’s such a safe place, like there’s noise everywhere and if you have a religion that you rely on then you enter this building and everything’s quiet, everything’s okay, there are security guards everywhere, you can just leave your stuff and explore. That’s the analogy I always use.

Zena: No, it’s true that things like having a church you can visit, having a liturgical year where there’s feast days and that’s the time to celebrate. This is when we celebrate. This is when we fast. It’s merciful to people like us because we have too many choices. Most of us. I mean, most of us who are not in very bad circumstances. So it’s merciful to have, this is what we’ve always done. Here’s a space. Here are words. Here’s how to get in touch with God.

You don’t have to figure it out for yourself. Just follow this way. This is what other people have done. They’ve been here before you.

The Role of Questioning and Doubt in Faith

Q: When you have been raised religious from an early age, which was not your experience, right?

You are fed these ideas that you may not necessarily agree with, but because they’re fed into your brain at such an early age and you may not be allowed to question them and I think that’s where fear comes in and that’s sort of the suspicion people have around religion. How do you feel about that?

How do you feel about organizations, communities using religion actively to establish control? 

Zena: It is trickier for me in a way, because for me, rebellion was becoming religious.

You know, in a way I got everything but I think I can say this, that we live in a world where, unfortunately, everyone is always trying to control you in one way or other. Your parents do, you know, sometimes for your own good and sometimes because they’re human beings and they don’t know when to stop.

Your employer does. These big companies that are always trying to sell us stuff. What do they want from us? Do they want our freedom? No, they want us to spend our money, they want us to be their slaves, in fact. So I think, there’s an illusion where it feels like if you escape one master and serve another that you’re really just living for yourself.

Imagine I grew up in a very restrictive household and then I’m set out into free consumer lands, you know, where I can buy what I want, eat what I want, live how I want. It’s going to feel liberating, but in fact, there’s someone who’s in control the whole time. You know, it’s again, my boss, it’s the people that are selling me things. It’s my friends or my relationships or my spouse or the person I’m dating or whatever it is. There’s always someone who you’re serving. So the question is not, you know, how do I be free from any constraint? Because no one can live like that. No one lives like that. There’s no such thing, you know, I mean, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, they’re the richest guys in the world, they’re not free.

You can see them function. They’re enslaved by competition, by envy, by fear of losing their status, certain kinds of signs of that status, a sense of responsibility for, you know, what am I supposed to do if I’m the richest man in the world? They’re not free at all. So the question is, what kind of thing do you want to serve?

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that super clearly. I kind of think sometimes you only see it in retrospect, but looking back, you have to serve something and the things that are right for you to serve feel genuinely restful and like you are who you are.

It might be hard sometimes. There might be things that you really, really don’t want to do that are very painful, but you learn to trust it and you know that your good is involved, right? This is what it means to me to worship a loving God because God knows my good better than I do, you know. If it were left up to me, I would be like, Oh, which candy bar do I want? Which haircut do I want? What is the city in the world to live in, but God knows what I want better than I do. So obedience is actually just a way to really get the most out of life because you’re not always anxiously looking for the next thing and anxiously imagining that you have to make every decision.

So, I really think it’s true. You’re never free from restraint. So what is it that you want to be restrained by? Choose your restraint. When you choose it, I think you’ll choose something more like religion, honestly, than you will choose just being out there doing random things that don’t go anywhere.

Diving deeper into religion and establishing your own beliefs

Q: I would encourage people to think about that, journal about that, and I think that’s a good starting point, but carrying this thought forward, how would you encourage people that they explore this idea further? What do you want to be restrained by? What kind of restraints would you choose? The soft, loving ones, the hands of God, or do you want something else controlling you?

Also, what method would you recommend they use to approach religion with? If they’re intrigued by what you’ve proposed, how do they follow it further?

Zena: Okay, that’s an excellent question. I think the most important thing is to have some space in one’s life for silence and for solitude where there’s empty space, so to speak. So give your phone to someone else to keep like leave it in the office or whatever or some other place or lock it in a drawer.

Give yourself like even just an hour or half an hour or 20 minutes and do that with some regularity. Just get to know that empty space because things happen there that you’re not letting happen anywhere else and that’s just a human thing. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with us for doing that.

It’s just the way we are. We fill up our spaces because there’s something we don’t want to be looking at. So, have that habit. A habit of silence, solitude. You can go for a walk, you can sit in a room, whatever it is. Just no devices and maybe no other people. Just you. That’s one thing I recommend. Then, of course, reading.

I’m a big book person. So read books that are old and full of wisdom. There are a lot of books like this. You know, there’s scriptures in all the traditions, or there’s also great works of literature, great works of philosophy, anything that’s going to force you to open up a little bit to some bigger questions, some kind of reflection about, so that you’re stopping.

Again, it’s like the silence and the solitude. You stop and you have some space to reflect on bigger questions about what life is about. So, those are two things, solitude and silence and reading, but the third thing, in a way, is the simplest, and that is to look at what’s around you, what’s in your community.

So, for instance, I became Roman Catholic. Why? Well, I had three kinds of religious friend. There were three people in the world that I operated with, which was an academic community, some were Jewish, some were the type of Christian that’s called Episcopalian, it’s Anglican. I guess that’s pretty obvious in India.

Okay, so some were Anglican, some were Catholic and I just worked my way down. I was like, first I’ll try this, and then I’ll try this, and then I’ll try this, you know but if you don’t know any religious people, if you don’t have your own heritage or if you don’t have friends that are involved in one, then look at what’s in your area. What temple is there? What mosque is there? What church is there? What do your coworkers do because there’s so much all around you.

The thing about religion that fascinates me still is that it was around me my whole life and I never saw it. So, you know, around the street from where I grew up, this very, very secular, left wing, progressive, like, non religious environment. Right around the corner, there’s a huge Gothic church, and there’s a convent of nuns, of the Missionaries of Charity, the Mother Teresa nuns.

I used to see them walk around in habits when I was growing up. It never entered into my consciousness. There were religious people, there were shrines, there were people going to church, there were people praying, but I never saw it. So that’s probably, no matter where you are, that’s going on around you right now.

And it will be helpful anyway for you to be connected to your place that you are, and for you to be connected to other people who are involved in the community, because you need community. I think those are kind of the three things and just also to trust that you’ll figure it out, and to be a little bit adventurous.

Push yourself a little bit, but you don’t have to do something crazy, you know. Just push yourself a little bit. Talk to someone who’s a little bit not the sort of person you would normally talk to. You know what I’m saying? And then I think you become more and more bold when you realize how interesting and how fun it is.

I mean, it’s an adventure. Life is a beautiful adventure. It’s not something to be afraid of.

Q: How much would you encourage people to question what they’re learning?

Zena: Well, I’m a questioner by nature. I’m trained that way in philosophy but I think the main thing is not questioning, it’s honesty with oneself.

So I don’t think one of the things that’s really key about a spiritual life, about a life with religion is that lying to yourself never gets you anywhere. So don’t pretend that you’re okay with something that you’re not okay with. That doesn’t mean you have to shout and yell and, you know, run out of the room.

I mean, maybe you will, that’s okay but, you have to say to yourself, you know, I’m not comfortable with that. I don’t understand that and ask God to make it clear to you. Say, you know, God, I don’t understand this. Tell me what it is.

One of the signs of a healthy religious community is that they will accept your honest questions.

So, it’s one of the dangers, and I want to be very frank about this because I think it’s very serious. When you’re seeking a religion or when you’re new in a religion, you can be very vulnerable, very open because you’re opening up parts of yourself that have never been opened up and unfortunately, the world is full of people who, who will take advantage of that in ways that’s bad. It’s one of the reasons why honesty is so important because, in a way we live at two poles, two extremes. One is where you just accept everything, you know. I’ll do whatever you say. Absolutely. Complete obedience. I think there’s something wrong with that, but let’s not think about that and then complete questioning rebellion. And we don’t know how to do the thing that’s in between, which is you find people that you trust and you trust them slowly, you know, you don’t do everything at once.

And then you do some things trustingly, and other things you say, I don’t understand this, but you want to be around people who accept your honest reaction, and if they don’t accept your honest reaction, there’s something wrong because those aren’t people who accept you as a human being.

There are people that want a particular reaction from you. So, you have to be honest with yourself, and you need to find people who will let you be honest with yourself, and will even encourage it. That doesn’t mean that you always do exactly what you want, but it means that you are able to say how you feel.

So something, for instance, within a monastic community, one of the signs of a healthy monastic, monastic communities are all under obedience. So you’re supposed to do what someone tells you to do. It’s part of the spiritual principle. You have to do that, but the places where you’re supposed to do what your superior says and you’re not even supposed to think about it, now that’s not a good place.

You know, the place where the superior says, do this, dig that ditch, or whatever it is. And you say, I don’t really understand why I’m supposed to do that. Shouldn’t we be doing this other thing? And they say, okay, thanks for saying that. I think you should do it anyway. That’s a healthy community.

So, yeah, honesty and humility and simplicity are the key. They’re the signs of a good place and of a place where you are comfortable with who you are and, and with the direction which you’re growing. It’s very important because of how vulnerable and also how dangerous it can be to open yourself up to something new.

the coexistence of surrender and conviction

Krati: Now surrender versus conviction. Can you help my listeners understand the coexistence of these two elements, surrender and conviction?

Zena: I love the question. I think it works like this. The conviction and the surrender are helping one another.

So when you first surrender you don’t really know that’s going to work. You don’t really know that it’s good for you. You don’t really know that peace is going to come from it. You’re just trusting. Maybe someone else told you, or maybe it’a particular procedure, a way of life.

So when you surrender that way, that’s a kind of conviction because you trust whatever you’re following enough to do that but then when you see the fruits of that then your conviction gets deeper because you realise that the thing that you were told from the beginning was true. You were following a good rule.

So then you’re strong enough to just surrender some more because you’ve done it before. So I think that’s what you’d always want in this kind of life is to get more and more surrendered and more and more convinced. And that, when I say that, that makes you sound like you’re becoming a zombie or something, but it isn’t like that because you’re still, sometimes it’s happening just at a very, very deep level.

Surrendering can just mean putting one foot in front of the other. It doesn’t have to mean, Oh, I’m so peaceful, like I show no signs of disturbance. I mean, one of the saints in the Roman Catholic church, who I think about a lot, is very famous from the 19th century, St. Therese of Lisieux, French, very young woman. She died at 23 from tuberculosis. In the last two years of her life, she had no experience of God. She felt like an atheist and she endured it. So it wasn’t like she was an atheist because deep down in the core of who she was, she knew that God was real and she knew that this was something that she was enduring and had to surrender to see what was on the other side of it. Or you think about surrendering in the face of grief. It doesn’t mean you don’t weep and wail and do everything that a human being would do, but you know, at the core of your being, that you need to keep going one step at a time in this one direction.

The conviction and the surrender are reinforcing each other. The more you surrender, the more you trust, the more you trust, the more you surrender and it just keeps going.

Q: Do you have to be an ascetic to fully lean into religious energy?

Zena: I mean, the funny thing about me being this person who always talks about asceticism is that by nature, I’m like a hedonist.

I like food, things that smell good and comfortable chairs and I like to do what I want. So I think, part of what asceticism does is, to me, it feels actually a bit more like obedience or silence. It’s a kind of a freedom. You’re just removing distraction.

You’re clearing the air and then, that allows for other things to happen. This may seem like a dumb example, but when I lived in the community, one practice we had was, you know, people donated their old things to us and that’s where your clothes came from.

They came from donation. You wouldn’t buy clothes. You would find something that someone had gotten rid of and you could choose what you wanted, you know, and find things that fit you better than others and wear certain colours, but you weren’t going to buy anything. It was going to be something that someone else had worn.

So sometimes you found good things and sometimes you had to do without something for a long time but in a way, that’s also a kind of liberation. Because you just didn’t have to think about it anymore.

Krati: Yeah, also it wouldn’t leave much room for ego then. You’re wearing someone else’s clothes. I think that in itself is a huge step.

Zena: Maybe I need to hear more about what you think ego is.

Krati: So initially, before I started reading the scriptures, I would always say ego was pride, arrogance, having this belief that I am doing this, this is all me, me, me.

Then I started reading the scriptures and I realised you are not doing anything. You are simply the instrument. You matter to God immensely, but you’re also like this tiny, tiny being.

Zena: That’s more like obedience for me than the type of asceticism it is, because part of what happens when you’re under an obedience, and you can be under obedience, by the way, of course, at work. It doesn’t have to be a fancy community with its own arcane rules.

Even where I work now, the college I work at, people have different jobs, some people are in authority and some people aren’t. Now, if you’re like me, you always think you know best. You have a big imagination, you see a big picture, and so you’re always thinking about ways things could be better and the person in charge, they’re not doing their job as well as you could do it, you think.

Now that’s where my ego is the worst. So it’s in that kind of context where I’m like, I should be in control. It’s because you, the person, the human being in charge, you don’t know what you’re doing and so for me, obedience is the hardest and the most important of the forms of asceticism. Because I have to say, you know what, God has ordered things so that this other person’s in charge, and I’m not and I have to trust that that’s the way things are supposed to be and in fact, I probably don’t see everything I think I see. And even if I do, that other person is learning something, even when I’m absolutely right, and they’re absolutely wrong. Something else needs to happen, that isn’t just me being right and things going well.

So a lot of the hardest kind of asceticism for me is knowing that things maybe are supposed to go a bit badly because what matters is not what I think things going well is. It doesn’t matter what I think a good student or a good dean or a good college looks like.

What matters is each of these human beings that’s involved working out their thing, their own journey and that’s deeply humiliating for me in a very, very healthy way.

Krati: Do you think after having lived in the community, do you think you’re better at it?

Zena: Oh yes! Because I was older than other people who were entering the community.

I was already in my late 30s. Many of them were in their 20s or early 30s. So 10 to 15 years younger than me. And I was a person with experience who was intelligent and who was older. And sometimes, I mean, sometimes being told what to do is like being in an excellent school. It’s like someone knows better than you and you’re learning and that’s the best kind. I love that. I love to learn but then sometimes someone would be in charge and I would be confident that what they were asking me to do was wrong or didn’t make sense and you just had to do it and then you saw what the results were and something important happened that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

So you learn that that’s how things are supposed to work. So it’s actually one of the main things I learned, I think, from that community. I now see people who haven’t had that kind of experience and all they do is complain, you know, like complain, complain, complain. It’s like, this is how things are supposed to work and complaining is this sort of self indulgent thing where you are imagining that if you were in charge, everything would be perfect.

Love for god and hate for other religions

Q: Do you think hate for any human can coexist with religious inclinations, with love for God?

Zena: Being a religious person can be complicated. So some people, you know, maybe they’ve never really been religious. It’s just a social thing, or it’s an image of some kind that they have of themselves and then, of course, it’s compatible with hatred, because it’s just skin deep, right? In fact, it’s even useful for hatred, because you can say, well, I’m right and you’re wrong, and so, we owe you what?

The way you recognise a holy person is lack of hatred. So I think in that sense, I think you’re absolutely right. Hatred is a sign that someone is not fully grown. The best thing you can say sometimes, but I think that there are people in the middle who are struggling and part of them knows the right way, something unsettles them and gets them off track.

I mean, for me, you know, it’s hard. I think I feel the same way. Like, I definitely don’t understand the confidence that I’m seeing from people at this particular time, knowing what I know about the particular situation. I honestly don’t understand how anyone has the confidence to hate because what I see is something that’s almost beyond comprehension and if I were in a different position, if I were a political leader, a general, a diplomat, if I had to negotiate, then I might have to make choices, but I don’t, as it happens, I don’t need to weigh in on this thing.

So I can say, God, only you can untie this knot because I can’t see it. I can’t see a way out.

But sometimes, I mean, hate is a human thing and I think especially as a response to a wrongdoing, you know, it’s almost irresistible. There’s a famous controversy in Christianity. So there are these Psalms in the Bible, and they’re part of the regular prayer of the Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church and some of them are very vengeful. So there’s one, especially where someone says, Oh God, if you would destroy my enemies, you know, crash the heads of his children on rocks and they don’t read it in churches because it doesn’t sound good, but there it is.

It’s in the scriptures. What are you supposed to do with that? And I think you’re not supposed to say, in a way, I wish we read it in church because you’re not supposed to say, how awful. Yuck! You’re supposed to say, I’m a human being and that belongs to me and only God can heal it. So I suppose that’s what I would like to feel about hatred.

Not be in the middle of it so that it’s taken over me so that I’m willing to commit violence or to harm others, but where I acknowledge that it belongs to me as a human being, I can hate and the only reason I’m not hating is because of God’s grace, God’s providence. Otherwise I would be hating because that’s what we do. We hurt each other and then we hate each other.

What I find particularly horrifying and beyond my comprehension is that all of this is connected. All the situations seem connected to one another.

So there’s violence here. There’s violence there. They’re not unconnected. Like there’s Ukraine, there’s the Holy Land and then, you know, there’s China and then there’s whatever is going on in India and there’s what’s going on in the US. So how am I supposed to untangle that? No way. Couldn’t do it.

Krati: The funny thing is when somebody says that Hinduism is responsible for caste discrimination. I am shocked. I’m like, where did you get that? I didn’t see that anywhere in the scriptures that I have read. In fact, they actively talk about the fact that nobody is different. Like an atheist is also very much a part of God and a person of another religion, they’re all parts of God and Hinduism divides a society based on your character.

Like, if you’re someone who is into scriptures, you become a Brahmin. If you’re someone who’s happy to do the cleaning work, you become a Shudra. So that’s based on your occupation and your character and what you’re choosing to do has nothing to do with birth. And I was so shocked. So this is the funny thing.

And it will, I think, will help certain listeners who are afraid of encountering such ideas, like you pointed out in religion, where you are hating and you are condemning your enemies and wanting them to be destroyed. It’s the same scripture. If two people can read this same scripture and come away with something completely different, I read Bhagavad Gita and I realised that like this huge chunk of it said meet people where they’re at and if someone is completely against Bhagavad Gita itself, like they don’t believe in Lord Krishna, they don’t want to know about it. Don’t read it to them. Don’t invite them even to read it. It’s there if they want it someday. They can find it. God would not be happy if you went and forced them like, here read it. Read it and yet, I find people holding Bhagavad Gita and stopping people on the road and asking them to read it and I’m like this is this is so funny, but this is I think something we should all keep in mind, it is a lot about your perception.

So if all you see is hate, maybe question your perception and your judgment.

Zena: I think that’s right because I mean, I think I might say something coming from a more secular background. One of the things that took me some time to realise was that, okay, there’s a certain type and they, I think there are real people like this. There are religious people who hate, they hate people who aren’t of their religion.

Maybe they hate all kinds of things, but they hate people that aren’t in their group but you know what, you go outside of religion, which is a bigger and bigger part of the world all the time and you know what those people hate too. You don’t need religion to hate. That to me says it’s not. You can use anything, anything, so there’s something in us that hurts and wants to exert some power over the world and through hatred and we’ll use anything. We’ll use absolutely anything. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily connected to religion. That’s one thing that I’m hearing in what you’re saying, but the other thing I’m hearing is that a tradition, a real one, an old, deep tradition, a spiritual religious tradition. It’s a whole world. It isn’t one or two rules that you follow or ways. There’s a whole world and all kinds of roles that you can inhabit in it and it develops over time, you know. There are things which you see one way when you first start and there’s things they look differently later. It’s like traveling in a different country, or like I say, a different world. I think from the outside, it looks one dimensional, you know, here’s what I am, I’m right and you’re wrong.

But when you’re inside it, it doesn’t look that way at all. The same is true for restrictions, like ascetic restrictions. You know, from the outside, it looks like, Oh, wow, you’re not allowed to do X, Y, and Z, but from the inside, it doesn’t feel that way.

There’s a reason why they call it conversion when you go, you know, in our language, in the West, when you go from one religion to another, or from non religious to religious, because it’s a transformation of what you see. And I can see why that’s scary from the outside, but whatever it is, it’s not superficial.

It’s not simple. It’s not like joining a political party. It’s not like choosing a favourite colour of ice cream. It’s rich and deep and just full of corners and spaces that you wouldn’t have imagined.

Krati: I think this is something you just kind of have to take on board, which I found with the Hindu scriptures that you will encounter things that either don’t make sense to you or make sense to you and then you’re like, no, why is this here?

But you also feel compelled to defend your religion, but at the same time, you kind of have to understand that some of it has been interpreted by humans with their personalities very much involved in it. And then you’re a human with your own experience and no matter how evolved you might believe yourself to be, you’re very prone to negative emotions. You may generally be a good person, but there is this degree of susceptibility that we all have.

Zena: Yes, exactly. I agree with that.

Asceticism and Modern Life

Q: Now, do you think we can have like an ascetic’s soul in a materialistic world? 

Can the two principle coexist? Because I feel like asceticism is very much like you’ve pointed out. It’s very much about acceptance, about tolerance. It’s not necessarily renunciation of comfort, or am I wrong?

Zena: I think you’re right. So I say that what it’s really about is detachment, right? And that’s why you’re right. I’m not sure actually. I think I probably have some growth in this area that I need to do.

What matters is what asceticism is about. It’s about where your heart is, where your commitment is. There’s something that St. John of the cross, the great Christian mystic says about King David, who’s the author of the Psalms, the great king of Israel and he says, King David, you know, he’s the person who’s the speaker of the Psalms but he’s a king. So he says, I am a wretched, I’m a poor man. You know, what does he mean? He’s the greatest king that’s ever existed in Israel. Why does he say, I’m poor and wretched and what St. John says is that David is poor because he doesn’t care about his kingship. He doesn’t care about his wealth. He has it. He uses it but if for God’s sake, he had to give it all up, he would do it.

So the question about asceticism is about wholeheartedness. It’s about what you love, where your heart is and that’s why it is compatible with, you know, like I’m wearing a nice cashmere sweater and I have nice silver earrings but, I hope that if God said to me, now it’s time to wear a gunny sack and put a sack on your back and go off into the jungle that I would say, okay, it’s time to go.

Yeah, and that’s really the goal is, to be ready, to be sort of on notice that, none of these things, the material things matter. In a way I think it’s easier, this might be wishful thinking but, in a way we’re entering into, and maybe the US is a bit quote unquote ahead of India on this. Really, it’s behind, but Okay. It’s such a superficial society. The consumerism is so pervasive and so shallow that you can’t live the rest of your life in it.

I know young people who they spent all of COVID watching Netflix and playing video games, and then they just, they couldn’t do it anymore so they became, parts of them opened up. So in a way, that’s the hopeful, wishful thought that, in a way, the worse things get, the more commercial, the more material, the more consumerist they get, the harder it will be to believe that they really are going to be fulfilling, and the more that people will search for things that will endure.

Things that they can hang on to, things that will be there no matter what.

Talking to Non-believers

Q: I want religion to be a super friendly place, a super open and accepting place because it’s not about my religion or your religion, it’s about the wonderful parts of what I learned from certain scriptures and the other wonderful parts of what I learned from another scripture and then maybe perhaps following one religion in the sense that it gives you a structure like you pointed out, it gives you this guardrail.

It gives you this place of faith and allows you to follow that through. Why do we have to pick one superior to the other? There is always going to be something very provocative and not in a good way about all of them and you, you kind of have to use your own discernment.

Zena: Of course, I agree. This is the way I try to write also. Like I want things to be welcoming and open and comfortable and not judgmental but the truth is that no matter what, there’s going to be an obstacle because in a way there should be, because to follow God, whatever your faith, it’s to give over your life. It’s to lose control.

I mean, really, you don’t have control anyway, but it’s to admit it. So it’s going to be hard anyway. I’m lucky, you know, I’m successful and I’m charming and I talk to people well, but there are people who like me, they don’t get that I’m religious.

It repels them, so they have this attraction and it also a kind of revulsion. It’s like, how could you do that, you know? And that’s just the way it is. There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s not my responsibility to manage it for them. I’m doing the best I can and in the end, you can’t take responsibility for the obstacles that people have for themselves.

It’s the way things are and more someone is part of the materialist consumer society, the obstacle is harder to get over because it’s so easy to do something different. It’s so easy to float along with life and not really have to face the tough stuff.

Krati: I’m hoping to like reach a place where I have found so much peace and comfort in my religion where I don’t feel the need to persuade others, like I’m happy to have my life be an example of the wonders of it, the things religion can do for you. I want someone to look at me and say, okay, religion did that for her. She looks like she she’s got it. So let me also follow this with maybe my own religion, maybe her religion, maybe whatever and when somebody attacks me, be like, okay. I’m good. That’s fine. You can do you. I’m gonna do me.

I’ll get there. We’ll all get there someday. I really hope so. I do not ever want to be the reason someone goes home disturbed and feeling like they’ve just had a very unpleasant experience.

Zena: I know, but you won’t be able to avoid it. I’m sorry.

Krati: I know, that’s the price of conviction. When you have conviction, you can’t help but be like, no, you are wrong, and here’s why.

Zena: It’s also a matter of discernment. Sometimes, this is something also, part of what I think is funny for me about religion too, is that it’s corresponding with getting older. So I think part of what I experience isn’t so much from faith so much as just being more of an adult, but you know, you have to sometimes be very unpleasant to people to do it and it’s, it’s the right thing to do.

So you can’t get too attached to being comfortable either. It’s just not going to work.

Krati: Yeah, this is exactly the conversation I had with that person that I told you about that ascetic, that guru. He was like no, but you have to when you see something wrong and you know your scripture can help, you have to share it. How can you not?

You have to believe in your scripture and your god enough to be able to say, no, look, here’s a better way. But then I always think like, okay, then what is the difference between me and the people I see on TV? And my mother would always say, no, but you have a code by which you work. You would never hurt somebody just because they’re not listening to you or just because they’re not doing things how you want them done.

Zena: My own view is sometimes you have to do it and sometimes you don’t. You have to judge it by circumstances and it’s true what your mother says.

I mean, that seems right that it’s, it’s one thing, the problem with religious hatred, it isn’t that people are unpleasant or that they upset people. Something else has gone wrong, right? It’s that they’re acting selfishly. If it’s hatred, they’re hurting someone else for their own gain. Whereas being unpleasant when it’s right, it’s for someone else’s good,

And it’s not for your own good. In fact, you may really hate doing it. You know, that’s the only way this other person is going to have, you know, the other person needs it for some reason.

You don’t always know from how someone reacts. Someone can react negatively but in fact, it’s taken root and they’re thinking about it and so something’s going on and they act like, oh, that’s such a horrible, stupid…in fact, it’s doing something else in the long term. It’s a positive act, so you can’t even always tell. That’s why it’s better not, you know, not to be too sensitive about what’s going on with other people. Anyway, it’s hard. Life is impossible.

meeting god

Q: If right now, God showed up. What question would you ask him or her?

Zena: I think, I think I wouldn’t ask them anything. I think I would just say, Oh my gosh. There it is. We want to be in the moment. It’s like, you know, if I could see my grandmother again, you know, who died years ago, it’s like, what would I ask her? I wouldn’t ask her anything. I would just want to be there.

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The Brain Behind The Blog

Hi! I'm Krati Mehra

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I know what it’s like to fall apart and gradually put your pieces back together to build something better than what you had before and I share all my lessons in this space hoping that you will share my learnings without the struggle.

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