“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”
– Albert Einstein
I had a stereotypical secular Jewish upbringing. I occasionally went to synagogue with my family. I went to a Jewish summer camp for 9 years. I went to Hebrew school once a week and attended the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto for one year. All of these experiences played an important part in shaping my social and cultural life. I learned to love Jewish humour, art and philosophy. I have maintained life-long friendships with some of my Jewish peers. However, I have never felt a connection with the practice of Jewish prayer. Anytime I went to Shul as a child or adult I felt confused. I loved the melodies of the prayers. But when I looked at their English translation, all of them said the same, seemingly unjustifiable thing. They all praised a divine being that I had no confidence existed. I didn’t understand how one could find comfort in something for which they had no evidence.
I spent most of my adult life seeing organized religion as misguided if not ludicrous. However, I recently made an effort to understand the driving forces behind the faith of religious people through dialogue. In these conversations, some argued that the order they found in nature could not be possible without a creator. Some said faith was their only explanation for free will. But I realized that behind all their verbal reasoning was a physical feeling. There was an intuition at the root of their credence. I was at a loss. How could I ever comprehend someone’s belief in God if I couldn’t empathize with how they felt about Him? I pondered this question for weeks, searching for answers. On July 9th, the answer came to me.
A close friend of mine, Aaron Comeau lost his father on July 1st. The funeral took place at a church in downtown Toronto. Between speeches from friends and a eulogy from the deceased’s brother in-law, a pastor led us in several prayers. As the congregation recited these passages, I experienced the same lack of feeling that I had in any house of worship. But something special happened when Aaron came to the altar.
Aaron is a wonderful musician and composer. He recently released an album of instrumental hymns that he wrote in honour of his father. At the halfway point of the service, he performed one of them on the church’s grand piano. As he played, tears filled my eyes and my heart started racing. It was similar to how I felt listening to a Ray Charles ballad or a B.B. King guitar solo, but it was certainly different. I knew I was encountering an unfamiliar wave of emotion. I became aware of a unity between my friend and his audience. I heard the love he had for his dad in the melody of his piece entitled “To Carry On Your Name.”
Perhaps what I felt in the pews of the church was just a new personal level of sympathy. Maybe it was contact with God or Buddha. These labels are irrelevant and insufficient to me. What mattered was that I felt something language and science failed to discern. No one can articulate what it means to believe in God. It is just as challenging for one to spell out why they like a painting. We can try to express our love of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” by stating our affinity for its texture and colour palette. But at the end of the day, we like it because of how it makes us feel. We run into the same problem when we attempt to grasp the meaning of life solely through the lens of biology. As our scientific understanding of nature becomes more comprehensive, we enable ourselves to look at the world in a more rational way. This pursuit of knowledge is essential for the progress of humanity. However, no matter how clear our logical image of the universe becomes, we must remain open to the spiritual experiences that reason cannot yet explain. The most highly respected neuroscientists have failed to agree on a definition of this thing we call consciousness, yet they cannot deny its impact on our way of life.
I still have many doubts and objections towards religious ideology. I disagree with the idea that one can be undoubtedly convinced of anything without evidence, including the existence of God. But this experience caused me to question my dismissing of the strength of faith. While I remain a non-believer, the sensation I embraced as Aaron played shone light on the power of feeling. I had no scientific explanation to justify why “To Carry On Your Name” hit me with such force. But I could not deny that that energy had meaning. In that moment, I felt as though Aaron's wordless performance channeled the bond between him and his father. I was humbled in realizing that this inclination may have been no more rational than a Christian's belief in God.
If you'd like to hear "To Carry On Your Name" and the rest of the compositions on Aaron Comeau's album "Hymns For My Father", please click on the following link: