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Not Conviction But Devotion: I Stumbled Upon the Ground While Looking for Faith

It’s taken me a lifetime to discover the simplest of truths. But the circuitous journey seems now every bit as important as the destination.

I was not destined to have anything resembling faith. Born to a fervently atheistic psychoanalyst mother and a father who could not embrace the simple, country-bred religion of his parents, my path was marked in heavy ink. I was to follow in the footsteps of enlightened intellectuals of all time. I’d be allowed to choose from a wide array of professions, try out different philosophies and ideologies, but religion was not on the menu.

However, there remained a curious fact: I had a God-shaped hole in my heart that no cause or ideology could fill.

I had two choices: the Catholicism of my beloved paternal grandparents, Spanish immigrants who had relied on hard honest work to make a life for themselves in their new home (my native country), Argentina, or the happy-go-lucky, slightly heretical Judaism of my Russian maternal grandfather. There were solid values on the Catholic side but no mystery, no joy. There was plenty of joie de vivre in the Jewish camp, but no depth to be found. I was a spiritual orphan.

A man tends his garden in Williamsburg, Virginia. Image by Chris Ubik/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

Perhaps the real question was: why be spiritual at all? In the mid-70s, the New Age was still a remote, hippy phenomenon and spirituality was not even part of the vocabulary. In fact, back then I wouldn’t have conceived of my search as “spiritual” at all — more like a vague but urgent longing to decide whether there was more to life than our daily comings and goings, an intrinsic order of some kind. A benevolence.

Sometimes I felt it in my very bones. Once in a while my parents would drive us — my twin brothers, my older sister, and me — to a piece of land they had purchased outside Buenos Aires. They never had enough money to build on it. Still, we made a day of it. We packed a picnic lunch, planted trees and even a vegetable patch, in the hope that one day we’d be able to make our home there. The moment we crossed the gate I would set off on a mad run through the overgrown grass, the weeds, and the anthills, all the way to the fence on the other side. That exhilaration, that swallowing of wind and pollen and whiffs of wild grass was a harbinger of things to come. But those days were far off yet.

Two gardeners walk in Bangalore, India. Image by Johanan Ottensooser/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

When I finished school I enrolled in a philosophy course in university. Surely those stately old masters with their treatises on being and nothingness, good and evil, the nature of life and death and the human condition would have some answers for me.

I learned much, sharpened my wits, pondered some impossible dilemmas. Not one idea touched that aching point in the middle of my chest where the questions hung in wait.

By then I had started working in a newspaper, and hard-edged reality quickly took center stage. There was no room in my mind (let alone soul) for pondering the meaning of life, what with poverty, injustice, and political crucibles of all kinds vying for my attention with every story I tackled.

Years would pass before the thought of God came floating back into my conscience. In fact, when the yearning returned, it never spoke His name. I was pregnant with my first child and I had everything a woman could ask for: a doting husband, a supportive family, more childbirth and baby care books than I could possibly read. But, as the time drew near to bring my daughter out into the world, I felt an old and familiar pang. I needed to recover my connection to the invisible. I needed an anointing, a benediction. I needed a ritual.

A woman gardens in Chicago. Image by Brad Hagan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

I asked my two dearest friends to place their hands on my belly, and to improvise a prayer. We had no words, of course, but we made it work. The love flowed from their hands and hearts to that innermost chamber and filled me with an exquisite peace.

The spiritual world beckoned stronger as I raised my children, and I went looking for a map. First, I sought it in the faith of my Russian forebears. To be clear, all I had really inherited from those ancestors were some half-forgotten recipes, an inclination to overfeed anyone at my table and a penchant for celebration. Still, I thought, perhaps I could find in the ancient texts the God that my grandfather and mother had decided to forego.

I found some beautiful prayers and a few ancient Hebrew words that sounded strangely comforting, but there was no way to don that suit and pretend it was mine. It tugged at the seams, hung loosely in other areas, and made me feel an utter and complete impostor. It seemed like the only thing Judaism and I finally had in common was, in fact, pickled herring. I might as well have been practicing Shintoism.

A gardener in Samut Prakan, Thailand. Image by Andreas Metz/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

I then ventured into Buddhism. For months I read texts, studied authors, meditated, picked up a mantra or two. Beautiful though it was, this path also felt inauthentic. I repeated the sacred Sanskrit as if someone watching an enticing foreign film. With sadness I decided to part ways; I kept the meditation, some deep and relevant insights, and moved on.

Gardeners in Japan. Image by Shigemi.J/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..


Next was a short-lived but steamy affair with the Neo-pagan tradition. At first it seemed like a perfect fit: there was no church, ceremonies took place under the open sky, and the only real dogma was the Three-Fold Law, which states that whatever energy a person puts out will return to that person three times. Practice included incantations and lovely instruments such as wands and pentacles.

Many rituals later, I realized there was but a single element missing from that perfect scenario: conviction. The magic just wasn’t working.

Then life took a detour into the dark ages: my parents’ health declined, as did my sister’s mental illness, and one loss followed another. The thirst for the sacred then became inextricably entwined with the need to help my loved ones. I learned reiki, quantum touch, and every other healing technique I could get my hands on. They all proved valuable in their own way. But, alas, they couldn’t perform miracles and so failed me as avenues to the kind of faith I yearned for.

With the tragic years behind me happiness eventually returned. But my search for God was over.

Fabiana's garden.

In time I found new passions, or they found me. The birds, the trees, and all manners of earthly creatures began to bubble up in my soul and beg my attention.

One day I noticed a tangle of weeds in my garden and decided to look them up. I stumbled upon a universe of forgotten wonders, and I was smitten. I learned their places of origin, the myth and lore they had once conjured up, their many medicinal and nutritional properties.

In working with the plants, I developed a liturgy of my own. They give me their beauty and their subtle healing; I give them my care and my gratitude in return. They make no claims to miraculous powers. They will not cure the incurable, stop the unstoppable, nor forever banish suffering or death. But they will always be there, rearing up in cracks of cement, surviving droughts, hail, and inclement weather. Through it all they valiantly seed, sprout, flourish. In their grip I see life force. In their angling towards the sun, I see yearning. In the bond that unites us I see mystery and a nameless kind of love.

We are an odd family — this feathered, leafed, two-legged bunch — one joined together by the air we breathe as much as by invisible strings of energy and wonder.

I never found the kind of faith I was looking for. Instead, I found devotion. It turns out, for me that is faith enough.

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