Christmas candle
Photo: LAURA NYHUIS/UNSPLASH

Feliz Natal

As the year draws to a close, I find myself in an ancient church in a small sleepy town of Portugal. It is Christmas Day, and people of the adjoining villages have gathered in the house of worship, to listen to the pastor’s sermon that is delivered in a deep baritone.

The wail of a small infant rents the air, but nobody pays any attention to it. The spiritual proceedings continue, and I get carried away with the sombreness of it all, even though I do not understand much of what is being said. My Portuguese is still restricted to understanding the very basic of sentences, which means that I can only decipher the initial greeting of the chaplain, and the concluding one.

But when the Hallelujah hymn is chanted, I join the congregation and modulate my voice to blend in with the other worshippers. An elderly lady who is kneeling in the pew beside me nods her approval, making me marvel at the flexibility of her limbs. I don’t think I would be able to even sit on a wooden bench when I reach her age, let alone kneel down in front of it.

To align myself with the others, I start reading the plaque hanging on the wall in front of me. To my amazement, I discover that this Gothic-style 13th century cathedral is actually built over a mosque! It was rebuilt by an Italian neo-classicist following an earthquake damage 500 years later, retaining some original elements – namely, the main doorway, two side chapels and the Arabic-style windows in the clock tower.

The clergyman’s service continues as I am awed by the karmic significance of the building we are all huddled inside. If history had played out differently, the consequences would have been quite unlike what I was witnessing today.

What strikes me, when I am in the midst of such spirituality, is the futility of fighting over religion because ultimately all doctrines teach the same thing. Like Swami Vivekananda – a Hindu monk who is credited with raising interfaith awareness – said in his address to the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in the year 1893, “as the different streams all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee”.

The Dalai Lama also says that “every major religious tradition carries identical messages of love, tolerance and forgiveness. The important thing is they should be a part of our daily lives”.

Right! In a Christian church which was once an Islamic mosque, hearing the voice of a Portuguese cleric on the day that Jesus Christ was born, I have thoughts of Hindu and Buddhist preachers running through my head – the result of all the compassionate lessons taught by my secular teachers, I guess.

As I join my hands in prayer, the events of the last 12 months flash in my mind’s eye. It has enough suspense, drama, comedy and tragedy to sustain a full-length Broadway musical. Only the songs are missing.

“Which ones?” my husband asks.

I realize with a jolt that I have spoken aloud.

“Jingle Bells?” he prompts.

I open my mouth to sing.

“Or Silent Night?” he suggests.

On cue, the church choir starts singing.

“Round yon Virgin Mother and Child” they croon in English.

“Holy infant so tender and mild” their voices rise in symphony.

“Sleep in heavenly peace” I join the chorus.

By Nickunj Malik
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Nickunj Malik’s journalistic career began when she walked into the office of Khaleej Times newspaper in Dubai thirty-one years ago and got the job. Since then, her articles have appeared in various newspapers all over the world. She now resides in Portugal and is married to a banker who loves numbers more than words.