To some, the formal elements of religion - the prayers, chants, hymns and incantations - are the most exhausting.
To Andrew Bowen, they are the most rejuvenating.
The 28-year-old religious studies major is on a quest to experience 11 of the world's religions over the coming year. Each month during 2011 he plans to immerse himself in one of them - with the exception of June, when he will explore Scientology and other new religions and take a rest.
Project Conversion, his year-long quest, is an attempt to understand what unites and divides faiths. For Bowen, a longtime resident of Lumberton, the quest is more than an intellectual pursuit. He thrives on the ritual.
"It's like asking a mathematician what numbers mean to them - they make sense," he said. "When I study religion, life makes sense."
Bowen, who is spending January exploring Hinduism, is nothing if not disciplined. He rises at 5 a.m., showers and sits cross-legged before a makeshift altar to perform devotions to Shiva, the Destroyer, a major Hindu deity. Gazing on a "murti" or postcard-size image of Shiva, he lights candles and incense and recites a mantra he memorized in the original Sanskrit. Next he turns east to perform the sun salutation, the 12-step yoga exercise.
He repeats this routine noontime and night. To keep mindful of his Hindu practice, Bowen wears a string of dried berry beads called "rudraksha," which resembles a rosary. At his computer desk, he listens to Indian music, courtesy of Pandora, the online radio service. At the kitchen table, he dines on vegetarian cuisine, keeping with the tradition of some Hindus who abstain from meat.
"The thoughtfulness he's put into his approach is pretty unique," said Michael J. Solender of Charlotte, a writer who met Bowen online and agreed to be his mentor in April as he explores Judaism. "With the political discourse being so polarized, it's refreshing to see someone finding out the commonalities that unite us."
Going to the Web
Bowen, who blogs about his experience on a website created for this project, is not receiving college credit for his quest. The idea came to him as he was writing a novel and realized he knew too little about the world's faiths. His protagonist, a man named Tom, hears voices telling him he is a savior.
Bowen grew up in a nominally Christian home. His parents did not attend church, but Bowen was drawn to evangelical Christianity while in high school. For a time he was president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at his school. By his first year at East Carolina University, his faith was sidelined and it ultimately died.
He defines himself as an agnostic.
"I'm spiritually promiscuous," he said proudly. "I'm single and loving it."
Bowen says he has deep respect for people of the faiths he's studying.
"I just love the art and culture, the ideas and the evolution of religion," he said
A quick look at Bowen's writings and it's clear that religion is a passion. In addition to Project Conversion, he writes and edits a publication, Divine Dirt Quarterly, a collection of spiritual essays and poems, and he has numerous creative writing projects in the works.
This week, he interviewed Bharat J. Gajjar, a 79-year-old yoga master and priest from Wilmington, Del. Bowen is already reading up on the Baha'i faith, his focus during February. He has sought out a mentor, a local physician, Carolyn McCormick, who has been practicing the Baha'i faith since 1971.
"He seems intent on really studying and really practicing each faith," McCormick said. "I was tickled he knew anything about the Baha'i faith and was able to find me."
Despite the name of his project, Bowen has no illusions that he's "converting" to a new faith each month.
Instead, he says he is immersing himself in rites and rituals and reflecting on the process as a way to better understand people and world conflicts.
"There's a lot of misunderstanding out there, a lot of ignorance," Bowen said. "Maybe other people will say, 'He's trying his best to understand where people are coming from, maybe I should too.' If it helps someone do that, then it's worth the whole year, every bit of it."
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