Different religious leaders on how their faith has guided them through 2020

For many, Christmas is a spiritually significant time of year. And after the difficulties of 2020, even the non-religious may be searching for deeper meaning – and they may find it in the teachings of some of the country’s major faiths.

The past year has brought a host of challenges nobody anticipated. For Australia’s religious communities, however, the upheaval has provided an opportunity to dive deeper into their spirituality.

Professor Caroline Hunt, head of the clinical psychology unit at The University of Sydney, says our belief systems can be comforting in precarious times because they serve as an anchor.

“If you have a strong faith that gives you some sort of certainty about life and its meaning… that would help to allay those sorts of [anxious] feelings,” she explains.

Even if you’re not a believer, there are aspects of religion that can be called upon to help you ease the overwhelm (think: contemplation or meditation). As we hit the peak of the festive season, events such as Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve present an opportunity to process and reflect on the roller-coaster ride that has been 2020.

Here, five community leaders share how their spirituality has guided them through it.

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“Being thankful is a conscious choice”

Rabbi Gersh Lazarow leads the Temple Beth Israel in St Kilda explains how the pandemic has changed us. “What COVID took from us as a community was our ability to function as we had grown accustomed,” he says.

“In March, within five working days we pivoted the entire institution into online programming. By the time we got to April, where in the past we had services on Friday nights, Saturday mornings and sometimes Saturday afternoons, we had transitioned to services seven days a week, and people were gathering with us every day.

Initially, everyone was so concerned about getting sick. Then as lockdown lingered, there came the fatigue and frustration. We spoke often about the need to physically distance ourselves, but also to reject disconnecting ourselves from community, meaning and purpose.

The strengthened relationships are blessings that will never be taken away and that we can be thankful for. It really is a conscious choice.”

“We will prevail because God is with us in the hard days”

Bishop Sonia Roulston is an assistant bishop in the Newcastle Anglican Church. She says, “It really has been an extraordinary year.

I never imagined we’d be in a position where we wouldn’t be able to be at church. But I think as a community we have rediscovered some values that the busy-ness of life sometimes robs us of – people have gone the extra mile much more than normal.

I’ve been very aware of how people were feeling, giving space for that to be heard and accepted, and reminding people that God is with us in the hard days. And we will prevail because God is with us. I’ve also found that just taking time for silence, and to go for a walk and appreciate the beauty of nature was very soothing. How will we be celebrating the end of the year? With relief. I’m hopeful that Christmas will be a time where people can gather and just be thankful.”

“We can always be kind”

Bhante Akāliko is a Theravada Buddhist monk at the Monastery at the End of the World, Sydney: “As Buddhist monks, we spend a lot of our time on retreat or in isolation. So we didn’t know about the panic buying until people started offering us toilet paper! We got online not long after the lockdown started because there was such an outpouring of community wanting support and guidance. We offered meditation and chanting three times a day to provide some structure for people and a bit of a spacious mind. This year is one of those reminders that we don’t get to pick the time and place to contemplate life’s big issues.

It just happens. And when it does, we have to use it as an opportunity to understand what life is all about, or we lose the chance to develop some wisdom. Another thing that’s useful is generosity and kindness. When we feel like there’s nothing we can do, we can always be kind.”

“2020 is a tiny blip in the history of mankind”

Anam Javed is a volunteer and former board member at the Islamic Council of Victoria says that “Muslims put a lot of emphasis on praying our Friday prayers at a mosque. For many it really tethers them to the religion and the community. During lockdown that obviously had to go.

Ramadan is when people felt the restrictions the most, because the whole month is centred around fasting, but also breaking your fast together in the evening. That really took a hit.

A lot of my workmates who are not religious have asked about coping mechanisms and for me it’s about the insignificance of us in the greater scheme of things – how 2020 might seem like a very long year but in the course of the history of mankind it’s actually a tiny blip.

It’s not minimising our problems, but putting into perspective our scale in comparison to the universe, which is what a lot of Muslims derive comfort from. I also tried to help them channel their energies in a charitable direction, instead of that feeling of powerlessness.”

“The land is very healing”

Aunty Delta Kay is a traditional Arakwal custodian in Byron Bay observes, “This year has been a really good time to take that pause and look at what’s really important. As an Aboriginal woman, it’s really important that I get on Country and stay connected.

Being on Country is truly being. It’s deep listening, knowing, understanding and thinking. It just gives you that inner joy. I believe the land is very healing for people. We know when we’re walking along the beach with our feet in the water how good that is. I think it’s important that if we see someone isolating themselves that we need to take them for a walk.

I come from a culture with kinship ties, deep and strong, and we look out for one another. I think we need to do that as a society better: look after our children, look after one another and make sure we check up on one another.”