“Is religion a personality trait?” asked a Year 10 student.
“No,” I said, “traits are things internal, things intrinsic. Religion is external, extrinsic to people, but it does shape people’s personality. People’s religious beliefs will shape how they think and how they behave.”
In the secular society that is England, it is hard to imagine how much faith means to people elsewhere, how what they believe can shape their perception of every situation, even extreme ones.
I remember a lady for whom I conducted a house blessing in 1997. There was no crowd, just myself and the lady who was moving into the house. It was a fine new red brick house, the work of the Housing Executive in the North which has built the best public sector housing in these islands.
The lady was delighted at her new house, although had not intended to move, and had not even applied for a house, feeling that such fine new places should be for families. Her move was forced by a fire in the fifteen storey block of flats in which she lived.
The flats were grim, but her flat on the top floor had been a place of comfort and welcome. One morning she had opened the door to the girl from across the landing. The girl, standing drying her hair with a towel, announced that the flat that she and her boyfriend occupied was on fire and could she use the lady’s phone to call the fire brigade.
The lady had been wary of her neighbours and became convinced afterwards that the fire had been deliberate, “When they claimed £40,000 for the contents of the flat, I knew they had set fire to it”.
Anyway, by the time the call was made, the landing was filling with smoke. The girl left but the lady was frightened to leave her flat. Driving into the town, I saw smoke and flames billowing from windows of the top floor of the block and swung into the car park, fearful for the safety of the lady. Would anyone know that she was there and that she lived alone?
I stood in the car park and looked up and prayed silently. The lady stood on the balcony of her fifteenth floor flat looking down at the scene of red engines and flashing blue lights. She just stood looking down. The building was being evacuated and the crowd looking up gradually grew larger, and the lady still stood looking down. The ladders of the fire engines would have reached up only a few storeys. Eventually, two firefighters appeared beside and she was led down to safety.
I heard later that the lady told one of her neighbours, “When I saw the Rector standing there, I knew I would be all right”. I didn’t have the heart to say that I didn’t have the same confidence.
Religion can shape thought and action.