Sunday, February 10, 2013

Being Religious

What does it mean to be religious?  Many people would probably think of church (or temple) attendance along with adherence to a specific set of beliefs.  But the term is much broader, having something to do with the role of the sacred in human life.

I have known many people who, like my father, attended no church, knew little about any particular denomination, yet had a religious perspective, an awe at the beauty of creation and the value of love. They honor and respect sacred places and holy traditions, perhaps sensing in them something ancient and profound. You might prefer the word 'spiritual,' yet that word, for me, suggests the cultivated inner life and a sense of the transcendent in the ordinary that 'religious' does not.

Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996), a North Carolina native who moved to New York in 1929 and began to write about the city, left an unfinished memoir, part of which is published, in all its copious detail, in the current New Yorker.  He lists, with apparent delight, the sights and sounds of the faces and places of the huge metropolis as only an outsider can.  Reading it, I was reminded of Whitman in his all-embracing catalog of life.

Mitchell captures something of the religious sensibility I am trying to define. Although a member of no church, he found himself attracted to churches, especially Catholic ones. Sometimes he went to several Masses in a single day, at different places, with different accents (Polish, Italian, etc.) and, having read a good bit, reflects on the religious impact his experiences had on him.  The following passage is worth quoting in detail:

"One dimly remembered observation about the ancientness of the Mass--that it and its antecedents go farther back into the human past than any other existing ceremony--began to haunt me. I began to feel that the Mass gave me a living connection with my ancestors in England and Scotland before the Reformation and with other ancestors thousands of years earlier than that in the woods and in the caves and on the mudflats of Europe. It put me in communion, so to speak, with these ancestors, no matter how ghostly or hypothetical they might be." ("Street Life," New Yorker, Feb. 11 & 18, 2013, p. 68).

He goes on to say how deeply satisfying this was because it was like finding a "tiny crack in the wall" through which he could look into his unconscious. As a result, he developed a respect for the Mass that had nothing to do with his beliefs about organized religion. It had a lot to do with the past and its presence in the liturgy.

I wonder how many people today are drawn to churches and other places of worship not merely because of the architecture but because they need, in a way impossible to articulate, to be part of a community that carries on a tradition of prayer. They need to be connected to a history wider and deeper than their own lives.

I know that, whenever I grow restless or distracted or bored at Mass, I will recall Mitchell's words and remind myself of what being religious in its broadest sense means and why it is important for me to be fully present there.

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