Many of us seek to practice a religion because we want a relationship with God, Christ, inner nature or the enlightened mind.
My experience with religion has shown me that the religion into which I was born actually had me engaging in rituals that had the opposite effect from deepening my relationship with God.
I refer to the effects of ritualistic daily prayer. By ritualistic I mean the articulation of the same prayers repeated over and over, at the same time daily, constantly for years on end.
Prayer in this instance being the repetition of religious verses, sequences of words uttered invariably in a flat, often uninspiring, monotone.
I first became aware of the possible deleterious effects of this practice while staying at the home of my paternal grandparents. As a child, I recall my natural response to hearing my grandparents utter morning prayers for what seemed an interminable amount of time, was to slide down into the bedding further for warmth and there wait for them to finish so that the day and the business of life could begin.
I recall walking to the neighbouring village with my grandfather one summer morning. As I held his hand, I was enjoying the strength of his physical presence and a feeling of safety and protection as his large hand cradled my own. I was aware of the fragrance of summer and the lovely bright colours of the wildflowers in the hedgerows as we walked along together.
This was all brought to a sudden and abrupt end when the local church bells chimed out 12 noon. My Grandfather withdrew his hand from mine, closed his eyes and began to mutter incomprehensibly and quietly to himself.
“What are you doing, grandad?” I asked quizzically, disconcerted by his sudden withdrawal from our lovely walk together. “Shhh!” came the tetchy response.
It felt like he had totally left both me and himself and a coldness descended on what had been a quiet and pleasant moment of togetherness. When the chimes ended, he took my hand once again and we continued to walk to the village. I noticed that he felt different – now cold and distant. I asked why he did that and he explained it was to pray to God.
However, it didn’t feel right to me.
In the evening, dinner had to be served and eaten before 6pm because there were then more prayers, which had to start at 6pm sharp. These prayers included a list of names uttered by one person while the rest of the family responded with the same phrase over and over.
We visiting grandkids could not sustain the super rapid pace of the adults in the room and spent our time looking wide-eyed at each other, wondering what this was all about. It was such a relief when the prayers finally ended and we could all go to bed. The stillness of the night, the fragrance of the night flowers and the gentle humming of insects were all a soothing balm after the racing prayer ritual.
But what really struck me about all these prayer sessions, as well as the formal religious practices on Sundays and other times, was how much people lost themselves, how they left themselves behind. They had their eyes closed to block out distractions, but their words were harsh and rushed, and they seemed to be disconnected from themselves: they had lost their warmth and presence in those moments.
I could feel the prayer ritual was literally causing people to completely lose their sense of presence. I sensed that they had checked-out completely.
I saw many go directly to the pub after visiting their place of worship and the sense of relief was palpable. In all other social settings, the hospitality and sense of welcoming all as family was, and is, legendary. So then why the switch to coldness and distance when the situation is about relating to God?
For me – what I value and what feels right to me – is a sense of connection with myself. The more I am with myself, the more warmth, affection, and love I feel for myself and for everyone else also. I find I can neither feel nor express love if I do not have a sense of connection and presence with myself.
Now most religions assert that God is Love, something I feel also.
But if God is Love, then why do these religions encourage, even insist, on their followers engaging in practices, like ritualistic prayer, that cause them to lose presence and hence the ability to feel love or warmth within themselves, and, as a consequence, to lose the ability to feel love or warmth for someone else?
What purpose did it serve for my grandfather to transition from being a warm and loving adult, enjoying the company of his young, beautiful granddaughter, into a cold and distant, even fearful man, who had lost his presence?
Why is the predominant view of God one of exclusivity and isolation, so that as you commune with your version of God, you must withdraw from yourself and from your loved ones? Is not Love naturally expressed outwards from how one feels it within?
Why do institutionalised religions seek to cause this loss of presence with these religious rituals when it is presence that is the pathway to what they assert God is… Love?
It made no sense to me as a child and it makes no sense to me now, as an adult.
Why do institutionalised religions practice such rituals and seek to disengage presence?
God is Love: Love requires Presence.