April 15, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Integrating religion into life in a secular society

When religious people are being particularly righteous, they like to say that religion is an integral part of their lives. Of course, it should be, but what do we mean by that?

Muslims certainly believe this. They pray at appointed times during the day, do not eat certain foods, abstain from alcohol and require their women to dress so modestly that the only part of them you can see is their eyes. Their religion is up front and personal.

Orthodox Jews also obey rules of dress, behavior, times and methods of prayer, and food consumption. It’s interesting that these are often similar to those of Muslims since many of their dietary laws in particular evolved from conditions in the areas they both inhabited.

Less strictly observant Jews still tend to go to synagogue on high holy days and keep Jewish cultural influences alive in their families. Some, like one of my nephews and his wife, send their kids to Hebrew school, if only to please her Jewish parents.

Which, of course, throws the Christian relatives on the nephew’s side into a tizzy as to what’s an appropriate gift for a Bar Mitzvah. Still, it’s a religious element that’s part of all our lives even when it’s not our own religion.

Mormons are visibly religious. They tithe, refrain from alcohol, coffee and tobacco, and hold family evenings at appointed times during the week. Young Mormon men give two years of their lives to missionary work abroad, and all extend material help to fellow Mormons when they’re down on their luck.

Fundamentalist Christians aren’t shy about their religion. They take evangelism seriously, although their methods may be dubious. For example, a few years ago, the people in our old neighborhood were showered with circulars from the local evangelical Church, promising free goldfish to every child who would hop on the bus they sent around on Sundays to bring kids to their Sunday school.

And what about mainline American Christians? How integrated is religion in their lives?

While I can’t speak for the Protestants, I believe that American Catholics are having a harder time weaving faith into everyday life. Granted, many still take the time and effort to serve the social mission of the Church by participating in things like Habitat for Humanity, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and right-to-life advocacy.

But the spiritually helpful practices of daily Mass, rosary recitations and parish missions have generally faded away. And, except during Lent, we don’t often hold Benediction and Stations of the Cross services. Many Mass attendees no longer feel part of a larger parish family that’s an extension of their own.

Those days may be gone, never to return, so maybe modern times require modern methods of faithful daily living. We live in a time of noise, hyperactivity and super-technology, so we need to make time every day to sit quietly in God’s presence.

Maybe, if we turn off the TV, the computer, the kids and the job just for a few moments, maybe if we really pay attention to the love and beauty and grace all around us, maybe then we’ll be able to hear God’s voice whispering in our hearts … every day, all day.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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