A favourite cliché among churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike (and yes, since I use the word “church” I am primarily referring to Christians… though I suspect, brothers and sisters of other religious traditions might very well empathize!) is that the Sunday mass, service, liturgy or otherwise can be… ahem… a “waste of time”.
We complain that homilies/sermons are boring; that priests, ministers or leaders are ill-prepared; that the ambience doesn’t work; that the music is bad; that the community… well, let’s not be uncharitable towards brothers and sisters in Christ.
Point is, that while many complain that communal prayer is a “waste of time”, few seem to question (1) that wasting time is bad (2) that perhaps, there should be no more to ritual than … “wasting time”.
At this point I could offer an anti-capitalist rant to justify my contention: that in our consumerist culture “time” equals “money” and thus, since religious sentiment criticizes the attachment to material things as imprisonment of the self, then of course, “wasting time” is a healthy asceticism that liberates from our all-pervasive market mentality.
But no… Such heady arguments are usually not persuasive anyway, so my point will remain one, simple and naively emotivist: Wasting time is good, because wasting time… feels good!
Of course, there’s wasting time and then there’s wasting time! The kind of “wasting time” that religious ritual presupposes (but doe
s not necessarily deliver) is the openness to being “present”; the melting down of time, space and all boundaries; the all-encompassing immersion in a reality beyond oneself. Such states of consciousness—which to an extreme can be described as “altered” or even “mystical” states— presuppose that we let go of immediate worries and ego concerns to be enriched from a radical widening of vision, an assent to wonder, a desire to be touched by a cosmic reality that defies our categories.
We regularly get fleeting tastes of such states when we’re giddily happy in the presence of loved ones, when we delight in sudden glimpses of beauty or acts of kindness, or even when we drink in fresh morning air and become one with nature. Experiencing absolute, even if transient, joy makes us feel truly human, truly… ourselves.
It is this kind of “wasting time”, of inexpressible emotion, that religious ritual, Christian or otherwise, is (or should be) all about. But these experiences, while seemingly random and radically non-induced (you don’t get truly happy by drinking, for instance) … do require the right environment, the right rhythm, the right disposition.
In other words, they require the right “liturgical” context (and the word “liturgy” implies “public service” or “work”) that pleases the senses, captures the imagination and nurtures the spirit. Body, mind and spirit come together to transcend one’s personal boundaries and experience fulfillment.
Traditional societies of all religious persuasions invested (and invest) heavily in creating such spaces. The glorious Temple of Solomon, the perfection of the Pantheon, the beauty of Hagia Sophia, the sacredness of the Grand Mosque… even the majesty of our own megalithic temples (the list is endless), are the stuff of legend. They were meant (they are meant, because their beauty is timeless and human beings are spiritual) to crack us open to experience the holy.
But if much effort is put into architecture, art and artisanry that carves out a sacred space, the actual rituals—and thus the carved “wasted” times—require similar diligence. Chant, incense, rhythmic movement, ingesting sacred food and drink must come together in one multi-sensorial harmony. They must make you feel good… ecstatically good … quite literally… heavenly.
That in many contemporary religious rituals this happens less than regularly; that instead we get our “feel good” fixes in such secular equivalents as sport gatherings, music concerts, political rallies or even dangerous addictions like drugs, sex, gambling or online, speaks volumes about the human condition and the state of our religions.
We crave the same “wasting time”, but we drastically compartmentalize our “self”, often amputating that ethereal aspect of who we are, the “spirit”. We nurture the body, we seek to feed the mind, but only spirit makes us whole to open us up to other selves, to new realities. Our paradoxical denial of spirit and hunger for all things spiritual parallels the modern consumerist guilt of “wasting time” while profoundly craving all distractions.
Still, as Bob Dylan claimed fifty years ago, The Times They Are a-Changin’. Modernity is dead and state secularism is but an archaic illusion we hold on to because we still lack the imagination to organize our richly diverse communities around something better.
Our digital era is the rise of “spirit” with a vengeance. Tragically, from the remnants of the modern “dark ages” of materialism and instrumentalism, it unleashes a wild reactionary torrent of religious fundamentalism, which paradoxically, includes the zealous denial of religion/s.
But perhaps—just perhaps—the new culture that recreates a human-made, palpable cosmic consciousness is also a renewed invitation to retrieve our roots as Homo religiosus, and dare be “spiritual”… not in disconnection from body and mind, but as a unified whole, as a true “human being” open to the wonder of Reality.