The assignment was to go forth into the world, observe something or someone, and report back.
Friday night, armed only with my six senses, I did just that. I was present in a church for the first time in several years. The event was my niece's confirmation in the Catholic church. I have a lot of mixed feelings and strong opinions about organized religion -- which is why I no longer attend services or affiliate myself with any specific religious organization, and generally check the box marked "spiritial but not religious" on those rare occasions when the subject comes up.
No one in our family is really a devout ANYTHING. We're a mix of mostly-lapsed Protestants and Catholics who usually prefer to do other things on a Sunday morning than attend services (my mother's the only one who still goes to church -- Methodist -- maybe twice a month on average). My sister and brother-in-law decided early in their marriage to bring up their kids in the Catholic faith, and my niece's confirmation represents the fulfillment of that parenting commitment. With this service, their obligation to provide some consistent religious instruction for their children has ended; as their kids grow into adulthood, it will now be their choice what they do with their own spiritual practices.
But although we're none of us "religious", we're still a family and we show support, especially where the kids are concerned. So, we all arrived at the church in what we thought was plenty of time, only to find that most of the seats in the church were already taken -- and it was a big church. My nephew had a reserved seat, as his little sister's "sponsor", and I ended up sitting along the back wall with his girlfriend while my sister, brother-in-law and mother found three seats in the back left corner of the church. At least we HAD seats; many had to stand for the entire two-hour mass (it was a big group, this confirmation class).
Attending someone else's church when you don't share their beliefs is actually a wonderful opportunity to simply sit back and observe, and the back of the church was a great place to people-watch, where Angie and I watched and looked and listened and occasionally whispered to each other whilst observing:
- the people with the crying baby who were sitting directly behind the rest of my family; I knew that must have irritated them until the mother finally took the kid outside.
- a girl (not one of the confirmation girls) who walked by lookinng all of 11-going-on-25, with her little high heels, makeup and hair done to grown-up perfection. What was her mother thinking? I wished I could have gotten a look at the mother because she probably would have been all tarted up herself.
- the retired bishop who officiated, who on the one hand had a very relaxed and humorous way about him, and who came down in the audience to speak directly to the children; but who on the other hand didn't bother speaking into the microphone so you couldn't hear much of what he said, and who also talked WAY too long.
- the woman who came into the church with a huge stroller and reclining sleeping toddler, stood in front of us, gave Angie a look that in no uncertain terms meant "get up and give me that seat, you GIRL, you!" -- and Angie, being a sweet girl, did just that. The woman kept glancing at me and could clearly sense my displeasure at her rudeness -- the service was already three-quarters over and why she chose THAT moment to come in and take someone else's seat was beyond me. After about 10 minutes I think she finally took the hint and left, and Angie came back. We both agreed it wasn't that she had wanted a seat -- we had both already offered to give up our seats to an elderly man and a woman on crutches -- but it was the WAY she did it that was so annoying. There was just no good reason for her to come in and make someone else get out of their seat.
What always interests me about attending religious services is that I wonder how many of the people really believe with all their hearts, and how many of them are just going through the motions, by rote? One of the good points I DID hear the bishop say was when he instructed the children to really think about their answers to the questions he would shortly be asking them as part of confirming their faith. I thought this was good advice. I know many people who really love the "automatic" aspects of whatever rules and ceremonies that go with their chosen faith; they take great comfort in them. And I know others who show up once in blue moon for services out some misguided sense of obligation than from genuine faith.
What I observe about organized religion in general is that people often accept what they're taught at face value. They never bother to question anything (often being told that to question is to NOT have faith) and they never decide for themselves what they really believe. They just go through the motions. They do what they're told. They're followers, but not always in the best sense of the word.
When I meet someone who is really spiritually uplifted in a healthy, positive way, when they seem to take joy and comfort in whatever the theology happens to be, and when that theology is based in positive beliefs and founded in a culture of love and peace, then I think that's a wonderful thing and it doesn't matter to me whether or not I happen to share that person's beliefs because I can still respect the faith they have.
But it seems to me that blind faith -- in any charismatic leader or "ism" or theology -- is what often causes a lot of the bigger problems in our world. History has shown us this, time and time again, particularly when a theology espouses hatred, abuse and murder as part of religious zeal and self-righteousness. Religious extremism, for example, is a good example of how bad things happen when people don't bother to think for themselves, and we have daily evidence of this now in the Middle East.
Fortunately, attending and observing a confirmation ceremony is by and large a positive thing for the people involved. Even if some of the kids were perhaps just "going along for the ride", prompted by their parents with no clear idea of what they really believe (and at the age of 13 or 14, it's not likely they're all that clear on their spiritual beliefs anyway), it was a celebration of something positive, of community.
Given the state of the world today, with nuclear threats looming larger, I think we need all the positive celebrations we can get.