Today in the United States, “culture” is said to be divided into two warring religious and secular sects. Even as the concept of “family” becomes the crux of the divide, an increasingly large percentage of parents are raising their children without religion.
And as alien a concept as the Death of God might be to religious families, the labyrinth of religious ritual is becoming equally as foreign and repugnant to the new secular generations.
So, in the interest of bringing greater understanding to both sides, it seems necessary that secular thinkers ask the question: What do we lose when we lose religion?
Having grown up Catholic, though I am often skeptical of the Church, I am still grateful for the exposure to a faith tradition. By providing a certain ritualistic framework, my upbringing developed in me a mode of introspective thinking that is not always comfortable for those raised in a secular environment.
The Catholic ritual of reconciliation, or confession, in particular, encourages this mode. This ritual consists of a parishioner goes into a room where a priest sits and confesses to sins as mundane as nagging or teasing one’s sister (my childhood go-to) or as horrific as murder.
Most people are familiar with this practice through its depiction in movies, but movies universally leave out a step: The examination of conscious, which takes place before the confession and is more or less a moral checklist that the parishioner reflects upon.
Where I feel friction is with the content of the moral checklist; I find it difficult to swallow the dichotomous and arbitrary labeling of certain actions and thoughts as sin. But whether or not one agrees with the theology, it cannot be said that there is no value in learning to take concentrated, intentional time to examine one’s being in the world.
To this point, while on a JVC retreat this past January, I became familiar with the Jesuit prayer practice of Daily Examens. Though somewhat similar to the examination of conscious, the Jesuit concept differs slightly in that it is more an examination of consciousness.
It is not purely moralistic, and it does not prescribe proper actions. It merely invites one to go over the day and the habits, thoughts, feelings and interactions that surfaced and were. In its final step, it also prompts one to dwell on the next day, to prepare for the possibilities there.
Similar to this idea, the Bardo Thodal, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, calls prayer smon-lam, which literally translates to ‘wish-path,’ and says this:
“It is not a request to an external deity, but a method of purifying and directing the mind. It acts as inspiration by arousing the mind’s inherent desire for good, which attracts the fulfillment of its aim.”
Though this and the Examens may be dismissed by some because of their religious language, how does one achieve goals other than by intentionally identifying one’s own desires? What could be more useful and practical than questioning oneself on a daily basis about one’s own progress towards those desires?
Of course, in a religious context, one’s own desires should be aligned with the desires of the Church. But this habit of reflection, sometimes known as prayer, might possibly be equally useful to the millions of secular people who desire to live in a right relationship with the environment, with the underprivileged, and with their own friends and families.