When I was a child, I hated going to mass every week. I would wake up, realize it was Sunday, and feel my heart sink into my bowels. I would’ve faked any illness or injury to get out of it. In fact, I remember milking a cold once so my mother would let me stay home.
As I got older, this smoldering resentment cooled and hardened into something far worse: spiritual indifference.
This sacred space, dedicated to cultivating an arena where hearts are meant to soar, had become as dull to me as a trip to the grocery store. It was nothing but routine, a necessary inconvenience, just one more thing to check off my schedule so I could move on.
I remember how one Sunday, as I sat in the pew squinting through a smokescreen of incense, this realization hit me. I had a jolting thought: Why am I even here? Is any of this real? Do I actually believe all of this? What’s the point?
The revelation that my well of spiritual practice had dried up into nothing more than shrivelled potholes of mere habit was one of the most shattering things I’ve ever had to endure. But it also ended up being enormously fruitful.
It enabled me to discover the crucial link between space and spirituality, as well as a renewed appreciation for the importance of ritual in our daily lives.
I grew up in Roman Catholicism, a tradition that takes ritual seriously. For most of my life, I was immersed in bells, incense, statues and dogma. Lots and lots of dogma.
One of the most important practices of the Catholic faith is weekly mass. In fact, this practice is considered so imperative to the spiritual life that deliberately omitting it falls under the category of mortal sin (defined by the Church as a state of such extreme spiritual darkness that the soul is incapable of receiving the healing light of grace).
This teaching was something I grew to resent. Mortal sin? I would think. Really? They’re putting skipping church up there with adultery and grand theft auto? Wasn’t that insanely tyrannical?
Or was there something else going on here, an idea lurking behind the mandate?
As I struggled to untangle the reasoning behind it, I found myself coming back to the same point: spirituality and its intimate relationship with duty.
Duty as a discipline
I think we can all concede that nobody comes into this world as a rational, enlightened and considerate human being. We enter existence as bawling, demanding, diaper-wearing primates with no concern for anything but our own wants. Once each of us develops a functioning brain, our parents (hopefully) begin to guide our moral compass by instilling within us the idea that we are not the
One of the most common ways they do this is by assigning chores. For example, my siblings and I were expected to take out
I hated all these things, and still experience PTSD when I think about the gross curly hairs of indeterminate origin that I would find on the floor of the upstairs bathroom. It was only when I was older that I appreciated what these tedious tasks had done for my character.
By forcing us to contribute to the inner workings of the household, my parents planted an important seed in our brains: that it’s good to help other people out, regardless of whether you feel like it.
This seed began to sprout leaves when I went to college. At first, I took classes because I had to. But when I started to study courses specifically tailored to my English degree, I discovered something wonderful: joy.
It was born from obtaining knowledge about something I loved (as opposed to mindless memorization in order to pass a test). This joy, in turn, lead to self-discovery.
Doors to new concepts, which were previously shut due to my limited experience, were thrown wide open. I dove into the realms of literature and was exposed to different viewpoints, backgrounds and perceptions.
I also grew quite a bit intellectually. And it was all because my parents taught me how to get past my own laziness and clean a toilet.
Thinking back, if I had never been taught to perform tasks I didn’t “feel” like doing at the time, I would’ve laid no foundation to be an adult who is capable of experiencing the hard work and wonder that lies at the end of perseverance.
At the end of drawing this connection between spirituality and duty, I realized the depth of my spiritual immaturity. My practices hadn’t evolved beyond the childish need to be constantly stimulated.
My spiritual car had stalled on the road, and here I was sulking on the hood instead of calling a tow truck and starting at square one.
As with any discipline, there is plenty of laziness, reluctance and discouragement on my part when it comes to cultivating a sense of the sacred. But I soon discovered how these tendencies must be climbed over and not conceded
Location and spirituality
Entertaining the connection between location and spirit helped me resent my weekly obligation a lot less. In fact, I started to see how important these two things really were. Going to a designated space helps lay the mental and spiritual groundwork required to prepare the mind and heart to receive the Divine.
Going to a designated space helps lay the mental and spiritual groundwork required to prepare the mind and heart to receive the Divine.
Chanting, hymns, incense, stained glass windows, alters, sacraments—all these smells, sights and sounds engage the senses and create an atmosphere designed to pull back the curtain.
It’s important to understand that sacred spaces are (or ought to be) a means to an end. They don’t confine us to the material realm; they lift us beyond it.
In my own spiritual tradition, churches are especially helpful towards achieving this, as they are specifically designed to utilize every inch of space in an attempt to propel human thoughts out of immediate existence.
There is a reason why they come with high-vaulted ceilings, countless artistic renderings of the afterlife and tabernacles placed in the centre of the room (so as to instantly draw the eye upon entering). Their design gets us to think of ‘above,’ of an ‘Other.’
This isn’t something only Christians have noticed. Other faith traditions, too, strive to emphasize the relationship between location and spirit.
I once spent an afternoon wandering through an elaborately designed Hindu temple, examining the plenitude of bright gods displayed behind glass while I listened to the steady hum of chanting.
After squatting awkwardly on a meditation cushion for a bit, I got up and traversed the expansive temple gardens, complete with ponds, statues and flowers.
And guess what happened? My spirit fell quiet, knowing I was walking in a place meant for something holy. I felt like I was a witness to something greater than myself.
It was then that I realized: If you never step foot into a place dedicated to inviting in the sacred, you are depriving yourself of a starting point. The spiritual realm is a deep pool, and jumping in without a boat or lifejacket places more trouble on you than you deserve.
We all must start with a structure, something sturdy that will push us off the shores of our direct experience. A special place of worship helps immerse us in the elusive waters that take us straight into the reason for trying to transcend ourselves in the first place:
The hysterical stranger
When I was in college, I remember coming out of Confession one night and kneeling down in the chapel to do my penance. Halfway through, I started to cry.
This was for a multitude of reasons, but I relate
As I sat there snivelling, I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked up and spotted a girl bending over me. Before I could act like I just had something in my eye, she handed me a tissue. When I took it, she turned and walked silently back to her seat.
I never saw her again.
Who was this person? She had no reason to want to comfort me. Yet it was in that dark chapel that I had my first exposure to what truly lay beyond my religion’s sacraments, prayers and almsgiving.
Love is far more than lip service.
It’s a commitment that, while initially entered through the heart, ends up solidifying in the will. It’s someone laying down his or her life for an unworthy friend. It’s a mother packing her child a lunch after she’s had a long day at the office. It’s smiling at a rude customer.
It’s drying the eyes of a weeping stranger.
Discipline, Transcendence, Love. These are the goals of spirituality. This is why my parents dragged me to church every Sunday.
Love is personal. It’s more than just “showing up” somewhere once a week in order to check something off a spiritual laundry list. It’s a relationship. It’s hard work.
If we are saved in this life or the next, it will not be because we earned it. It will be because we learned to be quiet. We responded to the Universe’s sacred invitation, a cry that can only be heard in the deepest recesses of the human soul.
If we are saved, it will be because Love came towards us with arms wide open, and we ran full speed into Its embrace.