When I was a kid, every Sunday was spent at our Methodist church. The services were a combination of listening to Bible stories, sitting and repeating after the preacher, standing and repeating after the preacher, silent group prayer, and more sitting and standing. This was church. This was religion.
Like a lot of people I know, and possibly some of you, I fell away from religion as I grew up. It didn’t seem relevant to my life—it felt hypocritical, and worse, narrow-minded. I wanted to be kind to people because it was the right thing to do, not because a set of ancient rules ordered me to do so. Anecdotes about old men parting the seas with a staff or being swallowed by whales, parables though they may be, couldn’t accurately tell me how the world worked—I had science for that. So I left organized religion behind, and when asked about it, I would offer the standard answer: I am spiritual, not religious. But I wasn’t even sure what that meant.
The plain truth is that practicing religion has benefits. I don’t want to get into the benefits to your soul, because that is subjective, but countless studies have found a link between happiness and having faith. Perhaps having a well-established set of rules to live by, and a reward for following them, makes people more comfortable, or perhaps we all feel better when we’re part of a larger group. Have I been so quick to embrace science and logic that I’ve given up on feeling relaxed and OK with my place in the universe? Or is there something less mystical to it?
In my opinion, there are two main facets to organized religion: belief and ritual. Belief is the story that forms the faith you have chosen to accept; ritual is the process of affirming those beliefs and communicating with a higher power. After I distanced myself from the Methodist church, I found that while I didn’t miss the stories, I sorely missed the ritual—maybe not all the sitting and standing, but the predictability, the familiarity of repetition, the assurance that my actions meant something. The fact that I come from a long line of OCD sufferers just added to my need for order. (And I don’t mean the adorable OCD that we all claim to have when we say we prefer our side dishes not touch, or our shoes to be lined up. Those traits are manageable, as opposed to the constant, life-ruining pacing, water-drinking, and muttering that dominated the later life of a relative of mine.)
The thing about a ritual, I’ve learned, is that it’s something you do for yourself as much as for your God or your church. And what’s more, rituals don’t have to be religious—they’re just a set of actions that take on special meaning. In my training as a couples and family therapist, I discovered that ritual is necessary in relationships to establish intimacy, safety, and trust. Having a regular date night, watching The Daily Show together, always going to smell candles when you go to the mall together—these types of activities pay homage to the relationship. Likewise, self-rituals, the activities that you do regularly and alone, like going on walks or relaxing in a bath with a novel, can help to soothe you, comfort you, and keep you sane when things become hectic.
Repeated, structured activities, especially ones that allow you to focus on yourself and the people you love, are anchors. They are the things that we learn to rely on, the things that demonstrate love and care. They are the sloppy, comfy sneakers you’ve had for years that, when you put them on, feel like home. It’s my opinion that we could all use a little more ritual in our lives, and that the rituals we have could stand to be a little more sacred. I see too many people dismissing their inside jokes with Dad or their TV nights with girlfriends as just being “silly things” they do; it’s time we recognize how valuable these “silly things” actually are. Here are a few ways that you can keep the positive aspects of ritual alive and kicking in your day-to-day life:
Look around: what are you doing regularly already?
Maybe you always listen to a certain album before you start writing. Maybe you have dinner with your family twice a week. Maybe you like to eat cereal while watching Conan. For any action that you do repetitively, ask yourself why: Does it bring you solace? Does it cheer you up when you’ve had a bad day? How you feel after doing these things is how you know whether they are your rituals. The things you do (alone or with others) that refresh you, re-energize you, and calm you deserve to be framed in your head as “a part of what makes me who I am.” Make those choices important. Allow them to be necessary in your life.
Let rituals be your shortcuts.
How can you tell when someone cares about you? What tiny things do you see them doing? What inside jokes do you have? These things are the basis for any good ritual. When we’re apart, my husband and I text each other what we’re eating. It’s dumb and sometimes inconvenient, but it’s much shorter and less dramatic than typing, “I love you with all of my heart, and I miss you so much it makes me want to scream, but instead I ate some tacos.” We’ve established, with time and effort, that texting what we’re eating means all of that and more. My best friend and I live on opposite sides of the country, so once a week we watch American Horror Story together in a Google Hangout.
Maybe you and a friend share made-up words or references that only you two understand. Maybe you email someone you love just one sentence every night before you go to bed. These are symbolic gestures, and sometimes you can communicate a lot with a little. I think emojis were invented for just this purpose.
Appreciate stillness even if you’re not in a pew.
Part of the joy of a Muslim call to prayer or a Methodist moment of silence is time spent alone with your thoughts. Having that time alone is necessary. Set aside 20 minutes a day that are yours and just yours: no TV, no phone, no laptop, no distractions. Just you and your thoughts. There are no requirements: you can start by silently listing the things you’re thankful for, you can just look at the room/nature/environment around you, or you can keep your eyes closed. Do your best to forget for a moment all the things you have to do that day—the stresses of school and work and other people—and just sit. Try to let thoughts float into and out of your mind, and acknowledge them without dwelling on them (this can take practice). If you like, you can use this time to communicate with your higher power, listen to the universe, or talk to yourself.
Make it regular, make it a priority, and make it known to others.
So you’ve decided to set up a special day/hour/event with your girlfriend/boyfriend/pals/family. Awesome. Now it’s time to make sure they know about it, and to make it a regular occurrence. If you don’t perform the ritual with regularity, it will never take hold. Put your ritual in whatever calendar system you use, and don’t think of it as optional. Make sure you are creating something that is feasible to do consistently: eating at a fancy restaurant isn’t always possible/financially sound, but spending one night a week with friends watching a movie might be. Keep it simple (book clubs, dancing, working out), and enforce the ritual without anyone feeling forced to be there. This may feel like a chore on occasion, but that’s normal, as long as it isn’t something you are dreading.
There are many reasons people go to church or to the synagogue or to other services that have stood the test of time: this is how people reaffirm their beliefs and find a community. But even if you choose not to visit a house of worship, it’s still important to think of yourself and your own life as sacred. Without ritual in my life, I would most likely be constantly freaking out. As a freelance writer, podcaster, and comedy-show producer, I travel a lot and my schedule is never the same two days in a row. If I didn’t have consistency in my life or attach meaning to my habits, I would feel unmoored and adrift. You may not need religion, but we all need some way of understanding and privileging the things that matter to us. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go watch American Horror Story with my best friend. ♦