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Independent.ie

Saturday 29 April 2017

Religious rituals retain their power in a secular age

The stained glass windows at Markree Castle, Sligo
The stained glass windows at Markree Castle, Sligo
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

While attending a funeral recently, I found myself musing on how uplifting and therapeutic the entire ceremony was.

The ritual of the mass, the comforting words of the priest and the singing of the choir all combined to create an atmosphere of peace and calm. It was also a fitting send-off and an appropriate celebration of a life well-lived.

Who knows what might face us on the other side and it all depends on your beliefs, whatever they might be.

I respect all religious faiths and regardless of what each individual might hold as true, as things stand, the majority of our funeral ceremonies are an excellent way to help us accept the inevitability of death and provide lasting comfort to those remaining.

Gatherings such as these help bind communities and are proof of the many psychological benefits that religion provides.

Back in the middle ages, things were rather different when huge cathedrals were built throughout Europe to provide evidence of a dominant and all powerful church.

In those days, most of the population was illiterate and great stained-glass windows and the Stations of the Cross provided easily understood visual lessons regarding the power of God, the glories of heaven and the threat of eternal damnation.

In more modern times, churches have become simpler in their layout and construction, but are still great places for meditation and general contemplation on the meaning of life.

I know atheists who regularly visit churches for the unique atmosphere of peace they provide. Many of us like to relax listening to recordings of the soothing sounds of Gregorian chant and of great church choirs giving voice.

It is strange to think how, in the past, such beauty and astonishing artistic achievement often went hand in hand with persecution and cruelty.

If you were of the wrong persuasion, you died, often by being tortured and then burnt. Religions throughout the world have gone through periods when they supported practices that are viewed nowadays as barbaric, but I suppose one must, in part, allow for the ignorance and fanaticism of the perpetrators.

It was only in the late 1800s that the practice of castrating young boys to save their voices for singing in church choirs ended.

The Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades were simply tools for conquering other nations and robbing them of their wealth in the name of religion, but then pretty much everyone who held power was doing the same.

It hasn't ended, of course, and in more recent times, many political leaders have used God as a justification for war.

The American presidents who quoted scripture and stated God was on their side when invading another country are just one example. I mention all of this as it is important to be aware of historical facts but, at the same time, we must not lose sight of the benefits that religions have bestowed through the ages.

It is not so long since all Irish politicians lived in terror of offending the Church, for to do so resulted in a severe belt of the crozier and little chance of getting re-elected.

The relatively recent scandals and revelations have ended the unhealthy power the bishops held over us, but we must not diminish the ritual and ceremonies that still provide comfort throughout life's journey.

We must not also lose sight of the benefits of traditional practices such as confession, along with repetitive prayer and thumbing rosary beads.

In Buddhism, they are known as worry beads and using them helps to soothe and calm us. Similarly, rubbing smooth round stones while repeating a mantra has been used as a tool to reduce anxiety from ancient times.

The act of confession is very much in the news these days following the statement by a Redemptorist priest that it is making something of a comeback due the widespread need for having "someone to chat to".

This produced a lively debate, for the actual act of confessing what we regard as sins and talking to another human being about them is well known to be of huge psychological benefit, regardless of who is listening.

One can just imagine the relief of unburdening yourself of a secret wrongdoing that was preying on your mind for weeks or maybe years. Just sharing our worries with another is well known to deliver immense benefits.

Confession is probably of greater assistance than lengthy and expensive hours lying on a psychiatrist's couch. And it's free.

Indo Farming