Why religious rituals bring us closer to God

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March 11 First Monday of Lent

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The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.  -Ps 19:7-9

Human beings need structure. Whether it is a regular nap schedule for an infant, a repetitive bedtime ritual for a young child (three books, a glass of water, prayers and two kisses good-night) or the daily routine of coffee and newspaper-reading for a long-married couple, the reassurance and familiarity of routines foster the growth of trust and love. Today’s psalm verses, pristinely beautiful and balanced, both praise and embody the beauty of ritual (these verses, like Saturday’s, bear reading aloud). The parallel phrases, sensitively cadenced, compact and musical, sound a note of rhythmic regularity. This, to the psalmist, is the beauty of the religion God has given him: It is trustworthy, it is beautiful, it is intrinsically holy. Today, amid reports of declining numbers of those who claim any religious affiliation, decreasing attendance at worship services and the general secularizing turn of the times, questions about the value of religious observance are important. Why should one be “observant,” or “practicing”? Don’t regular church-going and the practice of formal worship just stifle our creativity and freedom? Can’t we just go out onto the beach and find God? Decades ago, acknowledging a widespread reluctance to “impose a calendar on the soul,” the 20th-century rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel offered a spirited defense of religious observance: “The deeper truth is that routine breeds attention, calling forth a response where the soul would otherwise remain dormant. One is committed to being affected by the holy, if he abides at the threshold of its realm.” In the weeks to come, may we, too, choose to abide at the threshold of God’s holy realm.

Almighty God, grant me the will to embrace the rituals and observances of my faith throughout this penitential season and beyond.Amen.

For today’s readings, click here.

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