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Religion: A way of coming home again
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I really get irritated when I hear people parroting the popular expression, “Religion can’t save you — only faith can.”  Yet these mindless clichés catch on everywhere, because they allow us to trash every religious organization that ever existed, at the same time claiming that our salvation is guaranteed.

Think again.  Jesus came, not only to establish a religious organization, of which the apostles were the founding members, but to anchor it firmly upon the foundation of Hebrew religion.  His followers would observe the teachings, ceremonial traditions and sacrificial rituals of the elders — even if in an entirely new way.  If the first Christians re-interpreted much of what their ancestors had observed, they never intended to destroy their religion.

 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” said Jesus; “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”  (Matthew 5:17)

Faith without religion is like wine without a container, like music without a symphony, like light without anything on which to shine, like the beauty of something hidden forever. Faith alone vanishes like the morning mist.

Yesterday’s first reading for Mass drove this home.   Leviticus 23 related in great detail the festivals which Yahweh, the God of Israel, prescribed for

His people.  The entire year would be punctuated by religious ceremonies.

And these rituals would occupy a great deal of their time and resources.

Are we better off for having dumped nearly all of the spiritual activities our ancestors observed so faithfully?  Are we closer to eternal salvation for having allowed those few ceremonies which survive to become so highly  commercialized, so whittled down to the bare essentials, so totally banal?

In fact, human beings are, by nature, ritual creatures.  Look at our personal patterns of behavior.  They become so ossified that we can’t bear to adjust our routines.  And look at our national quasi-religious ritual ceremonies, in the world of sports, in celebrity worship, on Wall Street, in commerce and in politics all offer us attractive substitutes for what religion once supplied.

Thursday, two priest buddies and I re-awoke to the appreciation of ritual.

We spent two hours in the San Francisco exhibit of King Tutankhamen.

I hope to visit Egypt in late September.   So I wanted to see, firsthand, the hundreds of ceremonial and symbolic objects that had lain, hidden, in the unopened tomb of this legendary Pharaoh for 3,200 years.  Discovered in 1922, this densely packed, four-chamber repository for the mummy of the boy-king yielded an amazing array of precious, well-preserved artifacts.

And even though evidence supports two or more robberies, which account for the disarray of objects when archeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb, the grace of God preserved the remaining objects from further loss.

But what made Tutankhamen, the king who died mysteriously at age 19, so immensely popular among his people?  The likely answer is profoundly religious: he restored the traditional religion of Egypt.  His predecessor, Akhenaton, had been a spiritual minimalist.  Doubtless in an effort to consolidate his power (by eliminating the extensive priesthood linked to the many deities of his people, and by restricting the arts of his day), this unpopular dictator declared the Sun disk to be Egypt’s sole supreme being.

Conveniently, Akhenaton and his wife, Nefertiti, were the lone representatives and primary beneficiaries of the God “Aten”.  Without denying the existence of other gods, this religious purist simply eliminated their cults.

While it may be that this bold reformer prepared Egypt for the eventual revelation of the One True God, his methodology left much to be desired.

Assuming the throne at nine, young King “Tut” resolved to restore what of the sacred and the aesthetic had been nearly lost forever.  His untimely demise - perhaps due to complications from a broken femur - only increased his popularity.   The hundreds of objects adorning his tomb testify to the urgency with which his successor, and his subjects, labored to assured his place among the deities and the fallen pharaohs of antiquity.  The dignity of this endeavor, and the solemnity of Egyptian regard for the afterlife, hits you like an illuminated wave of inspiration from the forgotten past, as you process, gradually, from chamber to chamber of the darkened exhibit.

Before long, we stood in another chamber.  Gracing Geary Boulevard, one of San Francisco’s most sacred places, the Cathedral of “Theotokos (the God-bearer), Joy of all who Sorrow”, stands as a proud monument to the ritual worship of God and the veneration of His most beloved daughter.

I’ve always had a fascination for Queen Nefertiti.  But as I came to know the Virgin Mary, my infatuation gave way to a more realistic admiration of the one who, having been highly favored by God, gave birth to our Savior.

We priests stood there in reverence silence for nearly an hour.  Vespers had begun at six, and would end at seven-thirty.   The cathedral’s walls, completely covered with iconographic illustrations, breathed of salvation history and the interface of heaven and earth.  Smoke rose from incense and candles.  Prayers, too, arose, in the haunting melodious chanting of monks and dedicated cantors.  Gradually, the faithful filtered in to stand, reverent, before the angelic hosts of higher realms and the saints of times gone by.

Orthodox Christianity is scandalously pantheistic in its strict monotheism.

King Tut understood, in his primitive pagan way, what the eastern churches and Roman Catholicism have never forgotten: God loves to share his glory.

And the glory of God was most evident in this darkened, enclosed space, in which the hidden mysteries of timeless eternities were being proclaimed from scripture and from the prayers of the people of God.  The priests sung on, in their patient supplications of behalf of all humanity.  And the mercy of God descended gently on us from above, where you could almost see stars through the expansive ceiling.   Through it all, a young woman kept up the rhythmic orthodox ritual of signing herself and touching the earth.

Before we left, I drew near to three of the five stations at which candles were lit and prayers offered through the intercession of a heavenly being.

First, I kissed the feet of Jesus crucified.  Then, I approached the icon of the Theotokos.  Finally, I gazed into the glass coffin of St. John of Shanghai and San Fransisco, a most remarkable Orthodox bishop who died in 1966.

I was surprised to read that he passed away in my home city, Seattle.  

With relics located in Serbia, Russia, Mount Athos, Bulgaria, and other countries of the world, St. John has still chosen San Francisco as his final resting place.  God knows the city needs more saints.  You can read about him via:

An hour later, we were walking the undulating pathway of a labyrinth.

Below the trail from Geary Boulevard to Land’s End, overlooking the surf pounding against eroding rocks above the Bay, someone had labored long and hard to create a labyrinth.  This ancient form of walking meditation has gained increasing popularity.   Requiring no specific theology or ritualistic prescriptions, this humble form of prayer bridges many gaps.  For my part, I associate labyrinths with Greek mythology and with new-age spirituality.  This explains why, despite many opportunities, I’d never walked the path.

Today, with the waves undulating below, the wind gusting up, pelicans passing overhead in tight formation, my buddies exploring and a solitary woman dressed in black reading her Bible quietly, I took the dive.  Slowly pacing the tightly-woven channels between rocks and gravel so carefully arranged, I dismissed my Christian anxieties.   My little steps, ordered to the pattern of a ritual ceremony, helped me concentrate on bigger things.

As we ended our day in the City at a famous Chinese restaurant, I couldn’t help but smile.  What a necessary blessing is religion, and ritual, and being free to soak in the unknowable mystery of the God who gives us life. What a beautiful thing that people of like mind and heart participate together in a series of ceremonial activities which put them in touch with the divine.  

Yes, it is extremely important to purify our religious practices.  We must indeed avoid everything that deprives us of the true light of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, no one has a monopoly on true religion.  I will continue to grow in admiration, over the years remaining on this earth, for the many expressions of spiritual longing for the God who know one can understand.

For God is beyond - infinitely beyond - the feeble limits of the human mind.

The best we can do is follow the light He gives us, and not deny Him the pleasure of showing us many expressions of His love and many ways to find our way home to Him.  Ours is, forever, a God who shares His glory.
Fr. Dean McFalls,
St. Mary’s Parish,
Stockton, CA 
July 31, 2009