What We Lose When We Exorcise Mystery from Religion

So, this Sunday falls directly on Candlemas, and for dorks like me that’s a bit of a big deal.index

For those of you not in the “know,” Candlemas is that time in the church year (for some of us) where we haul out all the candles in the church (or at least a representative sampling) and bless them.  My colleague calls it a “hinge day,” marking the midpoint between the Winter’s Solstice and the Spring Equinox.

So we haul out the candles and we bless them to acknowledge the Christ as being the “light of the world.”  And I’ve never met anyone who didn’t sit in solemn silence in the presence of a candle illuminating a darkened room.  There’s something deeply True about doing that.

It’s kind of like how many of us will burn greens right after Christmas, pray late into the night on the Winter’s Solstice, and bless houses at Epiphany.

All of these rites, these rituals, help us to breathe deeply  with history, with the Earth’s movement, and with the mystery that connects us to one another and to the Divine.  It’s why I bow toward the cross as it comes into my midst: I want to honor in my body the mystery of salvation.

But a lot of places don’t do this.  Won’t do this.  Indeed, a lot of places think these acts are superfluous at best and superstitious at worst.

I don’t bless candles because I think they must be blessed.  I bless them because, in doing so, I acknowledge that light will overcome darkness. Always. And that deserves blessing.

I don’t pray late into the night on the Winter’s Solstice because I think that evil resides in the shadows and I must pray it away.  No. I know evil resides in the shadows.  Hence why we don’t tell our secrets…many times they’re too full of evil, guilt, or shame to expose to the light.  So I pray late into the night to acknowledge that, from that point on, it will get lighter and lighter each day as we lean toward Spring.

And then, perhaps, I can allow a little light to shine more and more on my secrets.

And all of these practices help to connect me with a mystery of life and salvation greater than myself.  It’s kind of like our big harvest festival, Thanksgiving.  Ever since our forbears figured out that a dead seed will spring from the Earth, a mix between careful tending and damn luck, they’ve acknowledged that to live, and to breathe, and to eat is a gift.

All of it, gift.

And part of living into that gift is acknowledging that there are moments in life that are just bigger than us…and that should be ritualized. Communally ritualized.

But so much of modern faith is all brain or all heart and no mystery (unless we’re expected to believe that Jonah mysteriously wasn’t dissolved by stomach acid).

We just feel it’s true.  We assent to mental tenets (or reject them).

And yet, deep love is neither mental nor emotional.  It doesn’t make sense to the brain, and is often too fleeting with the heart.

No. Deep love is a mix of the head and the heart and the guts and…and that’s where I find true faith to reside, too.

Timothy Keller and Christopher Hitchens attempt to rationalize everything (they are in good company).  They are the different sides of the same coin. Not everything has an answer.

Likewise, the absolute emotionalism of charismatic and ecstatic communities miss the mark, too, I think.  Things aren’t true because they move our emotions; emotions are fleeting.  “Mystery” doesn’t mean believing just anything.

No. Things are true because they connect us deeply in the past and far into the future.

Hence why myth is True in a deeper sense then pure history.  Hence why rituals are True in a sense deeper than mindless monotony.

A belief system (and, remember, even atheism is a belief system) that attempts to exorcise mystery by finding a formula for everything and explaining everything or, conversely, by necessitating a constant emotional response is a faith that has lost something.

I think it’s lost depth.  My atheism was shallow.  As was my previous faith.  And while I don’t claim that I’ve reached some sort of amazing depth in my faith life now, it’s certainly more connected then anything I’ve practiced before.

Rituals don’t “save” me.


I don’t do them to earn anything.  Rather, they do exactly what “religion” claims to do: they reconnect me.  Re-ligio comes from the same root as “ligament.”  It  reconnects us.

Because we have a way of disconnecting from life.  But, too often, even religion fails to live up to it’s name these days.

So, this Sunday, haul out some candles.  Give thanks for the light.

6 thoughts on “What We Lose When We Exorcise Mystery from Religion

  1. Man, I love your easy way of explaining the struggles and joys, the ebbs and flows of faith being lived out today. Thanks too, for a great answer for some of the arguments I heard growing up against more ritualistic and liturgical styles of worship. “Oh, you think your works save you. You think you have to do that ritual because you lack faith. If only you believed like *me* then you’d be better.”

    No, honestly, if you believed like me, you’d be far worse. And I imagine if I tried to be a you and not me, I’d be far worse too. Maybe we can both seek to become more like Christ, by sometimes differing avenues, still with the same destination.

  2. I’ve been following your blog for a while now. Your words are helping me. Thank you. I am at a faith crisis in my life right now. But oh, how I wish I could just sit down with you and share a cup of tea and talk.

    I grew up with a charismatic mother, an emotionally absent father, who was raised with no faith at all, though he went to church with us. I married a wonderful husband & we had 5 beautiful children, whom we raised in a conservative, fundamentally Christian home school way. We were even in full time ministry, which meant we were “doing it right”.

    Then our youngest was diagnosed with cancer at the age of four. That’s the marker in our lives, in my life when everything changed. He survived with many terrible side effects. Other children with childhood cancer, whom we grew close with, died. No rhyme or reason. My mom, who had always been connected distanced herself emotionally, because her grandson having cancer was “too painful” and I believe, didn’t fit her faith worldview. Each of our son’s siblings have battled depression as have my husband and myself.

    Last year my mother, whom I believe, gave up on life, died also from cancer. Then my best friend’s 18 year old son, hung himself. At that point I knew I needed to step down from my 7 years of volunteer work with childhood cancer families, grieve and try to heal. So I’ve been trying to heal for 14 months now. Some days I feel like I’m understanding God…getting it…but other days I’m in a deep dark hole.

    I go to a woman’s bible study and I just cringe there. I’m just not agreeing with their fundamental beliefs. We still attend the same church (33) years now, because they help support our ministry work. But many times I just come away upset or disagreeing with the sermon. And then there’s this fear in me that if I don’t “believe” in just this way, something’s wrong with me. I constantly walk around wondering what’s wrong with me. I feel as if I’m in such a struggle and battle right now. I want peace.

    What can you recommend for me? Do you have any advice, ideas, thoughts that could help me? Do you have any books you’d recommend for someone like me?

    • Oh April,

      Thank you for this. Thank you for your words and your testimony. Thank you for sharing your son’s story, and for sharing your doubts and discontents.

      Just this morning I was sitting with someone who finally said, out loud, their doubts. I likened it to “coming out of the faith-closet.” Speaking things makes them real in a way that changes life because, well, when something is real, life has to change to accommodate it.

      I do think you’re wrestling with grief. Grief at the loss of your mom, your son’s cancer, your friend. Grief likes to hang around with it’s close friend, depression, and can sometimes invite her to the party, too.

      There’s no magic bullet, of course, but there is hope. When you get a cut, you must clean it out. A bandaid alone won’t do it; it festers under the surface.

      With grief and depression, seeing a counselor or therapist is one way to clean it out. It’s painful, and sometimes doesn’t feel like it’s “working.” But we must trust the process.

      A great book on grief that I recommend and give away is Good Grief by Granger Westberg. It’s an older book, but there is great wisdom in it’s age.

      Also, allow yourself to be and to feel what you feel. Do not think you should feel otherwise; allow it to just be. But realize, also, that your feelings aren’t threatening to you (unless you start to feel like you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else). We can get so angry at our feelings…allow them to be. Observe them from afar, if you can, and then enter back into them.

      C.S. Lewis took on that spiritual discipline in “A Grief Observed.” Another wonderful book.

      And finally, trust that God walks with you in grief. Trust that Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?!” puts you in good company with the Christ in his moment of fear and abandonment.

      I’m keeping you in much prayer. When I was going through my atheism and coming back to trusting God, I practiced the faith ritually. My body did what my heart and head couldn’t do. Kind of like driving home and becoming distracted in thought, only to find yourself in your garage. You got there somehow, mostly because your body took over for your head.

      This, too, is a gift of ritual.

      God walks with you. I trust that. And I’ll walk with you, too.


      • Thank you so much for responding so quickly. After posting, I did a few things around here, all the while praying there would be a quick reply…telling God that’s what I needed in order to know God was real and that he heard me. So your quick reply was indeed an answer from God and has built my faith up…just a bit. I will get and read those two books. I have been considering counseling again…so I’ll look into that again. I guess I need to be patient with myself.

        Do you have any rituals you recommend? I mean, my church doesn’t really do rituals. Maybe I could do communion on my own…maybe I’ll do my own Candlemas on Sunday. Is that what you are meaning?

        Thanks you

  3. Pingback: Monday February 24th | public theology

Leave a Reply to Timothy Brown Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s