The Art of Aging: Part VI – Religious Practice

BLUE MOSQUE, Istanbul, Turkey

Have life’s batters and challenges left you abandoning religious faith all together? Years of experiences and trials leave you questioning the reality of an ultimate deity who cares about us, who truly loves us, who guides and protects us? Or, are you engaged in religious practice now more than ever before?

Maybe you’re in the process of deciding whether or not to adopt religious conviction. As we age, it’s natural to reflect upon our religious beliefs, and upon religion in general. Research says being religiously active is good for us! Time to buy in?

Religion Defined

Religion is defined as belief in a god or gods and the activities that are connected with this belief, such as praying or worshipping in a building such as a church or temple. To be religious means manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.

Religion Changing

As we have changed over the years, so also has the church and religious practice which can further impact our thoughts about religion, its offerings, and its expectations. Changes in religious practices that I’ve observed since taking world religions courses at university a few moons ago, include but are not limited to:

  1. Islam – Has become a household word in North America and Europe; more info: the global spread of Islam
  2. Buddhism is currently being studied as it relates to modern psychology; check this out from Princeton University: Buddhism and Psychology;
  3. Christian worship music artists are treated like rock stars; Billboard 
  4. Internet has helped bring to light the corruption of religious leaders;
  5. Religious violence continues in the 21st Century.

Why bother with religion?

With the multitude of changes already taking place around us, and now as we bear witness to major shift in religions and their practices, why should we consider including religious activity during the later years of our lives?

♦ Religious Practice is Healthy

We often read that people who go to church, that engage in religious practice are healthier in their later years. Tyler VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, did a study that reveals that “even occasional church-goers have a mortality risk that is 13% lower than non-goers”.

So, what is it about religious practice that can help us live longer?

♦ Stress Reducer

One Duke University study says that being religiously active lowers blood pressure. This could be the reason why a study in 2005 says that church goers reduce their risk of heart attack.

It’s common knowledge that stress plays a role in heart health, one such stress also being change. With respect to religious practices and their changes, might those modifications be helping us live longer and better?

♦ Inspiration

Without music, life would be a mistake. ― Friedrich Nietzsche

The nature of praying or worshipping is different today than it was a few decades ago. One obvious difference is worship music.

Following a Sunday morning service, the pastor asked me what I thought of the music. I told him it was interesting not to have to participate, to be able to sit back in the comfortable, cushioned pew and take in the assortment of musical entertainment. No one in the congregation was singing or even mouthing the words. Rather, we just listened and watched as gyrating musicians ‘worshipped’ in song, dance, and with instruments. This type of religious music experience would repeat itself over the years, both in live performance and as presented via television/online media.

This type of religious musical experience has no boundaries. The exuberant format appears in both the megachurch, and the church with a handful of congregants. One worship pastor told me that “bigger is better”. Did his comment also imply louder and longer? Some worship tunes last seven and eight minutes.

silhouette-music-crowd-concert-audience-musician-112172-pxhere.com

Is it possible that demonstrative, upbeat contemporary worship music helps to relieve stress? In that environment, the sensory bombardment alone would make it nearly impossible to think of much else other than what is going on in the immediate. And, if one does respond to the music by waving hands heavenward, swaying, dancing, singing, and so on, then stress release is predictable.

♦ Stillness

When there is silence one finds the anchor of the universe within oneself.

― Lao Tzu

Good fortune has allowed me varied religious experiences in varied formats. One such time was in London, England. Gothic shaped wooden doors beckoned. I entered an old, beautiful and serene church. Lit candles cast shadows on splendid sculptures, icons, and stained glass windows.

Another memory of visiting Ascension Cathedralafter it was restored in 1990 from being a museum during the Russian Revolution to its original purpose as a Russian Orthodox place of worshipstill brings calm. No cushiony pews in that century old building. Rather, we stood on the cold, stone floor and listened to the out-of-tune female quartet whose musical inspiration bounced around the massive wooden structure built without nails and believed to have been saved by an ‘act of God’ in 1911 from a devastating earthquake (Explore Kazakhstan).

Just hours away in Central Asia, a profound spiritual experience took place in the middle of a scorching, roadless desert, where an Imam and his family blessed and welcomed me as one of their own.

Back in Canada, a somewhat alarming religious moment was experienced in the living room of a rather small home. Shoulder to shoulder, no wiggle room to be had, I was surrounded by divine, spontaneous ‘singing in the Spirit’ created by about fifty worshipers. Time held no meaning. Worries held no power. Words like ethereal and magical define that memory.

Church in winter

♦ Guilt

I cannot think of those years without horror, loathing and heartache. I killed men in war and challenged men to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the labor of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was no crime I did not commit, and in spite of that, people praised my conduct, and my contemporaries considered me to be a comparatively moral man. During that time I began to write from vanity, covetousness, and pride. In my writings I did the same as in my life. To get fame and money…

— Leo Tolstoy

When Tolstoy was in his fifties, his fame and wealth left him questioning the meaning and purpose of life. He found the solution to his questions and amorality in Jesus Christ’s forgiveness, love, and divine purpose. Tolstoy went on to write THE CONFESSION while fostering a rather dynamic religious practice with tentacles that continue to reach around the globe.

Oh my friends, my friends, forgive me, that I live and you are gone. There’s a grief that can’t be spoken. There’s a pain goes on and on… 

— Marius, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables“, Les Misérables

♦ Predicting the Future

Our insatiable desire to know the future drives us to varied actions, from Tarot Card readings and newspaper horoscopes to avid religious practice. Watching the years slip away, and with death on the horizon, it’s not uncommon for the older adult to seek religious practice that promises an afterlife, most preferably one without a Hell option.

It’s also common that when reflecting upon our past, especially one filled with regret, we may desire to seek the will of God or Nirvana. We come to believe that by following the path of righteous behaviour, we are fulfilling a divine plan that was in place before our birth. Perhaps as well, we believe that our acquired righteous behaviour will reward us with the remainder of our earthly life being filled with fewer or no sufferings.

The notion of an afterlife—the core of many religions—is futurism in its purest form, with tomorrow conceived not as a place made much better by the next great invention or much worse by an alien invasion, but as an alternative universe with its own rules. Futurism has always carried with it a sense of mystery, the ability to know the unknown deemed limited to those with special (and, sometimes, evil) powers. Prophets were, centuries ago, considered divinely anointed in some way, the strange art seen as common to members of certain families who possessed a predisposition for it.

Lawrence R. Samuel Ph.D.

Life and Death Mexican Artist Mexican painter Lorena Rodriguez

LIFE AND DEATH – Mexican Artist Lorena Rodriguez

♦ Identity, Survival, & Religious Practice

I believe that survival is what prods us to make the many decisions that we do, and that in turn, helps to fashion who we are. When we meet someone, our default reaction is to determine whether or not the person will impede or improve our survival, impede or improve who we think we are or want to be.

Knowing who we are and what we want in order to survive is key. As simple as this may seem, many, both young and old alike, struggle with identity issues.

Studies show that “religion is positively correlated with identity formation”. (Oppong, 2013)reveal-921494_1920

More frequent formal religious participation is associated with having a stronger religious social identity and that this aspect of identity, in turn, accounts for associations between more frequent formal religious participation and higher levels of subjective psychological well-being.

(Greenfield & Marks, 2008)

♦ Social Bond

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Belonging to a community is said to increase our prospects of survival and the quality therein. Not only are we identified with a religious community, but that connection can provide vital support when life challenges us.

Social bonding especially occurs during worship music. When we sway with the rhythm of the music, research says we feel connected to one another and, consequently, are more likely to help each other.

Ongoing worship rituals also confirm one’s place in a community.

— Pamela Ebstyne King

♦ Power, Approval, and Security

Author Jerome Daley says that the three core needs of humans are power, approval, and security. Psychology professor Gregg Henriques says our core need is to “be known and valued by self and others”.

Being religiously active can empower and provide a sense of security in knowing that we are accepted, valued, and supported by a community of like-minded believers.

Whether you agree with Henriques, Daley, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or these five basic human needs—shelter, food, clothing, love/acceptance, and achievement—it’s clear from the research that religion in human existence is important, that belonging to a religious organization is beneficial.

♦ Socioculture Factors

In the building and development of countries and their culture, religion has played a significant role over the centuries. Social behaviour(s)—interactions among individuals, that are usually beneficial to one or more of the individuals—such as love, peace, self-control, obedience, kindness, and compassion can be nurtured via religious adherence and teachings. These behaviours can define governments, educational institutions, and corporations.

The question niggling in my brain is, does current religious adherence and teaching nurture positive social behaviours? Perchance have churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques succumbed to totalitarianism and corporatism so much so that former views of religious gatherings as being united in love, service, and humility, with a focus on furthering the mission of God in the world, have changed?

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8

♦ Soothing the Struggles of the Over 65

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Dr. Yeates Conwell, Director of Geriatric Psychiatry, University of Rochester Medical Center, says that both men and women globally are at higher risk of committing suicide as they age. He offers the 4 D’s of Suicide Risk in older adults:

  1. Clinical DepressionDashed hopes may underpin some of the increase in suicides, particularly for middle-aged and older white people. Research shows a 2% yearly increase in suicides since 2006;
  2. Debility – when illness mounts up and affects activity, especially that which is of personal interest, hope can be lost, leaving life without much meaning;
  3. Disconnectedness – living alone, having a small social network, infrequent participation in social activities, and feelings of loneliness are commonly felt by the aged, and particularly by those who outlive their contemporaries;
  4. Access to Deadly Means access to medications/drugs and firearms, etc., make suicide an easy alternative to perceived misery.

92% of people over 65 who die by firearms do so as a result of suicide.

In the abundant research available, it is made clear that being religiously active can thwart potential suicide. The key, we’re told, is HOPE in all its forms—hope in an afterlife, hope for supernatural protection and guidance, and so on. Another preventative is social connectedness. Even debility can be addressed through religious practice.

hand-black-and-white-photography-monochrome-photograph-hope-932603-pxhere.com

For surely there is a hereafter, and your hope will not be cut off.  Proverbs 23:18 

“All That Glistens Is Not Gold”

Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene 7

Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden. ― Phaedrus

With religion, as with most things, what you see may not be what you’re looking for.

  • Not all religious leaders are trustworthy.
  • Not all religious spaces are safe.
  • Not all religious teachings are healthy.
  • Not all religious people are good.
  • Not all religious institutions are honest in their operation.
  • Not all religions promote unity.

All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring; Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king.

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

♦ Religion – Big Business?

  • Church of the Latter Day Saints has an annual revenue of $6 billion;
  • Assets of the Islamic financial industry alone nearly $1.6 trillion in 2012;
  • The Catholic Church – The Vatican Bank is said to have at least $10-15 Billion net worth in assets; it owns some of the greatest art works, has vast gold deposits, and even a state-of-the-art observatory on Mount Graham in Tucson, Arizona.

 

city-painting-vatican-peter-altar-saint-700971-pxhere.com
Inside The Vatican

 

No doubt you’ve seen the Facebook post that continues to circulate since 2011 about the outrageously extravagant lifestyles of television evangelists. Accompanying the post are comments stating how wrong it is for the likes of Jesse Duplantis to own a 54 million dollar jet. It’s not hard to feel the rise of jealousy and judgement when learning of the religious leaders’ multi-million dollar mansions and so on.

The negative responses to this exposé beg the questions/comments:

  • Is it okay for movie stars and sports icons who sell lifestyles filled with excesses, drugs, pornography, addictions, and so on, to live lavishly and own jets, but it’s not okay for religious leaders who sell hope and prosperity?
  • Is it okay for us to adore movie and sport icons who make anywhere from $35-85 million in a year, but to trash-mouth tele-evangelists?
  • A word used frequently in the damning of the evangelists is, hypocritesomeone who says they have particular moral beliefs but behaves in ways that shows these are not sincere.

Are wealthy evangelists living what they believe and teach? It wouldn’t be the first time that a movie star or sports icon sells one type of lifestyle while living another.

If we accept the definition of the word, hypocrite, then is this to say that religious leaders are not supposed to be wealthy? Prosperity theology is currently very popular.

  • Do we believe that asceticisma simple, strict way of life with no luxuries or physical pleasures—is what is supposed to define religious leaders, and therefore luxuries are not to play a role in that lifestyle?

Asceticism is a lifestyle choice by various followers of all religions, but is not adopted by all religions.

  • Do we cringe at the wealth of religious leaders and the like because we’re told, for example, that nearly 18% of Americans are living in poverty, and in order to counter this inequality, evangelists, sports icons, and movie stars should distribute their wealth to the needy? Do we believe it’s specifically the responsibility of the religious to do this?inequality

As we older adults view such media postings related to wealth and religion, does this impact our decision to partake in religious practice?

Inequality in varied areas of life remains a global norm. Can religious practice help to balance things?Inequality art

♦ Global Conflict and Violence

In the 21st century, conflicts have increased sharply since 2010.

Alexandre Marc, Chief Specialist, Fragility, Conflict and Violence World Bank

Religious activity has, according to experts, declined in the 21st Century. Might this be a cause of the increase in conflict and violence around the world?

As a Western European, I have seen the dramatic drop in the influence of organized religion in society. Churches on Sunday were packed, and priests and nuns in habits prominent features of the social landscape. Today, churches across Western Europe are [mostly] empty, the average age in many congregations being well over 60… Priests need to be recruited from Latin America, Africa and Asia–a sort-of “reverse missionary” phenomenon.

This [is] not true in Eastern Europe where the Orthodox Churches have seen a considerable revival in post-Soviet Russia. Religion in the case of India remains a prominent and deep dynamic of society.  The force and beauty of spirituality must be welcome in an otherwise excessively materialist world.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann

people-old-city-stone-crowd-religion-940303-pxhere.com

Perhaps the original views of how religious gatherings promote being united in love, service, and humility, with a focus on furthering the mission of God in the world, are worthy and in need of resurrection.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

So, how does one find a religion that is worth committing to? Before jumping in and adopting a religious belief, a quick Google search will provide quizzes that promise to match you with a religion suitable to who you are and what you’re looking for.

Following is a guide I’ve compiled after years of religious study and skepticism:

  • Make a list of what your spiritual/mental/emotional wants/needs are —
    • Do you want to shake up and rattle your old bones, or are you seeking a religious place of solace and retreat?
    • Are you looking for companionship? The number of minivans in the church parking lot might give you a clue as to the age of the congregants.
    • Is social interaction during the week important?
  • Visit places of worship – consider their location and ease of access;
  • Read/study/examine the religious materials associated with the religion;
  • Learn about the various factions within each religion—check out the 4th edition of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religions;
  • Familiarize yourself with the financial backings of the religion—follow the money!
  • Acquaint yourself with the traditions and cultural content of the religion—is there a dress code, or perhaps posturing expectations like kneeling, for example, which might prove difficult until you have your hip replacement?
  • Research the music and worship styles of each religion—does the music inspire you, minister to you, nurture you, or does it leave your hearing aid whistling?
  • Meet with religious leaders to have your list of questions/concerns answered.

Finale

Playing my harp at a synagogue, the awe felt watching the prayers of a woman in a small Buddhist Temple in China, being treated as an honoured guest at the original Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, finding church doors locked in New York City, or singing for a Catholic Mass in an ultra-modern place of worship, what I can say is that religious experience has changed significantly in my lifetime, and some of it for the better.

Not all will agree that being religious is for them. Yet, our age-old attraction to things ethereal, to the spirit world, continues.

May we, as older adults, leave a legacy that promotes peace and hope, compassion and kindness, so that the world is indeed, a better place at our departure. If religious practice is the ticket to making this happen, why not go for it?

Make hope the code of conduct and endeavour. Anwar Sadat 1977

 


Explore what others are saying:

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