During my sophomore year, I was involved in six extracurricular activities. I inevitably had to decide (for the sake of preserving my sanity) which groups to drop. I chose to cease my involvement in Catholic reflection and discussion groups.
It took me awhile to come to this conclusion, despite the fact that I’m not Catholic.
I’m not Christian.
I’m not part of any organized religion.
I don’t believe in God.
I’m not a spiritual person.
And I don’t enjoy discussing Christianity or God for extended periods of time.
My “coming to God” moment was a paradoxical experience in which I abandoned any appearance of faith in my life. I’ve felt more at peace since making that decision. And yet, here I am, writing on behalf of Christianity and faith. By embracing an eclecticism that includes some Christian practices and ideals, one can gain increased emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits.
A religion as old and well-established as Christianity offers crucial guidance (validated by centuries of debate and discussion) for thought. Religion shouldn’t be treated as an absolute authority, but it does offer important insight into the workings of humankind and the needs of the individual. To be clear: I speak of Christianity, specifically Catholicism, because I know it best of the organized religions, but I believe that this perspective holds true for many other schools of thought.
Christianity encourages myriad virtues and values. Practices such as prayer, meditation, and weekly Mass exercise endurance and patience. The practices of meditation aren’t intrinsically pleasurable: kneeling for extended amounts of time, speaking the same responses every week, listening to long lectures, and singing songs that won’t be gracing the Top 40. But forcing oneself to go through these motions, simultaneously focusing upon a higher concept than oneself, conditions positive character attributes. If someone can practice self-restraint, patience, and intense periods of focus daily, or even weekly, then these virtues will positively affect other areas of his or her life. Imagine these virtues applied to an athlete or someone in a serious romantic relationship. If she is patient, willing to endure discomfort or inconvenience, and focused upon a higher objective than herself, then there will be a greater payoff long-term (increased athletic performance and a healthy relationship).
The communal aspect is one of the most-cited reasons for involvement in Christian groups or activities, regardless of whether the individual is Christian. Many Christian communities are similar to sports teams, expecting a combination of individual and group effort. The glaring difference is that the objective within Christianity is to make sure that everyone wins. Most churches tend to have youth and community events, and practices such as Mass or meditation are typically done as a group.
As I remember in my Catholic upbringing, there’s a tendency to embrace or shake hands during the Sign of Peace (which takes place during the Catholic Mass), which increases feelings of intimacy and personal well-being. Studies show that teams that high-five tend to perform better—imagine the benefits of the weekly (or even daily, depending on how often one goes to Mass) Sign of Peace on both the participating individual and his or her community.
In religious discussions, there’s also a tendency to look at the individual’s life holistically, examining what factors may be affecting lifestyle choices and one’s relationship to God. These groups can function as unofficial group therapy. I don’t mean to suggest that religious discussions can replace the benefits of psychological counseling and focused therapy, but they can offer many necessary benefits for those who 1) don’t like the idea of receiving therapy, 2) can’t afford or don’t have time for therapy, 3) feel stigmatized or intimidated by therapy, and/or 4) suffer from feelings of alienation that aren’t entirely met by therapy.
The unconditional love that is praised and attempted within Christianity can make a huge difference for someone who feels abandoned and alone, even depressed. And the organized events, focused specifically on inclusion and community, create a more comfortable environment in which those suffering from social anxiety can practice conversation and social interactions.
Catholicism isn’t stagnant. It continues to develop, as members and critics alike discuss its principles and their applications, and the Church responds to significant events within culture and science. I believe that for the individual as well, spiritual or philosophical beliefs shouldn’t be completely decided and fixed at one point in someone's life. We have to figure out for ourselves what works and what doesn’t, and it’s from this attempt to understand certain concepts that we either reject or believe in them. Christianity and other schools of belief provide thoughtful guidance as this exploration occurs—a testament to their role in the process of individual and human maturation.