Sometimes, the strangest questions come to me at the oddest times. It’s a gift really. In this case, the thought popped into my head as I was preparing to do a sinus rinse. If you’ve never done one, they’re not the most fun thing to do. You essentially put saltwater up your nose and it comes back out. Since I was diagnosed with my dust mite allergy, vocal chord dysfunction, and sleep apnea (which all apparently are linked), I have to do them twice a day, along with nasal allergy sprays, daily vacuuming to catch the dust mites, breathing exercises to retrain my vocal chords, and now a CPAP. My life kind of revolves around these routines of making my world a place I can breathe, with Passover cleaning added in for extra fun and 40 hours of work a week…and kids…and a husband and dog in there somewhere.
But, at that moment, I was contemplating just the idea of these daily sinus rinses and how they’d become just part of the normal routine and the idea that this what people would refer to as something I do “religiously” and how odd it is that we most often use that figure of speech in English for things that aren’t really religious at all.
“He wears his seatbelt religiously.”
“She runs religiously.”
In English, this isn’t taken to mean that he worships his seatbelt or she worships her daily runs, but that it’s something that the person always does. It’s a routine or ritual for them that is constant, even when life tries to interfere. He wears his seatbelt even if he’s just driving to the corner store. She goes for her run even when her life is chaotic.
And yet, how many English speakers actually practice their religion…religiously?
At least in modern times, I’d speculate that the number is very few. Growing up, we did go to mass usually once a week, but if there was something big or we were on vacation, or life was chaotic…we’d skip it. Holidays didn’t require much thought or preparation and were really more about family and food. Each holiday was pretty much the same except different decorations or food. The things that happened weren’t as different as say the difference between Rosh Hashanah versus Passover. My husband’s Father and Stepmother practice their Judaism similarly. I think they might go to a Reform Synagogue for High Holidays…sometimes…maybe. Their religious observance, though, isn’t a daily routine.
And that’s probably the case for the majority of English speakers who use the term “religiously,” as much of a contradiction as that might be. This isn’t to say there aren’t other things in their lives they do religiously, just that religion itself really isn’t one of them.
I remember the first time someone, after a conversation about why I dressed the way I did and Shabbat observance said, “Wow…you’re really religious!” I found myself kind of flustered, and trying to explain how, no, really, I wasn’t. They’d meant it in an admiring way, but I turned the term over and over in my head, trying to figure out why I didn’t feel it fit. When I think of a “religious” person, I think more of someone like a Rabbi or Rebbetzin, someone who has given their entire life over to their faith and spends all day every day engaged in it. I think of someone who knows more than me, does more than me, a real tzaddik! (Righteous person.) I think of ancient Sages and I think of mothers with kids swirling around them, stair steps in height who have children in the faith that G-d will provide for their family. When I think of religious, I think of something lofty, unattainable for me. Plus…I’m not even technically a member of the faith I practice yet!
As I pondered this, years ago, I did kind of turn around and look at my life with an outsider’s eyes. Would most people change so much for their religion? Would they give up dressing like everyone else for it? Would they do things like cover their hair that make them stand out for it? Would they sprinkle religious ritual throughout their day, limit what they could eat and where, and even limit what career they could have for it? And…would they do all this religiously? To me, the changes I’d made and observances I’d taken on seemed small in comparison to where I was trying to go and the people I looked up to, but maybe to an outsider’s eyes, I was already further up the path than I realized myself?
I still struggled with the word religious though. Ok, so maybe I had a lot of religious practices that I did religiously, but to me, religious also implies a level of both knowledge and faith that I really feel fits more with those who are further along or else gifted with a stronger foundation. I’m still learning and definitely was then and I do wrestle sometimes with faith. Sometimes, I do my religious practices out of commitment, not joy or real feeling. Often, I find that actually helps rekindle that joy and feeling. Religious, to me, is the Chazan at our Synagogue back in Florida who would be moved to tears during High Holiday services as he begged G-d that he be worthy of bringing our prayers to Him. Religious could also be the happy Na-Nachs dancing for hours or even a very hippy new-age person who never gets angry. To be fair, I’ve met people I’d consider religious who weren’t all that observant in their faith, but had that calm sureness in it or fervor.
Me? I’m human. I do get frustrated and angry, giving in to the power of my red hair. I question and falter and stumble and wrestle like Judah with angels and with devils. I don’t just thank G-d and bless and pray, but I have ongoing discussions with G-d that sometimes are even arguments where I ask Him why things have to be the way they are, why babies have to suffer in wars a world away, why bad things happen and people do dumb things and why can’t he make it all better? I’m often more like a child, stomping my foot and pouting and arguing my point to a parent that obviously knows so much better how things should be than I do. There have even been times I’ve been more like a teenager, particularly in my younger years, where I rebelled and even denied He was there, refusing to speak to Him much like a teenager who storms into their room and slams the door.
That just doesn’t seem very religious to me.
And yet, if I were to adjust my expectation of what a religious person does to simply be that they acknowledge G-d’s existence and sovereignty, even my youthful rebellions had that at the heart of them. You can’t really rebel against something if you truly don’t believe it exists and you can’t really rebel against anything that has no power over you. It would be as absurd as someone having a revolution…against a government they don’t live under, like me in the US staging a revolution in my hometown…against the government of New Zealand. No, at the heart of a rebellion is the acknowledgement that we’re angry at something that is very real and has very real power over us. As I grew older and less fiery, my rebellion eased into arguing, but both come from the same desire…a desire for comfort from G-d. I rebelled and I argued and I was angry because when I see things I don’t understand and are upsetting…I’m hurt and frightened and I want G-d to either fix it, explain it, or at least comfort me, but like a toddler, I still am learning the right way to go about asking for that and all too often anger is easier and feels stronger.
So, I still religiously wrestle with the question of whether or not I’m religious, even when I’m engaged in a sinus rinse. I work imperfectly to squeeze in all the blessings, learning, and cleaning I need to do into the chaos of life and I’m thankful that I do have the breathing space in my life to even ponder such things in a world where so many have problems bigger than mine that consume their time and attention.
All things…are a gift.