The Surprising Thing I Miss After I Left My Religion

There is one ritual, one sacred physical activity that I still miss from my inherited faith, and it surprises the hell out of me: Head bowed, eyes closed and knees pressed into the God's holy ground, so that I can surrender myself in prayer physically, mentally and soulfully.
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For most of my life, I was a good Christian. As a child, I quietly sat next to my parents in the wooden pews of our local church. As a teen, I obediently attended Saturday evening mass before meeting friends at a party or going out on a date. As a young adult, I continued to go to semi-regular services at one of the campus churches. I followed the rules, I believed what I was told, and I ignored the creeping doubts. I was a good girl, a good Christian.

Until I realized that I wasn't. A Christian, that is.

After I accepted that deep-down in my core, in my soul, in my heart I wasn't a Christian, I mourned the loss of my religion fiercely. I mourned the loss of tradition, the loss of familial connection, the loss of comfort and security. But eventually, I discovered my true and authentic faith in Unitarian Universalism (UU). And my wounds of loss healed, the scabs of doubt were smoothed away. This religion fits me, it is me, and it is God's gift to me.

The UU rituals, ceremonies, traditions and spiritual practices have become sacred traditions and rituals for me and my family. My husband and I wept openly in front of the congregation at our oldest son's Child Dedication Ceremony. My heart swells to near bursting during the youth-led services as I marvel at the compassionate, open-minded and spiritually aware young adults that our church is cultivating. I rely on the universal love of God that the religion teaches. I appreciate its focus on actions, rather than words. And I take comfort in a shared spirituality that looks to Jesus as a source of inspiration and motivation, just as it looks to the poetic words of Rumi, the spirited activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the mindfulness of Buddha.

But there is one ritual, one sacred physical activity that I still miss from my inherited faith, and it surprises the hell out of me. The thing I miss the most about my former religion is the sacred act of kneeling. Head bowed, eyes closed and knees pressed into the God's holy ground, so that I can surrender myself in prayer physically, mentally and soulfully.

Don't get me wrong, I am still able to pray and often do. I pray while driving, while chopping vegetables for dinner, while running on the treadmill. I pray for the little things -- for my kid's tantrum to end, for the traffic to move, for the energy to run one more mile. I pray for the big things -- for my children's happiness, for my husband's peace of mind, for personal success, for confidence and serenity.

But these prayers are always fleeting. They come in fits and starts. They are authentic cries for help. They are purposeful expressions of gratitude. They are focused and one-dimensional. But they are generally one-way messages, not a two-way discussion with God.

These random, off-the-cuff prayers are essential to my spiritual well-being. But so are the all-consuming, soul-retching, rambling, hopeful, sorrowful, purposeful, aimless, holy conversions that I seem to be able to enter into only when I am engaged in the physical act of prayer.

The physicality of mindful prayer (or meditation) is not unique to any one religion. In fact, the use of the body to tap into the mind and soul is used by many different persons of faith and various denominations. As Anne Lamott wrote, "Rituals are a good signal to your unconscious that it is time to kick in."

Buddhists who engage in vipassana meditation use the physical act of focused breathing in order to gain insight and obtain realization of important truths. The Muslim ritual prayer of salat is always performed facing in the direction of Mecca, beginning in the standing position and moving through various positions until ending the prayer by kneeling. For me, the ritual facilitated by bending my body and pressing my knees to the ground creates a subconscious signal that, with my body humbled to Grace, my mind is free to fully engage in holy conversation. With my body submitting to reverence, my soul is free to open itself to a wordless dialogue with the divine.

Unfortunately, kneeling in prayer is not a common ritual in a Unitarian Universalist worship service. And despite even the most inspiring or comforting or motivating service, there are times when I long to lose myself in prayer, yearn to be comforted by God's sacred arms as I cry and hope and dream. There are days and weeks when my soul cries out for holy conversation that can only be facilitated by shutting out the rest of the world. Yet, without the physical ritual of prayer, I have a difficult time fully engaging, mentally and spiritually, in that whispered conversation.

So maybe some of the wounds of lost faith haven't fully healed after all. But I'm on the lookout for ways that this authentic faith of mine can adjust and find new ways to engage in the physical -- not just spiritual -- act of prayer.

And I have little doubt that I'll find it. Because Grace has a way of meeting us halfway.

How do you facilitate spiritual connection through physical actions?

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