I recently read Art of Stress-Free Living as part of my ongoing project to keep my blood pressure down naturally. The introduction started out with various examples of the effects that stress produces on the body. The book was going along fine until, on page 18, the author said:
Mounting evidence suggests that any number of soothing emotional experiences can improve our physical health.
So far so good. That makes sense.
Then the author went on to say:
At Duke University, researchers have found that religious observance is associated with lower rates of illness and hospitalization.
Now, if it meant that religious observance gave you a healthier diet or maybe helped you be more disciplined in exercising, I could understand that.
However, the paragraph goes on to discuss optimism and the relaxation response. Why would religious observance be in a paragraph that starts out discussing "soothing emotional experiences?!"
The only soothing things I've ever found about churches are daily Mass/daily services and Compline. Neither are part of regular religious observances.
Why would religious observances be mentioned at all in a book about being "stress-free," or even about just reducing stress?
What's the first thing you do on a Sunday morning? - okay, besides yell at your kids to get out of bed because they'll MAKE YOU LATE!!!!!!
Figure out what you're going to wear. What are the right clothes? If you're the sort that dresses church-y all week, you're in luck. If you're the sort who feels like a drag queen when you put on a dress, you're not. Church also depends on healthy feet and legs. The sorts of shoes appropriate for church clothes rarely are good if you have feet/knee/hip problems. Given my knee surgery and my past history of sprained ankles, I wear running shoes most of the time. Those aren't appropriate for church. After my knee surgery, however, I totally gave up on dress shoes. I now go halfway - I wear jazz dance shoes to church. They have more support but don't look as sports-y. They still don't look church-y, though.
I've failed before I've even left the house.
At least my kids are older so, when they go, it's not stressful. When they were younger?! Older son had colic for 4 months. At least he could be distracted by toys and books from a fairly young age. Daughter wouldn't sit still at all after she learned how to crawl. By the time the first hymn had ended, I was already at the back of the church (after turning her away from the front a few times) trying to keep her from disassembling the Virgin Mary alcove. We were really bad Catholics and finally gave up on Mass for about 18 months. Church with small kids is definitely not stress reducing!
Along with missing Mass that year, there are so many parts of religious observances that I have failed.
Epic fail. I'm no good at politics.
I have to turn off half of my personality* to get by at any church. I find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to get beyond acquaintance-ship at churches. I already failed at being involved in community at church so there's no reason to waste time on that again - either trying it or writing about it.
I have two Sunday School dropouts and one who never went to Sunday School. Also, one of them, the one who's never liked loud groups of strangers, dropped out of Vacation Bible School partway through. None of them had any interest in the tween/teen programs,** and I'm not the sort to push my kids into activities. Bad church mother.***
I'm no good at (or just plain not interested in) the traditional things women are supposed to do at church. I'm not patient enough to teach Sunday school (tried twice and hated it failed), and, quite frankly, I'm not interested in following somebody elses' curriculum. I'm not much for cooking either. Why don't we all just bring bag lunches?
Actually, I failed at that too. The last time I went to a church event where people brought bag lunches, most of them picked theirs up at Whole Foods or some other restaurant. I just brought a sandwich, fruit, and carrots from home.
Of course, I haven't even gotten to the teachings of churches. There's all sorts of stress and failure there. There has to be. They want you to change what you're doing, and the easiest way is to guilt you into it. Every denomination does it.
Well, except for Father C's homilies because he focused on God's unconditional love for us.
Bizarre. I've never heard another preacher like that.
Choir is the exception to my experience of failure at church. I've realized, particularly this summer in the musical, that I know where I'm supposed to be, I can sight-sing, and I can sing in tune and in harmony. That is valuable, even if I'm not a high soprano. I've also enjoyed church far more since I joined choir.
That doesn't totally help, though, because I've failed at everything else I've done at church besides choir. The building itself reminds me of my failure. Just driving by any church that I've been a member of, either makes my blood pressure go up, or it makes me realize that I'm more relaxed because it's not Sunday.
I finally concluded that the health benefit of religious observances must be for those who naturally fit in to churches. If you feel you're doing all your church requires, if you're raising your kids the same way as other church members, behave similarly in political ways, volunteer traditionally, and dress appropriately, I can see that the sense of in-ness and feeling like you have your place could be very soothing.
* The questioning, expressive part.
** ... except for daughter asking (repeatedly because I wasn't giving good enough answers) what the preteen/teen groups are for for: "We already saw everyone at church on Sunday morning, and we'll be back on Wednesday for children's choir. Why would I go again on Sunday afternoon? How will I see my school-going neighbors that way?"
*** Well, I'm a bad church mother compared to what one is supposed to do with kids at church. Interestingly, the results as adults have not been what one might expect, given my badness. Older son has a few unusual attitudes towards church, but he's a dedicated choir member - and occasionally the solo bass. Daughter started going to Mass again the first month of her freshman year at UNC-A and was confirmed last Easter. Younger son and I are enjoying daily services again now that things have calmed down after our busy summer.