This Easter in the midst of Covid-19, there were reports of a resurgence in religious faith as people reassessed their life and priorities during a time of great difficulty. Holy week and Easter events reached millions more than usual, as new users registered for streaming services. This peak in interest reminded me of my first foray in public worship years ago, which had left me disappointed because it didn’t bring me closer to God. Instead, I pursued a solitary path of self-study, which led to the faith I have today.
Also this Easter, I stumbled on a BBC documentary called The Pilgrimage, where seven celebrities joined a pilgrimage to Istanbul, which was designed to promote tolerance for all faiths. I began watching with a sense of quiet apathy, expecting predictable and unremarkable insights from a blend of atheists and believers, and so it proved, until the final episode when the pilgrims reached Istanbul. There, they attended a traditional Sufi prayer meeting, where worshippers (identically dressed) gathered in a circle and chanted God’s name repeatedly, to the beat of a drum. The purpose of the chanting was to draw worshippers closer to God and as they gathered momentum and moved their bodies in unison, they hypnotised every pilgrim (including the atheists) in a transcendental experience.
As I watched in silent fascination, I too was consumed by the forceful energy generated by the worshippers and found myself elevated into the presence of God. It was a deeply mystical experience and all the more propitious, because it was unexpected. In fact it was so compelling, it left me questioning my stance on public worship.
Of course, I acknowledge public worship is important for many different reasons. It is an opportunity to hear scripture and texts, be reminded of God’s message and deepen knowledge and understanding of faith. It provides focus, discipline and structure in a world, which is constantly distracting us. It also serves a social purpose because it creates a sense of community, bringing people together and offering sustenance through the trials and tribulations, which pepper our daily lives. I know faith can’t be experienced in a vacuum – it needs community, which helps strengthen beliefs and the hope for a better day. All of this I fully accept, but worshipping in public has never resonated with me because I need a personal encounter with God.
Looking back, I realise that when I began my search for God, the best path for me was self-study. I had to discover God for myself through personal experience and not simply rely on teachings. However, through the Sufi prayer meeting, God showed me that worshipping alongside others could bring me closer to Him. Yes, it’s fundamental to have personal experience, but it’s also important to anchor faith in community. We need to understand the foundations of our faith, whether it’s sacred texts, cultural traditions or the testimony of others. All are guides on the spiritual journey and I realise that by combining public worship with personal experience, I’m far better equipped to determine my own truth about God.