She caught me right after service and confronted me with what seemed more like a statement than a question: “You crossed yourself. Are you Catholic?” I had made the sign of the cross during the service, not expecting anyone to notice. I had first learnt to do it when training to be an Anglican altar boy—at specific junctures, we performed the sign out of reverence, much like how a soldier salutes an officer or the nation’s flag.
The lady might have felt my action inappropriate in a Methodist church, since making the sign of the cross is often associated with worshippers in a Catholic Mass. Her response prompted me to reflect on the place of rituals in corporate and personal spiritual life.
In my mind, rituals are a series of behaviour that embodies a set of beliefs cherished by their practitioners. They bind participants with a common sense of identity—for example, giving thanks before a meal, or baptism and funeral services.
There has been a steady change in the form of some church rituals. In some churches, contemporary songs have replaced older hymns, a freer form of praying has superseded prescribed prayers, and church services have adopted more relaxed forms of worship.
However, this does not mean we are becoming less religious or reverent. Each generation of believers must find for themselves expressions of their faith, be it raising hands while singing, or bowing and kneeling in prayer. Whatever form is chosen, we should take care not to be a stumbling block to others. So for now, I will ever so discreetly cross myself in public worship.
Rituals are not just for the public sphere—they are important for families too. Since they are not religious in nature and are followed less dogmatically, the term “routines” could be used instead. These routines may include greeting one’s elders, informing the family when one is about to leave home, or inviting others to the dining table before starting a meal. The practice of such routines strengthens familial bonds and contributes to harmony.
Adopting such family routines alone do not make for a strong family, just as following religious rituals mechanically do not make one more spiritual. The outward expression of these routines does, however, reflect and strengthen the inward experience. Thus, a family would do well to preserve meaningful routines and traditions, and to practise them as faithfully as possible.
Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, given to him in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
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