Gurney's Inn
December 20, 2006

'Tis The Season Searching for Spirituality

Call it the seasonal shopping rush for spirituality.

Whether the holiday is Christmas, Chanukah or Kwanzaa, or the celebration takes place in a church, synagogue or community center, the holiday season translates into a crush of congregants who crowd into houses of worship on the holiest days of the year, packing the pews and parking lots.

But what does the rush to religion signify? On the East End, where so many give thanks at the altar of Gucci and offer tithes to Tiffany and Co., what is it about the holiday season that sparks a deeper search for meaning?

According to East End religious leaders, there are a number of factors that motivate scores to search for an intangible sense of peace.

Reverend Anne McAnelly of the Remsenburg Community Church said that although this is her first Christmas Eve in the pulpit at the church, she has been told she can expect 200 attendees at the service. "We usually have 15 or 20 on a good Sunday. Absolutely, more people come to church at this time of year."

McAnelly believes the seasonal crush is sparked by two reasons. "One is that everybody gets so crazy with all the things they're supposed to be doing, they begin to think, 'There's got to be more to Christmas than this.'"

The other impetus, said McAnelly, involves a more intangible yearning. "The feeling of 'I'm missing something in my life, and I'd like to go back,'" she said. "I think most of us have some roots in a faith, whether or not we're practicing, and then we feel as though, to use a Jewish phrase, if these are the High Holy days, we should get back to that."

McAnelly believes many are searching for deeper meaning. "A lot of people are looking for something more, but aren't sure where to find it. Religion, at some point, has disappointed a whole lot of people. It's become de-prioritized in their lives."

Also key, said McAnelly, is that the holidays promise anonymity to the tentative souls tempted to test the waters of faith. "On Christmas Eve, you're going to get lost in the crowd and that's something very appealing to people in this day and age."

Many, she added, want to reconnect, but can't find the time in today's hectic world. "Christmas Eve is one of those times that everyone says it's okay to come to church as a one-off, and no one's going to get mad at you."

But Merlene Ryndfleisz, secretary at the Calvary Baptist Church of Riverhead, said there's a name for those who attend services only during the holiday season. "They're the CE Christians — Christmas and Easter — that's the only time they come."

Pastor Joe Hinds of the Springs Community Presbyterian Church said his Christmas Eve service is sometimes standing-room only. And those who come to church only on holidays offer a chance for new beginnings. "I'm glad for the opportunity. It's my one chance a year to reach the larger community."

Hinds stresses the simplicity of the season and urges congregants "not to get all bound up in some of our culture's expectations" of the holidays. Most important, he said, is that in the Christian faith, Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ and the preparation for his coming. "I encourage people to not just do that for four weeks in December but to always be aware of the presence of Christ among of us. How can we can see that, and intentionally look for that in others? Because that's where we find our common light inside as God's created people."

Rabbi Jackie Wexler of the Temple Tifereth Israel in Greenport agrees. "That's why we put the menorah in the window, to proclaim the miracle to anybody walking by that we're supposed to bring light and God's warmth to the world."

Father Joe Mirro of the Immaculate Conception Church in Westhampton agreed that no matter what religion one practices, the meaning of the season resonates: "The message of the season, whether it be Christmas or Chanukah, is hope."

Mirro said the season is reflected in an outpouring of generosity by those reaching out to others in need.

"It's also a difficult time of year for those who are going through bereavement, who are seeking comfort and consolation in the face of serious illness or death."

Wexler agreed death often brings individuals back to their faith. The tradition of saying a prayer for the dead, or a kaddish, may draw in someone "who's been on the periphery."

Once part of the faith community again, a person might find their faith, said Wexler. "You have to open the door and give them a reason to come in. Then, hopefully, they'll stay."

For many, faith is deeply tied to childhood traditions. Wexler read the same book of Chanukah stories to her children every year.

Dr. Robert Burke Devinney, a Riverhead psychologist, said the holidays trigger memories "back to when they were children, to a simpler and even happier time. The holidays move them to go back to the true meaning of Christmas, which is so clouded by commercialism."

"That's one of the roles ritual plays in our life — it gives us that anchor," said Wexler.

United Methodist clergyperson Ben Burns of Greenport said the holidays are a time for taking stock. "People go to worship this time of year because something is missing and they are searching. Not only do we feel the neglect of our spiritual selves in this season, we fall short of what life can be for us when we neglect the spiritual in our lives."

Putting the spiritual front and center is paramount, said Hinds. "At a time when there's so much hype around the community, with the shopping and the encouragement to do that, people are seeking something simple and basic and human."

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