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Have you ever wondered why people convert to Islam, and why thousands of young people in Western countries can be radicalized to the point of volunteering to join Daech in Syria ?  What is so attractive in a religion that demands, like the others, not only an enormous “leap of faith” to accept doctrines that,  to be kind, contradict reason, but imposes rules and rituals that constitute stringent obligations and constraints in one’s everyday life ?  The answer, I believe, is contained in the question.

I should have realized long ago, as a young Franciscan friar, that joining a religious Order is a radical change in life-style that carries its own momentum.  From the day I entered the Novitiate, had my head shaved so that I looked like a statue of St Francis of Assisi – my teenage, cool crew-cut replaced by the monastic “tonsure” – put on the sandals I would wear everyday, no matter how cold the weather, donned the brown habit with white cord and capuche – the uniform, denoting loss of individuality – which I would henceforth wear at all times, except in bed or when engaged in manual labor or sports, or when we  went outside the Friary wearing the “clericals” of the clergy, it was not only my appearance that changed spectacularly.  Without realizing its implications, I had accepted a life in which I willingly sacrificed my freedom, not only in what I would wear, but how I would spend every hour of my day.

Life in a monastery or friary is structured by a time-table set in stone and governed by the ringing of bells.  From the moment of that daily knock at the door of my “cell”, at 5:30 am, accompanied by a rousing “Ave Maria”, to which I would groggily answer “Gratia plena”, my day would be partitioned into the slots allotted to different activities, including, in the seminary, classes, and in friaries to pre-programmed services in the chapel, to meals, to periods of meditation and work of one kind or another, and to “recreation” in common.  There was no personal “free time”.  Everything was subject to an established schedule.  We were no longer individuals but members of a community.  We did everything (well, almost) together.  Above all, our day was marked by, besides daily Mass, the Divine Office – Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.  (The “Liturgy of the Hours” has been modified and lightened since Vatican 2.)  It was, to say the least, a structured, regimented life, subject to the “Vox Dei”, the bell identified as the  “Voice of God”.

Life in prison and in the army (without the imposed times for prayer !) comes immediately to mind.  But life in Islam as well.  Those five periods of obligatory prayer, those ritual ablutions, those rules concerning personal hygiene and even going to the toilet, provide – for even lay Muslims – a structure which however, as in the monastery, is not experienced as an iron-bound constraint but, curiously, as a welcome, comforting source of well-being, giving meaning and purpose to one’s day.  I believe that this regimentation explains in great measure the attractiveness of this religion , compared with, say, present-day Catholicism.  Times were, of course, when the Church also dictated (partially) the structure of one’s day by imposition of the duty of morning and evening prayers – for everyone, not just children – and of reciting the “Angelus” when the bells of the parish church would bring peasants to a standstill in the fields (we all remember the painting) and even city-folk, to recall what the Angel of the Lord said unto Mary.  The week was marked by the obligation of Sunday morning Mass, the year by seven Days of Obligation, and in the old days (my youth !) by voluntary Vespers and/or Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament on Sunday evening.

Today, of course, no one (I hope) considers it a sin to “miss” one’s morning or night prayers.  And few Catholics even remember what the “Angelus” is or was.  Even the obligation of Sunday Mass, let alone Holy Days of Obligation, no longer troubles most irregular Mass-goers.  And only strict monastic Orders continue to recite the Divine Office in common.

Is the practice or the absence of regimentation of religion a reason for the fervor of some and the laxity of others ?  Having experienced both life-styles as a religious and as a layman, I suspect that the acceptance of highly structured daily religious practice reinforces the comfort zone of the devout  and renders them less permeable to destabilizing questions about the foundations of their faith.  Religious conviction is made even stronger when it is expressed in the company of other believers.  A Papal Mass with millions on Copacabana beach or at Randwick racecourse or the Hadj in Mecca, but also a parish Sunday Mass and local assemblies of Muslims, bent over on their knees, in mosques or in the streets, gives the individual believer the feeling that his faith, shared by so many others, makes sense.  To be prepared to live without that “feel-good” sensation, or to abandon the daily rituals that provide a framework for one’s life, requires the courage to look reality in the face and to think and live as an individual.

The choice is clear : the opium of the people, the comfort of shared illusions, the regimentation of religion, or the freedom that comes from a personal search for truth and the refusal to let others decide how I will live my life and when I will brush my teeth.