Having looked at where people practice their religion, let’s turn to what they do in that practice — whether at a holy site or elsewhere.
It’s very easy to let personal experience color your assumptions on such matters. I grew up in the Methodist Church, which, like many Christian denominations, features a weekly communal service with prayer, readings from scripture, and a sermon. Even though I’m not especially religious, it turns out that whole “weekly communal service” thing is embedded pretty deeply in my mind — to the point where a religion without such a thing feels, on a subconscious level, like it’s lacking something.
But not every religion follows that model.
Prayer is extremely common — but within that, there’s a huge amount of variation. Do you pray in groups or alone? Silently or out loud? With set words, or spontaneously expressing what is in your heart? Are you asking the entity to which you pray to do something on your behalf, or giving thanks for the blessings you have received, or just praising its glory?
Some religions mandate particular postures for praying: head raised or bowed, hands clasped or spread wide, standing or kneeling or lying prostrate. Sometimes prayers are set to music. Sometimes you ought to be in a particular place or dressed in a particular way or undergo preparatory rites before prayer — though humans being what they are, informal prayer often happens outside those circumstances. The key unifying element is the attempt to communicate with the divine.
Offerings are also extremely common, though the nature of them has shown a degree of change over time. Animal or human sacrifice — once found throughout the world — is much less frequent and widespread now. I’ll come back to the topic of sacrifice at some future point, but for the time being we can just note that offerings can also take the form of flowers, incense, perfumes, money, valuable items, alcohol, and food. The idea is to give honor to the object of worship, to show gratitude, and to win its goodwill.
Alternatively, sacrifice can take the form of alms, giving one’s wealth away to the needy rather than to the deity and its earthy representatives. This shades over into good deeds as a way to honor and please the divine, as seen in the broader sense of the Hebrew word mitzvah. Many religions have made charity a central concept, and the practice of it therefore becomes way to atone for sins or burn away bad karma.
The food angle on sacrifice is especially interesting to me because contrary to what fantasy writers sometimes assume, the food often doesn’t go to waste. Hesiod’s Theogony includes a myth where Prometheus tricks Zeus into accepting the bones and fat of the sacrifice, leaving the meat for humans to claim. In Shinto, after the bowls of food are presented to the kami, they’re shared among the worshippers as a meal. Communal eating, which has an echo in the Christian Eucharist, can be a form of worship — which, when you think about the way in which religion functions as a social bonding mechanism, that makes a great deal of sense.
Religions which have formal scriptures may use public or private readings of those scriptures as a form of devotion, and recopying them can be an act of piety. (More on religious texts next week.) Those which emphasize moral instruction — which is by no means all of them! — may very well impart that instruction in something like a sermon. Meditation, currently gaining ground in the West as a mental health practice, originated as a religious technique, to commune with the divine or open the mind to greater spiritual understanding. We often think of that as being an Eastern thing, but even the Abrahamic religions have traditions of meditation, though they rarely occupy as central of a role.
Some worship practices are ascetic, as in the case of fasting, vows of silence, or temporary or permanent celibacy. In Hinduism, tapas (not to be confused with the food) can mean asceticism, and often carries the associated sense of building one’s spiritual power — the word itself literally means “to heat.” At its gentler end, Christian mortification of the flesh can be similar; at its harsher end, practices like self-flagellation seek to unify the practitioner with Christ’s suffering. Anchorites even walled themselves up to devote their remaining days to the contemplation of God. The purpose of such things may be to purify the body and soul . . . and purification, whether through asceticism, bathing, or ceremonial action, is another topic that will need a whole essay of its own someday.
Other kinds of worship are comparatively fun. I mentioned above that prayers can be set to music; some religions make extensive use of song, whether vocal or instrumental. In both Shinto and Hinduism, sacred dancing can be a part of some ceremonies, and in Vodou and similar faiths it is a key part of how worshippers invite spirit possession. (By contrast, other religions forbid dancing entirely, as a form of sin.) Taking hallucinogens or other mind-altering drugs may be a sacrament — which has led to legal battles over the role of peyote in Native American or marijuana in Rastafarian religion.
Finally, the act of travel can be made into a religious act. On the small scale, this might mean the Stations of the Cross; on the large scale, it might mean the Hajj, which all adult Muslims are supposed to undertake at least once in their life, if their physical health and finances permit it. This ties in with what I mentioned last week, about how sacredness can become linked to place: when that happens, then traveling to that place becomes a spiritual act, especially if there’s hardship involved. Pilgrims may travel barefoot, or fast as they go, or prostrate themselves the entire way, rising and lying down again until they reach their destination.
I’m not going to pretend the above is an exhaustive list of religious practices. What makes an action worship instead of mundane activity is the intent with which it’s performed, and the meaning that religion ascribes to it; in that sense anything can be worship. But it gives a sense of the breadth out there in the world — and I invite additions in the comments!