I’ve never tried it, but I don’t think I can pray at a rock concert or in a crowded bar. Maybe it’s possible if you have good powers of concentration. For me, it’s tough because there are too many distractions.
In a church or chapel though, the atmosphere and silence is calming and makes me feel peaceful inside. There are no distractions, so it’s easier to pray.
The ironic thing is that this isn’t the case, with most shrines I’ve visited. In my experience, the more famous a shrine, the more difficult it is to pray there. And on the feast days (or special days)—as they say in New York, fuggetaboutit.
Do these things really matter? Does it matter if you’ve not visited a particular shrine, or any shrine?
Chaos in Velankani
One of India’s most famous shrines is the Our Lady of Health church in Velankani (photos). Even though the journey to Velankani is tedious, thousands visit every year. The shrine commemorates the appearance of Our Lady to Portuguese sailors and then to a Hindu boy watching his cows.
I last visited Velankani in 1996 and I’ve not gone back since. It’s something my parents aren’t happy about. They believe that I am being irreverent by refusing to go there.
During my last visit though, I couldn’t feel the peace I experience in other (regular) churches. It was just too chaotic and distracting.
The marketplace-like atmosphere leading to the church didn’t help much either. There are stalls selling toys, statuettes, flowers, candles, food and pretty much everything under the sun. It’s good for the economy, I guess, but doesn’t do much for the shrine.
Driven to distraction
I’ve been to other shrine churches dedicated to Our Lady (I’ve nothing against Our Lady, by the way)—one in Chennai and one in Hyderabad. I have the same complaint—there are too many distractions. On feast days, it seems like the whole world has converged to offer their prayers and supplications.
For me though, if I find it difficult to pray in a church, I’d find it hard to go there again. I think that a church should be a place where you can go to seek refuge and feel calm and peaceful.
Why people go
Sometimes when I listen to people talking
about visiting shrines, I start to wonder if they’re “keeping score”:
“Have you been to Pota?”
“You should go there. We go there every year.
“This year will be our fourth consecutive visit.”
You also get the tacit message that if you haven’t gone to a shrine or don’t go regularly, you’re missing out. Or, that if you went, you’d be part of some exclusive club.
Why do people go to shrines? Many are looking to get special blessings.
But what happens to those people who don’t have access to shrines? Do they lose out on special blessings because they pray at St. Patrick’s Church instead of the Sacred Heart of Jesus shrine?
Some churches are more important than others because of historical reasons or associations with saints or miracles. It’s hard to believe, however, that God would favor certain churches over others.
Spiritual passport control
Imagine you’re at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter checks his notes and says, “Sorry buddy. You never visited even one shrine in your life. That’s a definite no-no. Hasta la vista!”
I don’t believe that God would bless us (or exclude us) based on which church we prayed in or whether we prayed at a shrine or a chapel. We humans tend to exclude based on status, wealth, education, and a host of other attributes. God isn’t exclusive but expansive and all encompassing.
So, maybe it isn’t that important where you pray, as long as you pray from your heart.