I didn't cry when I received the news of my father's death. I didn't cry when the family gathered in his silent home to make the funeral arrangements. I didn't cry when I saw him laid out in the casket, his skin waxy and his hair unnaturally coiffed. But as they bore him away in the coach, that was the moment it hit, and I wept till I choked on my tears.
Rituals help us to manage life's transitions. But that's to put it clinically, and also mildly. In reality, they change us. In the case of my father's death, my mother having predeceased him by some eight years, the coach that bore him away transformed me from being his son to being an orphan. Even at that age, approaching fifty, that's how it felt. Life would never be the same again.
Birth, adolescence, marriage, sickness, death--these life events change us with or without an accompanying ritual. But ritual assists us, first, by marking the moment and, then, by guiding us through the changes required of us. I believe my children were loved by God before they were baptized and received into the "household of faith." But that ceremony marked the precise day and time that we named it; thereafter, they were God's children too.
In my years as a parish priest I presided over hundreds of weddings and funerals. Sometimes the key moment of transformation got lost in all the distracting superficial details of the ceremony or in the unholy wrangling of the family members. But when those rituals were approached with humility, with reverence, and even with a sense of awe, something truly wondrous took place. The bride and groom, having entered the church as single people, left as a couple. The deceased, who were still with us through the moving tributes and eulogies, were released in the prayer of commendation, and suddenly gone.
Without ritual, we can actually block life's necessary transformations. People suffering the loss of a loved one tell the funeral home, "Just send us the ashes," which then sit on the mantle or in a closet for years, like unfinished business. Young people become adults without a rite of passage, never feeling certain that they've actually grown up. Couples live within the day to day vagaries of a love that has never been publicly declared. Rituals help us move through these changes.
But rituals help us in other ways, too. They remind us of our distant roots, when life's passages were cosmic events, our lives playing out in an intricate relationship with the earth itself and all its creatures, and with our ancestors, living, gone, and yet to come. If anything, our modern rite-less passages, lacking acknowledgment of anything or anyone beyond ourselves, render our lives too small and self-centric, as if we are alone in this richly habituated universe. Ritual serves to remind us that the opposite is true. Each transition in our lives changes everything else. Everything.
While the influence of traditional religion wanes, those on the fringes of our dominant culture, those like Sarah Kerr, who have had to learn for themselves the ways of ritual and the particular sensitivities of attuning to the transformational moment, such practitioners are helping bring ritual back into our lives, individually, but also culturally.
My conversation with Sarah, a death doula and ritual healing practitioner, felt not only true, as if we were speaking of matters that have never been relinquished in the depths of our souls, even while the dominant culture has forgotten them, but it also felt vitally important, like these were things we lose at our peril as humans and as participants in the larger life of the cosmos.
To hear our conversation, just press the Play button below.