Visiting my parents at their home for the first time since my sister died, we attended a Catholic mass said by their favorite priest. This mass was special to them because Father Camilo centered his homily around an email my dad had sent to all his children, talking about the blessings in our life. Father Camilo didn’t mention our name when he mentioned this email as a springboard for his sermon, but he did talk about a family who had been through some very difficult months. As he looked up at us, sitting in the fourth or fifth pew, I felt that now familiar bone tired emptiness in my heart and the feeling of fullness in my eyes as they glassed over with tears.
But the homily didn’t dwell on the difficulty, nor did my dad’s original email didn’t even make mention of it, rather they both focused on the healing potential of creating a personal inventory of gifts and blessings; my dad’s began with the image of the “200 watt smile” of my newest nephew, and presumably the last grandchild of my 84 year old father. This image was particularly fitting, as the mass we attended also happened to be a baptism for five babies.
As I watched the families of the babies each approach the altar and allow the baby to be baptized with water and anointed with oil, a couple of thoughts came to mind.
The first was that each of these babies had all the potential in the world, they would each “become” something, they would each live a life, and they would each die. This anointing might very well be repeated as someone who loved them dearly would anoint their bodies, someday lifeless, with oil again as I had done for my sister the night she died. So much would happen between those two points, so many heartbreaks, so much happiness and delight and adventure, all unknown, all divinely unfolding in each of these tiny bodies in ways we could not now imagine. These parents would grow old, they would face all the joy and despair inherent in loving another being so much. They might be the one who anoints their own child’s body as it leaves this world, probably not recalling in that anguished moment, this very moment to which I – a complete stranger – was bearing witness; this moment when the same anointing was signaling only sweetness and elation.
This thought, at least for me, was not dark or morbid or cynical. Rather it brought to the fore a very real sense of living and dying, or the truth of our existence. It is all of this. It is the blessings and it is the separations. It is the living and the dying, it is the baptism and it is the last rites, and we hold each other in this. We bear witness to all of this, this is what we are. When we can tolerate – and even celebrate – that reality, we might lose some of the fear and anxiety we have around suffering and dying, and we might also bring into perspective our collective angst around “becoming” something at all. All the striving, all the producing, achieving, identifying with successes or failures, might soften a bit so that we are more open to divine presence, to being rather than becoming, to knowing the truth of life and what it is ultimately about – which does not seem to be what we have become, but how we have been, how we are, not who we are.
This first line of thought brought me to the second – a thought about collective experiences, about bearing witness, about committed community. This is some of the very best of what healthy religious and spiritual communities have to offer. There is a reassurance in knowing we are in this together, in sharing these moments, these once-a-week hours, designed especially for self-reflection, for contemplation into the divine and into our souls purpose, for singing together, for worshipping together, for showing reverence and for having the experience of being witnessed – in all of our humanity – by a faith community that we trust. These structured opportunities are part of what is often missed when we reject religion, when we reject spiritual community, when we allow ourselves to become jaded and distrustful of all organized religion – even with good reason. This is a birthright, a healing potential, that is so often robbed from us by an exclusionary, domination paradigm that is the foundation of so many church structures, an imperialistic model that has made so many of us run away before we are ultimately persecuted, shut out or punished. The sense of betrayal by the very institution that we were told was intended to offer us solace runs deep – it is not surprising that many of us have a cynical view of all things religious or that our natural instinct is to be suspicious or even to outright reject anything that smacks of religion.
But in that moment – in that church, with those babies whose baptism I was invited to celebrate, with those families that I did not know, with those people who did not know me, but who bore witness to the pain of my sister’s death through the priest’s words, with whom I shared the images of Jesus on the cross, the feeling of the cool water that Father Camilo blessed us with as he walked through the church aisles, the voices that lifted together in joyful praise of Christ as a symbol of hope, who listened to my father’s email about a personal inventory of blessings, who perhaps made a note to create an inventory of their own, never knowing that the author of the email was sitting among them – in that moment I felt the belonging and support that should be the hallmark of fellowship, especially based in shared faith. In that moment, I did not have to be anything, I was allowed to simply be.
Two weeks later, apparently on a roll of attending Catholic mass, I accompanied my sister in law to a Spanish language mass in which two young men were receiving their first communion. Carolina had been asked by the family to be the “madrina” of the sacrament, the godmother to these brothers, bearing witness to their transition in the church, and she invited me to join her in celebrating with the family, knowing I had been missing my Mexican community.
While the tenor of this mass was completely different, and the priest did in fact preach an exclusionary, punitive model of Christianity, I was still struck by the ritual itself and the underlying desire to be in community to mark sacred passages. This is another aspect of religious life that can be lost in a secular world, especially when these rituals are only reminders of the fire and brimstone fear tactics used to control and dominate. But we have to remember that ritual is not solely the purview of the church. Ritual is a natural, fully human, expression of marking, of seeing, of acknowledging transitions. Ritual, just like structured community, is a deeply healing potential that can, and should, be a part of all of our lives but of which many of us are bereft without even knowing it, after leaving the church – with good reason. But we can all use and benefit from ritual, whether simple or elaborate, whether in a church structure or in the exquisite cathedral of the forest or the edge of the ocean, to recognize and honor the most intimate moments of our own being and becoming, of the time between birth and death, between the first anointing and the last. Ritual, in many lives, is a lost art.
The reclamation of these qualities of “good” religious life has been a focus of mine for some time but has become even more keenly personal and necessary since my sister’s death. I
will never forget how the night before we were going to put her body in the ground, with our own hands, we all shared a sense of dread about the process, about the finality of it all.
Later the next day, driving home in two cars through the rain with huge old growth trees on either side of the freeway, after having put her body, wrapped in a simple shroud, into the dirt, after placing a rose quartz, a bird’s nest and a few other small items on her heart center, after covering her with leaves, our hands now rich with the smell of mulch, after my brother Tom sang a song he had set to Erin’s son Shanikai’s music, after my niece Cecile lead us in singing, “Down below where the worms move slow, to way up high where the birds fly, the trees in the forest and the flowers in the fields, we’re a part of the earth and it’s a part of us too, yeah!” – a silly song Erin made up for her Cedarsong kids, after all of that, as we drove away from the burial, I sent Tom a text. “I feel weirdly light.” He wrote back right away, “Everyone in this car feels the same way.”
It’s not surprising though. In that process, we shared everything that true faith communities should provide – an acknowledgement of the whole of life in all its expressions, an opportunity to be together in community where we know we are not just invited but celebrated in our whole confused and chaotic humanity, and an invitation to participate in the grounding potential of ritual.
If I ever write a personal inventory of blessings, I would include both the opportunity to be participate in “good” faith communities and the discernment to not allow exclusionary religion to hijack my own or others right to be held and witnessed in the presence of God. I would count the ability to not throw the (cute little freshly baptized) baby out with the bathwater and to not conflate all the bad religion with the whole of what religious or spiritual life has to offer, to be able to sit through a “bad” mass, but still appreciate and even delight in the sense of ritual and reverence, to know to leave mass early when I had enough, but not to allow that experience to make me cynical or hardened against the idea of all religion.
This opportunity to lean into the presence and mystery of the divine is, indeed, our birthright. Life is beautiful, and life is really hard. Whatever these opportunities are for us to be comforted in our shared humanity, let’s reclaim and rejoice in them. We are all in this together.