What are the rituals that sustain you? Morning coffee and deep breaths, sun salutations, setting intentions for the day, prayer before meals and bed? I’m a big believer in the power of ritual to hold us together in the midst of life’s constant demands and anxieties. To me, while other actions have a purpose in accomplishing something—like feeding ourselves and others, completing projects for work, gaining education—ritual is marked by stepping away from accomplishing and into reflection and observance. Rituals are a platform to help us see where we are. In daily life, we plod along in dense brush. And here in Texas, the brush is thorny. Acts of ritual work like rungs on a ladder to give a vantage point from which we can see the trail, take a deep breath, take in the view, and descend again to the path.
For me, religious ritual—even that old-fashioned one of going to church every week one—sustains me in ways that surprise me. Even when I’m disgusted with the church as an institution, I crave the act of kneeling in community. Entering the walls of the church, stepping out of the current of life’s demands, places a marker of completion on one week and marks the beginning of another. During Holy Week, the ritual of the church reaches a crescendo. As the practice of going to worship each week holds my weeks together, I’m realizing that attending these Easter services holds my years together, weaves the chaos of life into a story, and helps me to imagine myself again within that story.
If you grew up in a faith tradition, as I did in Christianity, or even if you just grew up in America, the tropes of the faith are entirely familiar, and their familiarity renders them boring. If you’re an intellectual type, as I sometimes imagine myself to be, the familiarity of the story makes it seem simple-minded and not very useful to those of us who got past all that a few centuries ago. But this is just where Christianity draws me back in. While I enjoy the complexity and the deep wells of theology and mysticism found in Christian thought, it doesn’t require a PhD to comprehend its tenets. The message can be carried in the mind of a child. Of someone who never went to college. Or high school. Of someone who is illiterate. The essence of this faith—that God became like us to bring us back to God—is not defined by its difficulty to grasp, but by the total demands it requires in order to live it out.
What does it demand? It’s dangerously familiar. Jesus washed his disciples feet. He broke bread and poured out wine and ate and drank of it with them. Do this, he said. Instructions don’t get any more simple than that. It doesn’t get any more difficult either. Don’t think highly of yourself, but stoop down and take care of the bodies around you, in the most physical, necessary ways. Take this bread and nourishment to go break yourself and pour yourself out. Love the most unlovable around you, even the ones who stab you in the back.
I got to sit in the Thursday service all by myself, as my husband had offered to stay with the kids. I get stuck in so many questions about the history of the church, about troubling teachings in the Bible, and I am cynical about the present life of the church. These are important dilemmas, urgent questions. As I get tangled in all the questioning, the story itself loses its interest and any hold it had on me. It feels completely out of touch and irrelevant. But every now and then, some detail, some phrase catches hold of me and pulls me back in. Last night, the reading from the book of Exodus brought me back into the story. The reading describes how the people of Israel were to prepare the first Passover, where the blood of the slaughtered lamb painted their doorposts and the angel of death passed over them. They received this instruction for the feast: “This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you will eat it in a hurry. It is the LORD’s Passover.” They are instructed to eat the feast as people who are in flight, taking quick nourishment, just enough to keep them alive and moving. The intensity and the urgency of the ritual is jarring against our current backdrop where religion is something that holds us back from doing what we really need to do, something out of touch with reality, a chore for keeping up appearances. No, in this ritual, the act of feasting is urgent, entirely necessary to keep from being overtaken.
The thread of urgency weaves through the service. Of course, when Jesus breaks bread and pours wine with his friends, he is eating that Passover feast with them. And he is in haste; the angel of death is in pursuit. Knowing this, he retreats to pray and urges his friends to stay awake, to pray with him. Those fellows fall asleep of course.
After mass, the bread and wine were carried to the front porch of the church, where, in the middle of a bustling urban area of restaurants and bars, apartments, and beautiful homes, the church had set up a large, white sheet partitioning off the porch from the city’s activity. Candles lit the contemplative space, and small palm trees enclosed the space, which was further enclosed by overhanging live oaks above and Texas mountain laurels on the sides. I stayed awhile, enjoying the quiet of contemplation, marveling at how this physical space was transformed by the spiritual intention brought to it. These stone steps are usually empty, usually just the entrance to a building that most passers likely think of as obsolete, or more likely, don’t think of at all. But this evening it was a contemplative garden, and a crowd of people gathered and knelt, pouring out desires and griefs stored up over the weeks, over the year. You can make any kind of space you can imagine, I thought. You just have to imagine it. And do the work to bring it into being.
I knew full well that I would not stay until midnight, as we had been invited to. I wondered if anybody would, as so many had already filtered away, checking phones, going out to dinner. I knew in a few minutes I would head home so I could hug my girls and read them a story and put them in bed. But I felt as if I were being asked a question: what would it mean for you to stay awake? The urgency of the evening recalled to me the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg: “I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do. Every day. And I want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire. Because it is.” How would we live if we acted in full awareness of the realities we live in? In other words, how would we live if we lived out what we believe?
What do you believe to be true, at the core of your being? What would it mean to stay awake to that truth? For me, staying awake would mean actually getting involved in welcoming and providing for the migrants arriving by the thousands in my city, as I’ve been meaning to but haven’t actually taken any steps towards. It would mean continuing to look honestly at how my decisions affect the ecosystem and how my purchasing contributes to injustice in local and global systems. It would mean going without items that are part of a system of harm. It would include caring for my children in the full awareness that the way in which I care for them is shaping them for their whole lives. It means interacting with each person I encounter as someone carrying the divine spark. On Easter, the sun rises with the hope of new life, and we feast with our faces shining. We feast, though, in haste, gathering energy for the work to be done, staying awake for the road ahead.