The Power of Ritual

Fall sunlight streamed through stained glass, warming the faces and the souls of the people who filled the simple, old white-steepled sanctuary. This past Sunday afternoon, we gathered at Soquel Congregational Church near Santa Cruz, CA, for the memorial service of our mother, Barbara Lee Deemy Burklo, who died over a month ago, peacefully, at the age of 88. My mom's relatives, friends, fellow parishioners, and friends of her children gathered in the church, founded in 1868 and built of old-growth heart redwood by a shipwright who pitched the floor like a boat deck so that the pews tilt to port and starboard away from the center aisle.

We four siblings spoke, our short speeches punctuated by the congregation singing Mom's favorite hymns. We talked about who Mom was to us. We told it like it was. We cried, we laughed, we told stories. We made time for an "open mic" and people who loved Mom stood up and shared charming and pithy anecdotes that captured glimpses of what she meant to them. Any theology expressed was implicit, at most: there was no altar call, there were no platitudes about the hereafter.

The church's catering team, a well-oiled machine of volunteer cooks and servers whose work raises money for the church, did a wonderful job of hosting the party afterward. They handled everything: the tables, the chairs, the decor, the food and drinks, the cleanup. They liberated our family to do what we needed to do: hug our mom's fan club members, hold them as they wept, and let them hold us as we wept.

The memorial service was a deep service to our whole family, greatly helping us to grieve - to feel and to express our jumble of emotions.

The occasion was a testament to the healing power of ritual. Too often the word "just" is associated with "a ritual," as if these ceremonies are nothing more than habits, no more than going through expected motions in order to satisfy conventions of social propriety. But at their best, rituals are mirrors that we hold up to reflect upon life's passages. The back and forth of this reflection amplifies our emotions, and reveals and clarifies the meanings we find in the turning points of our lives. Births, graduations, weddings, deaths: the events themselves can be so overwhelming that we cannot see them for what they really are to us. We need to set aside ritual space in order to be able to know them much more fully. Seeing a big black-and-white picture of Mom as a young woman, smiling at us from the altar in the church, brought home to my soul the fullness of her life and the depth of my loss of her life from my own. Hearing a woman speak about how Mom had been a second mom to her in her teen years, choking up with tears as she spoke, choked me up with tears as I listened. That woman needed a second mom when she was young. I did not, because my mom was all the Mom I could ask for, for my whole life. I was overwhelmed with thankfulness I might not have felt so intensely except for the gift of that memorial service.

At its best, Christianity is a vessel for carrying the most potent moments of our lives. At its best, the faith does not impose on us a dogma to recite or a doctrine to which we must give assent. Rather, at its best, it gives us a sanctuary in which we can contemplate the turning points in our lives, become mindful of our emotions, and reflect on the meanings we find in our stories. Our religion gives us a language to use to express the significance of the events of our lives. Our religion is not prescriptive, but rather is a means for us to be descriptive about what matters to us, and why. On Sunday, the church offered my family a mirror into which we could gaze and reflect on all that Mom was and is to us, and for that, I'm very grateful.

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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California