In the Before Times, I used to travel to New York City a great deal, and a thing I love to do when alone in a different place is to explore its churches. I’m weird like that. And Manhattan has some amazing churches.
In the church world, churches that have a lot of order and structure to their service (imagine robes, chanting, and incense) are called “High” churches, and churches that do not (imagine a preacher in jeans behind a lectern) are “Low” churches, and most churches find themselves on a spectrum between those two poles. I grew up in a “Low” church environment – my people tended to distrust things like written prayers and creeds and robes.
So anyway, most of the churches I would explore in Manhattan were High churches, which always felt like a different world to me. And sometimes, there would be a service going on when I was exploring, and so I would watch. And on the particular day I want to tell you about, I was in a large Episcopal church that was mostly empty of people when I walked in, but people slowly began to trickle in and sit down in front of the altar, and so I sat in the back of the room to watch.
It turns out they were there to baptize a baby. And the couple and the godparents went up to the front, and the priest came out in his robes, and on the front row was what were obviously the grandparents, or maybe even great grandparents, as they were very frail. And on the end of the row against the wall was an elderly lady who was obviously in some sort of cognitive decline so severe as to be nonverbal.
I tried not to stare, but I found her fascinating. Because while she was obviously confused by her surroundings, she did not miss a cue in the service. When the priest began the Lord’s Prayer, she mouthed along to it in perfect timing, despite the fact that 30 seconds before she appeared to not know where she was. It was as if the ritual of the decades of recitation had worn a groove in her brain that the dementia could not erase.
Yesterday, my mom and brothers came to my house for our Christmas celebration, which we did a week later than normal because of some scheduling problems. It was the first Christmas we celebrated together as a family since Dad died (we couldn’t gather in 2020 because it was before the vaccines were available). His absence was constantly noticed, of course, and his name came up perhaps 50 times in the four hours or so we were together.
I have been dreading it for weeks – not seeing my family, who I love – but the shadow that would be over the gathering with Dad’s absence. But yesterday I realized a thing I had known, but not formulated before: Rituals hold us together.
We ate the foods we had eaten when Dad was alive. My nephew, the family pray-er, said Grace before the meal, like he did when Dad was alive. We sat in the living room after the meal and passed out presents, the way we did when Dad was alive. We told stories to the younger generations of our childhood, the way we did when Dad was alive. In other words, it was a lot like every single Christmas we had when Dad was alive – but Dad wasn’t alive.
It’s not that he wasn’t missed – he was tremendously missed. But the rituals we have developed over time gave us structure and routine that was independent of Dad being there. The rituals gave us things to hold onto, so when we didn’t know what to do, we just did the thing we normally do.
The rituals held us together.
I think about the rituals that we have in our cultures: Easter and Christmas and Passover and Ramadan. Harvest festivals. Graduations. Baptisms. Bris. Bar Mitzvah. The recitations that give us structure: The Apostles Creed, The Shema, The Lord’s Prayer, The Pledge to the Flag.
The times may be good or bad, the fortunes around us rise or fall, but the rituals persist, and adapt, and sometimes shift around the edges, but remain fixed points in a changing, fluctuating universe.
The rituals hold us together.