I went to a funeral earlier this week on the island of Åland. I hadn’t known the person who passed very long, but I’d come to admire him in the months that I did. A friend and I went together, taking a ferry from Sweden to the Finnish islands lying in the Baltic.
Despite the fact that I didn’t understand a word of the service (or perhaps because of it), I found the experience deeply moving. The austerity of the church; the light streaming through tall, unadorned windows; the crows flitting amongst treetops outside; the indecipherable yet soothing sound of the minister’s voice as he carried on the ancient rite: it all came together to make space for our individual and collective grief and to carry us together through this difficult passage. I was touched by the profound yet comforting simplicity of every element of the space and act of the service.
I don’t come from a church-going family, so the notion of sacred community gathered in a sacred space (other than Nature) is foreign to me. Although I have been to other funerals, this was perhaps the first time that I have deeply felt the power of ritual to move a community through a painful passage of life. Further, every element of the church that day–the pews, the psalm books, the slanted window ledges, the organ pipes, even the crucifix–held some unknown but subtle significance for me.
All week I haven’t been able to stop thinking about churches, and sacred spaces, and rituals, and spiritual community. I am not a believer, but I can’t help feeling that belief, and the community that often accompanies it, offers something that secular society generally does not. I am led here to think of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, which explores this very idea.
In my old age I’ve gone from attending to what religion claims to know to focusing on how religion copes with unknowing. Sometimes it does this with faith. Other times it engages in practices–dance, song, pilgrimage, almsgiving, confession–that carry our lives forward.
…Human ignorance is invincible. One dazzling [scientific] discovery leads to another, but no matter how much we learn, questions always remain. This means there is no closure now and never will be — not through science nor anything else that human beings can do with their minds. I returned to the practice of religion the moment I gave up hope for any true closure through science. Religious practice gives me a type of closure, not by answering my questions but by enriching a life in which some questions remain unanswered.
What have you been thinking about this week? What are the rituals and traditions that enhance your life? What are the spaces that provide you consolation and communion? What are the communities that hold you up?
By the way, publishing this post scares the bejeezus out of me. Reassuring words are always welcome. =)