“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am writing this week about rituals, but I begin with this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because I think it is important to recognize that we are truly in a time of challenge and controversy. I see the effect bubbling up all around me, not just in the news, but in the phone calls and texts and email from those around me who are struggling. It’s not even a matter of where we stand…. it feels more like, “how do we keep standing at all.” I am writing about rituals because we need to look for ways to find some things that we can cling to. We need to find ways that we can engage with God and each other.
Rituals are an important part of life because they help us engage, help us connect and help us feel some modicum of control, especially when life feels out of control.
One thing I learned quickly as a pastor is that funerals need ritual and formality. There is a sense of comfort in structure and attention to ritual. Facing the grief of death, we hold tight to the familiar. We wear black, we play certain songs, read certain scriptures, we sit shivah.
I found an interesting new book today by Drew Gilpin Faust, a historian, the former president of Harvard University and the first female president of the prestigious university (I like her already.) She wrote a fascinating book about the Civil War focusing on how grief reshaped our nation and the role ritual played in healing. It’s called “The Republic of Suffering.”
Note: it is not lost on me that on this day when we remember Martin Luther King, I find myself immersed in a book about the Civil War, a war which ended slavery and began the long road to equality for African Americans.
I found this book while researching rituals because some interesting rituals emerged in the aftermath of the Civil War. By 1865 historians believe that every American household had been touched by death from the war. 600 thousand soldiers died in this war more than any other conflict, (including both World Wars… combined). When adjusted against the size of the American population, the Civil War death rate was six times that of World War II. And these numbers do not account for the thousands of civilians who died in the war. In the mid-1860s grief and suffering became a way of life. How does a nation recover from so much loss? In her book, Drew Faust points to some rituals that evolved, rituals around death and grieving. Women in both the North and the South found themselves in mourning for so long that the ritual itself lost it significance. Still as Faust puts it, “Many women struggled to find the garments that would enable them to participate in this rite of passage and display of respect.” An elaborate system of color and time emerged. One might wear black for a year (if the loss was of a husband or son) then progress to gray and lavender as a sign of “half mourning.” “Formal observance of mourning created a sense of process, encouraging the bereaved to believe they could move through their despair, which might evolve through stages of grief represented by their changing clothing.”
Can you see how this progression of color in their clothes was not just a signal to the world, but a signal to themselves that the mourning was progressing? We need these external rituals to remind us that life is moving forward.
So what is our pandemic ritual? How do we keep ourselves from getting “stuck” in the loneliness and the sadness, the grief and the confusion? Even in quarantine, life is moving forward. It’s time to move from the black to the lavender.
Grace and Peace