I have been mulling over this post for ages now (hmm – probably since I was 12?) The topic always seemed too big to deal with in one feel swoop. But here goes!
I just read this article courtesy of my buddy Lance. It’s about the ways in which modern Americans (and I suppose, modern Westerners) develop ceremonies to replace those lost when we lose religion or ethnicity. The article gives the example of the “gender-reveal party” at which friends gather to watch expectant parents cut into a bakery cake, which will tell them the sex of their unborn child by the colour of its crumbs, based on the results which have been sent direct from the Ultrasound office. The author notes that the flaw in such ceremonies is that they focus on the individual, rather than family or community. In short, these new ceremonies fail to connect us with something bigger than ourselves, which used to be the point of rituals.
This has troubled me or interested me for many years. As a post-Catholic, I have long missed the rituals that used to come with my religion. I do wonder about where the species of humanity is headed. In evolutionary terms, we cohered together in groups, not because we particularly liked everyone in the tribe, but because it gave an otherwise unpromising species an edge. Our brains developed the “god-spot,” which I think is not because there necessarily is a god, but there is a need for humans to rally around something bigger than themselves from time to time, for the sake of the group’s survival. Otherwise no one would ever agree to fight, or die for a cause greater than themselves. The “god-spot” in our brains is the biological manifestation of the evolutionary importance of the group, and with it, the deities and the rituals that once connected us to them.
So what happens when we don’t need to be part of a group any more for survival?
We ditch god, that’s one thing. And we throw out the rituals, the candles, the incense and the gatherings of my childhood. And there is good in that, for we also rid ourselves of didactic, faith- rather than evidence-based rules; and we unchain ourselves from the sexism, nepotism, and power mongering of some of the world’s, once, most bloated institutions.
For me personally, however, it presents a challenge. I want my baby to grow up with a set of values that are Christian values. I do think I can handle that with my husband. But I also want her to know the feeling of community which I knew (without knowing I knew it) as a child. The old ladies who were kind to me and my sister, for no reason other than that it was the way they had been brought up; it was what Jesus would do. The lesson that sometimes you have to be good to others, even if you don’t like them and there is nothing in it for you. The occasional importance of the group rather than the individual. The setting aside of personal gain for the good of others.
And of course, the rituals. It is important to have stuff that binds us – and I mean, stuff. The fire that we lit on Easter Vigil night, and the familiar sound of Luke’s gospel. “In the beginning, there was the Word.” I still think that is some of the finest poetry around; but more than that, it was a shared story. It was our story; and it was my story, not as an article of my faith but as a thread in my autobiography, in that it was part of the tale of how I lived and how I grew up and where I came from. The cross we venerated on Good Friday, and looking for a spot on the wood to kiss that no one else had. The water we dipped our hands into on the way into the church, floating with the grease of other hands. The genuflection we kept up even when the Eucharist was not on the altar, because we liked it, because it said something about how long we had been going to church and who we belonged to. The ash on my forehead, left on all day to say, I am part of something bigger than you or I (and I got up early to do it.)
So much of it I did not like. So much of it I rebelled against, and so much of it made me feel like an outsider, living with a group of people who did not know who I was. But how to capture this without having to embrace things we do not believe in, not any more? Can we have the group without the god? Can we have the hope without the faith? Can we come together and give for something beyond ourselves, with eyes wide open?
Where is it we are headed? More people are living alone than ever before according to the ABS, and I used to be one of them and I loved it. We don’t need each other, any more. Not at a fundamental level. We are optional to each other.
Because we are optional, this means choices. I wonder if we will rise to the challenge and create a new way of communing. That is what it means to be in a community: we commune with each other, and with the shared spirit that arises, that is bigger than us, that is somehow more important than us. We give us ourselves over to it. That was a beautiful thing about god – the idea that we could surrender our burdens and simply rest back in someone else’s arms. Jesus said that “where there are 2 or more of you, I will be there.” He was talking about the group. Maybe that’s what god is. The spirit of the group; the spirit of something you are part of.
I guess we can join sports clubs. And there is still Christmas and Easter, even in the secular world. And new year’s fireworks and ANZAC day. I know I can create family traditions for the three of us.
I am thinking though, that maybe it would be nice to have a group of people, not necessarily friends, but just people who might want to get together on a regular basis. Not for yoga. Not for a class about anything at all.
A friend of mine who is also a priest once said, the Catholic have faith that after darkness there is always hope. I do not want to go to mass and hear gospel from a man any more. But I would still like to share my hopes, and hear those of others, and hope for them also. I would like to hold myself in a room with people and close my eyes, and it not be about me. I would like to stand quietly and share the mystery of this life, and hope out loud and silently too, that we will be all right. I want to let go into the grace of a group standing quietly and alone. I want to bow my head with people who are also bowing their heads, and pray.