The Other I

November 17, 2010

Religion and ritual

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 5:14 pm

When my mother died, I was 19, and I, along with my four sisters and five brothers, were all believing and pretty much practicing Catholics.  My mother’s funeral was a traditional Requiem Mass which we all understood and from which I suspect we all took some sustaining strength.

By the time my father died almost 15 years later, many of us were no longer practicing Catholics, and some like me no longer could be considered believers.  But we were bi-lingual, as it were, and Dad’s funeral was a Catholic funeral with all the trimmings.  We knew how to participate in it, and at the end of the Mass as we marched out of the church burst into a robust and spontaneous rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

When my younger sister Mary died of breast cancer in 1994, the Catholic allegiance of her brothers and sisters was in tatters.  Mary herself had at first not wanted a Catholic funeral at all, having given up on Catholicism many years before.  But as we talked about it with her, we gradually agreed that the Catholic ritual was the one we all knew.  The poetry, the song, the lights, the processions were all expressions of sadness and loss and joy and celebration that we all knew.

Fortunately we were able to hijack the ritual this time.  There was no coffin at Mary’s memorial mass, we chose the readings which came from ancient as well as modern sources and none of which were Biblical.  We sang songs from our childhood, and offered prayers that were uniquely composed for this occasion.  Afterwards we returned to the family farm and ate and drank and told stories about Mary.

For most of my adult life, I have felt almost schizophrenic in participating in rituals like these.  The sense of hypocrisy on the one hand and yet participation on the other has created a sense of unease not only at funerals but at weddings, or even when a prayer is said at the dinner table.

But I’ve come to understand something that makes it all right even for someone who has rejected Christian doctrine as completely as I have.  It is this:  whatever our beliefs, whether we are religious or firm non-believers, we are surrounded by mystery.  We don’t know what happens when we die, we recoil at cruelty and injustice in the world, we don’t know whether Homo sapiens will survive until the next millennium, we mourn the loss of loved ones when they die.

And our friends and loved ones are often our strength when these events come crashing into our own living rooms.  They are often the reason why we can go on living in the face of loss sometimes that can seem far worse than death itself.

Ritual is one of those ways in which we support each other.  Bursting into The Battle Hymn of the Republic gave me great consolation when Dad died, not because mine eyes had seen any great glory.  But because it was an expression by all of us who knew and loved my Dad.

So I’m not going to feel like a hypocrite anymore when I participate in the rituals I know.  Whatever the pope might say, the essence of religious belief is the human community.  It is not belief in God or Jesus or in the resurrection or in heaven and hell or the Trinity or any other theological dogma.

It is in standing together with my fellow human beings and saying “we’re all in this together.  We can’t – none of us – can do it alone.  We are here for each other.”



  1. This inspired a post of my own. Please see Existentialist ubuntu.

    Thanks, Chris.


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — November 20, 2010 @ 9:25 am | Reply

    • Oh Chris, what a good way of handling this. I’ve not thought of this before and end up making long comments on somebody else’s blog like yours which really feel like posts that belong on my own. I will copy your solution in the future. Thank you. Now I’m going to read the post on your blog.


      Comment by theotheri — November 20, 2010 @ 10:40 am | Reply

  2. […] This is a response to Existentialist Ubuntu on Chris Lawrence’ blog Thinking Makes It So, which is itself a response to my post two days ago on Religion and Ritual. […]


    Pingback by Ritual and the stories we tell « The Other I — November 20, 2010 @ 3:00 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: