Monday, November 2, 2009

Ritual Discomfort

Yesterday, we went to Hardy's funeral.What did I think of? Of Max Beerbohm’s letter, or a lecture about women’s writing. At intervals some emotion broke through. But I doubt the capacity of the human animal for being dignified  in ceremony.
Virginia Woolf, "Hardy's Funeral," (January 1928)
Our discomfort with ritual is leading us away from our bodies, and making us not more "real," but in fact more distant, from one another.  This point is made well, in the Sunday New York Times, by Thomas G. Long's reflective "Chronicle of a Death We Can't Accept."  Long observes...
"For the first time in history, the actual presence of the dead at their own funerals has become optional, even undesirable, lest the body break the illusion of a cloudless celebration, spoil the meditative mood and reveal the truths about grief, life and death that our thinned-out ceremonies cannot bear."
Weddings are worse.  Cloudless celebrations are rare for the garden setting, the church rental is often only $200 out of the the average cost of $29,000, and the best man is always drunk, claims one stressed-out priest in his parish bulletin.  And he doesn't seem to know exactly how long the main aisle is, nor does he care.  One sympathizes.

Yet, yet.  There's something about ritual that forms us as people, and to which we cling even when belief is gone -- we do not expect the bride (or the groom, for that matter) to be a virgin in the modern wedding scenario, but we're scandalized if she does not wear white.  Why is this? 

Ask the kids.  Slate's Mark Oppenheimer, in April of this year, told us "Why it's worth bringing your kid along to pray."  Oppenheimer describes his weekly visits to synagogue, dragged there by his toddler daughter who, like all young children, positively blossoms in the rhythm and specificity of ritual life -- she can't read, but she knows exactly which prayerbook is hers, and where to start.

Unlike those who deny death, or can't see the marriage for the wedding, Oppenheimer's daughter knows one thing instinctively -- the ritual is larger than she is, and her place is inside it, learning the framework of an infinitely dignified and profoundly human life. Here's hoping that Rebekah, for one, doesn't forget that.