When my cousin Jackie called that Friday morning, I knew the news would be sad. He called to tell me of the death of my Uncle Jack, who had been ill. I went home for my uncle’s funeral, which took place at my home parish in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
Before the funeral, I felt sad and anxious. Uncle Jack was also my godfather and my last surviving uncle. But when the liturgy began, I became more at ease. The familiarity of the prayers, the symbols, and the gestures brought me comfort. The structure of the rituals helped me to stay focused. The community that gathered in prayer reminded me that I was not alone in my grief. When the liturgy ended, my spirit was uplifted and my soul was at peace.
When a death or a tragedy occurs, life is thrown into a tailspin. The future, once thought to be secure and certain, is anything but. Life seems to be in chaos. Like death, the current pandemic has thrown most of us into a tailspin. The familiar patterns and routines of our days and our future have now become unpredictable. At such times, the familiar patterns and structures of the liturgy, even a virtual liturgy, provide a sense of order when life is disordered. A reminder of the comfort ritual offers came on September 11, 2001. Like other churches, ours was filled to capacity that night. People came to pray, to lament, and to mourn with one another in a time of national crisis. When our worldly order has been turned upside-down and we are made vulnerable by personal crisis or national catastrophe, religious ritual helps transform our chaos. The ease in which we can pray, recognize the symbols of our faith, and enact the gestures of the liturgy brings us peace. When our foundation is shaken, ritual gives a structure on which to lean. When it is hard to know where to turn, ritual provides the direction. When at a loss for words, ritual provides them. When people feel alone, ritual forms a communal embrace.