It’s like a wild animal seen in its natural habitat. It feels congruous. This is right, we say. It’s a gesture designed to heal and make right.
I’m talking about ceremony. That’s how we hold the good and the terrible in one hand. Acknowledgement, anger, empathy, action. Ceremony at its best includes the things we know alongside the things we can only guess at. The profane and the sacred. The things we didn’t know last week and the things we are forced to know now. It widens the circle to include not just present grief and pain but all of history’s atrocities.
To be caught up in the business of the world is in itself healing. When that business is dark, we chant in the darkness; when light, we bathe in the light. But to know we are accompanied, that others have done this before us. This is the lesson of ceremony. The old forms, the ancient words; a habit of body and tongue. Lay a wreath. Place a flower on a grave. Kneel. Bow. Crazy dance. Sing. Make of thyself a vessel to hold the fury, the disbelief, and even the forgiveness.
In the Zen tradition, the full moon ceremony used to bring the wandering monks together to renew their vows, their intentions, and to be with one another, to share company. Telling time by the moon they came together, month after month, ceremony after ceremony. Like a train running the same track, a long line of continuity in a life of unpredictability and impermanence. The ceremony itself is hauntingly beautiful, part call and response, part solo voice chanting an eerie melody. On our knees, up off our knees, down again, up again. Kneeling in deference, in respect to the greater forces of wisdom and compassion into which we are—we hope to be—subsumed.
These words are no comfort for those who grieve. But, said the Buddha to the mother whose child had died, find me one person who has not had sorrow, and I will relieve you of yours. If I’m not grieving now, I have in the past and will again. This is the great connecting tissue, the promise, the ligament of human life. And if it can turn toward the horrific and encompass that, if we can elucidate our fury, hatred, repulsion, and share that too in the human circle, there we have ceremony. In the crucible of ceremony, our fury shows us our fear, our hatred reveals our isolation, and our frozen disbelief can move, can act, at last.
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