I was lucky enough to receive an amazing inheritance from my parents and grandparents. I suspect that they didn’t realize what they gave me. I know they received it from the older generations of my family. I prize it as one of those riches that’s been part of the family longer than anyone remembers. I suspect that they considered this gift as being nothing more than the way things were. But today, I’m overwhelmed by the priceless legacy that is part of my heritage.
My ancestors are from Eastern Europe. All four of my grandparents immigrated to the United States around 1900. They brought with them a culture and religion that were intertwined with each other. Infused in those cultural and religious practices was the awareness that all life was sacred and pregnant with something Divine.
Religious rituals were not simply things we did in church. Instead, there was continuity between day to day life and religious ritual. For example, the pussy willows and forsythia that bloomed in our backyard during the early spring were brought to church as part of the Palm Sunday waving of branches. The church was decorated on Pentecost with tree limbs with their rich green to mark new life. On August 6, baskets of fruit from the apple and plum trees in our yard were blessed as part of the feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus as a reminder of the fullness of life that’s also found all around us. Over centuries, the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe found connections between their agrarian life and their religious practice. Recognizing the sacred dimension of day to day living, from the blooming of spring to the autumn harvest, the realities of nature became part of religious practice. This practice was fully embodied, like when we broke the Lenten fast in church by eating sausage, ham, cheese or eggs at the Easter vigil or when we drank holy water on the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. We celebrated the sacred dimension of life in the world around us as well as in us as the ordinary things were blessed and shared with each other.
As much as I treasure this inheritance, in many ways it’s out of place in the world today. The life I lead today is far different from the way of life my ancestors lived on the farms and in the villages of Eastern Europe a century or two ago. The seasons marked by planting, growth, and harvest characterized their lives. For me, these same seasons are reduced to my occasional hobby of backyard gardening. What fills my days is time spent in front of a computer monitor and work with people in a virtual environment who may be in any place in the world.
While it’s easy to understand that the rituals that marked the life of my ancestors have little connection with day to day life in the 21st Century, the fundamental insight that was reflected in the cultural and religious rituals of my ancestors is vitally important: that every aspect of life is somehow sacred. My ancestors recognized that in the mundane way of life familiar to them, something greater was at work. By ritualizing aspects of what was most familiar to them, they reminded themselves of the rich beauty and sanctity of life.
In the midst of life today, characterized by the use of technology, espresso coffee drinks, and long commutes from home to work, how do we find ways to draw ourselves and each other to the sacred memory the spiritual dimension of life? Using the example of my ancestors, are there natural rhythms in urban life of the 21st Century that can serve as pointers to the sacred? Are there ways to construct rituals that point out the meaning of the holiness of life?
It was 30 or more years ago when Edward Hays published his book, Prayers for the Domestic Church. This collection of prayers and rituals marked events of family life like birthdays and anniversaries. But Hays ritualized other ordinary events, like a New Year’s blessing of calendars, clocks, and time pieces. This was a way to draw people into time as something sacred at the start of a new year.
Attempting to integrate common life experiences with the sacred dimension of life, many Emergence Christian groups meet in coffee shops or have discussions over wine. There’s one group in Atlanta (where I live) that meets in pubs for beer and hymn singing. These are ways that people are trying to make connections between the ordinary aspects of life today with the spiritual dimension.
Where will these attempts lead us? I doubt that these attempts will result in the same kind of rituals that were passed from generation to generation for hundreds of years. For my Eastern European ancestors, life was mostly the same from one generation to the next. Because of that continuity in how people led their lives, rituals endured for generations. Our culture today is characterized by change. I suspect that living with rapid change in our culture will cause us toconsider again and again how we make connections between a belief in life as sacred with the actual activities of daily life. Because we are embodied creatures, tangible connections draw us out of self-preoccupation and into greater communion with others and the world. Tangible connections with other people and with meaningful symbols of the sacred are essential to our personal and spiritual growth.
While the inheritance I received from my ancestors is something of an antique from a way of life long-gone, it’s helped me realize how important it is for us to find ways to remember and ritualize the sacred dimension of the ordinary aspects of our lives.
© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.