Doubt and the Rituals of Grief


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
Transient

(Photo by lambertwm)

I must confess that it’s been hard to get back into the routine after saying goodbye to Uncle Gary earlier this week.  My heart is still heavy, my brain still foggy. I find myself bursting into tears at the oddest moments—waiting at a stoplight, strolling down the cereal aisle, getting the mail. 

It’s hard to write about anything else because my mind keeps returning to certain images and scenes that I suspect will be with me always:

 - The line of people that stretched down the aisle, out the door, and around the building at Uncle Gary’s viewing. It appears that over 900 people paid their respects this weekend.  As the pastor said, “Gary didn’t know any strangers.”

 - The way Aunt Joan, Julie, Sarah, Keith, and Gabe greeted all of them, standing for hours at the front of the chapel. 

- The variety of people who shared memories of Uncle Gary at the funeral—a student, a racquetball companion, a son-in-law, a friend, a colleague, my sister, and a handicapped kid whose stories we could barely make out on account of his disability but who clearly had a special connection to this man who treated everyone with equal respect and love

- The stack of Evolving in Monkey Town postcards Dad found on Uncle Gary’s desk.  

- The workmen who took off their hats as the funeral procession drove by. 

Doubt has been a part of my life for a few years now, but this is the first time I’ve grieved with it.  

One would think that this would make a highly religious service somewhat troublesome, but instead I found great comfort in the Christian rituals of grief.  Despite those nagging questions that surfaced now and then, I was able to affirm with fellow Christ-followers that we do not grieve as those who have no hope.  The last time I saw Uncle Gary was on Resurrection Sunday, and because of Easter, I have hope of greeting Uncle Gary once again.  Hope does not require certainty. Hope simply requires faith in the midst of uncertainty. 

What I loved about the rituals of grief—the viewing, the flowers, the stories, the songs, the laughter, the sobbing, the burial—was that they forced me to keep moving, to avoid getting stuck in a place of despair.  The ritual served as a vehicle for grief, just as communion serves as a vehicle for memory and baptism as a vehicle for renewal.  

The older I get, the more I long for such rituals. They have a strange way of calling an internal truce between the skeptic in me and the believer in me by forcing me to act, to make a decision of faith in that moment.  I may simply be “going through the motions,” but at least I’m moving.

As I’ve spoken with young evangelicals across the country, I’ve found that many of them are rediscovering the Church’s ancient commitment to ritual. They follow the church calendar. They incorporate traditional prayers and icons into their services. They observe the Eucharist weekly and the liturgy of the hours daily. Young adulthood is perhaps the perfect time to rediscover ritual because we are old enough to appreciate the meaning and young enough to make it a habit.  I think that this is a good development for the evangelical Church and I hope it continues to blossom. 

Ritual helped me move through grief with my faith intact. Something tells me I’m going to need more of it as I move through acceptance, peace, and maybe even joy. 

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How has ritual preserved or enhanced your faith? Do you sense a return to ritual among young Christians?  

Fellow skeptics—How does doubt affect your grief?

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