Dean Letter: Honoring our rituals

Hello St. Paul’s.

I recently started to watch the West Wing series from the beginning. It brings up all kinds of feelings, in part because of the contrast between that White House and the current one, but also because I lived just outside Washington DC for 17 years and many of the exterior shots awaken echoes of those years. The most recent episode involved the burial of a veteran in Arlington National Cemetery, and the memories came flooding back. I presided at a number of those burials, and their beauty and dignity always moved me deeply. On any given day at that time there were up to 25 ceremonies, and wherever we were in the cemetery we could hear various military bands playing the appropriate hymns.

I remember when we buried the widow of an army quartermaster general, and as we climbed the hill to the grave she would share with her husband I rested my hand on a large stone that marked the resting place of President Taft. On another occasion we buried an admiral on a chilly December day between snowstorms and as I stood at the edge of the temporary shelter set up for family, saying the committal prayers, snowmelt dripped steadily onto my head. I remember thinking that if Admiral Sinclair could go into combat for his country, I could put up with a little ice-water for him.

Ritual is incredibly important to human beings. We mark major life passages with rituals: baptism, graduation, marriage, and death. We also mark our own lives with rituals large and small, whether it’s where we have breakfast or the routine things we do before leaving the house or going to bed. Rituals help us to get through hard times; their familiarity is comforting. Think of how much the traditional version of the 23rd Psalm means to a grieving family. One of the many losses of this pandemic has been the loss of ritual. Countless baptisms, weddings, and funerals have been put on hold, not to mention retirement and graduation celebrations.

We have lost a number of parishioners since March, and it has been hard to not be able to gather in St. Paul’s to mourn and to celebrate their lives together. When it’s become too hard to wait any longer, I have conducted funerals on the phone; via Zoom; and with a handful of people in the Queen’s Courtyard. Just in the past week a family contacted me about having some prayers said over the ashes of a loved one who had died in March. Five of us met in the Courtyard on a warm Saturday morning and shared some prayers, with each family member offering brief memories. It was every bit as moving as those formal liturgies in Arlington.

I hope that in these six months you have developed some new rituals to give structure to your life. It took all of us a while to realize that the pandemic was going to be more of a season than a blizzard, to use an early metaphor, but by now most of us have probably moved into some kind of regular rhythm. For me, daily Morning Prayer is a cherished ritual that begins my day, with up to 15 fellow Cathedral folks on Zoom praying, hearing Scripture, and sharing our reflections with each other. My daily late-afternoon walk around the neighborhood is another practice that helps to anchor my routine, often marking the border between the work day and a domestic evening.

We are already starting to move back towards in-person gatherings, slowly and cautiously, with our Thursday evening service. God willing, in the coming weeks we will be able to add some kind of regular event in the cathedral that will permit us to return to our beloved sacred space and

resume some of our cathedral rituals. Meanwhile, I hope I’ll see you on Sundays, at our renewed Friday Fellowship times, or in a suitably distanced social setting.

Your sister in Christ,


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1 thought on “Dean Letter: Honoring our rituals”

  1. Thank you, Dean Penny. It is so good to see you and to see you adapting to the new realities of our world today. I look forward to joining you all for one of the Thursday services and of course, when the time is right, to spiritually luxuriate In the uplifting music and prayer of Evensong. Until then, we mark our days and nights with meaningful rituals knowing that God is present even (or perhaps especially) when two or three are gathered in God’s name whether it be in person or intention.
    God bless you and the wonderful people at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.


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