Rites and Right Thinking

I have just finished watching a series on Netflix called Unorthodox. The story centers around Estey, short for Esther, a young Jewish woman in a community of orthodox Jews and who at age 18 finds herself in an arranged and largely loveless marriage. After a year of failing to get pregnant and a growing discontent with her life as a piece of property, she escapes to Berlin where she falls in with a group of young musicians and is happy. Her husband back in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) and his cousin Moishe set out to bring her back. I leave it for you to watch the program to find out how that goes.

First, I want to say that as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with practicing orthodox Judaism if you can afford the clothes. If everyone in that community agrees to its stringent rules that govern literally every facet of life and are happy living within those strictures, who am I to cast the first stone? But what became apparent in Unorthodox was that rites and rituals and rules and traditions and judgments superseded everything else including, perhaps especially, human happiness. There is something amiss with a religion that professes to worship a loving God and then does not extend the joy of that love to God’s children.

We Episcopalians rather like our rituals too. This year we painfully have had to suspend performing some of the ones that are dearest to us in Holy Week. No Palm Sunday parade, no Tenebrae on Wednesday, no Maundy Thursday Eucharist, no Good Friday veneration of the cross, and no Easter Day celebration of the Resurrection. We have not been able to meet together on Sundays for three weeks and have had to forego yet another of our precious rituals, brunch after church.

In a way, this stay-at-home order has been good for us. For some it has deepened our sense of community and how much we had taken for granted the simple act of seeing each other. We have had to pare down our lives to bare necessity including how we keep in touch. For those who have disparaged the Internet, you might by now have revised your thinking. It has substituted for hugs, handshakes, and across-the-table smiles and while those expressions of our regard for our friends can’t be replaced by FaceTime, we have learned how much we need each other and long to maintain our community. All without any ritual, or very little—we are still having Morning Prayer on Sunday via the Internet.

Like Estey’s husband in Unorthodox we have had to reexamine who we are as people with a tradition, with rites that help identify us, and with observances that provide us with our sense of belonging to our church. Perhaps what we’re learning is that in our yearning for those rites and rituals, there is also our need to preserve community. When we can once again participate in our traditions and they enhance and beautify our faith, they must never become our faith and must never take precedence over our recognition that God loves us unconditionally and that we are called, rites or no rites, to extend that love to others.

Robert Heylmun
8 April 2020

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2 thoughts on “Rites and Right Thinking”

  1. So well written Robert.
    Thank you for sharing a
    useful perspective on our
    current difficulties.
    We are the Church in the world.
    A Blessed Resurrection Sunday
    to you and our entire SPC family.

  2. Wonderfully reflected and written, Robert. I must say, St. Paul's re-streaming of some of these venerated rituals from previous years has been a great comfort. It helps to recall when things were "normal," but it also serves to remind that the church has survived for centuries in spite of hardships, many far worse than we are dealing with now. Yes, we need to be reflect on and be present to our current situation, but we can also recall that we are connected to a God who in Easter transcends the present.


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